No, you don’t get to conflate correlation and causation because it fits the narrative you want

Racists of a handful of varieties (neo-Nazis, white supremacists, white nationalists, etc) descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend. They quickly clashed with counter-protesters, resulting in their previously-legal parade being declared unlawful. Soon after this declaration, one of the racists got in his car and attempted an act of terroristic mass murder that resulted in one death and at least a dozen and a half injuries. This horror was, ultimately, spurred by the racist hatred and ignorance of the racist marchers, but the ostensible reason for the protest was the proposed removal of a Confederate statue. This faux excuse to promote racist views has, thankfully, caused a number of Confederate statues and memorials to either be removed or be proposed for removal. Unfortunately, this faux excuse has also caused some bad science. Take this MotherJones article:

Most of these monuments were not erected right after the Civil War. In fact, all the way to 1890 there were very few statues or monuments dedicated to Confederate leaders. Most of them were built much later. And since I’m not an academic, I feel comfortable squeezing this history into a very short, oversimplified summary:

1861-1865: Civil War.

1865-1875: Reconstruction Era.

1875-1895: Reconstruction Era ends. Blacks are steadily disenfranchised, allowing Southern whites to enact Jim Crow laws. In 1896, Jim Crow is cemented into place when the Supreme Court rules it constitutional.

1895-1915: With blacks disenfranchised and Jim Crow laws safely in place, Southern whites begin a campaign of terror against blacks. Lynchings skyrocket, the KKK becomes resurgent, and whites begin building Confederate statues and monuments in large numbers.

1915-1955: Jim Crow reigns safely throughout the South.

1955-1970: The civil rights era starts after the Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education that Jim Crow laws are unconstitutional. Southern whites mount massive and violent resistance, and start putting up Confederate monuments again.

Yes, these monuments were put up to honor Confederate leaders. But the timing of the monument building makes it pretty clear what the real motivation was: to physically symbolize white terror against blacks.

Oversimplified, indeed.

The case being made by MotherJones is right there in the last paragraph: due to timing, we know these statues were built to symbolize white terror against blacks. That is, they were specifically built to first and foremost scare black people into submission and to remind them of their place in this country. Unfortunately for MotherJones, the facts don’t support this argument.

First, let’s look at the MotherJones chart and another, more comprehensive chart (both from the Southern Poverty Law Center):

Confederate monument chart

Confederate monuments.jpg

Look at two of the more notable spikes on the chart: around 1911 and around 1961. What could possibly make those dates special? They’re the 50th and 100th anniversaries for the Civil War. It should surprise absolutely no one that we would also see a spike in memorial dedications around those times. Furthermore, consider the common timings of when war memorials are built in general. It can happen any time, but it certainly would seem to accelerate as veterans get into their old age. This could be due to a combination of factors, such as a younger generation being prepared to romanticize their elders, and older people generally having a disproportionate amount of political power (not to mention the personal time and means to take on memorial efforts). Just think to the period of time you recall hearing about ‘The Greatest Generation’ the most. It wasn’t in the 1950s, was it? No. It was into the 90s and early 2000s.

Let’s also look at the rise of the KKK. As the second chart notes, the organization was founded in 1866. What the chart doesn’t note, however, is that the KKK was at its most powerful around 1924. The economy was roaring, as they say, racists were more than plentiful, and the desire to instill fear in minorities was higher than ever. Yet memorials fell. This could be due to a host of reasons. Most Civil War veterans would have been dead (if the mean age of a soldier was 26 in 1865, then the mean age of veterans (dead and alive) would be 85 in 1924), so the push for memorials would be pushed into the backs of people’s mind. We also just finished an even larger war (albeit with fewer deaths), so our most pressing veteran’s issues were much more current. And, of course, we just had a period of time where we built and dedicated quite a few memorials. Whatever the reasons, the evidence points to the timing of these memorials having little to do with racist flare-ups.

Now, looking at the first chart, we see an attempt to correlate monument building with the lynching era. Except the greatest number of lynchings actually occurred in the decade prior. Forget about arguing causation. The chart hasn’t even successfully argued for correlation on this point.

