Monday, August 30, 2010

Penn and Teller on Vaccination

Penn and Teller have sounded off on vaccines on their show, Bullshit.  As is typical of that show this clip is rude, direct, and pointed.  It is not safe for work.

It is good to see that there are celebrities out there who do not join in on the anti-vaccination hysteria and even better to see that there are a handful who are actively speaking out against the misinformation surrounding the unsubstantiated dangers of vaccines.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Biased News and Public Discourse

It is tough to get fair or balanced or unbiased news, but I submit to you that those aren't worthwhile goals.

Every media outlet has bias.  This is unavoidable as news organizations are made up of  reporters and editors who have various biases. Moreover we, the information consumer, have our own biases and tend to judge the degree of bias around us through our own standards. In order to appear fair, news organizations attempt to show both sides of every issue so that they can claim to be balanced and therefore unbiased in how they present the news.

This is why extremism seems so prevalent. It isn't necessarily that a greater percentage of people are being pulled to the extremes on issues. It is that the extremists are being given national voices and bestowed some legitimacy by the nightly news. It doesn't matter that these people often have opinions that are demonstrably false or intended to sow misinformation. That they have opinions at all and are willing to talk about them, means that news outlets present those views in the name of fairness and balance.

I contend that in most cases this practice is folly. News should be biased. It should be biased towards facts, evidence, and reason. Very often the counter opinion, if there is one, is so far to the fringes of a political extreme that there is nothing to it but hysteria and hyperbole. Such a view need not be presented in the name of balance and ought to be excluded as irrelevant in reasoned discourse.  Although, I will concede that there are some news stories about matters of opinion in which showing both sides is the story. Like in local news when two sides of a proposed highway expansion are interviewed ahead of a coming referendum.

The drive to be unbiased by creating debate where there isn't any reasonable debate to be had is nurturing insanity in public discourse. When faced with such lunacy, I still contend that the best response to extremists is to respond with rationality, even if I personally fail in that sometimes. Because if we make a habit of responding to what we consider extremism with extreme counter-points then we are no longer discussing anything, we are just yelling at each other.

Monday, August 23, 2010

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Dr. Jim Laidler has a blog post over at Science Based Medicine that gives a summary of actual evidence concerning high fructose corn syrup (HFCS.)

As a corn farmer, I am partially responsible for HFCS since I help grow the corn that makes production of this sweetener so inexpensive and therefore omnipresent.  So I care about the scientific evidence that ought to drive whatever debates revolve around the use of HFCS.  I care because this can effect a use for the product I grow and therefore can potentially effect me financially, but even more because I cringe at the accusation of helping to produce something that is inherently harmful to my nation.

Much of the debate about HFCS has struck me a playing off public fears and providing little more than correlative comparisons between Europe and America, that have never struck me as being compelling arguments.  Dr. Laidler's article takes a different approach, comparing the actual content of various "sugars" including HFCS and its alternatives like cane suger.  The whole article is absolutely worth reading and I recommend you do so.  But I'm going to spoil the ending by quoting from it below:

So, what are the take-home messages from all of this? 
  1. HFCS 42 and HFCS 55 have essentially the same amount of fructose, as a fraction of their total sugar, as honey, sucrose (cane or beet sugar) or maple syrup/sugar (to be agonizingly precise, HFCS has slightly less, and HCFS 55 has slightly more).
  2. HFCS 42 and HFCS 55 have an equal or smaller amount of fructose, as a fraction of their total sugar, as many commonly consumed fruits.
  3. Agave syrup has higher fructose content than any type of HFCS except HFCS 90. 
For people who are worried about their health or their children’s health — and who isn’t, these days — the data suggest that the best choice is to reduce intake of all sweeteners containing fructose. That includes not only the evil HFCS, but also natural cane sugar, molasses (which is just impure cane sugar), brown sugar (ditto) and honey. Even “unsweetened” (no addedsugar) fruit juices need to be considered when limiting your family’s fructose intake. 
Finally, the best nutritional advice is to eat everything in moderation — and that includes sweets. While a diet high in fructose may increase your risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease — maybe — a fructose-free diet is not guaranteed to prevent those diseases. Eat a variety of foods, including a small amount of sweets, get enough exercise, watch your (and your children’s) weight and see your doctor for regular health check-ups. 
And stop worrying that HFCS is poisoning you and your children. 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Vaccines and the Value of Herd Immunity

Many vaccine preventable diseases are all but unheard of here in America. When was the last time you saw a child with polio? Unless you work in epidemiology or travel overseas a lot, you probably haven't seen a child with polio or any of a number of other vaccine preventable diseases. The reason is that for decades our vaccination rate was 90% or more. Although those diseases did (and do) exist overseas, America had very few outbreaks of those diseases. Our herd immunity was great enough that even most of those who didn't or couldn't get vaccinated were still protected.

