About nightfire36

This blog is about combatting ignorance and promoting science in society's issues today. I will try to objectively approach the issues I write about in an unbiased manner, citing the facts in an attempt to get a better understanding of both sides of the issue.

Claims of Glyphosate and its link to Autism

There is a LOT of misinformation about autism on the internet. Everything from vaccines to wi-fi  has been said to cause autism. So when a new study comes out saying that scientists have found that something new has been found to cause autism, I am extremely skeptical.

One of the newer claims is that glyphosate, an herbicide used on pesticide-resistant crops causes autism, I was not immediately convinced. First off, people like Dr. Mercola support this claim, and if I have learned anything, Mercola tends to support research findings before the findings are conclusive. So, when I found out that he also supported this idea,  I decided to see where it came from.

This took me on a webpage journey across many pages, in search of the original study. After clicking through tens of circular paths between sites such as naturalnews and reset.me, I decided to go to Snopes to find the original study. Unfortunately, the closest thing I found was a dead link. Perhaps this is why I couldn’t find it. If Snopes’ link was dead, no wonder I couldn’t find it. Eventually, I did actually find the study, but their main evidence seemed to be correlations between glyphosate usage and various diseases. A correlation is not good evidence for causation. This fun website shows users how many unrelated things can correlate, and even allows users to correlate anything they want. In a minute of playing around, I “found” a correlation that was more correlative than their findings. My finding was 99.78% correlative, and theirs was only 98.5% correlative. Clearly, it is ridiculous to suggest that the sales of General Mills and females in California who slipped or tripped to their death have any sort of causal relationship, and yet the correlative relationship is there. Considering this seems to be their only evidence, I have a hard time understanding how this is an accepted finding by anyone.

This poking fun at the correlation is not to say that there is nothing to this idea. It simply means that there should first be some potential for biological interactions, and then further research can be done. If there is not a possibility for any biological interaction, then there is not a good reason to spend valuable research money on a study that is likely to show no positive result. If there was an unlimited amount of money available for research, then this would be a good thing to research, but scientists must find the best use of the funds available, and that means finding a good reason for the research to be done before it is done.

Looking for a real, biological link, I skimmed the paper, searching for the term glyphosate. There are real mechanisms identified, which I give credit to the authors for finding. However, the evidence used relies on studies showing lethality of the chemical. The problem is that everything is a chemical, and chemicals, including water, can be toxic in very high concentration. Just showing that a chemical can be toxic at high concentrations does not prove that there is any risk for the average consumer. Interestingly, the LD50 (the amount at which a given substance kills 50% of rats in a population) for caffeine is lower than glyphosate (200mg/kg for caffeine and 5,600mg/kg for glyphosate). That means that caffeine can kill rats at a lower dose than glyphosate can. This doesn’t prove anything about its toxicity, but it certainly suggests questions about how safe glyphosate truly is for mammals.

An important part of reading and understanding studies is seeing if the author is qualified to examine evidence about a certain subject. Dr. Stephanie Seneff, the original author of the study is a computer scientist at MIT. This does not qualify her to write papers about biology. The other author, Anthony Samsel, has apparently worked as a consultant, and again, this does not qualify him for this discovery. That being said, it is not to say that they could not have possibly found a link; it just means that their discoveries would need a high degree of evidence. As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and this is especially true then the claimants are not qualified to make their claims.

In summary, it is not strictly impossible that glyphosate causes autism, or medical problems. However, there needs to be a considerable amount of evidence to make a claim such as this, but with the current evidence, it is nothing short of irresponsible to make these claims.

All the Things Wrong with Ted Cruz’s Interview with NPR

First off, I want to say that Steve Inskeep is a saint. There is no way that I could have contained myself during this conversation with Cruz. Anyway, Ted Cruz recently (December 9th) had an interview with NPR, and in part of it, they talked about global warming. It was so outrageous, that I felt I had to do this, even with finals breathing down my neck, and no blog posts in forever. I’m going to break down his claims, bit by bit. Original transcript here. I will do my best to stay out of the politics of it and stay objective and fair. My comments will be in colored brackets.

Inskeep: What do you think about what is seen as a broad scientific consensus that there is man-caused climate change?

