Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Monthly Archives: January 2012

A Swedish Vaccine Rejectionist Comes Out to Play…

…but gets badly burned by powerful radiance of science-based medicine and reason.

Note: In a response to an earlier article where I debunked a Swedish anti-vaccine crank by the name of Marina Ahlm, she posted a comment so scientifically flawed that I thought I dissect it in detail. However, my comment became so long that it was worth its own blog entry. I have reproduced my reply below. Enjoy!

I see that Marina Ahlm found her way to my refutation of her blog post. She seems very keen on commenting, as she submitted her comment multiple times. It is interesting to see that she have merely senselessly copy/pasted the comment word-for-word from other texts on the internet, often repeating the same flawed claims that she presented in the original entry at your anti-vaccine blog, rather than making arguments in her own words. she also did not respond to any of the points that I made in this blog entry. Did she even read it before commenting? If she read the comment policy of this blog before she posted (she clearly did not), she would have seen that it prohibits copy/pasting long arguments without any original input. However, I will be humble and allow this behavior. For now. Also, unlike what goes on at the anti-vaccine blog at vaccine.me, I do not randomly delete comments or edit them to undermine critics. She and her allies have been exposed.

Anyhow, I will indulge her delusional beliefs and provide a point-by-point refutation (again!). Hopefully she will learn this time around, but I doubt it. When someone is so ideologically committed as she is, it is extremely hard to make them see their error. She more or less repeat the same logical fallacies as before: confirmation bias (she artificially inflates minor setbacks and limitations with vaccines while ignoring the benefits and efficacy), perfect solution fallacy (she reject vaccines because they are not perfect) and she also tend to quote government reports and scientific articles out of context. Probably, she have not read the original documents, but merely copy/paste what other anti-vaccine cranks have written Read more of this post

The Insanity that is Swedish Anti-Vaccine Crankery

Sweden has largely been spared of the creeping vaccine rejectionist propaganda that has plagued the United States and Great Brittan for decades. However, the anti-vaccine forces are stirring under the surface and have acquired a larger internet presence than ever before, especially after the vaccination program against the pandemic H1N1/09 virus. The growing movement is centered around conspiracy-mongering websites like vaken.se that has bought into almost every conspiracy theory imaginable about 9/11, water fluoridation, vaccines, global warming and genetically modified foods. Another important hub of the Swedish anti-vaccine movement is Annika Dahlqvist, who is a medical doctor promoting diet as protection against infectious diseases. For her pseudoscientific claims, she was awarded denialist of the year (“Årets förvillare”) by a Swedish skeptic society (called “Föreningen för vetenskap och folkbildning”) in 2009. A third central figure is blogger Linda Karlström (an economist), who has recently started a new anti-vaccine group blog under the domain vaccin.me. She has teamed up with others and they spend most of their time shamelessly parroting the anti-vaccine falsehoods put forward people like Mike Adams, Lawrence B. Palevsky and Jackie Swartz, a anthroposophist doctor at a Swedish CAM clinic called Vidarekliniken. Karlström’s group is collecting anecdotal stories from anti-vaccine parents who believe their children have gotten hurt by vaccines. According to their website, they intend to gather 1000 reports before they attempt at class-action lawsuit.

Luckily, they do not have free reign. Responsible science journalists, scientists, public health professionals as well as the skeptic society of Sweden are combating their falsehoods, both online and offline.

Let us take a detailed look at what passes for evidential arguments at Karlström’s blog. The blog post that I am refuting is written in Swedish, but I will translate the claims being made to the best of my ability. Feel free to use online translation services to check the translation. The user Marina Ahlm (a nurse currently trying to become a “medicinal foot therapist” according to the website bio) posted an entry absurdly entitled Herd immunity cannot be achieved through vaccination: even vaccinated people carry viruses and bacteria that can be found here. As we shall see, it is filled by distortions, scientific falsehoods, half-truths and plain old nonsense.

Measles vaccination has been a scientific success!

—> According to the WHO (2011), the measles mortality has been reduced by as much as 78% between 2000 and 2008 mostly due to the benefits of large-scale immunization program. In the vast majority of regions, this figure is at 90% (between 2000 and 2010).

—> After the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1963, the incidence of measles fell dramatically, from almost 500000 cases per year to almost none in comparison. Even though small and sporadic peaks and valleys due to natural fluctuations, the huge reduction is real (CDC, 2011). To be sure, the fact that B follows A does not mean that A causes B, but when you have a strong correlation plus a mechanism that is supported by many different lines of evidence, the reasonable position is to tentatively accept the efficacy of the measles vaccine.

