Thought of the day

I found out today that my tentatively planned trip to Haiti (it depends upon things getting approved on my university’s end) will involve the study of cholera as well as the two types of starvation in children, kwashiorkor and marasmus (the former involves a distended belly whereas the latter is emaciation). I don’t know much about either one, but I figured I would throw it up here in a post so I could at least have an easy way to get to the terms – “kwashiorkor” is not the easiest word to recall, after all.

Ignoring the facts about morality

One of the things that has always bothered me about morality debates with Christians is their common inability to distinguish between normative and descriptive claims. (Really, the issue extends beyond Christians, but it seems especially prevalent within that group.) It’s always possible to quickly identify someone who does not understand the distinction when a question is raised about the morality of a group or individual that has committed great atrocities. For example, “What makes the morality of the Nazis wrong if there is no god?” Oh, no! My worldview has been shattered and the Christians win! Please.

There are two obvious problems with this. First, it’s an annoying argument from consequence. It is being implied that an argument for subjective morality must be wrong because it leads to bad things. Second, and this is the real kicker, the whole point of this post, it confuses value claims and factual claims. Mike at The A-Unicornist has it covered:

Although it is in our nature to desire fairness and to feel compassion, we must reconcile those feelings with objective information about the natural world. So in forming rational moral judgments, it becomes absolutely vital that the information to which we have access is accurate.

And that, quite simply, forms a solid foundation upon which to reject “Nazi morality”: the beliefs underpinning the Nazi’s attempt at global domination and extermination of Jewish people are false. The German people were not a genetically superior “race” of people, but were every bit as human as the Jews they so villainized. The notion that the Jews were partly, if not entirely, responsible for Germany’s economic woes was similarly pure nonsense. That’s how you get Nazi morality: you have people who passionately believe information that is patently false. It’s quite plausible that many Nazis, if not most, took no delight in the suffering of other people; but, by adopting the false belief that Jews were not actually people, they were able to overcome their natural human empathy, to the point that great atrocities were committed.

So the Christian really has asked a non-question. It is trivially resolvable – X group was factually incorrect – and nothing has even been said to advance the discussion. There are far more interesting ways to dig into the question of morality (presuming the theist can avoid begging the question with the assumption that morality is objective), but it takes the right sort of person to ask the right sorts of questions. Someone who may have a background in theology and religious ‘philosophy’ is going to ask shallow, remedial questions, and is far from the right sort of person. That’s why, even though this stuff is not that hard, Christians tend to be more of a detriment than a help in these kind of talks.

How shady can these anti-vax groups get?

It should be no surprise that an anti-vaccine group is willing to play games and pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. Individuals in the movement are doing it all the time. Usually the tactic is to take some minor result and extrapolate wildly from it. A study has 29 test subjects? Black elderberry must be a viable alternative to getting H1N1 vaccines! But there are other methods.

Enter SANE Vax. Its name is a dead giveaway that it’s anti-vax, but here is the group’s description of itself:

The Sane Vax Mission is to promote Safe, Affordable, Necessary & Effective vaccines and vaccination practices through education and information. We believe in science-based medicine. Our primary goal is to provide the information necessary for you to make informed decisions regarding your health and well-being. We also provide referrals to helpful resources for those unfortunate enough to have experienced vaccine-related injuries.

No, no, no. They believe vaccines are the devil and they want to promote as much fear and uncertainty as they possibly can. Right now they have a series of articles about recombinant DNA in HPV vaccines where they are attempting to drum up boatloads of hysteria. Here’s an excerpt from just one:

Dr. Sin Hang Lee, a pathologist at the Milford Hospital pathology laboratory well-known for using cutting-edge DNA sequencing for molecular diagnoses,[i] was initially contracted to examine a single sample of Gardasil for possible contamination. This sample tested positive for recombinant viral HPV-11 and viral HPV-18 residues, both of which were firmly attached to the aluminum adjuvant.

And what’s the big deal about that?

‘Recombinant DNA’ is a DNA that has been artificially attached to DNA from another species or a man-made DNA construct, in other words, genetically modified. ‘Recombinant DNA,’ also known as genetically modified DNA, is considered a biohazard. This is what states, drug companies, doctors and other medical professionals what (sic) you to inject into your children.

