If Andromeda were brighter…

…it would look like this:


Stephen’s Quintet

Stephen's Quintet

Get vaccinated

It never ceases to amaze me just how many anti-vax people there are out there. Every time I bring up the topic it isn’t the pro-vaccine people who come out in support. No, instead it’s almost exclusively the anti-vax quacks. I suppose the same thing happens with circumcision, 9/11, and a history of Obama’s life: the anti-circumcision crowd, truthers, and birthers are going to immediately overwhelm the discussion. But even with this massive selection bias, the sheer number of nuts out there is incredible. I suspect to see as much regarding this post, should it garner a response at all. However, as a decent human being with a little bit of knowledge, I feel duty-bound to present a few vaccine facts.

Vaccines are incredibly safe. This is true of all vaccines, but especially of the flu vaccine. The most likely side effects anyone is going to suffer are mild soreness or a low grade fever. A study from about 10 years ago did find that one version of the swine flu vaccine from the mid-70’s was associated with a tiny increase in Guillain-Barré syndrome, but correlation is not causation. No one knows why there was such an association, but for this reason those with a history of the syndrome are cautioned and should speak with their doctor to assess their exact situation. Also, those with severe egg allergies are cautioned, plus those who are currently sick with one thing or another should wait.

Vaccines change each year because of evolution. From time to time I’ll hear an objection to the fact that the flu vaccine is different each year. Why, the argument seems to go, scientists are just guessing. That’s not true. While they are making an educated guess, it’s more than just throwing up a prayer and hoping they get it right. Each year’s vaccine is based upon the most recent research and information available. This is necessary because of the speed of a virus’ evolution.

Everyone over 6 months old should get vaccinated. This, of course, takes into account the caveats I’ve already presented, but for the vast majority of people, vaccination is recommended. Vaccines save lives, and if that’s not important enough to you for some crazy reason, they also save money by cutting down on sick days.

The flu vaccine is effective. Exactly how effective the flu vaccine is will vary from year to year, as well as from age group to age group. A person’s overall health is also a factor. In general, though, the vaccine’s effectiveness ranges from 50-80%. The most common (and most annoying) ‘counter’ to this is to look at absolute risk reduction. A person who does this is usually either a quack or has gathered information from a quack. It isn’t that absolute risk reduction is invalid. It’s a perfectly good way to understand how wide-spread a disease or sickness is and how our health policies are dealing with it. For the flu vaccine, the actual reduction in risk is about 1.5%. That sounds miniscule, but we can make a lot of things sound miniscule. What’s happening here is we’re looking at the total population and calculating the number who would get the flu without any vaccine. That’s a very small percentage. Then we’re looking at how likely it is that of the percentage that actually gets vaccinated is going to not get the flu as a result. Again, this is useful. However, when presented in the context of this discussion, it isn’t useful. It would be as if someone argued that since the absolute risk of contracting HIV in Tanzania is very low over, say, intercourse with 5 different partners, the 97-99% effectiveness of condoms is moot. Why, who needs condoms? You probably won’t contract it anyway! Pshaw.

Vaccines, not sanitation, have eradicated or nearly eradicated disease. While it’s obviously true that increased bathing, hand washing, and better filtered water have made us healthier and less likely to contract various diseases, these alone cannot get rid of disease. Smallpox has been eradicated for over 30 years now because of vaccines, not because more people than ever are buying bars of Irish Spring soap. Polio is nearly eradicated because of vaccines; India was recently declared polio free – that isn’t a country exactly known for its impeccable sanitation practices. Yellow fever persists because so many people go unvaccinated (even though the vaccine is 99% effective), and no amount of sanitation is going to change how many people die from it each year since its primary vector is the mosquito.

There are far more thorough sources out there that have vaccine facts covered in much better detail than I have here, so this is far enough for me. I simply wanted to address some of the issues that bother me the most about the vaccine misinformation floating about. For nearly every single person, vaccination is the smart option. The caveats are small and specific, the side effects minor and manageable. Get vaccinated.

Thought of the day

What I’ve learned from the Internet:

  • Everybody supports Ron Paul
  • No one has ever come up with a valid analogy for anything. Ever.
  • Everybody is a feminist
  • Obama was born in Kenya
  • Vaccines have never worked except to cause autism and, hell, why not AIDS too?
  • All chemicals are bad
  • There has never been a supporter of circumcision ever
  • Only people who eat processed foods get cancer
  • Doctors are only interested in money, not making people better
  • “There”, “they’re”, and “their” are interchangeable

An example of the downfall of journalism

There was once a time when journalists did their research. They fact-checked themselves or, at the absolute least, had someone else fact-check their articles. My degree isn’t in journalism so I’m not sure if they covered that tidbit in the first or second class of Journalism 101, but I have no doubt it was covered. Well. I have no doubt it was covered prior to the 90’s and early 2000’s before our current crop of ‘journalists’ came about. I suppose I’m not really sure what they’re covering now; I’d ask a journalist, but I’m not really convinced that’s a legitimate source nowadays.

At any rate, I bring up this basic of journalism because I visited a blog by an alleged journalist, Michael Hartwell. As some of you may recall, I had him on my blogroll for some time, but I had to take him off. The simple fact was he didn’t fact-check his material. I don’t know as I expected any change after such a relatively short time, but I went back to his blog at least hoping for something interesting. Instead I found a post about that bigoted, racist Duck Dynasty guy. I’ve done a decent job of avoiding even talking about that garbage, but I admit I’ve been reading about the situation. First, for those who don’t know, a guy from a reality show said this:

Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson is making anti-gay comments in the January issue of GQ.