—> Ahlm makes the flawed argument that since, apparently, it is practically difficult to evaluate the efficacy of a second dose of measles vaccine, this means that the measles vaccine has been a failure and that WHO only offers excuses. However, practical problems evaluating the efficacy of a second dose of measles vaccines compared to getting one cannot undermine the enormous mountain for the efficacy of the measles vaccine. As far as we know, a single dose may potentially offer the bulk of the protection.

—> In fact, the WHO does not offer excuses, but points out the real reasons why we have seen some resurgence of measles in certain areas of the world: vaccine efforts are sometimes not sustained partly because of the actions of vaccine rejectionists (like Ahlm): “However, global immunization experts warn of a resurgence in measles deaths if vaccination efforts are not sustained. Experts fear the combined effect of decreased political and financial commitment could result in an estimated 1.7 million measles-related deaths between 2010-13, with more than half a million deaths in 2013 alone” (WHO, 2011a). Read more of this post

Nathan Geffen on AIDS Deaths in South Africa

I have already provided a thorough coverage of the flawed Duesberg paper in irresponsible and obscure journal Italian Journal of Anatomy and Embryology, we can now add a piece written by Nathan Geffen, working with the Treatment Action Campaign in Cape Town, South Africa. He published the article What do we know about AIDS deaths in South Africa? at AIDSTruth.org (perhaps among the best available resources for combating HIV/AIDS denialism online). In it, he showed that two of the main claims made by the recent Duesberg paper is fatally flawed.

The first argument, that the population has increased, can be swiftly dealt with.

The annual number of births in South Africa over the last two decades has been between 1 and 1.2 million. By the best estimate the number of deaths rose between 1997 and 2006 from about 400,000 to about 650,000 annually. This rise in deaths, as I explain below is entirely consistent with our large HIV epidemic, but it is still far below the number of births: hence South Africa’s population has risen.

So the population growth in South Africa is due to high birth rates, not with the scientifically flawed claim that there is no HIV/AIDS epidemic. Geffen also shows that there is plenty of evidence for an HIV/AIDS epidemic, but that the death rates from HIV/AIDS are partially obscured by stigma and partly attributed to the availability of ARVs.

Geffen concludes by asking what we all what to know:

All of the above is of course ignored by Duesberg et al. But it is well known to experts on the South African epidemic. This raises a perplexing question: who were the peer reviewers of the Duesberg et al. article? It is very unlikely that any genuine expert in AIDS statistics would have given their paper the go-ahead.

To be honest, a few seconds spent on Google would have revealed that the “arguments” put forward by Duesberg et. al. were merely rehashing of the same old scientifically flawed claims that have been debunked for decades.

The Breathtaking Inanity of Henry Bauer’s HIV/AIDS Denialist Balderdash

Henry Bauer

I have picked apart the flawed claims made by the HIV/AIDS denialist Henry Bauer a few times before and found them wanting, basically rehashing the same old debunked canards that denialists have repeated to themselves and anyone who wants to listen for decades. However, a recent blog entry by Bauer called Evidence-based medicine: No HIV/AIDS epidemic was so full of mind-numbing falsehoods and error that I just had to write a refutation.

So once more unto the breach…

The scientific evidence supports HIV as the cause of AIDS

—> Not only does Bauer think that there is no evidence that HIV causes AIDS, he also thinks that the evidence is stacked against this model. What is more, despite the fact that HIV has been isolated and probably visualized with electron microscopy, he actively believes that HIV as a virus does not even exist.

—> Nothing can be proven with absolute mathematical certainty in science, but a strong case can be made if multiple, independent lines of evidence all converge on the same general conclusion. This is what we find for the model that HIV causes AIDS.

—> The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases lists a lot of this evidence, including established epidemiological association, isolation, transmission pathogenesis, infection by HIV as a uniquely strong predictor for development of AIDS, the vast majority of AIDS-defining illnesses occur in patients with HIV, death rates are higher among HIV+ individuals than HIV- ones, HIV can be detected in AIDS patients, correlation between high HIV virus, viral antigens and viral genetic material one the one hand and increase risk of developing AIDS, efficacy of ARVs specific for blocking HIV replication improves prognosis for HIV patients, individuals with a lower viral load as a result of medication are less likely to progress to full-blown AIDS, AIDS patients have HIV antibodies, low prevalence of HIV antibodies correlate with extreme rarity of AIDS, HIV is similar to other viruses of the same type that causes immunodeficiency in their natural hosts etc. (NIAID, 2010)

—> None of these findings mathematically prove that HIV must cause AIDS, but the combined weight of the independent evidence strongly favors it. Those that reject the scientific conclusion that HIV causes AIDS must not just rationalize away each piece of evidence, but they must find another model on which the evidence is more likely.