TED CRUZ: Well, I believe that public policy should follow the science and follow the data. I am the son of two mathematicians and computer programmers and scientists. [Oh, I like where this is going!] In the debate over global warming, far too often politicians in Washington – and for that matter, a number of scientists receiving large government grants – disregard the science and data and instead push political ideology. [Sure, science should be objective! I agree! Good so far!] You and I are both old enough to remember 30, 40 years ago, when, at the time, we were being told by liberal politicians and some scientists that the problem was global cooling… [citation needed. Literally 20 seconds on Google dug these up: 1,2,3. This one I found elsewhere, but is a lot more professional]

INSKEEP: There was a moment when some people said that.

CRUZ: That we were facing the threat of an incoming ice age. And their solution to this problem is that we needed massive government control of the economy, the energy sector and every aspect of our lives. [citation needed?]  But then, as you noted, the data didn’t back that up. So then, many of those same liberal politicians and a number of those same scientists switched their theory to global warming. [Soooo, assuming what you said was true in the first place (it was an exaggeration at best), now you are saying that science proving that certain theories are wrong, and others fit with the data at hand is somehow bad…? This is how science works.]

INSKEEP: This is a conspiracy, then, in your view.

CRUZ: No, this is liberal politicians who want government power over the economy, the energy sector and every aspect of our lives. [So, said another way, “a conspiracy?” Conspiracy:a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful. Hm. Sounds like exactly the word you wanted.]

INSKEEP: And almost all the countries in the world have joined in to this approach?

CRUZ: So let me ask you a question, Steve. Is there global warming, yes or no? [Avoiding the question?]

INSKEEP: According to the scientists, absolutely.

CRUZ: I’m asking you.

INSKEEP: Sure.

CRUZ: OK, you are incorrect, actually. [W r o n gEach letter is a different link. I could go on, but at this point, its just beating a dead horse.] The scientific evidence doesn’t support global warming. For the last 18 years, the satellite data – we have satellites that monitor the atmosphere. The satellites that actually measure the temperature showed no significant warming whatsoever. [Wrong. Is anyone surprised?]

INSKEEP: I’ll just note that NASA analyzes that same data differently. But we can go on.

CRUZ: But no, they don’t. You can go and look at the data. [Why don’t YOU look at the data, Cruz? It’s even a free download! And from NASA! How convenient!   And by the way, this hearing – we have a number of scientists who are testifying about the data. But here’s the key point. Climate change is the perfect pseudoscientific theory for a big government politician who wants more power.[Right, because most pseudoscience has more than 100 years of data and a 97% consensus. That was sarcasm, if you’re reading, Teddy.]  Why? Because it is a theory that can never be disproven. [Literally could not be more untrue. It could be proven wrong by data showing that the trends are false, for one thing. That would be rather easy. I think he means that it can’t be proven wrong because it is correct? Because that would be true.]

INSKEEP: Do you question the science on other widely accepted issues – for example, evolution?

CRUZ: There is a fundamental difference, which is in the name of global warming, you have politicians trying to impose trillions of dollars of cost on the world. In the I-95 Corridor, among the Washington elite, global warming is very popular because it makes you feel good about caring for the world. But I’ll tell you, you know who I’m concerned about? I’m concerned about the single mom waiting tables right now, who for seven years of the Obama economy has been trapped in stagnation. Her wages have been stagnating. It’s harder and harder to make ends meet. And what the Washington elites are trying to do is double her energy bill. [Stagnated? What metric are you using? Or are you looking at the 2009 data? Either way, you just avoided the question again.]

INSKEEP: Do you question other science, like evolution?

CRUZ: Any good scientist questions all science. [True! If my count is correct, this is his third correct statement.] If you show me a scientist that stops questioning science, I’ll show you someone who isn’t a scientist. [That makes four times!] And I’ll tell you, Steve. And I’ll tell you why this has shifted. Look in the world of global warming. What is the language they use? They call anyone who questions the science – who even points to the satellite data – they call you a, quote, “denier.” Denier is not the language of science. Denier is the language of religion. It is heretic. You are a blasphemer. It’s treated as a theology. But it’s about power and money. At the end of the day, it’s not complicated. This is liberal politicians who want government power. [Okay, the reason why we use the word “denier” rather than “skeptic” is because skeptics follow the evidence, whereas deniers ignore evidence and follow their personal ideas. There is way more than I can fit in this blogpost, but if interested, here is some more reading: 1,2]

INSKEEP: You know that your critics would say that it’s about power and money on your side. Let’s not go there for the moment. But I want to ask about this. I want to ask about facts.

