Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mercury Models

Not too many weeks ago I declared that I would not weigh in on current event issues unless I felt like it. This declaration was not an indication of my lack of interest in more temporally topical goings-on, but simply an acknowledgement that keeping a blog up-to-date on issues is a pain. I would not be re-examining my declaration at all if I was not changing my mind on addressing a specific issue. That issue is vaccination against infectious diseases.

I should be clear upfront on this: “Most childhood vaccines are so very good that I believe parents who prevent their children from getting them are being negligent.”

Perhaps the above statement is not clear enough for some people. How about this one: “Parents who prevent their children from receiving most childhood vaccines are negligent parents and negligent members of the community as a whole.”

The problem with not vaccinating kids is not simply one of personal risk and responsibility. An unvaccinated kid increases risk to vaccinated children. Vaccines are not 100% effective. In every vaccinated group a significant percentage remain either partially or wholly unprotected. For some vaccines the number of unprotected vaccinated individuals is uncomfortably high. Increasing the number of potential carriers in a population puts vaccinated kids at enhanced risk.

Herd immunity is compromised if the ratio of unvaccinated to vaccinated rises above a certain level.  Vaccination is a communal responsibility, not a personal one.   What could possibly lead people to not vaccinate their kids?

A recent poll shows that as much as 25% of Americans think that vaccines cause autism; as many as 10% of these may refuse to vaccinate their kids. Since this delusional mindset is not evenly spread throughout the US there are pockets where vaccine saturation is not high enough to cause a herd immunity.

Kids in these insufficiently vaccinated communities experience an enhanced level of risk. Kids even visiting these communities are at more risk. Kids in adequately vaccinated communities who are visited by members of the poorly vaccinated communities are put at greater risk. The risk is invisible and potentially deadly.

The issue has been raised by some recent statements I have made where I expressed a lack of support for some vaccinations. Specifically I said that I did not like the VZ (Varicella zoster or chicken pox) vaccine. The statements were not a misquotation and I would say that they were also not taken out of context except that a contextual superstructure has arisen about all vaccine-related statements which inhibit examining vaccinations rationally.

Let me restate my VZ statements: “The VZ vaccine is only partially effective against the minor form of the disease. I have not seen conclusive evidence that it is effective against the acute adult disease. Its widespread use may increase the relative number of non-symptomatic carriers and render non-vaccinated and susceptible populations at risk to an almost undetectable threat. In short it does insufficient good and has potential risks that remain largely unaddressed.”

There should be no mistake that the above statement concerns the effectiveness of a particular vaccine against a particular public health issue. Why then do I find myself answering questions about mercury? I never mentioned mercury. I do not think thimerosal is even used in the VZ vaccine. Even if it was I do not think it would be a significant issue. Mercury in vaccines amounts to around 1 to 2 micrograms per dose. That should not be enough to cause any problems according to all exposure data I have seen, and I have now seen quite a bit.

Mercury is the evil magic loadstone around which a collective fear of vaccines has collected. Mercury can be measured in very small amounts. Mercury is very toxic, even in small amounts. Mercury is a measure of pollution in the environment. Mercury, in general, is bad.

Mercury, in the form of the toxic compound thimerosal, is used in pharmaceuticals because it is toxic. The classic case for using thimerosal arises anecdotally from an outbreak of infections spread from a multi-use vaccination bottle. Several kids got very (life threateningly) ill from an infection caused by a common skin bacterium that contaminated a bottle of a vaccine. Once the bacterium got into the bottle of vaccine it found an environment similar to laboratory culture medium for bacteria. It grew wildly, and the result was a bunch of deathly ill children.

Enter thimerosal. Thimerosal kills bacteria very effectively in very small concentrations. It is stable, so the killing effect lasts. It dilutes to utterly inconsequential levels on injection into the body. Without thimerosal the risks associated with large-scale use of vaccines, especially in places like underdeveloped countries, are significantly increased. This is one of those cases where there is a significant problem and an effective simple solution. We could all use more situations like this in our world.

There are, of course, real issues with using a toxic substance in a pharmaceutical. How much can be used? Is there accumulation? How long does it last in the body? Are there long term effects?