—> The bottom line is that the HIV causes AIDS model predicts the evidence with a much higher probability than the notion that HIV does not cause AIDS.

Drop in lifespan reveals the severe impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic

—> Bauer repeats the old canard that HIV/AIDS is not an epidemic since the population growth in certain African countries are positive.

—> This is a flawed argument, because high birthrates compensates. The severe impact of HIV/AIDS can be seen by looking at changes in average lifespan over time. As discussed in a previous blog entry, Kalichman (2009, pp. 77-78) points out that countries in southern Africa, including South Africa, have seen a massive decrease in life expectancy over the years that correspond to the occurrence of AIDS pandemic. He writes that: “Life expectancy in many countries that were improving during the post-colonial years of the 1960s and 1907s began to erode in the 1980s and 1990s, and life expectancy in many countries is now worse than even during the 1950s, the last full decade of colonialism. The reason why some countries afflicted by AIDS sustain positive population growth is simply due to high birth rates.”

Failure to provide ARVs South Africans caused 340000 deaths

––> Researchers at Harvard School of Public Health concludes in Chigwedere et. al. (2008) that over 330000 individuals with HIV/AIDS died earlier than needed because the previous President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, and his government refused to let his people have access to antiretrovirals. They believed that it was just a western pharmaceutical plot to destroy the future of the country and instead, he suggested garlic and lemon as treatment (Kalichman, 2009). How can Henry Bauer claim that there is no HIV epidemic? Read more of this post

Funding Cut for British Free Schools that Teach Creationism

Guardian recently reported that free schools that teaches creationism or intelligent design as science will lose government funding. This is an important step in combating the encroaching of pseudoscientific alternatives to the science of modern evolutionary biology, especially since this could have been a wide-spread phenomenon in newly started British free schools.

The Department for Education has revised its model funding agreement, allowing the education secretary to withdraw cash from schools that fail to meet strict criteria relating to what they teach. Under the new agreement, funding will be withdrawn for any free school that teaches what it claims are “evidence-based views or theories” that run “contrary to established scientific and/or historical evidence and explanations”.

They can technically teach creationism in religious studies I suppose, but it will no longer be possible to teach it as if it was a scientific viewpoint. This, of course, assumes that the government will actively be checking up on these free schools, so it remains to be see if this will be powerfully applied.

Irresponsible Science Journalism on Swedish ADHD Report

Here we go again.

The Swedish Council on Health Technology Assessment has recently released a report on topics that included the reliability of tests used for ADHD diagnosis in Sweden. The basic gist of the report is that many of the tests have limitations if used exclusively alone, but that the current of practice of using many different rating scales together with critical clinical assessment is acceptable. The report says that (p. 26, my translation):

The diagnosis of children and young adults with ADHD is today carried out with the aid of several different rating scales, which each by themselves alone lacking scientific evidence. The rating scales are filled out by parents, teachers and the young adult it pertains to. We have not evaluated how the weighting between these different informants look. To make the diagnosis today, it requires additionally a clinical evaluation and an evaluation of the level of disability in the child/adult.

In conclusions, the results show that none of the diagnostic tests that have been evaluated can be used by itself to make the ADHD diagnosis. Instead, this report supports the current practice, that the foundation for the diagnosis is the clinical evaluation and that the diagnostic tests for ADHD should be used as a basis for the gathering of information that is then evaluated by the clinician.

Guess how Swedish media carried the story? By falsely claiming that little science supported the ADHD diagnosis. The sad part of this story is that the “Sveriges Radio” is a popular public radio station, and not some marginalized crackpot network. The journalist behind the story was in other words guilty of irresponsibly making sensationalist science journalism, bordering on anti-psychiatry, and confusing the valid scientific discussion with how to make diagnostic tools better with the pseudoscientific nonsense of anti-psychiatry. The comment section of the article is already bogged down by crackpots.

