Alternative Medicine and the Post-Hoc Rationalization.

If you follow me on the Skeptoid blog you’ll find that I take a dim view of complementary and alternative medicine. My opinion is based primarily on a rational evaluation of the research. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), as a whole, is chock full of poor studies, index studies and weak correlational studies. There is a minority of well done positive research that subsequently fails to show any benefits and goes unreplicated. Alternative medicine as a whole has all the failings of an old west medicine show plagued by scam artists and ideologues. Scammers and ideologues use the freedom that discarding the scientific method offers to reinforce an emotional response. This summer, BioMed Central, a peer-reviewed open-access journal, published an overview of alternative medicine treatments and the benefit in getting injured or sick people back to work, undertaken by researchers at Columbia University. This study, titled “Complementary and alternative medicine use and absenteeism among individuals with chronic disease,” was a retrospective correlational review of data collected from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey data. Continue reading →

Truth And Consequences For Rhode Island Leaders

RI Statehouse Via Wikimedia

Like most Rhode Island Residents I am consistently frustrated by our states’ government. We have leaders who treat us as if we are short sighted simpletons.  All governments do this to some extent, but RI is special because they simply look you in the eye and say “too bad mother Fffrs.” You see evidence of this attitude coming out of the State House is apparent everyday if you are paying attention. Sometimes the evidence of their disdain is so egregious and obvious I just want to stand on the State House lawn and start throwing rocks at the building. The road works project is the most recent and frustrating example of this behavior. Continue reading →

When I Lost My Respect for Tom Brady

Tom Brady New England Patriot Quarterback Dec 4th 2007 Via Wikimedia

In the US, American-style football is big, both as an entertainment medium, and as a business. Worldwide, people are aware of the sport’s premier contest, the Super Bowl, even if they don’t watch it. Last year the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in dramatic fashion. Their quarterback Tom Brady was embroiled in accusations that he changed the air pressure in the footballs to gain a distinct advantage in the an earlier tournament’s championship game, which they won to get to the Super Bowl. Personally I found the whole discussion to be puerile and arbitrary. I don’t hold any professional athletes in very high regard, but Brady is transcendent of his sport in the public eye for a host of reasons. He is a success story at a premier position in the National Football League, the sport’s governing body, having risen from relative insignificance to become a Hall of Fame player. Similar to David Beckham retired UK footballer, he is married to his wealthier international super model wife, and he has name recognition and fame status that supersedes his sports status.

Continue reading →

Post-Holiday Cleansing Diets

Every year the holidays put stress on our health sensibilities. We indulge ourselves, we overeat, drink alcohol and generally take liberty with our bodies. Invariably we can develop a sense of guilt over our excesses. Then there are the traditional New Year’s resolutions and the attempt to negate the past month’s indiscretions. I have noted personally and professionally an increase in health-conscious people using cleansing diets. Friends, students, and even colleagues are using them as a recovery method for this extended period of less-than-healthful behaviors. I decided to take a skeptical look at the so-called cleansing diets. What are cleansing diets and are they a good method to get yourself back into shape? Does a cleanse actually do anything and could it be a health panacea or is it another in a long line of marginal health claims?

Simplifast detox diet beverages. Via Wikimedia.

Continue reading →

Cryotherapy: What Works and What Doesn’t

A recent email from a fan asks, “What is your take on the benefits or consequences of cryotherapy?” That’s a very broad question since the word cryotherapy is a non-descript term, like “oxygen therapy.” Cryotherapy is a type of proven medical treatment, but it’s limited to a very narrow set of applications and there are uses of that term that have a much shakier foundation. The term describes a myriad of questionable practices; some are built upon plausible mechanisms that lack a clear scientific foundation, and some are out-and-out chicanery. As such, the word derives its practical meaning from the methods and the purpose of the treatment. So let’s take a look at some of the common uses of the term and try to tease out the science vs the sham. Continue reading →

Amelia Earhart Mystery Solved?

AmeIf you pay attention to recent media reports you may think that the mystery surrounding Amelia Earhart’s last flight has been solved, and that researchers have in fact found wreckage from her flight. Headlines read: “Mystery of Amelia Earhart Solved? Fragment From Missing Plane Identified,” and “Mystery of Amelia Earhart finally solved,” and “Amelia Earhart mystery – 1937 photograph could be clue to fate of aviator who disappeared on round-the-world flight.”

Those headlines were based on a recent press release and quotes from a particular researcher who has found a metal fragment, and claimed, “It was as unique to her particular aircraft as a fingerprint is to an individual,” and the patch “matches that fingerprint in many respects.

What does this mean? Is the mystery solved as it has been widely reported, or is this just another example of researcher enthusiasm? Lets revisit Ms. Earhart’s fateful flight and take a skeptical look at this “new” evidence.

Continue reading →

Vampirism: The New (Old) Fountain Of Youth

If you read the medical reporting online you can become convinced that we will soon be living like the fictional marvel comics character Blade, “Day Walker”. An immortal that needs human blood to keep himself/herself rejuvenated. They give the mostly false impression that recent research is the first step to immortality. Although there is recent research, confirming prior evidence, of a benefit to older mice from younger mice blood. This is by no means the “key” to immortality. That has not prevented any news media outlets from reporting that it is age reversal in mice. Nor has it stopped them from extrapolating the same benefit to humans.