Recombinant DNA is not considered a biohazard. For something to be biohazardous, it must be known to be dangerous to humans. Strict guidelines prevent this from happening, at least as a result of human tinkering (something already hazardous to human health which has been modified for whatever very particular reasons in a lab is not being counted here). It is true that there is some deal of mystery about what could happen if a genetically modified organism spreads into the environment, but little evidence exists to suggest that human laboratory work can have a big impact in the face of nearly 4 billion years worth of evolution.

But let’s get back to SANE Vax’s issue here. The claim is that HPV recombinant DNA is being found in blood. (Go here for more specific links to everything.)

According to Dr. Lee, “‘Natural HPV DNA does not remain in the bloodstream for very long. However, the HPV DNA in Gardasil™ is not ‘natural’ DNA. It is a recombinant HPV DNA (rDNA) – genetically engineered – to be inserted into yeast cells for VLP (virus-like-particle) protein production. rDNA is known to behave differently from natural DNA. It may enter a human cell, especially in an inflammatory lesion caused by the effects of the aluminum adjuvant, via poorly understood mechanisms.

“Once a segment of recombinant DNA is inserted into a human cell, the consequences are hard to predict. It may be in the cell temporarily or stay there forever, with or without causing a mutation. Now the host cell contains human DNA as well as genetically engineered viral DNA.”

This is what one might call full-blown bullshit. The likelihood of this DNA becoming expressed in humans is virtually nil. It is a minute amount, it is not simple to insert new DNA so it can be expressed, and the vaccine is not infectious in the first place.

This is all fear-mongering, of course, but there’s something I find so much more interesting. SANE Vax sent this to the FDA:

The SANE Vax Inc. data, including the electropherograms of short target sequencing used to validate the HPV DNA detected in the thirteen (13) Gardasil samples, each with a different lot number, are available for your review, provided appropriate safeguards are in place to protect the proprietary processes and information utilized by our laboratory to test the samples.

One only need the right undergraduate studies to know this is nonsense. Dr. Lee used PCR techniques to come up with his results. It’s basic stuff. The only point where he has done anything specific to his lab is when he came up with the correct primers. Any biologist willing to devote half a day to a project could come up with the right products. There is nothing proprietary here which is not also insignificant. Neither SANE Vax nor Dr. Lee stand to gain from keeping this stuff secret.

And then there’s this:

The HPV DNA testing was performed by Dr. Sin Hang Lee, a pathologist at the Milford Hospital pathology laboratory known in using cutting-edge DNA sequencing for molecular diagnoses. This methodology was first reported to the FDA in 2006 and has been published in various peer-reviewed scientific journals, stated Erickson.

In other words, his general methodology has been published, but he is refusing to freely publish this specific methodology out of concern that…well, I don’t know. If he has already shown his work to the FDA, then there is definitely no reason to withhold these specific results. Not that there was any justification in the first place anyway.

What we have here is a known anti-vaccine group which has purported unlikely results which cannot be duplicated because it refuses to publish its findings, even though those findings come with zero financial incentive for either it or Dr. Lee. Oh, and the methodology has already been published anyway. It’s utterly transparent what’s going on here: SANE Vax is attempting to establish Dr. Lee as a legitimate source by virtue of his previous work, but then they are turning around and claiming that that same work is proprietary and cannot be seen by just anyone, thereby ensuring that no external source can take a look at the actual data.

The anti-vax movement would be a joke if it didn’t kill so many people every year.

Mr. Deity on the Euthyphro Dilemma

Mr. Deity is always hilarious and this episode on the Euthyphro Dilemma is no different:

I find this is an argument Christians tend to avoid engaging too much. It’s obvious why: there is no answer which properly jives with the idea of their god. If he can say what is good at a whim, then murder, rape, and everything else under the Sun could become good tomorrow. No Christian really wants to make that argument – it makes their god more of a relativist than they already purport him to be (such as when they claim the OT evil was only meant for the Jews, not every culture). If he just perfectly fits into whatever is good, then goodness is independent of him and we don’t really need any god to know what is good. After all, billions of people have concluded that things like murder, rape, and adultery are not good without knowing anything about any of today’s religions. It’s a rock and hard place for Christian apologists.