First rule of doing and reading science journalism: always read the original paper or report.

Index to the “Debating Tactics and Pseudoskepticism” series

This post will serve as an index post to the series covering topics regarding the problems with pseudoskepticism and debating tactics.

While this particular series is complete for now, I intend to write a new one on basic and not so basic concepts in scientific skepticism.

The Joys of Being Wrong and the Benefits of Humility

Note: This is the seventh and final installment in the series on debating tactics and pseudoskepticism. For other posts in this series, see the index entry.

Even if one has learned to separate personal identity and position, there may be some lingering discomfort with being shown wrong. It can feel somewhat embarrassing and you may feel like you are losing credibility and reputation among your peers. This delusion of prestige is very dangerous and may make us dig our heels in into an untenable position.

This is called irrational escalation (also known as sunken cost fallacy). It occurs when one tries to justify spending additional time, money and effort into something by noting that the amount of time, money or effort already spent. A popular example is playing poker with a big pot that one has made a substantial contribution to and realizing that the hand one has is not as good as one thought. If your hand is bad enough, it may be beneficial to lay it down despite having put a lot of money into the pot, if playing the hand to the end will cost you more.

Similarly, this may make us ramp up the rhetoric and intimidation to subdue our current debating adversary. However, we should keep in mind the following question:

Would I rather “win” a discussion, or know what is right? Read more of this post

Debunking the new Duesberg HIV/AIDS Denialist “paper” in IJAE

Peter Duesberg is the among the forefathers of the HIV/AIDS denialist movement. They reject the notion that HIV causes AIDS, despite being contradicted by a massive amount of scientific evidence and has held on to this view for three decades.

Duesberg has recently got an article called “AIDS since 1984: No evidence for a new, viral epidemic – not even in Africa” published in the obscure Italian Journal of Anatomy and Embryology. This is after getting rejected from four other journals and having gotten a previous version of the article pulled from the journal Medical Hypotheses, itself a crank journal.

One of the co-authors is Henry Bauer. He is a homophobic professor emeritus in chemistry and science studies at Virgina Tech. He is also, apparently, a world-renowned proponent of the existence of the Loch Ness monster. I kid you not. He was also an editor of the woo-woo journal Journal of Scientific Exploration. All of these three journals mentioned have an impact factor well below 1, making them shoddy and unreliable at best.

The Duesberg et. al. (2011) paper itself is just a rehashing of the same old falsehoods that HIV/AIDS denialists have peddled for many decades Read more of this post

Anti-Vaccine Propaganda at The Sovereign Independent

Have you ever heard of an online paper called “The Sovereign Independent”? According to their about page, they strive to “provide critical news, information and education which the mainstream media often refuse to print regarding the direction Ireland, the UK and the wider world is heading and the increasing loss of sovereignty and independence spreading across the globe”. Right now, high-pitched sirens and alarms should be going off in your head and your baloney kit should be activated. A cursory sifting of their website shows that they focus mainly on spreading conspiracy theories about the New World Order, which includes falling deep into anti-vaccine advocacy.

A reader sent me a link to an article by S. Edmonson at The Sovereign Independent called ALL the Vaccines Are Contaminated – Every Last One of Them. It is a fairly standard piece, claiming that vaccines cause autism, that the government is using forced vaccinations to sterilize the population and so on, but it has been pasted around the internet a couple of thousands of times, so I decided it merited a detailed debunking. Not because there is any merit to their claims, but because pseudoscience and denialism must be steadfastly resisted. It is too much text for a point-by-point refutation, so I will concentrate on writing short and concise responses to the main points, but retaining a useful reference list.

Vaccines do not cause autism

—> Even if the rates of autism correlated with increase in number of vaccinations, this does not mean that vaccines cause autism as correlation does not imply causation.

—> About a dozen scientific studies show that the vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella does not cause autism (Afzal et. al. 2006; Dales et. al. 2001; Davis et. al. 2001; DeStefano et. al. 2004; DeStefano et. al. 1999; D’Souza et. al. 2006; Farrington et. al. 2001 etc. see reference list for more).

—> About a half a dozen scientific studies show that the preservative thimerosal does not cause autism (Andrews et. al. 2004; Fombonne et. al. 2006; Heron et. al 2004; Hviid et. al. 2003; Madsen et. al. 2003 etc. see reference list for more).

