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“We support Dr. Andrew Wakefield”?

Posted in Respectful Insolence by Skepdude on February 25, 2009

Alright, I know that, after yesterday’s epic post (which was long even by Orac-ian standards), I said that I was going to try to get away from vaccine blogging for a while. I lied. Well, not really. At that time I really did mean it. But then I came across something that I just couldn’t leave alone.

Regular readers of this blog know my opinion of Andrew Wakefield, namely that he is a fraud, a quack, a charlatan, and a danger to the health of autistic children and public health in general. There is, as documented in my post and elsewhere, abundant evidence to support my opinion. But apparently there are some who don’t think the way I do. Apparently to some, the revelations of his research fraud notwithstanding, Andrew Wakefield remains a hero. In fact, there has recently appeared a website called We Support Dr. Andrew Wakefield.

Hand me a barf bag.

Let’s take a look at the “petition” they want people to sign

I had originally planned on a bit of deconstruction and translation, but Holford Watch beat me to it with a spot-on annotated version that I wish I had done. Instead, I was interested in who set up this website. A quick Whois revealed that the registrant is Edmund Arranga. I had no idea who Arranga is; so I Googled him. Guess what I found?

A page on labeling him as an “expert”:

Edmund C. Arranga is the co-founder of Autism One, a charity organization devoted to the care, treatment, and recovery of children with autism. Currently, a diagnosis of autism comes with the prognosis of forever and nothing could be further from the truth. Our children get better; some recover completely given the proper treatments and therapies.

AutismOne? That quackfest? Well, that explains a lot. Just look at the speaker list for this year’s AutismOne. It’s a veritable Who’s Who of autism quackery, fronted by Jenny McCarthy as keynote speaker and including Andrew Wakefield himself.

Still, there were a few parts of Arranga’s petition that struck me as worth commenting on. For example:

We declare that:1. Dr. Wakefield is a man of honesty, integrity, courage, and proven commitment to children and the public health.



Ha ha.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Oh, heheheheheheheehee! Ahahahahahaha!

Oh, me! Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself. Heh. Hahaha. Must. Regain. Composure.

There. Now I’m better.

2. Dr. Wakefield’s research is rigorous, replicated, biologically valid, clinically evidenced, corroborated by published, peer-reviewed research in an abundance of scientific disciplines, and consistent with children’s medical problems.


Dammit. That one caught me by surprise, just as I had composed myself. I’m sorry; I just can’t help it. That’s too hilarious! But I do thank whoever is behind this effort. I’m still not back to normal after the death of my mother-in-law. Anything that makes me laugh so raucously is good in that it lets me forget my sadness for a while.


Cat Child Found in Cave!

Posted in Skepchick by Skepdude on February 25, 2009


Or, maybe not?

Vikki Thomas, intrepid journalist for The Sun, reports that “A CAT-BOY has stunned medics with his ability to SEE in pitch black with eyes that GLOW in the dark.” All the preceding CAPITAL LETTERS are THE SUN’S, possibly designed to FREAK YOU THE HELL OUT because OMG CAT-BOY WILL DESTROY US ALL!

Young Nong Youhui was supposedly brought to a hospital by his dad Ling, who claimed that the boy’s freaky blue eyes gave him the power of superior night vision and thus allowing him to read in pitch blackness. Amazingly, the article also claims that the boy can see perfectly well in the daylight.

I say BULLSHIT. Yeah, I can use capitals, too.

First of all, cats can see better in the dark due to eyes that operate in a very different way from humans’, thanks to a very long history of evolving along completely different tracks. For instance, cats have pupils that narrow to slits and grow much larger than yours to let more light in while hunting in the dark. They also have larger lenses to absorb even more light, and they even have an extra part called the tapetum lucidum that bounces light back and forth to give them another chance at seeing something in the dark (that’s what causes the gleam when you shine a light at a cat’s eyes). Cats also have more rods, the photoreceptors that benefit night vision.

Even if the boy somehow managed to procure similar eyeballs to a cat, all those attributes come at a cost. A cat cannot, as the article states, see “as clearly as most people do during the day.” In exchange for better night vision, the cat gives up the ability to focus on near objects and the handy tool of depth perception (edit: sorry, I meant “good depth of field” – kitties can’t focus on anything outside things at just the right distance). Their greater number of rods results in fewer cones, removing their ability to see sharp detail and rich color.

The point is: you can’t have your night-vision cake and eat it in broad daylight, too.

Here’s where else your bullshit detector should have rung. The Sun’s only offered explanation for this eerie happening is the following sentence:

Experts believe he was born with a rare condition called leukodermia which has left his eyes with less protective pigment and more sensitive to light.