I love it.

Ricky Gervais in New Humanist

I’m a big Ricky Gervais fan. He’s a funny guy, especially in his interviews on The Daily Show, and he has produced a lot of good television, too. Now he has an interview with New Humanist:

I never actively try to offend though. That’s churlish, pointless and frankly too easy. But I believe you should say what you mean. Be honest. No one should ever be offended by truth. That way you’ll never have to apologise. I hate it when a comedian says, “Sorry for what I said.” You shouldn’t have said it. You shouldn’t say it if you didn’t mean it and you should never regret anything you meant to do.

I like this quote. Offending others merely for the sake of offending them is a useless endeavor. It doesn’t get anyone anywhere. But causing offense when there is a wider point to be had is useful. In Gervais’ case, he is doing it for the sake of comedy. For others such as Gnu Atheists (of which Gervais is one), the point is often to raise consciousness/awareness. It’s like Kant says about using others as a means. (He is commonly summed up as saying that it’s a bad thing, but that misses a very key part of his philosophy.) What he says is that it is bad to use others merely as a means. Of course we’re using others as a means all the time. It’s when the point is to only use others that we’ve gone awry. The very same goes for causing offense.

But all this aside, I think Gervais may have an even better quote:

I used to believe in God. The Christian one, that is. (There are a few thousand to choose from. But I was born in a country where the dominant religion was Christianity so I believed in that one. Isn’t it weird how that always happens?)

Weird, indeed.

If your memory is exhausted or if you have extreme

This is more of a formality than anything since I already posted the epicness of day 7, but there was a day 8 on the mountain. We had already descended below 10,000 feet by the end of day 7, so we didn’t have terribly far to go. Of course, going down is tougher in many regards because it really kills the knees, but reciting Mitch Hedberg’s repertoire half the time made things go quite a bit faster.

Here is everyone walking through the rain forest.

And here is goodness.


(Picture by Mike.)

So Christians must have how many religions?

I’m used to Christians making the claim that atheists have faith and religion. It’s a dumb statement that is easy to knock down since atheism makes no positive nor normative claims. But I recently saw a cartoon that made a very obvious but easily missed point: If atheism constitutes a religion as so many (often dishonest) Christians claim, then don’t Christians have several religions? One for their god, one by virtue of their denial of, say, Allah, one by their denial of Judaism, one by their non-atheism, one by their lack of belief in Thor, one by their….? Where does it end?

It’s almost as if, if we define everything as faith and religion, we’ve really defined nothing. Except maybe some political goals.

Freddy Mercury

Google has made an awesome logo in honor of what would be Freddy Mercury’s 65th birthday. And I am posting this video:

Really listen to the guy’s voice. It’s the best one to have ever graced rock.

You will have memories soon from now

This is day 7. We left camp at 12:15am. We were told it was in the 30’s, but I’m from Maine and I’ve been in the cold. It was at least in the 20’s, if not a little lower. Combine that with the low oxygen and relative lack of sleep and a tough night was ahead of us. And of course, it was worth every uncomfortable moment to reach that summit.

This first one is from just below Stella Point.

I’m not sure of the name of the peak in the distance in this one. Sure is purdy, though.

Here’s one of the remaining glaciers atop the mountain – the only place glaciers make an appearance in Africa. They used to be much larger, extending well down the side of the mountain. Gee, I wonder what’s to blame for their demise.

This next one doesn’t do the landscape justice. (Really, none of these do.) Despite the glaciers shrinking over the years, they are still quite massive. If a person stood next to this, he would be a small speck.

And of course,

And finally, everyone. I honestly could not have picked a better group. (Sorry, people I personally know. These guys and gals were better.)

Thought of the day

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

~Mark Twain

And for a more complete post, here are my major travel plans over the next several years: Haiti (2012), Italy (2012), Aconcagua (2013 or 2014).