—> Detailed reviews published by Institute of Medicine shows that neither the MMR vaccine nor thimerosal cause autism, that hepatitis B vaccine does not cause myelinating neurological disorders, that vaccines do not cause Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and they conclude that “few health problems are caused by or clearly associated with vaccines” (see reference list for all relevant publications).

Vaccines do not overwhelm the immune system.

—> The immune system of a child does not get overwhelmed by many vaccines. This is because the immunological challenges in all vaccines currently administrated are negligible (about 150) compared with the immunological challenges from a single bacteria (about 2000). A newborn baby is exposed to literally billions of bacteria at the moment of birth (Gerber and Offit, 2009; Offit et. al. 2002; Smith & Woods, 2010). Read more of this post

Why Are Boys Getting a Vaccine Against Cervical Cancer!?

“Why are we giving a vaccine against cervical cancer to young boys who don’t even have an uterus?!”

A lot of anti-vaccine activists ask this question, apparently not having done their homework. Then again, denialists have a tendency to not really understand the scientific basis of what they are rejecting, so this level of ignorance is sadly not unusual. Here are the three main reasons why boys are getting vaccinated against HPV.

Reason 1: It protects males from other forms of cancer cause by HPV.

HPV does not only cause cervical cancer, but some strains can cause other forms of cancer, such as neck and head cancer. By vaccinating boys against HPV, they are less likely to get these forms of cancers.

Reason 2: It protects males from getting genital and anal warts.

Some strains of HPV can also cause painful and ugly warts in the genital or anal area. This is not deadly, but costly and has a psychological toll for the patient. Getting vaccinated with an HPV vaccine that contains proteins from the strains that cause these warts, boys will also be protected.

Reason 3: It reduces the spread of HPV to females.

Males can spread HPV to females during intercourse. So if more guys have been vaccinated against HPV, fewer guys will spread HPV to females and fewer females will become infected and risk developing cervical cancer and anal and genital warts.

References and Further Reading

Hall, H. (2011). HPV Vaccine for Boys. Science-Based Medicine. Accessed: 2012-01-04.

Harris, G. (2011). Panel Endorses HPV Vaccine for Boys of 11. The New York Times. Accessed: 2012-01-04.

Offit, P. A. & Moser, C. A., (2011). Vaccines and Your Child: Separating Fact from Fiction. New York. Colombia University Press.

GMOs and the Monarch Butterfly Issue

The vast majority of the opposition against genetically modified foods and biotechnology in general is rife with scientific inaccuracies, fear mongering and outright falsehoods, as Chassy and Tribe so amply demonstrates in their criticisms of many of the standard anti-GMO claims and canards. The main problems is that the anti-GMO denialists makes claims that either contradicts research published in serious scientific journals, is based on journals no serious scientist would even wipe the dirt of their shoes with, based on elementary misunderstandings of the science or just plain made up.

To be sure, there are real issues concerning food safety that needs to be addressed, such as the enormous amount of chemical pesticides being sprayed around the world that is harmful to both humans and the environment, shortage of vitamins and minerals (as well as calories), drought and pathogenic organisms like viruses or fungi. Genetically modified foods must be a partial solution to these issues in the future as we will need to grow more food on less arable land. Sadly, few opponents of genetically modified foods seem to care about it.

While it is true that genetically modified products should be examined on a case-by-case basis, most anti-GMO groups reject all not only genetically modified products, but the technology itself, out of hand. There is, however, one interesting exception to the analysis of anti-GMO arguments outlined above. One of them are actually based on a research article published in one of the most renowned peer-reviewed scientific journals in existence. Read more of this post

Some administrative updates…

The About page has been updated to include a new comment policy. It is mostly just a clarification of the old one.

I wrote a new page called Why Read this Blog? where I attempt to spell out why I think this blog is different and why it stands out against many others.

I also removed the “Suggest a Topic” page, because I’m getting more emails that comments on that page at the moment.

There Can Only Be One

One of the most common and perhaps most annoying rhetorical tactics against science-based medicine is the notion that there are different categories of valid medicine. We have all heard these claims like: western medicine versus eastern medicine or allopathic medicine versus homeopathy or conventional medicine versus alternative and complementary medicine.

The reason that this is faulty is because there is only one kind of legitimate medicine: the ones that work (compared with placebo). If it does not, it is not valid medicine, but dangerous quackery. People spend their hard-earned money on stuff that does not work, it can make innocent people not use life-saving medications and instead invest in worthless products and it makes us less likely to think critically. Read more of this post

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