With thimerosal use in vaccines there are some complicating issues with answering some of the questions. Most of these arise from the fact that the dilution rate of thimerosal on injection in the amounts used in vaccines results in a concentration below detectable levels. When something disappears it is kinda like magic.  Magical items can supposedly do magical things.  Without shamans in modern society who can help us answer questions about magic?

Who better to talk about these complex issues than an aging supermodel? Jenny McCarthy is the most identifiable spokesperson for the vaccine-autism link. At one point in time naked pictures of her were downloaded more frequently than Pamela Anderson’s naked pictures. I don’t even know if they can amass statistics like that anymore. She is, apparently, Jim (Ace Ventura pet detective) Carrey’s girlfriend and there may or may not be a sex tape. She has a kid with autism and is the spokesperson for an autism support group which has become a great champion of the mythical vaccine-autism connection.

Much of the information about vaccine safety and deployment requires measured and reasoned investigation. This is not information “developed on the fly” so there is no need for a spokesperson who can “think on their feet”. The perfect spokesperson would be someone who can deliver the same message to multiple audiences, and do so in an attractive and intelligible way. The best spokesperson would also have a backstory that validated their investment in the cause. Jenny McCarthy may actually be an exceedingly good choice for spokesperson. She certainly is a better choice than me. Despite that fact that I would love to go head to head with her in science trivial pursuit; or twister.

I should digress slightly to better explain why I do not think thimerosal is a significant identifiable contributor to risk. I mentioned earlier that each dose of a thimerosal-containing vaccine has 1-2 micrograms of mercury in it. This is not much at all. By contrast, a low mercury compact fluorescent bulb (CFL) has around 5 milligrams of mercury. This is still not much at all, but it is thousands of times more than in a vaccine dose. Some mathematical models predict that breaking a single CFL in a room can generate an atmosphere with around 25 micrograms of mercury per cubic meter of air. Breathing the air in the contaminated room would result in a very small exposure indeed, but it is about as high an exposure as one might get with a lifetime’s worth of immunizations.

The more biochemically savvy of readers should be thinking about the difference between elemental and methyl mercury. Most important environmental exposures are with methyl mercury. An average 8-ounce serving of fish contains around 25 micrograms of mercury. There are so many sources of methylmercury exposure in our modern environment that it is impossible to identify them all. Most beat vaccine exposure levels by at least an order of magnitude.

This means that if we were to remove all vaccine mercury the exposure rate would only be decreased by a very small fraction of a percent. Mercury is very toxic so reducing exposure levels, even by a small amount, is a good thing. If mercury causes autism then refusing vaccines will not reduce the rate of autism by any measurable amount. There are considerable and rational reasons to question if mercury can cause autism, but I am not addressing them in this already-too-long post. The point here is that: even if mercury is causal to autism the vaccines have no measurable effect on the probability of developing autism.

My original question was: “Why am I being confronted with mercury questions?”

The mercury questions have been answered repeatedly. Unfortunately they have too good a spokesperson to be simply answered and forgotten. The mercury questions get louder and more disruptive the more times they are answered. They bleed over into all discussions of vaccines. When I raise concerns over the public health efficacy and risk associated with a single vaccine it is filed as either a “for” or an “against” argument for the confrontation that is rooted in the mercury question. Important questions are drowned out and the answers to the base questions are ignored.

The mercury issues have such cultural momentum that should Ms. McCarthy change her tune the myth would persist long enough to put many more children’s lives at risk.

One of the fastest growing causes of death, in cases of treatable cancer, is refusal of treatment. Somehow patients get convinced that something will work better, or that they will be magically cured. There is little reason can do to convince the individual of the incorrectness of choosing a magical cure. Many people will become more firmly convinced of the rightness of their belief when confronted by evidence that it is wrong. The more evidence they are confronted with the more firmly they believe.

When believers raise their voices they can create converts. Converts are not those who have become convinced by evidence, or those who have weighed reasoned positions and arrived at their own; these are people who came to believe. There are few easy ways to change a belief. The best one can reasonably hope for is a modification of the behavior motivated by the belief. As a mostly secular society we are best at approaching the impact of irrational beliefs by modulating the behavior they motivate, rather than addressing the belief itself. This is one significant reason why so many people, who believe that autism is caused by vaccines, get their children vaccinated anyway.