Leukodermia, also known as vitiligo, isn’t associated with cat-like super-vision – it’s most often associated with Michael Jackson, since it happens to be that disorder in which you get blotchy patches on your skin and hair.

A study of 100 patients with the disorder did find a strong correlation with vision problems, so if anything, the kid would be worse off. The article suggests that the disorder makes one more sensitive to light, which is true, but not in the idiotic way that The Sun suggests. “More sensitive” means that it is painful for people with certain ocular disorders to see in daylight, which impairs their vision, not helping it.

So what’s the real explanation?

Well, it’s hard to say, since the article doesn’t give us the name of the hospital, the doctors involved in these “medical tests,” or even a god damned picture of the mysterious glowing eyeballs. Oh, and this is the very same newspaper that previously brought us a story on the Lost City of Atlantis with a photo of Patrick Duffy and a sidebar written by Plato, the deceased philosopher. (Turns out, it was just the path of the boats used to collect the data. Whoops!)

More likely? It’s a hoax propagated by a poor family looking to make a quick profit by selling a cheap parlor trick to a laughably gullible journalist.


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Different lunacy, same asshattery

Posted in Evolved and Rational by Skepdude on February 25, 2009


Ultra-Orthodox Jews are stoning buses because “BAWWWW men and women should be separate because men cannot keep their penises in their pants BAWWWW!”

In the view of some ultra-Orthodox Jews, segregated seating, with women entering separately through the rear door and sitting at the back, is vital to uphold their stringent traditions stipulating modesty and prohibiting physical contact with members of the opposite sex.

Reminded of something, folks?

Menachem Kenig, head of a committee pressing for segregated buses, says Israel’s leading bus company, Egged, is in effect forcing religious people to sin. “The one place where men and women are forced to be together is on the bus,” he says. “People are crowded in, men and women push up against each other. There are sudden stops and sharp turns and men fall on the women. This really angers us, it is a violation of the concept of modesty that is at the basis of the ultra-orthodox community.”


Excuse me while I stop laugHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Truly epic lulz, theistards. If the bus drivers are really driving so fast that people are falling on each other in the bus, men and women sitting together would be the least of your concerns.

I think somebody just needs to get laid.

But Laura Wharton, a secularist member of the Jerusalem city council, says the attempt to force a new segregated bus line is “outrageous and extremist”, adding: “It is humiliating to be sent to the back of the bus.”

No shit, Sherlock. Maybe you should spend more time shouting down your Orthodox coreligionists and fighting over the correct interpretation of your holy book? Just saying.

A Mea Shearim store-owner said: “According to the Jewish religion, it is forbidden to damage property. These people are causing shame to the ultra-Orthodox community, which is made up of very delicate people. It is true that Egged does not give good service to the ultra-Orthodox but you don’t solve this through ugly violence.”

Translation: They are not true Jews! They are making us look bad HURR DURR! I am a true Jew and I know what god wants! BAWWWWWW!

The theistards involved may be different, but the sort of lunacy we have come to expect from the fundies often stays the same. It is made of BAWWWWW and fail for them, and epic lulz for our side.


Blogosphere beats peer review in the case of stealth creationist paper

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on February 25, 2009


Academia is notoriously resistant to change, which to some extent is a good thing. It was therefore no surprise that when Wikipedia became a phenomenon most academics scoffed at it as a passing fad, fatally flawed by its very core idea: anybody, and I mean anybody, can become a Wiki author and post new entries or edit existing ones. Surely, this will inevitably lead to chaos and complete unreliability, the critics said. But a few years ago a study of a sample of entries compared the accuracy of Wikipedia with that of the unquestionably prestigious Encyclopedia Britannica, and Wikipedia was at least as accurate, in some cases more.

Of course the “open access” model does have its limits and defects, and even Wikipedia has to maintain a certain amount of vigilance and label particular entries as contentious or unreliable if there is too much traffic and a lot of editing and counter-editing (typically concerning political issues or individual politicians). Still, from apparent chaos the system has allowed for the emergence of a reasonably reliable first-look reference source that truly exploits the power of the internet.

It seems that the next case will come from another sacred cow of academia: peer review. This is the system used by modern academics — both in the sciences and the humanities — to evaluate a scholarly paper before it is published, the chief gateway to insure the high quality of a publication, be it in philosophy, literary criticism, medicine, physics, or what have you. The way it usually works is that an author submits a paper for consideration to the editor of a journal in the appropriate field. The editor makes a first assessment of the manuscript and, if deemed suitable to the journal, sends it out to two or more reviewers, chosen from among people actively engaged in research and scholarship in the field addressed by the submitted paper.