CRUZ: But hold on a second. Who’s power – but let’s stop. I mean, if you are going to…

INSKEEP: Energy industry, oil industry, Texas…

CRUZ: If you’re going to toss an ad hominem.[Wow. That was a doozy. Time for a numbered list.

  1. Definition: (of an argument or reaction) directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining. I think he used that one wrong. And anyway, logical fallacies don’t render arguments wrong. Me saying that the Koch Brothers are greedy, evil people (regardless of truth) doesn’t mean that the money they spend on elections isn’t still changing the election. 
  2. You seriously just talked about how it was all about power on one side, but suddenly, if the power is on your side, it is an ad hominem…? (see: denier vs skeptic). The irony is physically stifling
  3. Does he expect us to believe that “Big Renewable Energy” (it even sounds silly) can outspend “Big Oil” and “Big Coal?”

INSKEEP: OK, not meaning to be an ad hominem. But you know. You know there are economic interests on all sides of this.

CRUZ: If you’re going to toss an ad hominem, then let’s actually respond because there’s not a moral equivalency.[Again, with avoiding questions!]  You say it is about power and money. I’m trying to keep power with the American people. I’m trying to keep power with the single mom waiting tables not to drive up her energy bills. I’m trying to keep power with the teenage immigrant, like my dad was, washing dishes. Now, how is that about power and money other than keeping Washington out of their lives and making it easier for people to achieve the American dream? That’s who I’m fighting for. [Its cheaper to spend money now, than to fix our negligence.]

INSKEEP: Final thing, Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary, pointed out on All Things Considered the other day that the cost of renewable and alternative energies has been going down drastically, that technology is constantly advancing. And on a basic level, of course, pollution is inefficiency. If you can be more efficient, it actually saves people money. If you found out that climate change was cheaper to address than it seems to now, would you change your view of it?CRUZ: Of course there will be alternative energies. We will have innovation. And I promise you this. The alternative energy innovations are not going to come from Washington. They’re not going to come from the cronyism of this town. They’re not going to come from Solyndra because when Washington does that, they allocate money based on political concerns, not based on what is necessary. I fully expect in a hundred years, or maybe 50 years, or maybe even 10 or 20 years – I mean, change can be very rapid. And I am excited to see where that goes. But it will come from the private sector, not from government.

INSKEEP: Senator Cruz, thanks very much.

CRUZ: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Republican presidential candidate.

I think the part of this that I find the most terrifying is his conviction. When he says it, it sounds like he is telling the truth. If I wasn’t intensely interested in this subject, and know better, I may have been swayed by him. And the real issue isn’t that a private citizen is wrong. The problem is that Ted Cruz is purposely misleading people, or is incredibly easy to sway by money or unscientific arguments. Is that really the sort of person who we want to be president? 

Small survey on why people do or do not get the yearly flu vaccine

A few weeks ago, I asked people on my Facebook page to answer a survey on why they do or do not get the yearly flu vaccination. I will not publish their answers, however, I will do an analysis on the data. Quick disclaimer: This survey does not represent any particular population, nor was it intended to. It was intended as a quick way to gather responses on why people do or do not get vaccinated and why.

I asked two questions. Question 1 was, “Do you get a flu shot?” Question 2 was, “Why do you or don’t you get the flu shot?” Thirty people answered the first question, and 28 people answered the second. 20 people answered “yes” to question 1, and 11 answered “no.” That does not add up to 30, but 31, and this is because I accidentally allowed people to select both “yes” and “no.” Taking out the extra responses, we have 19 yes and 10 no. This results in 65.5% of respondents saying “yes” 34.5% of respondents saying “no.”

Now for a breakdown of the free-response questions. The answers were generalized as much as possible to protect the anonymity of the survey-taker without compromising the message that the person was trying to get across.

7: Personal Health as well as health of others

6: Personal Health

3: Employment or Parent Required

2: Free and convenient

2: Unnecessary

2: Never gotten the flu shot

2: Never had the flu/ already have a good immune system

2: Not convenient enough and flu is not severe enough

1: Doctor Recommended

1: Only when convenient

1: Personal choice (No)

The most common answer by far was for the respondent’s personal health, as well as the health of others. Seven respondents said this, and I feel that it was distinct from the six responses stating that it was for their personal health. The important distinction is the part about the “health of others.” I wrote about this briefly in my last post. It is called herd immunity, and if you don’t want to read my previous post, I will briefly describe it later on.