That may sound familiar since this is a common pop culture theme and has some historical precedent as well. There are early documented references to the use of blood, for what can be at best described as ‘medicinal’ purposes. One of the first of these relating to a ‘transfusion’ is contained in the seventh book of the Metamorphoses, by Ovid, who wrote in 43BCE, describing how (the witch) Medea rejuvenated Jason’s aged father Aeson as follows:

Medea took her unsheathed knife and cut the old man’s throat letting
all of his blood out of him. She filled his ancient veins with a rich elixir.
Received through his lips and wound, his beard and hair no longer
white with age, turned quickly to their natural vigour, dark and lustrous;
his wasted form renewed, appeared in all the vigour of bright youth“.

Almost 2000 years of scientific advancement cannot stop current science reporters from falling for the same story.

Here are just a few of the dramatic headlines you can find online…

  • Young Blood Restores Old Mice
  • Swapping Young Blood for Old Reverses Aging
  • (My Personal Favorite) Vampire’ blood transfusions could cure Alzheimer’s and even be the secret to eternal youth

Could this possibly be true? Is there immortality in the blood freezer at the local blood bank? Well the short answer is……aaaaah no!

These articles are an exaggeration of the salient facts, married to a misunderstanding of a complex science. Small exaggerations allow writers to produce an attention grabbing sound bite and/or headline.

Eternal youth from blood is an irresistible story for both the writers and the readers. Realistically, it as a unsupported conclusion based on some recent research. Lack of probablity does not seem to prevent science reporters from promising eternal youth or pop culture fictional imaginings like vampires.

The actual research makes much smaller claims; although the principal investigators have taken full advantage of pop culture imaginings to promote their research (this is becoming more and more common in promoting research and unfortunate in my opinion).

The actual research is actually three separate lines of good evidence.

  1. Young blood reverses age-related impairments in cognitive function and synaptic plasticity in mice.
  2. Vascular and Neurogenic Rejuvenation of the Aging Mouse Brain by Young Systemic Factors
  3. Restoring Systemic GDF11 Levels Reverses Age-Related Dysfunction in Mouse Skeletal Muscle

The most recent paper Number #1 is making the rounds in the news. Injecting old mice with blood from younger mice improved their cognitive abilities along with promoting new neuron growth in their spinal cords. This is a further  line of evidence that some factor in blood keeps regenerative processes going for a time, but then disappears with aging. The older research done by the same group at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., can be found in the journal Nature Medicine. That research involves “heterochronic parabiosis,” which connects the vascular systems of young and old mice so that the young animals’ blood circulates through the older animals. That research had also demonstrated a systemic rejuvenation effect. However, it is still not certain whether GDF11 is the factor underlying these findings.

Multiple lines of convergent evidence in medicine is usually very convincing. As you may have guessed, this evidence is magnitudes removed from being able to make the types of conclusive statements present in the media reports.

The research is duplicating an effect but the conclusions are at best a stretch. There are many factors that are not being controlled for. Even if you assume that the conclusions are 100% accurate there is no guarantee that this effect automatically transfers to humans.

For example, there is a list of studies showing successful spinal nerve regeneration with stem cell treatments in rodents. Everyone is trying to find a way to regenerate the spinal cord after an injury. Despite tons of limited success in rodents it just doesn’t work in other animals especially humans. It is well known that rodents have regenerative properties that we just don’t share. The stem cell treatments just don’t seem to translate to humans like they do in rodents. A common flaw in the conclusions “is it the rodent or the treatment”. It is very likely that this research will run into the same “Human Barrier”. We are not rodents and what works for them doesn’t commonly work for us.

The GDF11 factor is significant because we share this factor with rodents. In truth the researchers have failed to properly isolate this factor. So is the effect from the factor or is it something else?

Additionally there are many many confounding factors. Could it be some hormonal factor in the blood, or something specific to mice in general.

Finally plausibility is an issue for this conclusion. Blood transfusion has been around since 17th century, it is not new med. tech. If there was a large effect from youthful blood transfusion it would have been noted. I am sure since this has been a consistent folk legend surrounding blood. I am certain that real or not it would have been noticed given the millions of blood transfusions that have taken place. More damaging to plausibility is the totality of what we know about the aging process. There is no one factor. Aging is multi-factoral and it is far too complicated of a process to be blunted by one particular blood factor.

I think that the research is worth pursuing. That said, when you evaluate this using a Bayesian model you will see that it is highly unlikely that GDF11 will be a panacea for eternal youth, never mind a cure for Alzheimer disease.

Like many science/medicine stories this news cycle is another good example of why science writers need to consult experts before writing stories. Headline editors are good at writing headlines but they are lousy journalists with absolutely zero science chops.

References:

  1. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/harvard-university-alzheimers-cure-vampire-3499246
  2. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/05/140504-swapping-young-blood-for-old-reverses-aging/
  3. http://www.nbcnews.com/health/aging/young-blood-restores-old-mice-n95816

Blackfish: Documentary or Propaganda?

