Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

The Hypocrisy of Pseudoscientific Cranks: Response to Criticism

Screenshot of post about cranks

The other day, a rant exposing the hypocrisy of proponents of pseudoscience was posted on Debunking Denialism. It got a lot of social media attention after being shared on the Facebook page of James Randi, and with it, a lot of objections. Criticism (of varying quality) came from many sources, such as the skeptic subreddit, Facebook, blog comments and emails. Due to the sheer volume and diversity of responses to the previous post, they have been synthesize and organized into general categories for easier treatment.

You are a Monsanto shill / Monsanto collaborator / agricultural Holocaust perpetrator

This is a flawed approach for several reasons. Besides the fact that it is not true (where are my checks!?), it is a psychological defense used to avoid tackling the actual arguments about GM crops and essentially a guilt by (imaginary) association fallacy. Just like 9/11 truthers distract from real problems with American foreign policy issues, anti-GMO conspiracy theorists distract from real and important social, economic and political issues related to GMOs. Maybe food regulation can be improved and made more effective? Perhaps there could be alternatives to patents / huge R&D costs that allows smaller companies to compete more efficiently in the free market? Because anti-GM activists constantly derail the conversation into crankery, these issues are not given sufficient attention.

This article is mediocre / sophomoric / preachy / not convincing to cranks / emotionally charged / sensationalist / makes stupid generalizations / contains a lot of bitterness / cynical / self-congratulatory intellectual masturbation / does nothing to further the cause of scientific inquiry / promotes straw men / name-calling / derogatory / does nothing to promote skepticism

It was written as a humorous rant against the hypocrisy of many pseudoscientific cranks. It was not intended to be a dispassionate analysis of irrational claims or an attempt to convince these quacks that they are wrong. These are also not straw men, as there are real-world examples of all of them.

I do not understand why corporal punishment is doing in that list

Because the science is more or less settled that corporal punishment is ineffective and harmful, yet defenders commonly use denialist tactics to support their views.

Gershoff, E. T. (2013). Spanking and Child Development: We Know Enough Now to Stop Hitting Our Children. Child Development Perspectives, 7(3), 133-137. doi: 10.1111/cdep.12038

The “dead babies” section was inappropriate

Homebirth is quackery, and homebirths attended by unqualified MANA midwives (who do not require any medical training) is considerable more dangerous than hospital births. It is intellectually dishonest to dismiss this fact by misguided appeals to “appropriateness”.

I had a successful homebirth, so that means that it really is not that dangerous / I was spanked and turned out fine

So? A smoker who does not develop lung cancer is not an argument against the fact that smoking causes lung cancer.

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You Know You Are a Pseudoscientific Crank If…

crank

Are you sick of always failing to convince us scientific skeptics that GM crops kill people, that homeopathy cures cancer or that climate change is a socialist myth? Do you feel frustrated by being asked to provide peer-reviewed scientific papers to support your position? If this matches your experience and you still do not know why, see how many of the following statements match your behavior to see if you qualify as a pseudoscientific crank.

You denigrate the knowledge of scientific experts, but compare yourself with Galileo and Einstein.

Just because you are criticized by knowledgeable people who provide scientific evidence to back up their arguments does not mean that you are an oppressed genius. Sometimes, you are just a rebel trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. In the end, the flawed notion that criticism means that you are actually right is a pathetic defense mechanism to avoid responding to objections or backing up your claims with evidence.

You are not Galileo or Einstein. They convinced their peers with evidence. You have no evidence whatsoever.

You claim mainstream medical treatments are unsafe and ineffective, while promoting quack treatments that are dangerous and untested.

There is a lot of hate towards modern medicine by proponents of quack treatments. This may be based on envy from quacks who never got into or failed medical school or because of postmodern belief that everyone is an expert. This is yet another example of confirmation bias and selective thinking.

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Poisonous M&Ms: The Irrational Monstrosity of Bigotry

Poisonous M&Ms?