Can we go deeper and address beliefs in order to create a more stable and reasoned public heath condition?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Day The Earth Stood Still

Eighty years ago today nothing happened.

At 630PM GMT April 18th 1930 the announcement that "there is no news today" followed by 10 minutes of light piano music replaced the regularly scheduled BBC newscast.

The beauty of this paradox is delicate and worthy of slow and thoughtful consumption.  Not only did they make news by stating that there wasn't any, but they hinted at deeper insights into the nature of being and nothingness.  For how can we even conceive of nothingness when the fact that it can be thought proves that it is conceptual, and in being conceived it is.  Since something that is cannot fail to exist; it is certainly not nothingness even if it is.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Short course in belief psychology

Here is a set of worthwhile videos.
Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
—Richard Feynman

Monday, April 5, 2010

Humble Pie

There is one thing that many of my religious friends generally accuse atheists of; that thing is an intrinsic lack of humility. “How can you be humble if you claim to know god does not exist?” they ask. To me the question “How can you claim humility when you suggest that you have received special knowledge about life the universe and everything?” is a more valid question. Unfortunately a world where one cannot, by definition, be humble if you either do or do not believe in a theist god lacks an essential quantity of humility.

Both the claim “I am right” and the claim “you are wrong” require a minimum level of arrogance. When talking about theist matters the level of proof needed to motivate either statement is lower than that required for more mundane statements. I have been told that proof is not reasonably possible for theist statements; belief is used in place of proof. I have even been told, more than a handful of times, that one has to be truly humble to accept belief as proof. Those that disagree with someone’s beliefs accurately describe that process as being arrogant. Again there is an impasse in the mutual acknowledgment of even the possibility of humility.

Many atheists believe, and rightly so, that they sidestep the humility impasse by examining the nature of proof and belief. The idea is that proof can be quantified and a convincing amount of proof can be amassed. Instead of saying “I know that your god does not exist”, like theists of different flavors say to one another, the atheist says: “The god you describe almost certainly does not exist”. This sounds like a more humble statement since it does not insist on special knowledge for accuracy. Unfortunately humility is usually used as synonymous with belief in the “correct” god not a measured approach to belief.

In the Abrahamic religions humility is very important since you get prizes for being extra humble:
2 Chronicles 7:14 (New International Version)
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
Matthew 23:12 (King James Version)
And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

Defining humility as: “Belief in the correct god” is another example of oversubscribing a definition. Oversubscribing definitions was examined by this blog before when it looked at the statement: “god is love”. This oversubscribing of humilities’ definition is not a direct replacement. Humility has a meaning in addition to the “correct god belief” definition. The theist amalgam of two definitions is a Frankenstein’s monster of a deffinition. There is no reason to accept the “correct god belief” portion of humility’s definition in order to understand and practice humility in one’s life. The two elements can, and should, be separated.

So what is the core definition of humility and why would one want to practice humility anyway?

“To be humble to superiors is duty, to equals courtesy, to inferiors nobleness.”
Benjamin Franklin

Humility is a consciousness of one’s failings, a modest attitude, and the showing of deferential respect where it is deserved. This facet of humanity is needed for people to fit together in working groups. The requirement for humility is so acute that one would think a humility deficient person would be easy to spot by simply looking at their life. Do they make the same mistakes over and over? Are they always right regardless of evidence to the contrary? Do they believe things more strongly the more proof they are supplied with? Do they resent help? Are they flamboyant and derogatory? Each of these is a simple test for the lack of humility in a person.

Some of these tests appear tailor-made for atheists. The ability to change one’s point of view in response to proof is one of the most important tests to an atheist. For Adult Onset Atheists this pathway of unfettered thought is what made them atheists. There will be a time when Adult Onset Atheists are rare or non-existent. This will never happen while religions are a significant feature in the world because the path to type II atheism is impossible to completely destroy. Adult atheists who are the children of atheist parents often do not make an adult choice to be an atheist. When most of the parents in the world are atheists the future generations will not need to wait till adulthood to experience the freedom that comes with the onset of atheism. These atheists will look at humility differently than our generations.

