Christopher Hitchens has died.

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Very sad news. Christopher Hitchens has passed away at the age of 62, after suffering with esophageal cancer. The man was a great rhetorician, and an advocate of rationalism. He didn’t hold back and in doing so produced some of the most coherent and fiery attacks on irrationality.

The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.

It’s a shame that that voice will boom no more.

“Jesus Camp”: JESUS CHRIST!

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Ok I may be a little late to the game with this one, but a fellow skeptic friend and I watched the 2006 documentary “Jesus Camp” recently. For those of you unaware it follows a few kids as they take part in ‘Kids On Fire School of Ministry’, a pentecostal summer camp run by Becky Fisher. At the camp they praise Jebus but also become motivated to ‘fight’ for God (I have no idea why he can’t do it on his own?) and become the next generation of evangelicals.

You know, a lot of people often throw around the term indoctrination and brainwashing in relation to parents and adults pushing their religious beliefs on children. But most religious parents, in the UK at least, are just nice people who are sincerely trying to imbibe the ideas and teachings that they believe give their life meaning and morality, into their progeny. Sincerity of course doesn’t make it any more right or wrong, or even their ideas more correct, but it seems rather more tolerable. Well, relatively speaking at least.

Someone who is completely intolerable is Becky Fisher. Towards the end of the film, she is asked by a radio commenter “Why kids?”. This is her response:

Anyone who does any work with kids knows the reason you go for kids is because whatever they learn by the time they are 7, 8, 9 years old is pretty well there for the rest of their life… I don’t think any child gets anything by choice. As I understood your question to me was ‘Do you feel it’s right for the fundamentalist to indoctrinate their children with their own belief?’ I guess fundamentally, yes I do, because every other religion is indoctrinating their kids. Hello! I would like to see more churches indoctrinating… You could call it brainwashing, but I am radical and passionate in teaching children their responsibility as christians, as God-fearing people, as Americans.

Don’t beat around the bush Becky, say what you really feel! Apart from the fact that Fisher believes it is ok to indoctrinate children at an age in their development when they do not have full comprehension of all available arguments, and when they are predisposed to believe adults and authority figures, there’s also something else inherently sad in her statement.

What does it say about your beliefs if you have to indoctrinate people into that way of thinking? It is almost as if she knows that her ideas don’t stand up to logic and reason…

The whole film just made me very, very sad. I did get a little chuckle when Ted Haggard made some comments about the acceptability of homosexuality, as ‘we don’t have to debate about what we should think about homosexual activity. It’s written in the Bible’. This from a man who was subsequently found to have been soliciting a male escort. The fun didn’t last though, soon Haggard turned his head to evolution. Woe. I think anyone can probably guess what an evangelical thinks of evolution, but the gist of it is that he doesn’t think public schools should tell students that they are animals created by natural selection. Boo hoo! More worryingly though, this is a man who used to speak to president Bush and his advisors every monday. Damn America, you scary!

Overall verdict of the film; it will make your head hurt and make you sad, if you have any sense, but it is a compelling watch. It also helped me to find some gems like this, after they showed a young man named Levi watching it at home:

And by gems I actually mean complete pieces of utter crap. In fact I think that may be an insult to fecal matter. I watched the whole thing and I swear by the end I was dribbling because of the inanity of it. I wouldn’t even know where to start to correct the multitude of errors in this video.

Giving it a go though, at an intuitive level their argument that because you can’t observe something, you cannot formulate any knowledge about it that would be anything other than belief; apart from completely ignoring the possibility of inferential evidence, doesn’t even work with their own philosophy. No one observed God create the earth.

Humans and dinosaurs co-existing?! Anything even remotely resembling animals from the Genus Homo do not appear in the fossil record until around 2,000,000, and modern Homo sapiens appear around 200,000 years ago. Dinosaurs existed 230 million years and are found in the fossil record up to 65 million years ago. The magnitude of the difference between the time of our existence and dinosaurs is immense, almost incomprehensible. Of course all of this is just belief. It is definitely not informed by stratigraphic evidence and radiometric dating. Definitely not.

Also the idea that because we don’t know what killed the dinosaurs; then we don’t know when they died is absurd. Imagine a pathologist who is unable to determine the cause of death of an individual. Does this mean that they can’t determine time of death despite evidences, such as onset of rigour mortis and body temperature, that are inconsequential of how the death was affected? The disappearance of dinosaurs from the fossil record occurs regardless of the method of their disappearance.