Myths and legends about monsters have excited the human imagination for hundreds of years. Although vampires, werewolves and ghosts do not exist in reality, there are irrational belief constructs that are equally monstrous. Not just in content, but also in consequence. These are often based on exploiting common human tendencies with an additional layer of motivated reasoning reinforced by pseudoscience. This article will examine one such monster known as the the “poisonous M&Ms analogy”. It is often deployed as a way to prop up indefensible stereotypes by taking advantage of human ignorance about base rates, risk assessment and criminology. In the end, it tries to divert attention from the inherent bigotry in making flawed generalizations.

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Regurgitated HIV/AIDS Denialism and Anti-Science Libertarianism

HIV/AIDS denialism at LewRockwell.com

There are few places more cognitively dangerous to a rational mind than the intersection of political ideology and pseudoscience. Libertarians are increasingly being associated with various anti-scientific beliefs, such as vaccine rejectionism and climate change denialism. This is harmful to traditional libertarian causes, such as curbing excessive bureaucracy and government intrusion into civil liberties because it allows critics to dismiss libertarians as denialist cranks without a second thought.

It is therefore disturbing that the libertarian website LewRockwell.com recently published a screed promoting HIV/AIDS denialism written by medical doctor Donald W. Miller Jr. Despite being an actual medical doctor, he repeats many of the same fallacies that HIV/AIDS denialists commonly deploy. In reality, antiretrovirals decrease progression to AIDS and death rates, HIV can be transmitted sexually and HIV testing is highly accurate.

The specter of “the government”

A common approach used by anti-science libertarians is to portray the mainstream scientific and medical consensus as “the government” or “the official story”. This is a common technique to marginalize their opponents by associating them with something they intensely dislike. However, mainstream scientific communities are not slaves to the government or to politicians. They can design and carry out scientific research and interpret their results on their own.

Initiating antiretroviral therapy regardless of CD4 count

Miller makes a big deal out of the fact that the newest guidelines for treatment of individuals with HIV/AIDS recommend that antiretroviral therapy is given to individuals who are HIV+ regardless of CD4+ count. Had he read the report he is referencing in detail, he would have understood that there is a clear medical reason for why this is done (HHS Panel on Antiretroviral Guidelines for Adults and Adolescents, 2014):

The recommendation to initiate ART in individuals with high CD4 cell counts—whose short-term risk for death and development of AIDS-defining illness is low is based on growing evidence that untreated HIV infection or uncontrolled viremia is associated with development of non-AIDS-defining diseases, including cardiovascular disease (CVD), kidney disease, liver disease, neurologic complications, and malignancies. Furthermore, newer ART regimens are more effective, more convenient, and better tolerated than regimens used in the past.

In other words, untreated HIV infection (even with a high CD4+ count) increases the risk for a number of diseases. To disable the emotional threat of “forced government medicine” or similar, it can be noted that the guidelines specifically states that the wishes of the individual should be taken into consideration, together with a large number of other factors:

Regardless of CD4 count, the decision to initiate ART should always include consideration of a patient’s comorbid conditions, his or her willingness and readiness to initiate therapy, and available resources.

It is both sad and entertaining to see that denialists rarely read the papers and reports that they themselves reference.

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Turning Tides: Fraudulent Psychics Brought to Justice

Sylvia Browne

Psychics are people who pretend to have various supernatural powers such as extrasensory perception (ESP), the ability to move objects with their mind or being able to talk to the dead. They typically deceive grieving and unsuspecting victims by telling them what they want to hear in exchange for large sums of money. Some alleged psychics have built massive careers (including popular television programs) and fortunes by exploiting vulnerable people. Although most scientific skeptics can see through the dishonest smokescreens deployed by these individuals, it is enormously frustrating that the belief in psychics is so widespread. According to a Gallup poll from 2005, 41% of Americans believe in ESP, 26% believe in clairvoyance and 21% believe that people can communicate with the dead.

Yet, the light of reason is starting to break through the clouds of unreason. Several alleged psychics have been convicted, jailed and forced to pay back money to their victims in recent years. Here are a few examples:

Cynthia Miller: claimed to be able to communicate with spirits and remove curses from her clients. She even conned a man with psychotic symptoms into giving her gold coins worth almost half a million dollars to treat his problems. She also exploited a woman for another half a million dollars who went through multiple brain surgeries against cancer. That woman is now losing her home due to not being able to pay her loans. Miller was sentence to three years and five months and prison and forced to pay 1.2 million dollars to her victims (source, webcite).