I’ve been making these basic points across various social media platforms for the past day or two because I find this abuse of statistics 101 to be offensive. As a result, I’ve been called a Nazi sympathizer and/or had my motivations questioned. It doesn’t matter if I give a plain objection using the dry facts or if I preface my position by pointing out that, yes, of course these statues and memorials are racist monuments* to the losing side of a racist war. We now live in a culture where even the slightest bit of nuance that disagrees with side A means you must fully agree with side B. It’s utter horseshit. We have good reason to believe Civil War memorials and dedications spiked due to mundane factors such as veterans aging and anniversary dates. That does abso-fucking-lultey nothing to take away from the narrative that the Confederacy and memorials to it were and are racist. It does nothing to disparage efforts to remove statues. It simply demands that we rely on basic facts to make our points and arguments.

*There are a narrow band of monuments and memorials that should not be controversial because they honor and remember conscripted soldiers who often fought for reasons very different from the wealthy slave owners (who, of course, hired poor people to take their place on the battlefield). The band is very narrow, but it exists.

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Wear sunscreen

As a relatively pale person of northern European descent, I find sunscreen to be invaluable. ug-leeI have absolutely no problem being the guy with the light bulb nose. It’s way better than the Rudolph nose later, and undoubtedly superior to developing skin cancer or even just unsightly sunspots.

Now that the weather is getting nicer, sunscreen sales will be increasing, but not everyone is happy about this. There are a number of quacks out there who will peddle false information about vitamin D. Some of them will go the even more egregious route of saying sunscreen doesn’t protect against cancer.

Don’t let these quacks fool you. Sunscreen absolutely protects against the rays of the Sun which can and often do lead to cancer:

Sun protection is essential to skin cancer prevention – about 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers and 65 percent of melanomas are associated with exposure to UV radiation from the sun. Furthermore, years of scientific research have provided compelling evidence that the daily use of sunscreen helps lower the risk of non-melanoma skin cancers. Most recently, in a rigorous study of more than 1,600 adults over the course of a decade, researchers determined that subjects applying sunscreen with an SPF of 16 daily reduced their risk of melanoma by 50 percent.

Unlike quack medicine, sunscreen is safe and effective. I foolishly got a sun burn last month, acting on the assumption that “Maine”, “April”, and “sun burn” were three things I would never have to use in the same sentence. I was wrong. I’ve been making it a point to protect my skin every nice day we’ve had since. It can be tedious, and it’s not always convenient, but cancer treatment is often pretty tedious and inconvenient itself.

Uganda adopts circumcision, finds science works

This is no real surprise:

The growing uptake of medical male circumcision by men in the Rakai district of Uganda is leading to a substantial reduction in HIV incidence among men in one of the districts of the country worst affected by HIV, Xiangrong Kong of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI 2015) in Seattle, USA, on Thursday…

The study found that circumcision coverage in non-Muslim men increased from 9% during the Rakai circumcision study to 26% by 2011, four years after the trial concluded. Every 10% increase in circumcision coverage was associated with a 12% reduction in HIV incidence (0.88, 95% confidence interval 0.80-0.96).

HIV incidence reduction in women lags behind but is expected to catch up in coming years.

We’ve known for the better part of the past decade that circumcision literally saves lives by acting as a high efficacy vaccine that reduces female-to-male HIV transmission by 60% (which is better than the flu vaccine most years). That we’re seeing the positive results of implementing it as a policy isn’t surprising. Science just works.

Anti-science quacks find success in Maine in their fight against health and vaccines

Vaccine rates for young people entering school has been declining in recent years:

The rate of unvaccinated kindergartners in Maine continues to climb and is now the fifth highest in the nation, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Friday.

The percentage of Maine parents voluntarily opting out of vaccines for their children is alarming state public health officials who have been working to bolster immunization.

Nearly 800 public school kindergartners in Maine started the 2013-14 school year without receiving the required vaccinations for diseases such as whooping cough and measles because their parents opted not to immunize. That represents 5.2 percent of all kindergartners in the state, up from 3.9 percent the previous year.