A certain amount of time later (an amount of time that can be irritatingly long for the authors), the reviews come back with a thumbs up or down verdict, usually accompanied by (anonymous, and sometimes nasty) comments for the authors — so that they may revise the original manuscript and send it back to either the same journal (if so invited) or to another one. The process repeats itself until either the paper finds its way into a publication or is forever abandoned on the heap of wasted efforts.

The peer review system has its obvious advantages as a gatekeeper for academic publishing quality, but it has equally obvious drawbacks. First of all, the number of reviewers is fairly small, which means that the comments the authors receive may be reflective of the idiosyncratic views of those individuals, and may not necessarily constitute a good assessment of the general value of the paper. Second, often (though not always) the authors don’t know who the reviewers are, but the converse is not true, which leads to the temptation of stabbing a rival (or a rival’s student) in the back.

One can argue that the real peer review actually takes place over a period of years after the paper (or book) has been published, and it is the result of how, in the long-term, the community at large values the scholarship of the authors. Some papers and books are cited often, some become classics in their field, most are never heard of again — which in itself is not necessarily an indication of poor quality, but may be a simple reflection of the fact that too many people publish too much.

What I will call the classic peer review system, the one that relies on a small number of editor-selected referees, however, is increasingly under challenge. In the physics community, for instance, it has been normal practice for years to post pre-publication versions of one’s paper on internet servers, to get feedback from the rest of the community before formal submission. People can now refer others to these pre-prints by hyperlinks, almost as if they were actual publications, thereby blurring the distinction between formal and informal scholarship. Moreover, an increasing number of open access journals now encourages readers’ comments and even rankings to be posted for each paper, occasionally allowing authors to respond and engage in an open dialogue with the community.

This is, I think, a trend that is here to stay, and that will likely completely change the meaning and practice of academic research over the next decade or so. Still, perhaps the most spectacular — if somewhat under-reported — case of open peer review showed how the blogosphere can be a more effective guardian of scholarship than a small number of overworked editors and reviewers.

What happened was that two people affiliated with Inje University in Korea, Mohamad Warda and Jin Han, submitted a paper to the prestigious journal Proteomics. The paper was entitled “Mitochondria, the missing link between body and soul: Proteomic prospective evidence,” something that should have alerted the Editor, Michael Dunn, and the reviewers that something was amiss (a proteomic paper on dualism and the question of the soul?). Warda and Han’s review of the literature was meant as a criticism of the currently accepted theory that the mitochondria (the cellular organelles that are involved in the production of the energy that keeps the metabolism of the organism going) are the result of an evolutionary endosymbiotic event; in other words, that they originated from the engulfment of a bacterial cell by an ancestor of modern plants, animals and fungi.

Warda and Han wrote: “Alternatively, instead of sinking into a swamp of endless debates about the evolution of mitochondria, it is better to come up with a unified assumption. … More logically, the points that show proteomics overlapping between different forms of life are more likely to be interpreted as a reflection of a single common fingerprint initiated by a mighty creator than relying on a single cell that is, in a doubtful way, surprisingly originating all other kinds of life.”

It is difficult to make sense of the badly written phrase (no language editors at Proteomics?), but surely the reviewers should have been a bit surprised by the obviously unscientific phrase “a mighty creator.” Regardless of whether one thinks that concepts like soul and divine creators make any sense at all (I don’t), they surely do not belong to an ostensibly scientific paper. I am not at all suggesting that Dunn or his reviewers are intelligent design creationists: they simply missed the supernatural references, presumably because they were too busy and distracted by the mountain of very technical language surrounding that specific phrase (though how they missed the title is a bit more difficult to rationalize away).

The happy ending to the story is the result of the normal practice that Proteomics has, together as do many other journals, of posting papers on their web site before they are actually printed. According to an article in the National Center for Science Education Reports, the first to note the oddity of Warda and Han’s paper was Steven Salzberg, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, who blogged about it. That led to blog posts by Attila Cordas, Lars Juhl Jensen and PZ Myers, and eventually to the editor of Proteomics requesting a withdrawal of the paper by the authors, who complied.

Interestingly, the request to withdraw was not based on the creationist claim, but on the fact that the bloggers had uncovered another problem with the paper that had escaped reviewer and referees: the entire body of the article by Warda and Han had been plagiarized from other, already published, sources! Apparently, their only original contributions were writing in really awful English and references to the soul and the mighty creator.

The moral of the story is that the much maligned blogosphere (“you know, anybody can write whatever they want, and nobody’s checking”) in this case clearly surpassed the official, academically sanctioned system of peer review. My hunch is that this isn’t going to be the last time this happens, and that we are looking at the dawn of a new era of academic practice, when papers will be scrutinized by thousands of reviewers within a matter of hours of publication. If we can harness this tremendous intellectual power in a reasonably ordered fashion, we will make the next leap toward a truly worldwide community of scholars and authors.