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Mailbag: Eviscerating More Pseudoscientific Nonsense

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

It always amazes me that so many denialists continue to spew out the same old garbage over and over, despite the fact that it has been refuted thousands of times over. At the same time, they so arrogantly dismiss any criticism of their flawed understanding of science as unscientific. It has never been easier to selectively focus on information that only confirms your existing opinion. The Internet has created confirmation bias on steroids. This time, we are going to take on (1) a climate change denialist who deploys the global warming hiatus myth, (2) an anti-psychiatry proponent who tries (and fails) to refute the existence of schizophrenia with pure logic and (3) an anti-immigration proponent who promotes the “white genocide” conspiracy theory.

The global warming hiatus myth is based on cherry-picking intervals

Kevin King writes the following:

This article is cretinous in the extreme. The models tell us the global surface temperature will increase, as well as the ocean temperatures. For almost 20 years there has been no global warming, either on land or in the oceans that we can measure. Even a first year arts student could comprehend this. No you are the denialists and you all belong together in a mocked up moon landing studio somewhere out in the nevada desert with a bunch of creationists. Start using your brains and read some Richard Feynman. Because clearly you haven’t got a scientific bone in your body.

To illustrate how climate change denialists cherry-pick intervals to argue for the flawed notion of a global warming hiatus, consider the following graph:

escalator of doubt

Most denialists fixate at the starting point 1998. This is done because there was an especially powerful El Niño during that year, making the global temperatures quite high during that year in comparison with others. If you draw a trend line from 1998 to today, you can deceptively make it appear as if there has been no warming.

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Schizophrenia is not Demonic Possession

Demons?

The Journal of Religion and Health is an allegedly peer-reviewed journal that claims to “explores the most contemporary modes of religious and spiritual thought with particular emphasis on their relevance to current medical and psychological research.” In addition to clinical and statistical papers, they also make room for papers that are “impressionistic” or “anecdotal”. With an impact factor of around 0.8, it barely gets more citations than the average crank journal.

A recent paper published in this publication cements this views. Without any scientific evidence whatsoever, Irmak (2014) makes the assertion that hallucinations associated to schizophrenia are really the result of demonic agency. Demons, according to Irmak, creates real sensory images which the individual misinterprets as an hallucinations. This paper is so blatantly absurd and anti-scientific that it is hard to take seriously. Does this person really believe the stuff he is writing? Why did the journal publish such an obvious piece of nonsense? How on earth did it get past peer-review? There are many questions that demand answers. This post will go through the claims in the paper and then discuss the responsibility of editors and publishing companies.

Characteristics of alleged “demons”

After an introductory section on schizophrenia, Irmak suggests that demonic causation is one way to approach the etiology of hallucinations:

We thought that many so-called hallucinations in schizophrenia are really illusions related to a real environmental stimulus. Illusions are transformations of perceptions, with a mixing of the reproduced perceptions of the subject’s fantasy with the real perceptions. One approach to this hallucination problem is to consider the possibility of a demonic world.

“We thought”? Really? The idea of demonic possession as an explanation for hallucinations in schizophrenia is taken out of thin air. No argument, no evidence and no justification. Instead, Irmak treats us to a folkloric description of demons. They are “intelligent and unseen creatures that occupy a parallel world to that of mankind”. Parallel world? What exactly does he mean by “parallel world”? We get no explanation. Demons apparently have a considerably longer lifespan than ordinary humans. They can fly, make themselves invisible and “take over” people. Neither evidence nor explanation for how this is done is provided. Read more of this post

Mailbag: Countering Miscellaneous Pseudoscientific Nonsense

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

This round-up installment of the mailbag series will take on a three separate crank comments that were recently submitted to this website. I declined to publish anyone of them because they did not address any of the arguments or evidence that were presented in the articles, they repeated the same old pseudoscientific canards that been refuted thousands of times before and some of them promoted genocide denial.

