Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Maybe it's the years raised in a primarily catholic home talking.
Maybe it's the traditional (fake) Christmas tree, with its star trek ornaments mixed among armies of santas and hosts of angels.
Maybe it's the music, with all it's cheesy traditional goodwill.
Maybe it's seeing my uncle, my aunts, and my parents again.

I don't really know what it is exactly that does it, but I really like Christmas.  For some it's a celebration of the birth of their manifest deity, while for others the season celebrates the shortest day of the year and the return of the sun.  Be it Yule, or Christmas, or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, for many it's a deep religious celebration.  For me, and many others, it's a celebration of togetherness, of family and friends, and of love.  For all the stress, and rampant commercialism, and rampant religious fundamentalism, it still has that joyous allure for me, and while I'm right there with my fellow atheists in arguing for separation of church and state, and demanding we respect all the different traditions during this time while keeping the "christ" out of "christmas," as that special day nears I find myself caring less and less about the politics of it and more about that simple togetherness.

I'll be seeing my Uncle this Christmas Eve.  My uncle is fun, and I love seeing him every Christmas.  He's also a fundamentalist conservative Christian.  He's also a former hippie.  He's ridiculous in so many ways, yet I still love seeing him.  Every year there's worry of drama, of him finally confronting me, of me finally telling him that I'm an atheist and I don't give a damn about his stories of my miracle birth due to his prayers, or of us simply going at it over the dinner table as we argue one way or the other.  It hasn't happened yet, even though I've been a nonchristian for many years.  Does he know I'm not christian?  I think he may suspect it, but I doubt he realizes I'm a dyed-in-the-wool atheist.  Does it matter?  No, not really.  Even though there may come a christmas where we end up having that confrontation, I'm still happy to see him.  He's fun and I like him.  I like his wife, my aunt.  I like his sister, who is far more liberal and far more entertaining.  I like seeing them all, because it's Christmas.

This Christmas eve I'll be eating carrot pudding, watching A Christmas Carol (the original black and white version.  My family are purists for the classic), and enjoying one another's company.  Things will have changed.  This Christmas my grandmother won't be at her house.  I won't be obligated to take her portion of christmas dinner down to her.  She's not well and it won't be quite the same, but I'll still get to see her.  This Christmas will also bring newer blessings with it.  Tomorrow I drive to the airport to pick up my girlfriend, who will be spending Christmas with us.  She'll get to meet my parents for the first time, see the house I grew up in, and will be a new addition to my christmas tradition.  I like that.  My Christmas will be different, but it will not be bad.

Twenty years ago I cared about presents and loathed the ceremony of Christmas dinner.  I barely remember it.
Ten years ago I was still a catholic and was home for winter break after my first semester at Gonzaga.  I was going to be a famous writer one day and majored in English.
Five years ago I was so very, painfully new age, and I was just going back to school after a very long break, having left Gonzaga for various reasons.
Two years ago I was still religious, but only barely, and I had decided I loved science more than english.
A year ago I was an atheist, and knew that I loved science more than teaching.
Today I am still an atheist, and still remain committed to my goals from a year ago.  What is new is my beautiful girlfriend, who makes me feel like I can accomplish anything.

Looking around me, at the tree I decorated, at the life I had before and the life ahead of me, at the dining room table I grew up sitting at, I feel joyous.

Merry Christmas to some, and to the rest may you feel joy in whatever way you choose.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Don't give money to fetus-killers!

Ruh Roh.  Some funding from some bibles supported an organization that supports a program that happens to be put on by an organization that also sometimes provides abortions:

A Christian publisher is withdrawing copies of the "Breast Cancer Awareness Bible," from stores because the Bible helped raised money for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which contributes to Planned Parenthood.

Oh, well, it's Planned Parenthood, and that's a bad name among Christians.  They probably put all of those funds to aborting fetuses and dancing naked in a wiccan circle, the heathens.  So I guess it's okay.

"Though we have assurances that Komen's funds are used only for breast-cancer screening and awareness, it is not in keeping with LifeWay's core values to have even an indirect relationship with Planned Parenthood," he said
Oh, so the money's all going to breast cancer screening and research?  Well...but it is Planned Parenthood, and they're evil bastards, what with the aborting and promoting promiscuity and whatnot.  Just fund some other company doing breast cancer screening and research.

"In all cases, Komen funding is used exclusively to provide breast cancer programs, including clinical breast exams conducted by trained medical personnel," stated the release. "It's important to note that Komen will only make grants to non-profit organizations. As many mammography providers are for-profit entities, we are only to fund mammography services through grants made to local non-profit service providers."

As long as there are vulnerable communities in need, said the release, "Komen will fund the facilities that can best meet those needs."

So you're saying that you really just went for the group that's going to do the most good in the community?  Well, okay then, but still, our Bible-money shouldn't go to such an evil, underhanded organization, no matter how much good it does!

The Komen Foundation issued a statement Thursday afternoon contending that there were "no dollars going to Planned Parenthood programs" from sales of the Bibles.

So basically the Bibles were pulled from the shelves because a portion of proceeds went to an organization that redistributed said funds to nonprofits that would help with breast cancer screenings, awareness, and the all-important research....but that organization sometimes put funds into Planned Parenthood-sponsored breast cancer clinics.

How very righteous of them.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Antivaccination: how Low Can you Go?

Obviously lower than one might originally think, with books like this:

Since when were Measles "marvelous?"  It's one thing to make fallacious arguments about vaccinations, it's another to take those arguments and use them to teach children to embrace potentially life-threatening diseases.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Flu Vaccine: Dishonest stat-skeptics

Well, I haven't found anyone else writing about this, probably because it's downright silly, but there's some people out there arguing that the seasonal influenza vaccine is only 1.5% effective.

