Sign of things to come?

February 18, 2010

PZ Myers reports that Christopher Maloney, a naturopathic “doctor” in Maine, has had a WordPress blog removed, because a student in that blog called the naturopath a “quack.” If I ever get around to building up this blog so that I have any decent traffic, I may have to look for another host.


Anti-vaccinationism in the Argus Leader.

May 11, 2009

A May 8th news story by Jon Walker in the Argus Leader reports on a talk by Andrew Moulden, Ph.D. on the “dangers” of vaccines. According to the story, the talk consisted of the same old claims: “Moulden, 44, said childhood vaccines introduce chemicals into the blood that can cause autism or strokes, and that annual flu shots for adults increase Alzheimer’s risk.” There was a token scientist in the story, but coverage of the science was outweighed by personal anecdotes and unsupported claims from the anti-vaccination side.

I would like to make a couple of points here. First, it is telling that the meeting was not affiliated with any legitimate medical establishment. Andrew Moulden is said to be “a specialist in neuropsychology from Toronto” and the meeting was hosted by Ben Rall, “a local chiropractor.” While I generally have a great appreciation for neuropsychologists–many of the findings that drive research in my own field of cognitive psychology come from neuropsychology–I can imagine a neuropsychologist being more prone than a medical doctor to fall for neuro-woo. After all, the major point of neuropsychology is diagnosing and classifying mental problems, not elaborating the biochemical mechanisms by which those problems come about. In fact, this Moulden character even claimed “‘It’s not the germs that are causing disease.'” As for chiropracty…well, ’nuff said.

Second, I think it is scandalous, but not surprising, that the Argus Leader would send a journalist to this meeting who would do such a poor job reporting it. The story follows the typical line that non-science reporters fall into: a report of the main speaker, with obligatory overly strong statements (Moulden is quoted as saying about immunization “‘This is a global catastrophe that’s happening daily'”), followed by a two sentence rebuttal by a legitimate doctor (props to Dr. Wendell Hoffman at Sanford Clinic for pointing out risks both to unvaccinated children and the general public), followed by quotes from several misled parents expressing fear of vaccines. The story ends again with a single statement by Dr. Hoffman pointing out that research does not support a link between thimerosal and autism, but immediately then quotes a mother from Florida who claims “her daughter..died at age 4 after vaccines caused autism.” (Autism killing a 4-year-old? Not to minimize the mother’s loss, but I suspect that she has misinterpreted the events surrounding her child’s death. There are no details in the report to even begin trying to put together a picture of events.) Jon Walker follows the “opposing sides” script of the debate, with one side having the scientific evidence but the other side having the quotable anecdotes. Guess which side he focused on? What’s worse, the Argus Leader editors saw fit to publish this hackneyed piece of reporting.

ADDENDUM (11-May, 4:30 p.m. local time): WordPress automatically generated a link on one of my pages to a video of a speech by Andrew Moulden, in case any readers are interested in hearing his basic argument. Extensive non-technical discussions of the vaccine-autism research, at greater level of sophistication than I can provide, can be found at these science blogs: Neurologica, Respectful Insolence, and Science Based Medicine.

Let’s hope we don’t follow our friends to the south

April 2, 2009

The Texas State Board of Education has recently gone through a
heated debate about biology standards. The crux of the issue was, of course, treatment of evolution in science classrooms. Having failed in Kitzmiller to show that intelligent design was in fact scientific (and hence should have a place in science classes), the anti-science creationist movement attempted their next strategy in Texas. To whit, creationist members of the state education board wanted language about teaching “strengths and weaknesses” to be inserted into the state science standards.

As many science bloggers have pointed out, this language is merely a backdoor attempt to allow creationist science teachers to knock down the theory of evolution as “weak,” which then would beg the question of what other theories are available. At this point, the Goddidit theory could be introduced, if only informally. The beauty of the strategy is that it superficially adheres to what scientists do all the time with theories: apply theory to new phenomena to see if the framework can explain empirical results (testing the strength of the theory) and also to look for unexplainable effects (testing for weak spots in it). The problem is that this scientific approach to strengths and weaknesses could easily be replaced by an approach that contrasts the strength of science in general with its supposed weaknesses, an inane discussion to have in a science classroom.