Official Poster from Sundance Film Festival

There are many examples of crafted activism in psuedo-documentaries. The iconic Super Size Me is a premiere example of this covered in skeptoid episode 88. Recently I came across a “documentary” called Blackfish. It is about the famous killer whale named Tilikum. Tilikum’s fame stems from a deadly attack on a trainer at Orlando SeaWorld February 24th 2010. This Orca has been implicated in two other deadly incidents as well, but is best known for the SeaWorld death. I watched this film about the history of attacks by this animal as well as the treatment of all captive orca. It provoked a strong emotional response, making it a good film, but not necessarily a good presentation of the facts. I was bothered by the title “Blackfish” — deceptive and scientifically wrong. Irrelevant for a work of fiction, but a not so subtle alliteration in a documentary. Blackfish is a colloquial name for Orcinus orca. Like the more commonly used term Killer Whale, it is incorrect. Orcas are neither fish nor are they all black. Actually killer whale is equally incorrect; they are not whales, killer or otherwise. Orcas are in fact the largest member of the dolphin family. After watching the movie I had some lasting questions beyond the title and decided to take a close look at the film and see how much was fluff and how much was fact. 

Movie Summary:

The documentary focuses on the captivity of Tilikum, a killer whale involved in the deaths of three individuals, and the consequences of keeping killer whales in captivity. The coverage of Tilikum includes his capture in 1983 off the coast of Iceland, purported harassment by fellow captive whales at Sealand of the Pacific, incidents that Cowperthwaite argues contributed to the whale’s aggression and includes testimonial from Lori Marino, Director of Science with Nonhuman Rights Project. Cowperthwaite also focuses on SeaWorld‘s claims that lifespans of whales in captivity are comparable to those in the wild, typically 30 years for males and 50 years for females,[3] a claim the film argues is false. Interview subjects also include former SeaWorld trainers, such as John Hargrove.

The film it is a very compelling and emotional narrative. It gives you the undeniable impression of a animal that has a pattern of unpredictable aggression. An animal that has caused multiple deaths. The film proposes that the animal was obviously dangerous and SeaWorld has mostly ignored or misunderstood the danger. In addition, SeaWorld failed to have properly warned/prepared animal trainers for this animal. They draw a marginal conclusion that the animal is probably mentally ill in some manner, and that it poses a insurmountable danger that Sea World ignores.

The film is compelling and disturbing. Skeptically watching the film, I found some of the conclusions weak, especially about the behavior of the animal. The movie completely convinced me that Sea World had poorly trained staff that was ignorant of the danger. A disturbing truth the film portrayed was the trainer’s paucity of education. There was a consistent impression of personnel that had absolutely no formal education in marine biology or any formal marine mammal behavioral education. They appeared to be “on the job” trained. Which I found surprising. I had always assumed that the people in the wet suit were marine biologists. In retrospect, slightly naive.

I had other impressions. There was an obvious bias from the interviewed staff and “biologists”. I found their negative testimony about SeaWorld in particular to be less than credulous. I had a strong emotional response to the scenes involving the capture and segregation of the animals and to the “eyewitness” testimony from the Sealand of the Pacific incident.

Orca in the wild

Clearly, others have had a similar reaction. The movie has become a rallying cry for the ethical treatment of these marine mammals and their exploitation by SeaWorld. It is the basis of a boycott/shutdown movement surrounding the SeaWorld amusement parks. Notably, a California politician has introduced a bill that will effectively shut down SeaWorld San Diego.

SeaWorld San Diego would have to end its killer whale shows and remove 10 orcas from their tanks under a bill inspired by a documentary blasting the marine park’s animal welfare practices. The California Assembly is holding its first hearing on AB2140 Tuesday morning. The bill’s backers say killer whales are too large and intelligent for captivity, while SeaWorld says the animals are well treated and help conservation through research. The 2013 film “Blackfish” blames attacks and deaths of SeaWorld trainers on the mistreatment of the animals, increasing their aggression. SeaWorld calls the film anti-captivity propaganda. The bill by Democratic Assemblyman Richard Bloom also bans the import and export of orcas. Under his measure, SeaWorld could keep the animals it has in a larger sea pen until they die.

Is Blackfish an anti-SeaWorld propaganda film or a compelling view of the exploitation of marine mammals? To be fair, my feelings about the orcas in captivity are conflicted, and I may have some bias. In my opinion it is illogical to think that an intelligent, social, apex marine mammal would enjoy living out their life in what amounts to a small pool. I also know that SeaWorld (and others) have profited from forcing these animals to perform tricks for people’s amusement. Yet I have been in those audiences on occasion, and I have been amazed and thrilled by these animals. My feelings about captive orcas are, as I said, conflicted.

So what about the movie? What does it really add to the debate about these animals? As with many of these social documentaries, there are too many factual inconsistencies to feel that this movie is a fair evaluation of the animal, the trainers, or the park.

There is evidence of fabrication of facts, or at least of editing to produce a consistently biased narrative.