In statements that threaten the A&E reality hit’s wildly popular and uplifting brand of faith, family and hunting, the Robertson patriarch said: “Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong… Sin becomes fine. Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.” Robertson then paraphrased Corinthians from the Bible: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

And if that wasn’t explicit enough, the “Duck Commander” added: “It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

He also said he has never seen the mistreatment of any black people, but I guess we’re all ignoring his racism for this one. At any rate, Hartwell had this to say in his ‘coverage’:

During my workday today I heard three conservative talk radio show hosts defend Phil Robertson, the 60-plus conservative Christian who was fired from the show Duck Dynasty by A&E after he explained his opposition to the gay lifestyle in a magazine interview.

In all three cases, the radio hosts started off their defense of Robertson by saying this was not a free speech issue…

The hosts in question were Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Pat and Stu, co-hosts of Glenn Beck. Beck himself had retired early for the day.

So imagine my surprise when I got home and every left winger online had written about how Robertson’s defenders, and therefor (sic) all conservatives, are all claiming A&E violated his freedom of speech.

Hartwell, upset that “every left winger” is generalizing Robertson’s defenders – he said this without intentional irony – was able to find only a few conservatives who made ridiculous statements:

Truth be told, there were some real examples of folks who said that, including Sarah Palin and apparently, Glenn Beck. There were also some nobody-guests on Fox News at some point during the day and nobodies on Twitter and Facebook pages.

Worry not, everyone. It turns out those filthy liberals are wrong again. Yessirree, deys just be makin’ them things up.

It’d be a real shame if someone did some, ya know, research. Let me pick a few choice quotes from around the Interwebs:

But I also acknowledge that this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views. In fact, I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment.

That one comes from Bobby Jindal, Republican creationist governor of Louisiana.

If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over the treatment of Phil Robertson. Phil expressed his personal views and his own religious faith; for that, he was suspended from his job. In a free society, anyone is free to disagree with him–but the mainstream media should not behave as the thought police censoring the views with which they disagree.

You knew one of these quotes would have to come from Ted Cruz. Well, that’s the one.

Free speech is an endangered species. Those “intolerants” hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.

Give Hartwell credit for this one because it comes from Sarah Palin.

Of course, there’s more. A Facebook page, for instance, has 60,000 people who are ‘standing for free speech’. I know Hartwell attempted to dismiss these “nobodies”, but he doesn’t get to have things both ways: If he’s going to say things like this – “There’s no evidence to suggest that a majority of conservatives made that too-common error. Some people certainly did, but please don’t tell me that an entire group did it. Even Rush Limbaugh dismissed the idea; that’s not trivial.” – then he has to own up when a large swath of right wingers come out of the wood work to support a stupid idea.

But let’s continue. Another Facebook page, which has a “not trivial” 1.5 million “Likes”, has a picture bragging that they got over a million likes for free speech in just 24 hours. And in case one is so inclined to chalk that up to whoever the random admin on the group happens to be, the picture currently has over 600,000 likes and nearly 75,000 shares. “That’s not trivial.”

Have I made my point yet? Journalism is in dire straights and this is a good case study of that fact. Yes, Hartwell’s blog is just that, a blog. However, he has made it clear in the past that he uses his blog as a sort of showpiece in addition to his regular articles for his career; his blog is there, in large part, so future employers can get an idea of how he covers a story. (That’s why the sentences are simple, usually short, bunched in two or three line paragraphs, and why he very strongly attempts to portray a certain objectivity.) I’m convinced he isn’t doing so hot. His fact-checking hasn’t matured since last year, nor, indeed, has it really changed from his college days when he wrote an article urging biologists to give intelligent design a chance. To his credit he has since figured out why he was so wrong, but that largely came by due to the response from his school’s biology department. Ya know, that department just down the hall, perhaps a building or two over. Ya know. That department he apparently didn’t bother to visit.

Let me end by addressing a detail of Hartwell’s very first sentence in the post in question:

During my workday today I heard three conservative talk radio show hosts defend Phil Robertson, the 60-plus conservative Christian who was fired from the show Duck Dynasty by A&E after he explained his opposition to the gay lifestyle in a magazine interview.

Emphasis mine. Fact-checking also mine:

The network issued the following statement to [Entertainment Weekly]: “We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson’s comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty. His personal views in no way reflect those of A+E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community. The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely.”

An A&E spokesperson confirmed this statement means exactly what it says: Robertson is off the show for an as-yet-undetermined period of time. The rest of his family will continue on the reality series.

Emphasis mine.

In other words, he wasn’t fired. He was suspended. Perhaps he’ll never come back. Perhaps he’ll be ready to go next season. Who knows? All we can say is that he was suspended, not fired.

Christmas music

I realize I’m a little late, but I make a post about Christmas music every year. Unfortunately, that nasty ice storm cut me off from the Internet for a few days (plus I’ve been busy with Christmas stuff). So that’s why you’re seeing this now. Also, I’ve come to appreciate Judy Garland’s voice quite a bit lately:

Merry Christmas

One of these days I’m going to update this picture.

Merry Christmas