This is in large part due to the anti-vax movement that has been steadily gaining ground since the 90’s. Indeed, although disgraced British doctor Andrew Wakefield had his 1998 study linking vaccines and autism debunked – no one ever reproduced his results, and it was no wonder since he outright made them up – he remains a hero of the anti-vax crowd.

One of the more favored canards of anti-vax quacks is to call herd immunity a myth. Do a quick search and one is liable to find any given quack claiming that herd immunity makes no difference to the health of a state. I recall reading some random anti-vax nobody argue that because vaccines are between 60-80% effective, even with 100% compliance, we could still see an epidemic. Of course, while he spoke of vaccines at-large in an intentionally general sense, he actually linked to CDC statistics on the flu vaccine. I guess it was a coincidence that he found it inconvenient to tell his readers that he was talking about one specific vaccine, huh? So is the high bar set by quacks.

At any rate, for herd immunity to be effective, there needs to be about a 95% vaccination rate. Of course, 100% would be the ideal because we’re talking about saving human lives, but with all the anti-government and anti-science kooks out there, 95% is actually a very achievable number that allows for some bumper space. Unfortunately, sometimes we see areas that fall well below that bumper space. For instance, when vaccine rates for whooping cough fell to 91% in California, communities there saw an outbreak in the disease. Thousands got sick and at least 10 infants died. What makes this all the more heart-breaking is that these infants were too young to be vaccinated, meaning they relied upon the herd immunity around them to remain safe. Anti-vax parents and the quacks they trust are at fault for these deaths. Frighteningly, Maine is on a similar path.

This is incredibly impressive

Daniel Radcliffe (perhaps better known as Harry Potter) recited “The Element Song” on The Graham Norton Show several years back. It’s damn impressive.

Science by comedy

I used to watch these videos mostly for their comedic value, but the truth is that they actually have a lot of basic science to offer:

The value of repetition

One of the most important things I heard while in college came from one of my favorite biology professors. It happened in an early intro class half-filled with bio majors, half-filled with people looking for a course with a lab. He was covering the basics of science itself, speaking to the value of repetition:

Science is all about reproducibility. If you can’t reproduce your data, it’s all a load of horseshit.

That isn’t to say a person can automatically discredit some new piece of research simply because it’s new and has therefore not yet been reproduced. What it means is that when scientists do attempt to reproduce previously found results, they need to be successful in order for the results to be accepted. An unfortunate side effect of human nature means that we don’t see negative results published as often as we should – unless, of course, they disprove what someone else has already published – but these results do still happen every single day. That’s just science.

This all brings me to a recent piece of news:

Scientists have managed to repeat one of the biggest medical breakthroughs of the last few years.

Almost exactly one year ago, Johns Hopkins researchers made national headlines when they announced that they’ve vanquished the AIDS-causing virus from a child born to an HIV-positive mother in Mississippi. They began antiretroival treatment before the baby was 30 hours old. She’s now 3.5 years old and still virus-free, even without treatment in the last two years. Researchers have puzzled over how it happened, and many remain skeptical. The child was only the second person ever to be “cured” of HIV; the first was an adult through a stem-cell transplant. Since it’s difficult to prove that the body has been completely cleared of HIV, Nature explains, being “functionally cured” means the virus is effectively controlled and the immune system stays healthy without treatment.

Just yesterday, doctors announced that they have cleared the virus from a second baby infected with HIV. This girl was born in Los Angeles last April to a mother with advanced AIDS who had not been taking her medication. With aggressive treatment beginning just four hours after her birth, the virus was undetectable within 11 days, the New York Times reports.

A sample size of 2 does not scientific fact make (though there are upwards of 8 other unconfirmed cases around the world), but it cannot be understated how much this bolsters the legitimacy of attacking HIV in infants this way. It could turn out that the virus is still living somewhere in the bodies of these children – adults who have been functionally cured have had the virus return shortly after certain surgeries such as bone marrow transplants – so this remains a game of wait-and-see. However, if this proves to be an effect method for curing HIV, then not only will there be immediate benefits to HIV-positive newborns, but some insight may be spread into how we can better detect the hidden HIV in adults patients who are functionally cured.