  1. The film depicts a killer whale collection in Washington State that occurred 40 years ago.  It leaves viewers with three false impressions:  (1) that SeaWorld continues to collect whales from the wild to this day; (2) that Tilikum himself was collected by SeaWorld; and (3) that the collections done four decades ago were illegal.  None of this is true.  SeaWorld does not collect killer whales in the wild, and has not done so in over 35 years. Tilikum was not collected by SeaWorld.   And the collections four decades ago were conducted in compliance with federal laws, pursuant to federally-issued permits at that time.
  2. The film highlights two separations.  In one instance, involving a whale named Takara, the film leaves you with the impression she was a calf when separated.  In fact, Takara was 12 years old when she was moved.   In the second, involving a whale named Kalina, the film misleadingly shows footage of a calf that is only days old.  Kalina was moved when she was 4 ½ years old because she was disruptive to her mother and other whales.
  3. The Film includes a SeaWorld video of a female trainer riding a killer whale, while one of the cast members, Samantha Berg, talks about her “experience” at Shamu Stadium.  This segment misleadingly implies that Ms. Berg had relevant experience when, in fact, the video used in the film was shot 10 years after Ms. Berg had left SeaWorld.  The trainer depicted in the video is not Ms. Berg but rather is a current SeaWorld employee.   Of just the 3 years Ms. Berg spent working at SeaWorld, she spent only one year working with killer whales and she never conducted direct training with Tilikum.
  4. The film misleadingly cobbles together separate pieces of innocuous training and performance footage, synced with the actual 911 calls, to mislead the audience into believing it is viewing the actual footage of Ms. Brancheau swimming with Tilikum prior to the fatal incident.  In fact, the opening sequence does not depict either Ms. Brancheau or Tilikum, or an attack of any kind.  From the date Tilikum arrived at SeaWorld, no one was allowed to swim in the water with Tilikum, and Ms. Brancheau never did so.
  5. The film includes a recording of an EMT technician, subsequently proved to be mistaken, suggesting that Tilikum swallowed Ms. Brancheau’s arm during the incident. This is false.
  6. The Sealand of the Pacific incident was mischaracterized and several key facts were left out. Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old marine biology student and competitive swimmer, slipped into the pool containing Tilikum, Haidi II and Nootka IV while working as a part-time Sealand trainer. The three orcas submerged her, dragging her around the pool and preventing her from surfacing. At one point she reached the side and tried to climb out but, as horrified visitors watched from the sidelines, the orcas pulled her screaming back into the pool. Other trainers responded to her screams, throwing her a life-ring, but the orcas kept her away from it. She surfaced three times screaming before drowning, and it was several hours before her body could be recovered from the pool. Both females were pregnant at the time, which was not known to the trainers. Which may have made them aggressive or more dangerous.
  7. SeaWorld does not starve their animals to train them. They are fed the same amount every day performing or not and have a very precise diet. It is true that other parks have used starvation method.

Beyond twisting the facts, I have a problem with the major unstated premise of the film. Namely, that getting in water with any marine mammal can be completely safe. Even well fed apex predators are unpredictable. Trainers know when you get in the water with a 22 ton marine mammal you are at their mercy. The filmmakers make a strong case that lethal orca attacks only occur in captive animals. That is technically true. I would not agree that this is somehow a result of mental disease due to captivity. In almost every case the extremely powerful animal seems to be playing with the people. I don’t mean in a kind, fun way. I mean wild orca often play with their pray; flinging them around, dragging them under the water. The wild orca eventually eat the prey or share it with other orca. In all of the human cases, there was deadly injury and drowning, but no eating. This behavior  could be characterized as normal for a wild orca, or as boredom. Hardly unusual behavior for this animal.

There is good scientific evidence showing that orca steer clear of humans for the most part. Obviously daily human exposure in a show is far more often than any wild animal will ever experience. Simple statistics dictate that if you swam daily with wild orcas for years it is likely at some point you would get hurt, possibly killed.

Orcas do not perceive us as prey. We know from wild observation that orca are very selective eaters. Food is based upon the pod society. In the wild, animals seem to have a fairly strict culture involving behavior and food preferences. This behavior is so strong that occasionally it is negative for the animals. While there are about 50,000 orcas worldwide, the Salish Sea’s residents are down to fewer than 90 animals—and social mores appear to prevent them from mating outside their group, creating an inbred population. When some resident orcas’ preferred food, chinook, is scarce, the orcas’ upbringing are reluctant to eat sockeye and pink salmon, which are abundant. It is true that far as we know in the wild, there have been no fatal attacks on humans, probably because humans are not around a lot and we are not on the menu for a predator that sticks to a strict diet.

Humans tend to think of this animal leaving us alone as some type of mammalian kinship. That is just plain false. Orca systematically hunt and kill many intelligent mammals similar to them: whales, dolphins, and sea lions to name a few.

