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Monthly Archives: February 2009

I’ve blogged before on the ‘good bishop’ and his edict that the HPV vaccine Gardasil not be offered to students in Catholic schools. Only about 20% of these students had parents responsible enough to get their daughters vaccinated.

Many anti-vaccine nay-sayers out there point to adverse reactions and death. The CDC last year released the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS)  report. The highlites include:

  • 13.5 million doses given in the US in 2006-2007;
  • < 8,000 adverse reactions (7% of which were considered serious, about half of what most other vaccines produce);
  • 15 deaths reported, 10 of which could be further investigated (NOTE: no link was found between HPV vaccination and death in ANY of these cases);
  • 31 reported cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a neurological condition that results in temporary but often total body paralysis (10 cases confirmed);
  • In Canada, 1,300 women will contract HPV this year and perpetually live in fear of developing cervical cancer;
  • 400 women will die from cervical cancer this year.

While the antivaccination nuts will focus on the truly tragic cases of GBS, what do they say to the many, many more who would have otherwise never developed cervical cancer? I have yet to hear an answer to this. There are risks associated with any medical procedure, including vaccination. Measles (MMR) vaccination has a GBS incidence of about 0.62 per 100,000 immunized children1 , and in both the HPV and MMR vaccination the risk of serious complication is far, far lower than the incidence of the diseases they are designed to prevent.

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Anyone who has been to the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta (about 1.5 hrs northeast of Calgary) and loves dinosaurs is always impressed by the place. I try to go every few years to check out any new displays and I am always rewarded by the experience. I may have to go several times this year alone now. The Tyrell also brings in experts in paleontology and related fields give lectures to the public and the list is available here.

Among the names I recognized two immediately: Donald Prothero (March 14) and Simon Conway Morris (August 7). Prothero is the author of Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, a direct refutation of the oft used claim that there are no ‘transitional fossils’ and other creationist nonsense. Simon Conway Morris is world renowned for his work on the Burgess Shale fossils, first discovered by Charles Walcott early in the 20th century. Morris’ work was made famous in Stephen J. Gould’s best-seller A Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. While I think Morris’ opinion (similar to Kenneth Miller’s) on god and evolution is nonsense and completely unverifiable, his work on the Burgess Shale fauna is outstanding and has a direct bearing on our understanding of the so-called ‘Cambrian explosion’ (dealt with in Prothero’s book). 

I plan to attend both these lectures.

I’ve blogged on this before – a perception of a relationship between the two is purely imaginary. The arguments of those which make the claim fall into two classes: a) the bible (or more generally, religion) is what keeps them from raping and murdering and the only slightly more sophisticated claim b) that it is a supernatural being that supplies our moral sense. Neither stands up to scrutiny.

Let’s look at the first. These people scare me and I want nothing to do with them. If religion is the only thing standing in the way of these people committing violence on their fellow humans, they will indeed commit these acts. History is replete with examples of religion being no bar to bad behavior, and religious ideologues are as bad as every other ideologue who valued ideology over the welfare of their fellow humans. 

This idea that being religious makes one a better person, besides being a false elitism, does not stand up to any scrutiny. The US, arguably the most religious of advanced western nations, has the highest rates of nonviolent and non-lethal violent crime, homicide, adolescent suicide, teen pregnancy and teen STD transmission. One of these days I will present my case that religion is indeed the root cause of the last two. Briefly, abstinence-only programs, which studies have been shown time and again to be an spectacularly failed strategy (for one example, see reference 1), are myopically championed solely by religious organizations. They seem only to serve at maintaining their ridiculous fantasy that teens don’t have sex, at the great cost of depriving teens from critical information about contraception and STDs. Religion is simply not a bar to these acts, and indeed, I posit that the actions of the overwhelmingly religious supporters of abstinence-only nonsense are themselves unethical.

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Macleans online reports:

The Dallas Morning News reports the invitations are already in the mail: A chance to hear George W. Bush “share his thoughts on his eight momentous years in the Oval Office,” live, in Calgary, on March 17. The event is not open to the public and is so far away from the Washington nerve centre, or any other U.S. hub, that it screams dry run. Welcome to the lucrative world of the speaker’s circuit, Mr. President.

Set faces on “stunned”! Can we get him on the undesirables list in time?

I shall pour a libation to one of the greatest scientists to have ever graced humanity. Maybe I’ll try that black forest cake martini again.

For any Calgarians out there, the Center for Inquiry Calgary will be meeting at 7 pm in the basement of Twisted Element for the celebration.


The Rubik's 360 - coming soon to fry everyone's brain.

The Rubik's 360 - coming soon to fry everyone's brain.

Hungarian Erno Rubik, inventor of the Rubik’s Cube, is set to unleash a new hell upon us all with the Rubik’s 360 in August (selling for about $18 US).