First up is an anti-vaccine activist going by the name of Bomac. A little later, we will examine the falsehoods promoted by Holocaust denier Jeffrey Stafford and the belief that transgender people are delusional promoted by Obarryon King.

Vaccines are, in general, very safe and effective

Bomac starts off by claiming that:

Many of the claims of vaccine’s success are not true, but for the sake of discussion, presuming they are all true; that was then and this in now. Vaccines have changed today. Manufacturers include all kinds of toxins that are extremely harmful.

This is a common anti-vaccine tactic know as the toxin gambit. Either anti-vaccine cranks refuse to specify what these alleged toxins are, or they list essential vaccine ingredients that are not toxin at the concentrations used in vaccines. Polysorbate 80 is a nonionic emulsifier and is present in higher amounts in common ice cream. Formaldehyde is used to inactivate viruses to prevent them from causing disease and there is more of it occurring naturally in your body. Aluminum salts are adjuvants that increased the effectiveness of vaccines and have been safely used for 70 years. These are not the same as elemental aluminum and aluminum salts in the concentrations used in vaccines do not cause brain damage. Thimerosal, which is not the same as environmental mercury, has been removed from vaccines over a decade ago and only occurs in some multidose vials of seasonal influenza vaccine to protect against contamination. These are just a few examples of anti-vaccine misinformation about vaccine ingredients. Reliable information about vaccine ingredients can be found at the CDC and the FDA.

Just ask 47,000 paralyzed Indian girls that Bill Gates gifted.

The cases of paralysis occurring in India was caused not caused by the polio vaccine or even polio. According to The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, there was no reported cases of polio during the time these individuals became paralyzed. In reality, these cases were caused by non-polio enteroviruses, primarily Coxsackie-B and various echoviruses. This shows that anti-vaccine cranks seem to have little issue with exploiting human tragedy in their efforts to vilify vaccines.

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Choking the Black Swan: GM Crops and Flawed Safety Concerns

Failure of precuationary principle

Despite the fact that the technology behind genetically modified crops has been around as long as Commodore 64 and been shown to be safe in hundreds of studies, anti-GM activists continue to spread misinformation.

Recently, a paper on the precautionary principle in relation to genetically modified foods has been making rounds in the anti-GM social media circles. One of the authors is statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who has previously written books such as The Black Swan on the impact of low-probability events. The other two authors are physicist Yaneer Bar-Yam, and politician-philosopher Rupert Read. They attempt to develop an improved version of the precautionary principle in an effort to undermine the usage of GM crops.

What can a thinly veiled anti-GM paper written by a physicist, a politician and a statistician teach us about the risks of genetically modified foods? Unfortunately, it is just more of the same illusionary sophistry common among anti-GM activists.

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Metro Promotes Anti-Vaccine Homeopath During Measles Outbreak

Anti-vaccine crankery at Metro Calgary

Before vaccines, measles use to infect an estimated 3-4 million people a year in the United States (CDC, 2012). Measles led to brain inflammation for 1 in 1000 and death in 1 in 500 (CDC, 2012). Medical scientists have developed a safe and effective vaccine for measles that is now part of the standard vaccine schedule in most western countries. However, due to parents failing to vaccinate their children combined with the fact that no vaccine is 100% effective, herd immunity is compromised. This can lead to measles outbreak and the needless suffering of children.

Because of numerous measles cases in Calgary, Central and Edmonton, the Alberta Health Services (AHS) has officially declared that they are in the midst of several measles outbreaks in these zones (AHS, 2014). As a response, the AHS is now encouraging parents to make sure their children are up-to-date with their measles vaccines. In Calgary, more than 100 parents had lined up Northgate Measles Immunization Clinic before it opened. However, anti-vaccine cranks were not slow to exploit this situation.

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When Vaccine Promotion Fails

ResearchBlogging.org

Vaccine hesitation

Despite the fact that the fraudulent (and now retracted) Wakefield paper from 1998 has been soundly refuted by modern medicine, vaccines are still socially controversial among some parents and communities. This has led to an increase in the number of vaccine-exemptions, delays in vaccinations, the erosion of herd immunity, and outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. How can scientists, medical doctors and scientific skeptics effectively respond to parents hesitant about vaccines?

