Wednesday, May 6, 2009

~ the stark light of reason

I can accept that Channel 7 attempted to show both sides in Sunday Night's live debate on the vaccine issue, but I believe that giving any credence at all to the anti-vaccination lobby is a danger. For a start, so bereft of evidence are the claims of loofah-heads like Meryl Dorey [of the Anti-Vaccination Network] that it’s equivalent to putting flat-earthers on the same level of credibility as, well … round-earthers,. What’s more – to quote my favourite podcast A Skeptic’s Guide to The Universethere’s a death toll associated with their groundless accusations.

I must admit I’ve been of a particularly sceptical cast of mind recently. My ipod is mostly to blame. I began my exploration of podcasting by downloading my favourite radio programmes – The Science Show, All in The Mind etc. - but it wasn’t long before I discovered a huge untapped well of interesting stuff. Lately, at the expense of music, I’ve been listening to The History of Rome, The Material World, Hardcore History, Astronomy Cast and - most avidly of all - a suite of podcasts produced by the global sceptic movement. The Skeptic’s Guide, mentioned above, is fabulous, but there is also Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid, Skepticality and an Australian offering, The Skeptic Zone.

Scepticism is all about critical thinking and the scientific method, and now that I've saturated myself with the wisdom contained in these thoughtful programmes, I've realised that even I, who consider myself a pretty rational guy, have been guilty of a fair bit of fuzzy thinking and – under the stark light of reason - have had to abandon quite a few of my beliefs and preconceptions.

Vaccination is a big issue for the sceptic movement, primarily because of the urgency in countering the disinformation. I won’t get into the nuts and bolts here, you can find the accepted scientific truths at the sceptic sites above (or check Matt’s I like Portello blog which has a sceptical link list.)

Suffice to say it’s a dreadful disappointment that the anti-vaccination people are gaining traction here. In America, I can understand it; over there, mothers are getting their advice from ex-Playboy Playmate of The Year Jenny McCarthy and her partner Jim Carrey. Jenny’s ‘mommy instinct’ seems to trump any number of randomised, double blind clinical trials. I hoped Australians might be more discriminating, but no, Channel Seven’s presentation has proven me quite wrong, and another clutch of worried mothers will probably threaten the health of their own and other children by refusing vaccination. Already there have been fresh clusters of deadly diseases once considered under control. Whooping Cough, for instance, has reached epidemic proportions in Northern NSW. Northern NSW, you say? That would be Byron Bay, no? Second last of 118 divisions in vaccination rates.

I’ve developed a very high regard for the sceptical movement [skeptical in the US]. They’re doing an important job educating us in an era when murky thinking abounds. These days people seem more dismissive of science, even suspicious, when once the scientist was regarded almost with awe. We – the members of an advanced technological society – are increasingly prepared to take the word of kooks and quacks over that of people who are continuously broadening the horizons of humanity and furnishing our increasingly lengthy lives with so many wonderful gifts. Under the rubric of The New Age a cloud of unknowing has descended.

(I know science is responsible for some bad stuff too, but that’s another issue.)

It amazes me the amount of people I’ve encountered who have been fooled by the Hopi Ear Candle scam. Certainly not the Hopi, who had never heard of the things and have litigated to get their name removed from the packaging. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

Another favourite target of the sceptics is homeopathy, a treatment modality which I’ve always been chary of. Take a smidgeon of some agent, say bach flowers, and dissolve them in a cup, say of water. Put a drop of that water in another cup of water, shake, then take a drop of this second cup and put it in yet another cup of water. Repeat this process five or ten times and what are you left with?

Logic would dictate that you are left with little else but water, and with this the homeopaths agree. Indeed, there is often not a single molecule of the original substance remaining, but the homeopaths are comfortable with this too. So what distinguishes the expensive curative you may have purchased from plain old water? Homeopathy claims that the efficacy of the remedy comes down to the water’s ability to hold the memory of the substance it contained.

In scientific terms, this is bunkum. There is not a shred of evidence for water having this ability, and water is something it is fair to say we understand pretty well. By the way, residents of NSW’s North Coast have been urged not to use a homeopathic whooping cough vaccine that has become available.

So, where was I? Proselytising, if I remember correctly. Channel 7! Stop putting ratings over community health. Parents, if you are disturbed by the fulminations of the anti-vaccinationists, take a deep breath and have a careful look at the established facts.

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Anonymous said...

Oh dear - I grew up in northern NSW. Rednecksville. Loofah head city. But maybe this is why I like taking Bach Flower remedies?

Rochelle said...

Yes yes yes! I totally agree.
I have a friend who keeps trying to push homeopathic remedies on me - "but they work!" - and it is ALMOST enough to sever the friendship. Same with some other friends who are doing "homeopathic vaccines" on their children. Dangerous nonsense.

Matt said...

Hi Sam,
I actually didn't mind Channel 7's coverage of the issue. In both the original story two weeks ago and the follow up "debate" last week, the rational and science-based case was strongly presented.
A lot of time was given to the odious Meryl Dorey, but in doing that I think they successfully made her appear the fool she is. The reaction from the AVN to the original story was one of outrage, which makes me think it probably struck the right tone.
I also really enjoy SGU and suchlike podcasts. My story is similar to yours actually, in that I went looking for science-based material and stumbled upon this community that I didn't even know existed. And I also found that I'd been unquestioningly accepting of any number of completely unfounded beliefs - conspiracy theories and whatnot, which listening to shows like SGU has helped me to think about a little more critically.
Critical thinking is an essential skill and it's fantastic that we've got these groups out there promoting it!

Sam Sejavka said...

I made a bit of a cardinal mistake in coming down on channel 7 too harshly, particularly given that I missed the first part of the programme. And, as Matt says, Meryl Dorey did come out seeming like the the dangerous lunatic she is.

Hey, Matt, aside from SGU and Skeptoid, have you discovered any other particularly good podcasts in the genre? Some of the others, Skepticality & The Skeptics' Tank in particular waffle on a bit much for me, particularly about the inner workings of the sceptic movement.

People used to swear by the bach flower Rescue Remedy, particularly at Windana, if I remember rightly. I'm not sure if its homeopathic, but if it is, well, one would be better off sourcing some actual bach flowers, n'est-ce pas?

When it comes to subjective experience - mood, pain, discomfort etc - the placebo effect can be very strong. And if we make the decision to believe in something, particularly if, say, we've spent a lot of money on it, there can be a tendency to defend that belief and to ignore or dispute any facts that may undermine it.

Thanks for reading Rochelle, and Matt, thanks for the support.

Matt said...

Some other good podcasts are the The Pseudo-Scientists (produced by the Young Australian Skeptics) and Point of Inquiry. There's another good one called Reasonable Doubts which is specifically on the skeptical examination of religion. As an ex-Christian I enjoy that one a lot!

My wife uses Rescue Remedy actually, and it works pretty well for her. It is homeopathic so I suspect it's mainly placebo, but because the dilutant is alcohol so there might be something to it after all!

Helen said...

There's a great poster featuring a toilet S-bend. "If molecules have a memory, then homeopathy is sh...."!

Rochelle said...

A favourite quotation from my neuroscientist hubby:

"If homeopathy is right, then the entire history of western physics is wrong."

And yes, if you believe in it then you probably do feel a lot better, especially if you've spent $50 on water with a drop of alcohol.

Sam Sejavka said...

Too right. We're programmed to think the more money we spend, the more value we're getting - even if we're buying. well ... water