Most atheists have a belief threshold. There are several, even minor, biblical miracles that would cause most atheists to believe. Even an easy one, like turning Lot's wife into salt, would do for me. I would be skeptical that the miracle had really occurred, but given incontrovertible proof (not just an inability to figure out the illusion), I would believe. Since the bible that I am supposed to believe is truth states this type of miracle is possible, I do not think this is an unreasonable demonstration. That I might be hesitant to accept that the miracle was genuine has to do with the rich history of faked miracles that has dogged Christianity. From photo-shopped fossil proof that dinosaurs co-existed with humans, to faked cross splinters sold en-masse to provide curative benefits, I doubt that any potentially counterfeit miracle has not been attempted.

I could potentially be duped if a sufficiently convincing illusion were to be created. I am not the most gullible of people so I postulate that there are more high-profile and less anonymous atheists that could also be duped by such an illusion. This would provide a great set of quotes for Christians to “prove” their god. If they were able to convince someone as high profile as Christopher Hitchins that a sufficient miracle had occurred I'm sure he would provide a cornucopia of belief supporting quotes. For many Christians the end (converting Hitchins) would be worth the means (creating faked miracles). Should Hitchins discover the ploy and renounce his conversion there would be many who would refuse to believe it. To many a discredited miracle is easier to believe in than nothing.

Experiments have been performed where a demonstratably random group of individuals are asked their opinion on a subject they are unfamiliar with. Only a small part of the group will have an opinion in the absence of information. If the group is presented with a reasonable-sounding argument containing facts and figures then a large portion of the group will formulate an opinion on the basis of this evidence. If the, now more opinionated, group is then told that the presentation was completely made up only a small number of the group will change their minds. Why do they have more of an opinion simply because they have been given evidence that they know is false?

Once people have tasted the fruit of knowledge they find it difficult to go back to not knowing. There is a human bias to base judgment on knowledge, even when one knows that the knowledge is wrong. Knowledge that is simply suspect can be as effective as knowledge in which one has great confidence.

This is, of course, where humility comes in. Are we humble enough to accept the limits to our knowledge? Are we humble enough to seek authoritative advice to test our confidence in the truths we cling to? Are we humble enough to admit we do not know and act as if we do not know when it is appropriate?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Statement of Purpose

I am an adult onset atheist. I cannot blame parents, society, or an unhappy childhood on my decision to abandon all things theist. I clung for a while to a deist god, but it too was eventually thrown onto the trash-heap. Why insist that I am believing in a “god” when “gravity” or “electromagnetic radiation” are better names? I finally found that I was clinging to the weakest shadow of a deist god because I connected the belief in this imaginary entity with so many good things in the world. One day I realized that those good things would be better without the residue of a belief in god contaminating them.

This Blog is not concerned with arguing about the existence of a god, whether theist, deist or misoandrist. Others make these arguments much better than I, and there is no need to repeat them here. I am concerned with examining the taint of religion that contaminates so many of the great and good things about human life. I am interested in how that residue of mumbo-jumbo can be removed so the positive aspects of human existence can be enhanced.

In this Blog I wish to describe parts of life as I am living it and extract those events that collide with ideas that are religious or spiritual. After identifying these aspects of life tainted by religion I will attempt to remove that taint and see if that aspect of life can be improved by the cleansing. Attempts will be made to fill the void left by removing religion with modern understandings of technology, phenomenology, and the human condition. I will range across all topics that could interest me: emotional health, motivations, activities, health and wellness, and probably more bicycling than anyone could care to read about.

The history of religions supplanting other religions has been one of violence and destruction. It is vital that we avoid throwing out important elements of human civilization simply because we are throwing out the religious delusions popular at the time those elements were created. Christianity disposed of the recipe for concrete when it supplanted the pagan religions of Rome and Europe. Europe is littered with the decaying carcasses of a thousand years worth of structures built without this substance; many are little more than piles of rock now. We know this mistake and there is no need to repeat it.

We can make civilization better by removing religion from everything. In some cases the removal will require microsurgery. In some unfortunate cases we may have to do the removal in steps; leaving some residue behind until more exact techniques for its removal become available. Eventually the work will be done. This Blog has been created to document my small part of this work.