How do you convince parents who are hesitant to vaccine their children? Do you debunk common myths about vaccines causing autism with facts? Do you explain that vaccine-preventable diseases are dangerous? Do you show them graphic imagery of children suffering from vaccine-preventable diseases? Do you present a gripping narrative about a child who almost died from a vaccine-preventable disease like measles? As an added complications, some effort to correct irrational beliefs are counterproductive. Due to various backfire effects, correction can actually increase confidence in mistaken beliefs. Therefore, it is enormously important to research effective strategies for vaccine promotion.

A recent paper by Nyhan, Riefler, Richey and Freed (2014) examined this issue by randomly assigning a nationally representative sample of parents to one of the four interventions above or to a no-information control group for comparison. First, parents were asked to complete a pre-intervention baseline survey on child health, vaccine attitude, trust in medical authorities and child vaccine coverage. After they had been exposed to their respective interventions, they were asked questions to gauge their level of vaccine misinformation about side-effects of the MMR vaccine as well as their level of intention to vaccinate their children.

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Risk Factors: Misunderstandings and Abuses

Risk factors

Although risk factors occupy a central place in medical and epidemiological research, it is also one of the most misunderstood concepts in all of medicine.

The World Health Organization (2009) defines a risk factor as: “A risk factor is any attribute, characteristic or exposure of an individual that increases the likelihood of developing a disease or injury. Some examples of the more important risk factors are underweight, unsafe sex, high blood pressure, tobacco and alcohol consumption, and unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene.” The CDC (2007) offers a similar definition: “an aspect of personal behavior or lifestyle, an environmental exposure, or a hereditary characteristic that is associated with an increase in the occurrence of a particular disease, injury, or other health condition.” However, the CDC also uses the term risk factor when it comes to sexual violence. For instance, they consider alcohol and drug use, antisocial tendencies, hostility towards women, and community-level tolerance to sexual violence.

Based on these sources, we can develop a simplified definition of a risk factor: if A is a risk factor for B, then the presence of A increases (but not necessarily in a causal sense) the probability of B occurring.

A is a risk factor for B does not necessarily mean that A causes B. It might be the case that A causes B only indirectly via some third factor, that B causes A, or that some third factor causes both A and B. In other words, correlation does not on its own imply causation. However, it is possible to disentangle these possibilities by measuring B at the start of the study. If physical punishment of children is a risk factor for aggressiveness, we can find out what comes first by measuring baseline child aggressiveness.

A is a risk factor for B does not mean that A will cause B in every instance of A. Smoking causes lung cancer, but some smokers can smoke all their lives without developing lung cancer. This does not mean that smoking is not a cause of lung cancer. It just means that there are other factors that also play a role. It is common for pseudoscientific cranks to bring up exceptions of this kind to argue against a correlational or causal association in an effort to spread uncertainty and doubt. Read more of this post

Skepchick Olivia James and Obesity Apologetics

Obesity apologetics

Individuals with obesity suffer serious medical, social and legal discrimination compared with their thin counterparts and this should be opposed. However, some misguided obesity apologists tend to deny the mainstream medical consensus that obesity is a disease and appeal to pseudoscientific misinterpretations of scientific research to prop-up their claims. In reality, preventative research on obesity is highly relevant and the disease-status of obesity is important for giving sufficient medical and insurance attention to a considerable and growing public health issue.

Olivia James is a prolific secular, skeptical and feminist blogger and have written thoughtful posts on websites such as Center for Inquiry, Teen Skepchick, and the Skepchick main blog. James recently wrote a post about biases in science, talking about issues such as confirmation bias and discrimination of minorities in science. A topic that also came up was the medical status of obesity and research into preventative treatments for obesity. This could have been an intellectually credible discussion, but James unfortunately descended into outright science denialism by claiming that obesity is not a disease and that researchers should focus on preventing obesity-related diseases rather than obesity itself. In reality, the mainstream medical position is that obesity is a disease and prevention is key to countering this growing health issue.