I love their explanation for why dinosaurs aren’t included in the bible though! The first english version of the bible was translated in 1611 (neglecting the fact that the Tyndale bible came earlier), however, the word dinosaur wasn’t invented until 1841. See, that’s why it’s not in the bible. Flawless logic! It has nothing to with the fact that the word dinosaur wasn’t invented until then because knowledge of dinosaurs didn’t exist until this point. And that isn’t why the authors of the bible, with their limited knowledge back then, didn’t include them in the holy book. Don’t be silly.

Anyway enough of this nonsense, I am off to drip feed bleach into the hippocampus and amygdala sections of my brain to make sure none of this stuff sticks.

Why Vaccination Rates Matter.

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As part of an exercise to keep me writing regularly I am going to pick out lectures (or parts of) that I have had recently and found interesting, and am going to explain them on here. Also for anyone interested you can see what around £3000, soon to be £9000, can get you in an English University.

Anyway, this first post comes to you courtesy of an Infectious Disease and Health lecture.

Vaccines can sometimes do more harm than good. There are risks associated with any vaccine, as with any medical intervention. This could involve rare allergic reactions, or even in some cases it could be an inherent property of the vaccine, such as with the oral polio vaccine. This vaccine is a live attenuated virus which has been passaged through both live monkeys and monkey cells to induce genetic changes that affect the viruses ability to cause disease.  Reversion occurs inside most vaccinees, as the sequence of the virus genome reverts back to the original  at a certain position; meaning that the virus can regain virulence. This can lead to vaccine associated paralytic poliomyelitis. This may sound dangerous but the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risk. VAPP occurs in 1-2 in 1,000,000 doses given, whereas paralytic poliomyelitis occurs in around 1 in 100 polio infections.

Vaccinations can also do damage if they aren’t being given at high enough rates. Why? Well, as well as serving to protect the individual, vaccines can protect others even if they are not vaccinated. This is all because of a process known as herd immunity, as reducing the number of people who are susceptible to the disease will protect the remaining susceptibles; as with diseases that are infectious one person’s health status (immune/susceptible/infected) at a particular time point will have an impact on surrounding peoples’ health status. Immunisation reduces the rate of infection in those not immunised. So how can vaccination affect this to a point where it can be a positive thing, when the same intervention done at less coverage can have adverse effects?

Agents of infectious disease have a basic reproduction number (R0) associated with them, a number which states how many secondary cases will arise from one primary case on average (in a population in which everyone is susceptible). The formulation of the basic reproduction number is shown below:

R0 = pc x D

p is the probability that infection will occur when an infected individual meets a susceptible, c is the average rate of contact between susceptible and infected
individuals, and D is the duration of infectiousness. The basic reproduction number gives us some helpful insights into how diseases will progress through populations, when we take into account the proportion of susceptibles to immune.

As well as helping to define disease dynamics the basic reproduction number can also tell us what proportion of the population has to be vaccinated against a certain disease to prevent epidemics. How? Well remember that the basic reproduction number describes the average number of secondary cases from a single primary case in a completely susceptible population, if by vaccination we can create immunity so that vaccinees are no longer susceptible to the disease we will affect c, the average rate of contact between susceptible and infected individuals. Imagine that we have 10 individuals, 1 of whom is infected, 8 of which are immune and 1 who is susceptible. The one who is susceptible is likely to be protected from transmission of the disease to him/her due to the dead-end the disease will meet in the immune individuals, compared to the easy spread that would occur through all 9 being susceptible. This is all contained in the formula of the effective reproduction number (R) which takes into account the proportion of susceptibles in the population and tells us how many secondary cases will arise from a primary case in that population:

R = xR0

In this case x represents the proportion of the population susceptible. The effective reproduction number (R) can help us to define disease dynamics. An R of <1 will obviously result in a disease that eventually dies out, an R of >1 will result in epidemics whereas R of 1 will result in endemic dynamics, where the disease always maintains a low prevalence in the population but is never eradicated. It becomes quite clear if we can reduce the susceptible proportion to a low enough number to cause the effective reproduction number to become <1 we can prevent epidemics and even eliminate/eradicate disease. For example the measles virus has an R0 of 15, so what proportion of the population have to be vaccinated (pv) to prevent epidemics i.e. reduce the effective reproduction number to equal to or less than 1? Well:

pv = >94% = 1 – 1/15

So greater than 94%, as we need the proportion susceptible (x) to equal 1/R0 (in this case <0.06) to reduce the effective reproduction number (R) to less than 1. But don’t take my word for it, check out the data in the UK for measles notifications since the 1950s:

