Posts Tagged ‘Politics’


John McCain is the most recent vector of a raging new epidemic. The disease spread by this epidemic moves quickly, attacks mostly the educated and media savvy in our midst, and is potentially devastating in its consequences. I am referring to the dangerous and fast-moving epidemic of medical and science misinformation that is sweeping the land, pushed along by the strong winds of the media. John McCain, in response to a question posed to him at a recent town hall meeting, stated that


It’s indisputable that (autism) is on the rise amongst children, the question is what’s causing it. And we go back and forth and there’s strong evidence that indicates that it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines.

He went on to say there’s “divided scientific opinion” on the topic of whether vaccines can cause autism. The media is also a major force in the spread of medical and science misinformation. It is often quick to point out that there is a scientific debate on an issue, and to present the topic with the balance so sought after in responsible journalism. The problem with the issue of vaccines and autism is that there is no scientific debate on this issue. There is no balance to the scientific data. The scales are tipped so far to one side (that there is no science linking vaccines to autism) that any reasonable interpreter of the data would conclude it’s time we give up on this particular witch hunt.

The notion of an autism “epidemic” alluded to by Senator McCain, and so often highlighted on the news, is also predominantly a media creation. In fact, the best epidemiology indicates that there is likely no true change in the prevalence of autism, just in the way we define the cases and count the numbers. Incredibly, I have yet to see a single media story that has attempted to intelligently cover this less shocking, but fact-supported, angle.

But the main problem with John McCain’s statement is that he fails to understand what “strong evidence” means in the context of science. Strong evidence is evidence that is presented for peer review, poured over for sound reasoning, scrupulous and meticulous methodology, and accurate statistical analysis. Good scientific papers will also point out their own limitations and flaws, and make suggestions on how to improve on the science. To be declared truly “strong” however, the data must also be replicated and validated by multiple independent investigators. When the evidence is assessed by this standard (the standard by which all science must be judged), John McCain’s statement is seen as entirely erroneous.

The reason Senator McCain was so quick to jump on the vaccines-are-evil bandwagon, and the reasons for this epidemic of medical and science misinformation, are complex. They involve mistrust in the medical establishment, in the Federal government and its oversight, and in the pharmaceutical industry. They also involve the frustrations inherent in the loss of autonomy over one’s own health, an age old problem made more extreme by the ever-evolving complexity of scientific insights into health and disease. At the heart of Senator McCain’s erroneous statement, however, lies an even more ominous sign that indicates this epidemic has no end in sight. A major factor allowing this type of misinformation to take root so easily is the public’s relative ignorance about the general workings of science. If our educational system did a better job teaching science and explaining it’s centrality to so much of what we take for granted in our lives, these types of misstatements would be far less likely to occur and the misunderstandings about so many scientific issues, from believing vaccines cause autism to believing in the efficacy of homeopathy, would fail to become so widespread.
It is ironic that in this election year a major presidential candidate, with both advancing science and improving our educational system as major underpinnings of his platform, would fall victim to an epidemic at least partly preventable by both.

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Can you identify the following and explain how they are related?1. james-v-allridge-iii.jpg2. barnett-slepian.jpg3. 6-weeks.jpgAnswers:1. James V. Allridge III – a death row inmate, who claimed he was innocent. He was one of 24 others who were executed by the state of Texas in 2004.2. Barnett Slepian, M.D. – an upstate New York gynecologist who was shot and killed while making soup in his home by anti-abortion activist James Charles Kopp.3. Embryo, 7 weeks gestation – Almost 90% of elective abortions are performed in the first 12 weeks of gestation.There are many who believe the killing of the first two individuals is justifiable, while the termination of a non-sentient 7 week old embryo is unconscionably evil. The horrifying supreme court reversal of it’s decision regarding the Federal Abortion Ban case paves the way for further restrictions on women’s reproductive freedoms, and will endanger lives. The so-called “Partial Birth Abortion Ban” refers, in reality, to a relatively rare form of late term abortion (really called intact dilation and extraction). It is usually performed when a severely deformed fetus must be removed, and when a normal delivery may endanger the life of the woman. In either case, it makes up less than 1% of all abortions, and is simply a political wedge that has been used to begin the demolition of a woman’s control over her reproductive health.The Bush legacy will live with us for generations to come.

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Beyond politics there lies the dangerously inane. At Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s first hearing of a special committee set up to discuss mandatory limits on “greenhouse” gases, Republicans let out their own form of noxious gas. Doubts and denials about the possible threats to national (not to mention global) security and to energy independence that we face from global warming were raised by the likes of Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin.

“Unfortunately, this debate hasn’t been characterized by common sense. It’s been characterized by extremism.”

– Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin

Although the magnitude of the threat to our national security is unclear, the prospect is more than concerning enough to warrant a close look. It took us this long to even acknowledge the existence of human-induced climate change. Now it’s time to understand the degree to which it will effect us, on all levels. How sad that common sense is in such scarce supply in the houses of power.

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The Bush administration warns against reading too much into the latest in a stream of evidence concluding the all too obvious, that abstinence-only education is a worthless, dangerous educational policy. Another thinly-veiled, religion as government policy pushed by the Bush administration. A policy that has deprived children of intelligent sex education, while endangering their heath. This latest piece of evidence comes in the form of a multi-year, experimentally-based impact study of the Administration’s mindbogglingly wasteful and dangerous plan to fund abstinence education above other, more rational approaches to sex education.The study was conducted for Congress by Mathmatica Policy Research, Inc. Of no surprise, the data confirm that children’s sexual behaviors are not altered by participation in the federally funded abstinence only programs. The same percentage of children have sex at the same average age whether enrolled in the programs or not. The only difference is that the money diverted to this useless program was money not earmarked for the truly important and effective programs that actually provide scientifically sound and proven preventive health education to our nation’s children. This costly and failed policy (Bush is requesting $141 million next year) is yet another example in a long list of irrational, often religiously and politically based federal schemes, that skirt, distort, or outright deny scientific realities. This final, congressional report on the uselessness of the policy was announced on Friday, April 13 in the hopes that the media and the public would get little exposure to it. In fact, the New York Times ran a minuscule box of an article on the very bottom of page 20.Thankfully, the program expires this year, and there is a chance that Congress may do right by our children by gutting this sickening and embarrassing piece of legislation from the books. But, the newly opened National Abstinence Education Association, a conservative lobby for the abstinence only programs, has hired the renowned PR firm that worked for the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth smear machine. We wait once again, with baited breath, for reason to prevail…

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