The problem is that because people aren't seeing these diseases as any kind of real threat, the perceived danger of not vaccinating is considered negligible. If no one in the community has had measles in recent memory, why bother with the vaccination, is probably a common thought. Add into the equation that the anti-vaccination movement has made very real inroads into public consciousness and we can see why some parents weigh the risks as they perceive them and opt out of vaccines.

If one or two families out of a few million decide not to vaccinate, it is really no big deal. Herd immunity will protect them. But as the percentage of unvaccinated children rises, that herd immunity is threatened. Especially if we realize that the unvaccinated aren't equally distributed throughout the country. They tend to clump together geographically to some extent as some whole communities have dangerously low vaccination rates. These are the places where epidemics can catch hold. And where epidemics probably will run amok before people again see these diseases as real dangers and start taking vaccinations seriously again.

So a few people get sick? Big deal, right? Well, yes, actually. Many vaccines cannot be given to infants or some people with compromised immune systems. So at any one time we cannot have a 100% vaccinated population. Even if their parents will vaccinate them as soon as they can or the adults would get vaccines themselves if they could. All of those babies and adults rely on the herd immunity that the rest of us who get vaccinated provide for them. When our societal vaccination rates drop, we endanger them. And this is a major contributor to what is happening right now in California with the babies dying of whooping cough.

We as a people are far more mobile than at any other time in history. When it comes to disease transmission we really are a hair's breadth from being a truly global community. So the diseases that do run amok in other countries are a real threat right here in our own communities. Because we are probably never more than five degrees of separation from most diseases in the world.

Traveled overseas recently? Been to an airport recently? An international airport? Been on an airplane, or a bus, or a train? Interact recently with someone who has? What about the people they know? Those are all potential vectors of transmission that can bring what we might think of now as exotic diseases home. So it is actually more important than ever to keep our societal vaccination rates up. And disheartening that we aren't.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Video of Phil Plait's TAM 8 Speech

When I got back from TAM 8, I wrote up my impressions of Phil Plait's speech.

 The JREF has put up their video of that speech on their Vimeo site.

Phil Plait - Don't Be A Dick from JREF on Vimeo.

I want to encourage you to watch that speech, especially if you couldn't be there in person, and see if your interpretation is at all like mine.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Riding Again

In February I broke my arm.  I fell while roller skating and broke the end of my radius in my elbow.  The bone itself healed quickly, but the soft tissue damage in my elbow reduced my strength, mobility, and dexterity for several months.  As a motorcyclist, this injury was really awful.  It just hasn't been safe or comfortable for me to ride throughout most of this season.

A few days ago, my bike had accumulated fewer than 200 miles this year, way down from a typical year when I'd have ridden at least 5000 miles by now.  Although my arm continued to improve every month, I seem to have reached a point where it wasn't getting much better.  I still can't straighten it all the way.
The trouble has been that even though most of my strength and motor control returned, with my arm stretched out as pictured, it hurts.  It feels like I am already pushing it past the locked position of the joint and into mild hyper extension.  And the riding position on my bike puts my arms almost that straight.  I just don't have much more extension left to use and what there is hurts to use.

So I settled on a solution.  I installed a small part on my motorcycle to raise and move rearward the handlebars.  This makes a small change to how much I have to bend my elbows in ordinary riding, helping me remain more comfortable and giving me some arm extension in reserve.

In this picture they are the grey bit directly above the top triple clamp, right under the bottom bracket for the handlebars.  It isn't a huge change.  Perhaps moving the bars 3/4" closer to my shoulders.  But that is enough to change the bend in my elbows a little bit.  Although I'm still not 100% comfortable, this one little change does prevent my arm from getting really sore in just a few minutes.  I'm probably not up to a cross country trip, but I can ride.