The dire consequences of weight discrimination are real

People with obesity suffer considerable stigma and discrimination around the world in a wide range of situations. The first part of the introduction section to Sutin and Terracciano (2013) is highly informative:

There is a pervasive stereotype about obesity in American society: People who are obese are often perceived as lazy, unsuccessful, and weak-willed. These beliefs about individuals with obesity are often translated into negative attitudes, discrimination, and verbal and physical assaults. Such bias can have severe psychological consequences, including increased vulnerability to depression, and lower self-esteem, self-acceptance, and life satisfaction. A broad range of research now demonstrates that the effects of weight bias are not limited to psychological functioning but extend to nearly every aspect of an individual’s life, from employment, and salary disparities, to personal relationships to healthcare delivery. In addition, as with other forms of discrimination, weight discrimination may have consequences for physical health.

Victims of weight discrimination do not only have worse mental health outcomes and suffer social consequences. In a cruel feedback process, people who are subjected to weight-based discrimination are also more likely to become or stay obese. This is in partly because coping processes involve binge eating and the avoidance of physical activity. As if this was not enough, jurors are more likely to consider obese individuals guilty of check fraud and have a high likelihood of becoming a repeat offender compared with their thin counterparts (Schvey, Puhl, Levandoski, and Brownell, 2013).

In other words, weight discrimination is extremely real. It should under no circumstances be trivialized by frivolous and ignorant stereotypes. It should be fought with all reasonable methods.

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Jenny McCarthy: Still an Anti-Vaccine Activist

Jenny McCarthy is anti-vaccine

Anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy has taken her own twisted self-delusions to an entirely new level. She has spent years on promoting demonstrably dangerous myths about how vaccines supposedly contain dangerous toxins that cause autism. She has repeatedly appeared on popular TV-shows to spread misinformation about the current vaccine schedule. She has deployed nearly every single gambit in the anti-vaccine play-book. In a move of enormous audacity, McCarthy wrote a piece for the Chicago Sun-Times trying to whitewash her deeply tainted anti-vaccine history. She now claims that she is not anti-vaccine at all and that the media has wrongly trusted “blatantly inaccurate” blog posts. In reality, her words betray her even in the midsts of writing her defense as she continues to parrot classic anti-vaccine distortions.

I am not “anti-vaccine.” This is not a change in my stance nor is it a new position that I have recently adopted. For years, I have repeatedly stated that I am, in fact, “pro-vaccine” and for years I have been wrongly branded as “anti-vaccine.”

If McCarthy is pro-vaccine, then why has she promoted dangerously false anti-vaccine tropes, including the notion that the MMR vaccine cause autism, that the preservative thimerosal cause autism and that multiple vaccines overwhelm the immune system cause autoimmune disease? It is right there, in the transcript of the interview she gave for the PBS documentary The Vaccine War. If she talks like an anti-vaccine activists and distort like an anti-vaccine activists, then she is an anti-vaccine activist. No matter what after-the-fact rationalizations she puts forward.

Let us see how McCarthy betrays herself in the very article she claims to not be anti-vaccine. Read more of this post

Is Donald Trump Scientifically Illiterate?

Donald Trump does not understand climate change

One of the most basic distinctions in climate science is the difference between weather and climate. Weather is the instantaneous atmospheric conditions, such as rainy, snowy, sunny and so on. Climate, on the other hand, is about long-term trends. Confusing weather with climate, claiming that we cannot predict climate because we cannot predict weather, or trying to argue against the existence of human-influenced climate change by referencing current weather events is one of the most common tactic used by climate change denier.

Trump fails on climate knowledge

Contrary to Trump, the existence of local anomalies does not refute a general trend. More about the difference of weather and climate can be found on the NASA website.

Donald Trump does not understand vaccines or the immune system

Trump claims to not be anti-vaccine, yet he pulls out a classic anti-vaccine trope:

Too many, too soon? Nope!

While the number of vaccines have increased over time, the number of immunological challenges (“antigens”) have decreased. This is because modern DNA technology has enabled researchers to include only those components that are necessary to produce a good response. In other words, vaccines poses a smaller challenge to the immune system now than it did in the past. For more information, see the Offit et al. (2002) paper in Pediatrics.

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