The third most common answer is that it was required by someone. This isn’t exactly an optimal reason, but the important part is that a flu shot was received.

The next is that it was free and convenient. I think this is one of the most important points, especially considering five respondent, making up one-sixth of the survey, mentioned the importance of conveniency. It is very important that the flu shot become as quick as possible, as the more convenient it is, the more people will get it. I will also add here that if someone has never gotten the flu shot before, it is harder to get it, because one does not really know what the process entails until they get one. If they knew getting the shot was easy, they may be more likely to get it. The goal is obviously to get the flu shot to as many people as possible, and in my opinion, the conveniency is likely the most important factor.

Four of the responses state that the flu shot is unnecessary, or that they have a good enough immune system that they do not need it. This is where I will discuss the importance of herd immunity. Again, I covered this in the last post, but here is a quick summary.

Herd immunity is the idea that if almost every individual in a population is immune or resistant to a disease, then those who would be greatly affected by the disease would be unlikely to contract it. This applies to all diseases, especially the flu. If everyone who was medically able to got the flu shot, then those who had a poor immune system, like babies or the elderly would be protected from the flu. The most common misconception about the flu shot is that it is for the person having the shot administered. This is true, but more importantly, the flu shot is for those who, for one reason or another, have a compromised immune system.

If there is one thing I could say to people reading this, it is this: The flu vaccine (as well as other vaccines) is, most importantly, for those who are weaker immunologically than you. By getting a flu shot, you are not only helping yourself, but helping everyone on the plant.

Now that that has been said, here is another important point about flu vaccines in particular. There is a reason that it is recommended for people to get a flu shot yearly, rather than once. This is because the flu virus is highly mutagenic. Essentially what this means is this: the kind of flu virus that one person may be infected with is relatively likely to change while in that person’s body, and when this virus comes into contact with another person, it could be an entirely new flu virus. This means that even if you have had the flu before, you may not be protected from new strains of flu.

When the flu vaccine is made every year, immunologists predict which strains of flu virus will appear every year. By getting your flu shot, you are preventing these flu virus strains from infecting people, but you are also doing something much more important: You are helping prevent new strains of flu viruses from being created. If you get the flu vaccine, you are much more unlikely to pass a flu virus on to another person. This also reduces the chance of a new strain being created. If fewer strains are created, the vaccines will be more effective, and if they are more effective, fewer people will become infected with the flu. Do you see where this is going? If every able person got the flu vaccine every year, the flu could become a disease of the past, similar to polio. At least I hope. The reality is, it will probably always be present. But by being vaccinated, you reduce the effect of the flu worldwide.

I sincerely hope that those of you reading this seriously consider getting the yearly flu vaccine. In summation, by being vaccinated, you help yourself as well as others, and help stop the flu virus. Remember that it is still not too late to become vaccinated for this flu season. If you are still uneasy about the flu vaccine, it is best to talk to your family medical practitioner about the flu shot, and ask them about their opinion. If you want to do your own research, the best and most trustworthy place to do so is here: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/index.htm. Thank you for reading, and I hope you thoughtfully consider your reasons for getting or not getting the flu shot.

Why is measles making a comeback?

There is an interesting and slightly horrifying movement that has attained popularity in today’s society. It is known as the “anti-vaccination” movement. This movement has more-or-less directly caused the return of measles recently, making headlines in New York. According to the CDC, there are about 80-90 cases of measles in the US per year. From 2002 to 2007, the average was roughly 55 cases. From January 1 to October 31, there have been 603 reported cases. This is more than 6 times as many as normal in an average year. Clearly, there is something wrong here. But what is happening? First, we need an understanding of what the measles is.

Measles is a virus. A virus is essentially DNA contained in a protein casing. The protein casing opens up a cell in your body and forces your cell to create copies of the virus. With many viruses, after one has been infected, an immunity to the virus is created, which prevents the virus from doing as much damage as it would in the first encounter with the virus.

The signs of measles, according to the CDC, include high fever, cough, runny nose, and conjunctivitis. Two or three days after these symptoms appear, white spots may appear inside of the mouth. Three to five days after initial symptoms, a rash appears. It starts on the face at the hairline, and can spread down to the legs and arms. At this point, a fever with a temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit may occur. After a few days, the symptoms disappear.