Specifically, what happened is that a study published in the prestigious journal The Lancet revealed that flu shots provide only “moderate protection” against the flu, and in some seasons is altogether “reduced or absent.”
Specifically, the Lancet said the vaccine is about 59 percent effective. But when you break the numbers down statistically, what it really works out to is that the vaccine prevents flu 1.5 times out of 100.
That’s right. Using the Lancet’s own numbers, statistics show that the vaccine only works 1.5 times out of 100.
Wow.   Sounds pretty damning, and if it were actually true, I might have to rethink my position on the flu vaccine debate.  What we have here is very creative statistics.  The link they provide regarding the 1.5 times out of 100 effectiveness goes to a letter to the editor written by "J.L. Craig, BSN, PhD."  I'm fairly certain the individual in question is one Jennifer Craig, who has written several books against vaccinations and is now retired, so I haven't had much luck on a cursory search of PubMed to see what kind of research she did.  One of my favorite authors over at science-based medicine did a book review of a bunch of anti-vax books, and one of hers was critiqued (It's #6 if you care to get his impression).  She's very clearly anti-vax from her statements, and if this is the same individual then there's some clear bias going in.  That's fair, though, I have clear bias towards vaccination.  Let's look instead at the statistical ploy she uses in her letter:

... let’s examine the study to see how this spin transpired.
This was a meta analysis, meaning that the researchers used data from 28 previously published random controlled trials between 1967 and 2011. The control group, n=13,095, consisted of non-vaccinated adults who were monitored to see if they got confirmed influenza. Over 97 per cent of them did not. Only 357 got flu which means that 2.73 per cent of these adults got the flu in the first place.
The treatment group comprised adults who were vaccinated with a trivalent inactivated influenza vaccine. According to the study, 1.18 per cent got the flu.
The difference between these two groups (2.73 – 1.18) is 1.5 people out of 100. In other words, the flu vaccine did nothing for 98.5 per cent of adults in the studies.
Now in all fairness, she is technically correct.  In those studies 98.5% of people who had the flu shot were unaffected.  They were either already not going to get the flu shot or they got the flu even after having gotten the shot.  Only 1.5% of the people who got the flu shot benefited directly from it.

Does this mean that the flu shot was only 1.5% effective?  Well, no.  Let us say that, in some hypothetical world, a flu vaccine was developed that was perfect.  If you got this vaccine, you were guaranteed not to get the flu.  Not a single person got sick.  We would all agree that this shot was 100% effective.  If you got it, you wouldn't get the flu.  According to her statistical analysis and assuming the same morbidity from the study, the difference between vaccinated and unvaccinated would be (2.73-0.00) or 2.73 people out of 100.  So even with an absolutely, 100% perfect flu shot, it would still do nothing for 97.27 per cent of the population.  Does that mean the shot was only 2.73% effective?

The problem here seems to lie in the numbers.  Our puny mammalian brains have trouble comprehending numbers and making them work.  That's why it's easy for people to get confused by billions vs millions and for us to see a vaccine that cuts the number of infected people by more than half as "only 1.5% effective."  Statistics are easy to manipulate, and it's very easy to use numbers to make your case sound better.

What really gets me is Dr. Craig goes on to accuse the cdc of lying with statistics:

So where did the media get 60 per cent effective? It’s called lying with statistics. First you take the 2.73 per cent in the control group who got flu and you divide that figure into the 1.18 per cent of the treatment group who got the flu. This gives you 0.43.
You then say that 0.43 is 43 per cent of 2.73 and claim that the vaccine results in a 57 per cent decrease in flu infections. This becomes the 60 per cent effectiveness claim.
Erm, Hi.  Pot, Kettle.  Perhaps you've met?  If we really wanted to lie with statistics, we would argue that, since only 1.18% of vaccinated people get the flu, the flu shot must be 98.82% effective.  Now there's some blatant dishonesty for you.

One thing that's also difficult to work with here is that none of these studies involved working with the flu at pandemic levels.  60% efficacy only means a percentage of the population when flu levels are fairly low, but should they reach levels such as in 1918, where roughly 500 million were infected, that means 250 million people avoid the flu if they were all vaccinated.  (At the time that's roughly 30% of the population...that would mean, hopefully, that only 15% of the vaccinated population would get sick).  This is all hypothetical, of course.  More studies would be needed.  Further, the presence of protective immunity may also further reduce the number of people who get sick from the flu.  The higher the number of vaccinated people and the better the vaccine, the greater the herd immunity.  We like herd immunity, since it means the immunodeficient get some protection as well.

I will say one last thing: the mercola article is correct in pointing out that this lancet study showed zero efficacy in some seasons.  That happens.  It's always an educated guess as to which strains of influenza will hit us from year to year, and it would be unreasonably costly to vaccinate us from every flu strain we're aware of.  Even then, it might mutate into something we're entirely unprepared for.  That's part of why we will probably never beat the flu the way we beat smallpox.  I wouldn't ever argue that the flu vaccine is perfect, or even close to perfect.  The only argument I make is that it's the best defense we currently have against a virus that has a proven history of causing pandemic level infections in our population.  You may disagree, and that's fine.  I'm certain I'll get at least one comment arguing that the flu vaccine is bad or, at the very least, unnecessary, and that's fine, too.  My biggest beef is only when others take statistics that say "well, maybe it's only 60% effective instead of 78%" and instead argue that the flu shot has been proven to be pointless.  Don't do that.  It's dumb.

Further Reading:

Mark Crislip on Flu Vaccine Efficacy

WebMD Flu Vaccine FAQ