Despite movie statements to the contrary, there is evidence for wild orca on human aggression:

  • In the 1910s, the Terra Nova Expedition recorded that killer whales had attempted to tip ice floes on which an expedition photographer and a sled dog team were standing.[7] In this case the whales may have mistaken the dogs’ barking for seal calls and grown curious.[7]
  • On June 15, 1972, the hull of the 43-foot-long (13 m) wooden schooner Lucette (Lucy) was stove in by a pod of killer whales and sank approximately 200 miles west of the Galapagos Islands. The group of six people aboard escaped to an inflatable life raft and a solid-hull dinghy.[8]
  • On September 9, 1972,[9] a Californian surfer named Hans Kretschmer reported being bitten by a killer whale at Point Sur; most maintain that this remains the only fairly well-documented instance of a wild orca biting a human.[10][11] His wounds required 100 stitches.[11]
  • In August 2005, while swimming in four feet of water in Helm Bay, near Ketchikan, Alaska, a 12-year-old boy named Ellis Miller was “bumped” in the shoulder by a 25-foot transient killer whale.[10][12] The boy was not bitten or injured in any way. The bay is frequented by harbor seals, and it is possible that the whale misidentified him as prey.[12]
  • During the filming of the third episode of the BBC documentary Frozen Planet (2011), a group of orcas were filmed trying to “wave wash”[13] the film crew’s 18-foot zodiac boat as they were filming. The crew had earlier taped the group hunting seals in the same fashion. It was not mentioned if any of the crew were hurt in the encounter.[14] The crew described the orcas as being very tolerant of the film makers’ presence. Over the course of 14 days they filmed over 20 different attacks on seals, many of which the film’s series producer Vanessa Berlowitz describe as training exercises for the young calves in the group.[15][16]
  • On February 10, 2014, a free diver in Horahora Estuary near WhangareiNew Zealand was pulled down for a duration of over 40 seconds by a killer whale that grabbed the catch bag attached to his arm. The bag, which contained crayfish and sea urchins, was attached to the diver’s arm by a rope which eventually came free. He then undid his weight belt and returned to the surface with his last breath. His arm was “dead” and he could no longer swim, but his cousin was nearby and helped him float to some rocks where the feeling in his arm returned.[17][18][19]

Overall I found the film to be a concentrated effort to paint captive orca as slowly going mad. It painted the orca as a captive human with increasing anger and mental illness. Systematical editing and narration portrayed Sea World and captive orcas in the most emotion provoking and detrimental view. It evaded issues to evoke sympathy for captive orca, and anger at a corporate entertainment venue.

Captive orca represent a complicated issue. They are an intelligent social animal that probably shouldn’t be locked up in a tiny marine cell. That said, there are actual positives for the species and possibly for the current captive animals.  The current animals in captivity have either been out of the wild for their adult life or born into captivity. They cannot be released; we are incapable teaching them what they need to know to survive. Removing them from the show would make us feel better, but realistically only decrease the mental and physical stimulus they receive. No tickets, no money. How long would we feed them, give them vet care in their slightly bigger but less interesting new tank?

To the activists, I would say that a small number of captured orca are of tremendous benefit to the race as a whole. We are their only real threat in the world. Generations of kids have seen these animals, love them, have stuffed animals and dream of working with them. There is no better way to humanize these animals. Humanity equals emotional attachment, and emotional attachment means preservation. If you take these animals out of the public consciousness, how much good will is lost for all marine mammals, especially the great whales?

Bottom line: if you follow the evidence you will see a consistent pattern of bias and manipulation. It doesn’t make it a bad film, just a bad documentary.

References:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/understanding-orca-culture-12494696/?no-ist

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/california-bill-would-end-seaworld-killer-whale-shows-n74351

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/killer-whale/

International Vaccine Terrorists

The United States suffers from a well funded celebrity supported anti-vaccine terror campaign. This campaign commonly using internet based media to disseminate fear. Most objections to vaccines are pseudo-scientific fabrications, deceptions or magnification of known problems. Anti-vaccine proponents use internet media to disseminate cherry picked evidence, statistical manipulation, and occasionally outright deception. The overriding theme is fear. Purposeful fear for the express purpose of minimizing or dismissing evidence that does not conform to their world view. Fear mongering that is inaccurate, false, or infers hyper-inflated concerns about vaccines. It is a methodological attack to blunt the message that vaccines have clear benefit and few dangers. The most effective methods are emotional narratives and massaged statistics.

I would call anti-vaccine writings and publications a terror campaign. A terror operation that is expressly designed to provoke a fear response. Anyone that attempts to point out the facts is immediately dismissed as a big pharma shill, corporate apologist or government disinformation agent. In the general media there has been a small amount of push back against this disinformation. Still I see regression of vaccination rates in the United States and elsewhere. The US states Kansas and Alaska lead for overall poor vaccination rates but the numbers are stable. California and Washington are states that have lost the most ground (percentage wise).  Other countries have experienced decline in vaccination rates as well. Countries that suffered outbreaks like Australia and Great Britain. I thought Canada seemed to be exempt until I came across data showing a measles outbreak in Canada.

There has been a significant decline in Canadian vaccination rates. Especially in British Columbia. Recently 200 cases of measles in British Columbia. The combination of declining vaccination rates and disease outbreaks demonstrate the negative impact of Anti-Vaccine propaganda in Canada. Fear(even fabricated untrue fear) is a powerful motivator.

It Should be noted that below are some images that people may find slightly disturbing proceed at your own discretion.