As the measles vaccine is introduced coverage of vaccination begins around 50% and gradually increases until it reaches a plataeu at >90% in the 90s. Notice the epidemic dynamics as coverage increases, the peak occurrences become smaller and the time between each epidemic is widened, due to a falling R number as the proportion of people susceptible decreases with increasing vaccination coverage. As the vaccine coverage reaches the >90% mark the disease dynamics enter into a more endemic state. Worryingly the vaccination coverage falls below this mark from 1998 into a point at which problems could arise once again; most likely associated with an erroneous paper published by a very silly, silly doctor man claiming that MMR caused autism.

Anyway enough of the epidemiology 101. How can an intervention that reduces the number of people susceptible and reduces the effective reproduction number then have a negative effect?

This is the part where we turn our heads to Greece and the curious case(s) of congenital rubella. Rubella infections are caused by the rubella virus, and are normally fairly trivial childhood infections that cause a rash and flu-like symptoms, earning it its common name German measles. In contrast congenital rubella, that which is acquired by the fetus whilst it is still in the womb of the mother in the first trimester of pregnancy, can lead to serious birth defects.

In the 1960s before any rubella immunisation was introduced to Greece the average age of infection was 8.5 years of age (around which it remained up until the late 80s). Immunisation was introduced in 1975 in children aged 1 but was never implemented with sufficient policies to obtain vaccination rates above 50%. This resulted in an increase in the average age of infection, increasing the prevalence of infections in women aged 15 to 19, with an average age of infection at 17, in a 1993 epidemic. This puts infections in a range close to women of childbearing age and subsequently caused an epidemic of congenital rubella in 1993, with 25 cases per 100,000 births (Although this is the data given in the study, they accept that inherent with the shoddy implementation, was also poor surveillance).

The shift in prevelence of rubella infection at specific age groups in two epidemics, 1986 and 1993

This occurred because a low vaccination rate reduced the number of susceptibles down to a point to create a low effective reproduction number; as vaccination reduces the rate at which new susceptibles enter the population through births. However over time the susceptibles builds up again, but much slower than if vaccination had not occurred, and a point occurs upon which an epidemic can break out; but at this point susceptible women who were not immunised are now much older than they would have been if vaccination had not occured.

The 1993 epidemic followed by cases of congenital rubella syndrome.

This worrying pattern has not only been seen with rubella but also with measles. In France in the early 2000s the vaccination coverage was stable but at the sub-optimum of 84%. This again leads to an increased average age of infection for the same reason as rubella, which is problematic as older people are more likely to have complications. Worryingly, the similar drop in UK vaccination coverage for measles could also have the same effect.

What has been shown here is what is known as perverse effects of vaccination. But vaccination is one of the greatest advances in human health if implemented properly, saving countless lives and reducing disease burden. It’s such a shame that some people spread mis-information about vaccines and their risks, either because of partisan interests or genuine ignorance. Or because some people are just simply unaware of the effect they can have on the rest of the population by having a simple medical intervention. In essence they really do ruin it for the rest of us.

                                                                                                                                     

  • Panagiotopoulos T, Antoniadou I, Valassi-Adam E. Increase in congenital rubella occurrence after immunisation in Greece: retrospective survey and systematic review. British Medical Journal (1999) Dec 4;319(7223):1462-7. Review.
  • Bonmarin & Levy-Bruhl. Measles in France: the epidemiological impact of suboptimal immunisation coverage. Eurosurveillance (2002) 7 (4), 55-60

Why Science?

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Why write about science, out of all the possible things that could be written about? Why not politics? Why not kittens? Why not anything?

Well that is exactly it, science can be about anything, it has a wide coverage and effect upon everyone’s lives whether they want to acknowledge it or not. Well that and the fact that a blog about kittens is likely a high niche market on which I don’t have much to say (except that they are the cutest!). And there are already too many cats in the intertubes.

But that isn’t really the reason. Science is beautiful in its own right, if we want to know about the world and the way reality is, it is our best bet. The image in the banner shows a neuroimaging technique known as brainbows in a model organism, the zebrafish. The technique is used to label neuronal cells by expression of certain combinations of fluorescent proteins after using Cre/loxP site specific recombination. However knowledge of the experimental details aren’t really necessary to appreciate the beauty of what you are seeing, you are looking at  images of the cells that make up the zebrafish brain and part of its neuronal circuitary!

Basically, science is interesting

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