Measles is incredibly contagious. It can spread through the air or live on a surface for two hours outside of the body. When one person has it, 90% of people around that person are likely to get it. If one has been vaccinated against measles, it is unlikely that the disease will develop to cause symptoms, and will likely stop with the person who has been vaccinated by it. This is an important point; if every person was vaccinated against measles, it simply would no longer exist. However, this is an ideal that cannot be attained, even with 100% compliance. Some people have immune systems that are simply too weak to handle a vaccine. These include people who naturally have a poor immune system (e.g. babies and old people), as well as people who have contracted a disease that causes a weakened immune system, such as HIV. However, even if these people cannot be vaccinated, they can be kept safe by a concept known as herd immunity.

Herd immunity is the idea that if the majority of people have been vaccinated for a disease, then they can protect those who have not been vaccinated. This happens because even if one person who has a disease is introduced, they are unlikely to come into contact with someone who has not received the vaccine for it, so these people will be unlikely to contract the disease. This is a big reason why it is important to be vaccinated against viral diseases; if everyone who can be vaccinated gets vaccinated, very few people would be infected, and therefore there would be few deaths. The number of people infected by a given virus should go down over time, and theoretically, the disease would be eradicated. With the measles, as well as with other preventable diseases, this is not what we see.

This is where the anti-vaccination movement comes in. By refusing to get themselves and their children vaccinated, they are inevitably causing many very preventable deaths. What are their arguments? Are they valid? If they aren’t valid, why do people follow them?

Possibly the biggest argument that the anti-vaccine movement uses is that vaccines cause autism. This is simply not true. The initial study by Andrew Wakefield reported a correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism. The study was published in The Lancet in 1998, was partially retracted in 2004, and was fully retracted in 2010. Andrew Wakefield was found to have conflicts of interest in the results, and manipulated data to prove his findings [2]. So, the most famous study that finds a correlation between autism and vaccinations was falsified. This argument is totally false, and it is unfortunate that it is still used as evidence and spread as misinformation.

Another argument against vaccines is that the vaccines contain “chemicals.” What is a “chemical?” The short answer is anything you can see is a chemical. Water, desks, trees, and the beaker of gas you see in a science fiction movie are all chemical. By saying that vaccines contain chemicals, anti-vaccinators basically say that there is something in them. Looking past the fact that this argument obviously misses the point, it is assumed that one means “manmade chemicals,” or artificial chemicals. The most obvious problem that the argument that natural is better than artificial is that there are plenty of natural substances that are bad for you. For example, viruses. Also, arsenic and cyanide are chemicals made by nature that can kill someone. Another is ethanol, the alcohol that people drink recreationally. The idea that something artificial means that it is automatically dangerous is flat-out wrong. But this argument also misses the mark. What anti-vaxxers really mean is that there are artificial chemicals in vaccines that are put into them to harm you.

Without getting too in depth, viruses have to be weakened before they are used in a vaccine. Some of the substances used to weaken these viruses remain in the vaccine. Much fear-mongering is made over the ingredients of the vaccines, but the truth is that the concentration of these harmful chemicals is so low, that they are harmless. For example, in a study of 85 different vaccines or other injectable biological products, the concentration of metals in the vaccines were “low or undetectable” [3]. In other words, metals that can be harmful at a high concentration are almost undetectable in the vaccines tested, among them the measles vaccine. Doing more research gives similar results for other chemicals that are harmful at high concentrations. People who scare others because of ingredients in vaccines are simply irresponsible or do not know what vaccines do or how they are made.

Many of the other arguments are anecdotal, or ignore some other, sometimes not obvious fact. Some people say “I know someone who has not gotten vaccinated, and they never get sick.” This can be for a variety of reasons; the family has a naturally good immune system, or they are surrounded by people who have been vaccinated, and therefore have no way of contracting the diseases from people around them.

The bottom line is this: vaccines are one of the most successful medical inventions of all time.They save countless lives every year, are incredibly cheap to administer, and are usually covered by insurance. The pros of vaccination vastly outweigh the cons, either real or imagined. Do your fellow human beings a favor, and vaccinate yourself. In doing so, you can feel good about the fact that you are saving lives, and helping yourself, too.

[1] CDC Measles Website: http://www.cdc.gov/measles/index.html

[2] http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/public/news/article148992.ece