The prolific writings of well known anti-vaccine crank Joel Lord has been instrumental in British Columbia. He is the leader of a disinformation campaign based in Vancouver Canada. The group that he leads calls themselves the “Vaccine Resistance Network” or VRM. Joel Lord runs the VRM website from his home.

The VRM mission statement.

“a grass roots, non-profit organization striving to empower communities around the world with the means of self sufficiency, while determined to expose vaccine fraud & pharmaceutical industry malfeasance.”

VRM does “research” at least what they call research-VRM Study

Real research has to be scientific in structure to actually answer any question. Calling something research does not make it so. VRM is looking for known autism cases to determine if vaccines cause autism. Case studies are research starters not a method to determine answers. Plus this question has been answered. Answered by very rigorous scientific methods. Vaccines don’t cause autism period, the end. Despite constant medical monitoring, well structured research, and 20 years of evaluation, there is no credible evidence of autism being cause by vaccines.

Well structured analyses show that unvaccinated children have exactly the same incidence of autism that vaccinated children do. For ideologues facts are irrelevant or lies. So VRM goes forward with “research” in an attempt to confirm what they already know to be true. That is not science that is self confirmation. Plus case studies can provide compelling narratives. Narratives that can be twisted confirm an  overall narrative of government/big pharma conspiracy. Case studies is not science and it is not research. It is a fishing expedition. A fishing expedition for the express purpose of producing compelling propaganda narratives.

Lets take a look at the damage that anti-vaccination has done.

In 2005, 81.4 per cent of kindergarten-age children in B.C. had received the five-in-one vaccine. Which provides protection against whooping cough, tetanus, polio, diphtheria, and haemophilus influenzae.

By 2012, that rate had dropped to 75.5 per cent – meaning about one in four children hadn’t been vaccinated. Concerns about vaccine safety in the 1980s prompted officials to set up Impact, the Immunization Monitoring Program Active. Which looks at every single reported case of vaccine adverse reactions in 12 hospitals across Canada. Plus possible adverse reactions including admissions to neurology wards. They monitor 1500 cases of reported illness from vaccines in B.C. a year. Yet there is no evidence of any problems.

These stats are often attacked as proof as the complicity of medical professionals in a conspiracy. A conspiracy that is in itself an impossibly complex fallacy.

The connection between autism and vaccines has been thoroughly debunked by a range of studies, scientific groups and world health organizations. Including the Public Health Agency of Canada, the World Health Organization, the Mayo Clinic and the American Centre for Disease Control.

Beyond the consensus, there is new research showing that autism is detectable before children even start to get vaccines. To logically maintain the Anti-Vaccine mindset there are only two valid options.

1. That there is a world wide conspiracy including; all branches of public health, teachers, governments(some who actively hate each other), and Physicians. That medical doctors of all walks, and thousands of peer reviewed journals are ignoring or actively hiding the truth. That all these millions of people are ok with giving kids brain damage.

Or…..

2. That a small well funded dedicated group of Anti-Vaccine enthusiasts lack the medical knowledge to understand the nuances of vaccines, public health, and neurological disorders That they dismiss any evidence that doesn’t conform to their world view becasue the have an emotional attachment to a child suffering from autism. That human nature makes it difficult to understand that bad things can happen with no active culprit, and that we can be powerless to stop some medical issues. Additionally that the belief has become a cottage industry for some that results in significant personal power and money.

There is no credible evidence that there is a conspiracy. The best evidence of a conspiracy was a fabricated study done by a doctor that wanted to sell a competing MMR vaccine. The researcher who published the original paper in a prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, had an undeclared financial conflict of interest, a British medical board found. The study was recalled, while the author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, was barred from practicing medicine.

It is human nature to believe what we see, hear and often self confirm. Anti-vax proponents seem unable or unwilling to understand what the medical data means. They continue to promote this agenda despite proof that autism precedes vaccines. When evidence derails their worldview the parameters change to continue to fit a square peg in a round hole. Actions consistent with ideology, and confirmation bias, not facts.

The outbreak in Canada is just another example of how a fantasy based belief system is placing us all at risk. A vocal minority should not dictate our public health. They should not be able to set back huge gains made in pediatric infectious disease over the last 50 years.

Do we really need to see kids dying of polio, diphtheria, and whooping cough? Do we need to see deformed infants due to rubella again, or deafness due to mumps? Do we want the fear mongering to overcome good public health. Success narratives lack emotion “My kid grew up happy and healthy with vaccines”. The absence of disease is not scary and emotion provoking. Difficult to fight ideological fear attacks with simple facts. It is difficult to blunt emotional narratives with”Here is the Data”.

Worse honest physicians and scientists cannot give the type of definitive answers that anti-vaccine proponents offer. An Ideologue will always give the same answer”Yes Vaccines are toxic and harm children”. A good medical professional will give you an honest answer. Even the best medical treatment has a very tiny risk. Vaccines are one of the best medical treatments we offer, and the small risks are rare and well known. The problems are no great mystery. The diseases they protect children from are monstrously dangerous.

The answers are simple for me and my children. Vaccines do have some small risks. Sending my kid to school is risk, driving in car is a risk, letting him jump on the bed is a risk. These are risks most kids can live with. Would I let my child talk to random strangers, play with a gun, ride his bike on highway, have a pet rattlesnake? No I would not because the risks are too high/too deadly.