Launched at an international toy fair in Germany on February 5, the 360 consists of six colored balls within concentric three spheres. The object is to move the balls from the central sphere to matching colored repositories on the outside sphere through two holes in the middle sphere. The spheres are rotated using a pair of black knobs on the outer sphere. 

Two-time British Rubik’s Cube champion Dan Harris describes the gestalt of the 360 versus its predecessor:

The main difference is the absence of mathematics. With the Cube the quickest solutions are based on formulas and you can remember the fastest way to reach the solution from various starting points. The 360 requires no maths, it is more about physics.

It took Harris several days to solve the 360 the first time, several hours the second, and is now able to solve it in a few minutes.

Rubik came up with the original Cube in 1974, but it wasn’t till 1980 that the rest of the planet was inflicted with the torture device. It has long since been known as the world’s most popular toy. Rubik’s Revolution (an electronic version of the Cube too obviously trying to capitalize on the Cube’s heady success) was a bust, but this new incarnation may have what it takes to make it big. It has elements in common with the Cube’s that gave it its great success, though I doubt that the 360 (I wonder what Microsoft thinks of the name?) will launch the kind of craze that made the Cube synonymous with 80s pop culture. But the 360 is conceptually different in obvious ways, setting it apart from its ancestor – perhaps even enough to keep it from being too severely compared with the Cube.

Time will tell.

Fear the sphere!

I have just finished Jerry Coyne’s book on the fact of evolution entitled Why Evolution Is True. I say fact, of course, since there is no longer any discussion of whether evolution happened in biology. Not because evolution is dogmatically unquestionable, as evolution deniers will say, but because such a discussion is utterly pointless. 

He begins the book by describing what evolution is (itself often misunderstood) and a bit about systematics. It’s a good basic description of how phylogenetic trees are built from a comparative morphology point of view. He moves on to some interesting examples of visible evolution in the fossil record, discussing the near-continuous changes in radiolarians and foraminiferans, some of the recent fossil evidences for various transitions such as the aquatic-terrestrial tetrapod transition, dinosaur to bird, and (with good reason, as Jerry demonstrates, the darling of modern paleontology) land-sea mammalian transition.

Jerry continues with some of the earliest evidences of evolution that was discussed in The Origin, such as vestigial organs and atavisms, as well as something somewhat more modern – evidence from pseudogenes. Embryology is also strong in this chapter and he clearly describes what “phylogeny begets ontogeny” means, with examples. This easily leads into, of course, how bad design occurs. I’ve always enjoyed examples of clearly inept design, and here Jerry gives some of the more famous ones like the tortuous path of the aortic arches in humans and how such a ridiculous ‘design’ arose from contingency dictated by our evolutionary past. 

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The other day I wrote a blog on the nurse who was suspended without pay last December for asking an elderly patient (who apparently did not solicit the invitation) . Caroline Petrie is now free to go back to work as a bank nurse (a nurse who is called in as needed on an hourly basis). There was a great deal of public pressure brought to bear on the hospital for the suspension, mainly out of a misunderstanding about what was going on. Some bloggers feel that this is a Christian being thrown to the lions, a martyr in the making.

Baloney. This was never about Petrie, but rather it was about patient care and upholding ethical standards. Simply put, Petrie violated a code of conduct to which she is professionally obligated to follow. If she has a problem with not abiding by a pretty standard section of medical ethics, she’s free to choose another career path.

It’s a bit easier to see the problem when the context is changed a bit, particularly for those who share Petrie’s religion of choice. For instance, if she had been a practitioner of voodoo and offered to sacrifice a chicken to Baron Samedi, I’m sure a very different brouhaha would have resulted. As Richard Sloan points out in his book Blind Faith: The unholy alliance of religion and medicine, there are just some boundaries a health care worker should not cross (and presents a few scary real-world examples of such outrageously unethical behavior by health care workers – I highly recommend the book).

Professionals are available to deal with a patient’s spiritual needs and if – and only if! – the patient requests such services, she could refer the patient to one of them. This is the professional way to handle such things. But Petrie (and many people who have no knowledge of medical ethics) think that acting in such an unprofessional manner is okay. Being Christian is not an excuse to violate codes of ethics.

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Many people might think this is okay –

Community nurse Caroline Petrie, 45, says she asked an elderly woman patient during a home visit if she wanted her to say a prayer for her.

I don’t. Nor would most health care professionals, religious or not. And unlike others who have blogged on this, I have the guts to leave my comments open.

A health care practitioner works in a hospital to provide one thing – health care. This can range from medical therapy to a good bedside manner. But offering religious services is outside any health care provider’s purview. Prayer is not a part any standard of care that I am aware of (and I have worked in a hospital setting). Such intercessory prayer has been extensively studied, with the largest (the STEP1 and MANTRA2,3 studies) showing almost no effect whatsoever. I say ‘almost’ because the STEP paradigm was of a clever design and was able tell show that people who knew they were being prayed for actually had worse outcome.

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