The Texas board recently voted not to include general language over “strengths and weaknesses” in the standards. They did, however, include language requiring students to “analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations.” On the surface, this sounds even better than general “strengths and weaknesses” language; in fact, it sounds like the whole point of my doctoral training. The problem, though, is that there is no language defining what would be a valid scientific evaluation. Instead, a misinformed Bozo of a science teacher could trot out disproven creationist arguments against evolution and be covered by the analyze-evaluate-critique rubric in the standards. Worse, textbook publishers who pander to the large Texas market could include anti-evolution myths just to “be on the safe side” and increase the chance of their textbook being adopted. After all, a publisher does not want to have its book potentially rejected by a local school board because some know-nothing complains that it does not provide adequate criticism of evolution.

Implicit in this analysis is the concern that analyze-evaluate-critique is meant to be applied unfairly against science. As I wrote above, on its surface these are exactly the activities working scientists engage in. The key is, any analysis-evaluation-criticism is constrained by the need for a scientific theory to explain the entire range of extant empirical data and to make new predictions. For example, a scientific evaluation of Darwin’s theory will certainly point out it’s many weaknesses (such as an inability to explain saltatory speciation) but will also discuss more current evolutionary thinking that deals with those weaknesses. Given the open creationist stance of many of the Texas school board members, I suspect that these constraints are not meant to be in operation with regards to topics such as evolution. Instead, teachers are meant to lead students unreasonably from real scientific weaknesses in Darwin’s theory to unscientific conclusions. It is an interesting thought experiment to predict the school board’s reaction if a science teacher analyzed, evaluated, and criticized the literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis. I suspect that the same people who want the theory of evolution through natural selection criticized in front of students would have conniptions if Genesis were treated the same way. (It’s also amusing to think about what would happen if a Texas teacher, having dismissed scientific explanations of origins, instead taught a Lakota creation story but not Genesis.)

So, the new Texas science standards have the potential to influence us in South Dakota by (1) influencing the quality of science textbooks available to our children, and (2) demonstrating to creationists that language that “talks the (science) talk” but doesn’t necessarily walk the walk can get past a state board of education. We need to be aware that similar attempts may be tried here.

Madison ID club is religious in nature

December 13, 2008

A recent post by Don Parker of the Madison, SD IDEA club reveals the basis of his disagreement with evolutionary theory.

There are many truths in life, but which is of the utmost importance? I think that’s a no-brainer: eternal life, don’t leave Earth without it. … I’m not talking about buying a cemetery plot and a stone in advance but rather about continuing their existence to infinity and beyond. Before you plan for a future you have to believe in one. Many people don’t. And Darwin’s theory of evolution is the reason why many are in the category.

It appears that Parker is following the same old tired strategy: a fundamentally religious criticism of the theory of evolution gets transformed into a “teach an alternative ‘scientific’ theory” message.

Evolution/creation talk in SF

December 8, 2008

The Sioux Falls Argus Leader reports that a speaker is coming to the University of Sioux Falls (a school affiliated with the North American Baptist church) today to talk about evolution and creationism.

discussion of creation and evolution tonight at the University of Sioux Falls is free to the public.

Darrel Falk, professor of biology at Point Loma Nazarene University in California, will speak at 7:30 p.m. in the Salsbury Science Center.

He will discuss “coming to peace with the gradual creation of humans.”

I do not know anything about this speaker, but from the title of the talk I get the feeling that people who believe in the literal Biblical story of creation are going to get corrected by, of all people, the Nazarenes.

Organized Intelligent Design comes to South Dakota

December 6, 2008

PZ Myers’ Pharyngula links to a news story out of Madison, SD announcing the formation of an intelligent design (ID) club in the city. The reporting itself seems to be mere repetition of the information provided by the founder of the club, Madison resident Don Parker. For example, the reporter writes

While the concept sounds like an argument for creation, Parker says it’s more than that. Creation has a religious theme that says everything was created by God. The theory of intelligent design says a higher intelligence had to be responsible for certain things, but it doesn’t define what that higher intelligence is.

without referencing the fact that a nonscientist, Judge John E. Jones III of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, recently reviewed the arguments for and against ID in the case of Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, and ruled, in part, that intelligent design was in fact a form of creationism. Corey Heidelberger at the Madville Times blogs has a more extensive deconstruction of the news story.

Parker is showing two movies which supposedly contain evidence showing something–either that evolutionary theory is wrong or that creationism is right–I’m not clear which. If you’ve been to the presentation, please post your thoughts in the comments section.