Vaccination risks are snall risks that kids can live with. The disease they protect your children from are not something they can live with.

United States Pediatric Disease Annual Mortality Prior to Vaccines.

Polio: 20,000 cases paralytic polio

Polio

Mumps: 450 deaths from mumps 1 in 20,000 cases became deaf permanently.

Mumps

Hib: 600 deaths from Haemophylus influenzae b, thousands with loss of limbs and brain damage.

Hib Meningitis

Pertussis(Whooping Cough):9000 deaths plus 200,000 sickened

Pertussis victim

Rubella: 2100 neonatal deaths and 11,000 miscarriages. Of the survivors 20,000 were born deaf, blind, microcephalic(profoundly developmentally delayed) or all.

RUBELLA

Diphtheria: 15,000 deaths a year.

Diphtheria

Tetanus: 1100 deaths per year. 

Smallpox: Estimated 300 million in the 20th century. In 1967 15 million dead.

Smallpox

My point is not to terrorize you. It is to show you that anti-vax proponents own the compelling narratives, because of vaccines are effective. If the children at your kids school suffered from outbreaks like they did 70 years ago the anti-vax movement would be limited to a crank category. It is my desperate hope that we do not need to have children die in large numbers before parents can come to their senses?

Anti-vax proponents try to twist the numbers from the pre-vacccine era but the facts are the facts. Just talk to your, mother, father, grandma, grandpa, or someone who lived prior to World War II. Ask them what happened to brothers sisters and friends. Ask the about Polio outbreaks, whooping cough deaths, or quarantines due to measles. It will be an eye opening experience.

Prior to public health child mortality rate was 17%, after vaccines 0.7%.  The numbers I quoted are US specific. Most of the developed world shares similar numbers. Wherever there are vaccines available kids live. Anywhere vaccines are unavailable or limited kids die. Imagine the number of people who wouldn’t be alive today without vaccines. Prior to vaccines and antibiotics world population was about 1 billion. Just about the time vaccines became into world wide use the population went from 2 billion to about 7 billion. Life expectancy went from 48 to 74. This was not an accident. Vaccines are simply the most effective infectious disease treatment ever. In 25 years antibiotics may be worthless, but vaccines will still be just as effective.

Think about it, and do not let fear mongers put your child at risk.

Parents in the western world, for the most part, don’t ever have to live with the agony of watching their child die from a preventable disease. In some third world countries it is a far fetched dream to have their children vaccinated.

This isn’t the “age of Autism”(about 1.13% of children suffer with autism spectrum disorder). It is the age of life. A childhood free of terrible and deadly infectious disease.

Canada needs to get on the ball, and we all need to minimize this deadly nonsense.

As a additional opinion I feel that anti-vax proponents blame parents of autistic children. Telling them that a big bad drug company made their child autistic. Indirectly telling them that they failed to do the proper research. That they are at fault for allowing this to happen to their kids. As I said before criminal terrorism.

References:

http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/stats-surv/nis/tables/12/tab02_antigen_iap_2012.pdf

http://www2.aap.org/immunization/families/autismwakefield.html

http://www.pbs.org/fmc/timeline/dmortality.htm

http://vaccineresistancemovement.org/

http://bc.ctvnews.ca/b-c-vaccination-rates-drop-amid-misinformation-campaign-1.1744379

Was Walt Disney a Misogynist ?

9 months ago I wrote a post about the pop culture perception that Walt Disney was anti-Semitic. Since I wrote the original post, the movie Saving Mister Banks (a biopic about Disney) was released. The movie and the promotion brought this topic back into the public eye. On the surface the antisemitic claims sounded convincing. They did not hold up to close scrutiny. Claims made by a former employee lacked supporting evidence. Most of the other evidence is circumstantial and contradictory. There is good evidence showing that Walt Disney wasn’t focally antisemitic. Other ex-employee’s have come out strongly in favor of Disney’s reputation. Disney hired a multitude of Jewish staff and actors.  Disney had more Jewish actors on staff than any other studio, including studies owned by Jewish moguls like Warner. Notably he was the first person to cast a well known Jewish actor to play Santa Claus (Ed Wynn in babes in toyland.)

In my Opinion, the Antisemitism claims about Disney are overblown, post-hoc, and lack convergence in the evidence. You can read a more thorough analysis in the original piece. Was Walt Disney an Anti-Semite?

Saving Mr. Banks is a movie about Walt Disney and the creation of the movie Mary Poppins from a female author’s book. As the movie has been promoted the attention has resurfaced. Actress Meryl Streep in a public discussion about the movie put forth a less known but equally dogmatic rumor. Namely that Walt Disney was a Misogynist. Given my experience with the Anti-Semitic charge, I decided to turn a skeptical eye to this rumor and see what the evidence is.

The recent claims by Actress Meryl Streep give a good overview of claims of misogyny by Walt Disney.

“calling the late animator a “hideous anti-Semite” who “formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobby”.

“And he was certainly, on the evidence of his company’s policies, a gender bigot,” she added, before quoting a letter he wrote to an aspiring female animator in 1938.

“Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men,” it read.

She went on to quote Disney’s colleague Walter Kimball, who apparently said that his boss “didn’t trust women or cats” Variety reports.

Streep did, however, throw a little water on the fire by adding: “There is a piece of received wisdom that says that the most creative people are often odd, or irritating, eccentric, damaged, difficult. That along with enormous creativity comes certain deficits in humanity or decency.”

Here is a copy of that letter.

The Letter

The origin of the letter is unique. It was part of the estate of Mrs Ford. Found by the family and made public after her death. I will take it on face value as genuine. It was not written by Walt personally, as was claimed by Streep.

Secondly Streep claimed that Ward Kimball, one of Disney’s original animators, was quoted as saying Disney didn’t trust women.

I will start with the second claim first. Did Ward Kimball make the statement “didn’t trust women or cats.” Yes he did. Although it took me a lot of searching to find out if it was an actual quote. I had to go to Ward’s biographer  to get the answer.

“As the family-approved biographer of Ward Kimball, I’m tickled to see Ward quoted in a public venue. But it also pains me to see Ward’s words taken out of context to serve someone else’s personal agenda. I’ve read thousands of pages of Ward’s writings, including his personal diaries, and I can say unequivocally that Ward never felt Walt Disney ‘didn’t really like women.’ In the quote, Ward claims that Walt was suspicious of women, but I don’t know the context of that statement. And guess what, Meryl doesn’t know the context either. That’s the entirety of the quote published in Neal Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney, stripped of all its original nuance and meaning. We can only assume that there was something that Kimball said that preceded and followed his soundbite-worthy statement. The fact that Kimball listed both women and cats in the same sentence suggests that he was being playful and facetious, a reflection of his personality. He would have likely cringed to see someone misappropriating his comments to attack a man whom he deeply respected and admired.”

Another Kimball Quote:”We thought we were always going to be 21 years old. We thought we would always be putting goldfish in the bottled drinking water, balancing cups of water on the light fixtures, changing the labels on cans of sauerkraut juice. We were 21 years old, Walt was 30, leading the pack. Working there was more fun than any job I could ever imagine.”

In my opinion the woman and cats quote is probably meaningless as evidence of misogyny. Given the cat reference it was probably tongue in cheek humor. A humorous comment about his boss. Someone that he had a long, productive, and playful relationship with.

The letter is fairly compelling evidence that Walt Disney’s studio had discriminatory practices related to  hiring women in the creative department. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the letter. It is inconsequential that the letter came from a woman’s office.

Did Disney studios have misogynistic hiring practices in the 1930’s?

Answer: in my opinion, Yes. Even without the letter I would have said, yes.

Prior to WWII the country was suffering from crushing depression a large percentage of men were out of work. Women only made up about 26% of the workforce at the time. That workforce grew to 50% during WWII and immediately fell when the soldiers returned home. Fairly clear evidence of generalized sexist hiring practices in the US at that time (Misogynistic that it is). Cultural mores in the US placed women out of the workforce. Men were considered the bread winner. The letter is an indictment of Disney Studios. Evidence that Disney studios, like many companies at the time, were sexist. Culturally it fits the problems of the time. What this says about Walt Disney personally is murky. He had the power to treat women with an equal rights/equal pay agenda. It would have made him unbelievably progressive for his time. The fact that the studio sent a misogynistic letter to a female applicant does not say anything about Disney’s personal beliefs. It is emotionally provoking and suggestive, but not really good evidence of Disney’s attitude towards women? I am not ignoring the letter. There is some very good evidence to the contrary.

In 1938 Retta Scott was hired by the Story Department at Disney studios. She was assigned to the Bambi project. When Walt Disney saw her sketches he  personally assigned her to animate scenes in the movie. She was the first female animator at the studio. She was the first because Disney personally put here there. That is the same period that the letter arrived at Mrs. Fords house.

Retta Scott wasn’t the only female animator for long. Disney moved her onto other movies and he added another iconic female Disney animator, Mary Blair. Mary became a instrumental artist at Disney studio’s. She toured the world for FDR’s Good Neighbor policy. She traveled on this tour with Walt, his family, as well as several members of Disney’s staff.  After that tour she worked several package films, and on two partially animated features — Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart. The early 1950s were a busy time for the Disney studios, with an animated feature released nearly every year. She was art supervisor on several Disney films. Even after she retired from Disney studios he asked her back to do iconic art work at Disney theme parks. Tomorrowland, and it’s a small world where her designs can still be found.

Hardly the actions of a Misogynist with negative attitudes about female artists.

So very much like claims of antisemitism I see a lot of show, but no go. Little or no direct evidence to support claims of Misogyny. Facts that will not stop the misogyny claims from being circulated and certified as Disney dogma.

I always recommend getting your history from historians, not movies, and certainly not from celebrities. If you see something from either of those two sources you have good reason to be skeptical.

References:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2541292/Walt-Disney-grandniece-Meryl-Streep-right-Disney-racist-misogynistic.html

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/was-meryl-streep-correct-calling-669589

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Blair

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retta_Scott

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ward_Kimball

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