Skeptical Raptor's Blog hunting pseudoscience in the internet jungle

Richard Dawkins says he’s an African ape–yes we are.

Whenever I read statements from the anti-evolution/creationist crowd, I often wonder if they’re satisfied with their intellect and knowledge.  Their level of denialism is so high that they cannot even get basic science right.  In Vasko Kohlmayer’s Washington Times article, Is Richard Dawkins an ape?, decides to deny most basic biological knowledge just to make some point that humans are somehow “better” than an ape, and use it to “disprove” evolution.  Kohlmayer’s logic, if you can call it that, is so fallacious, I’m not sure which fallacy would fit.  Maybe I’ll just use them all.

Before we start, you should know a little bit about The Washington Times. It was founded by the Unification Church (better known as Moonies, from their namesake, Sun Myung Moon) as a competitor to the Washington Post, a rather progressive newspaper in Washington, DC.  The Post had written some negative articles about Moonies back in the late 70’s, while it was the only newspaper in the US Capital.  The Washington Times has a very conservative editorial bias, based upon anti-communism and “Judeo-Christian values.”  Of course, the paper is generally a mouthpiece for the conservative movement in the US, with its preference for climate change and evolution denialism.  
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California’s vaccine exemption law–prevalence and clustering effects

California-vaccination-schoolAll 50 US states (along with several territories and DC) require mandatory vaccination for children entering public (and frequently, private) schools. This system has essentially ended most vaccine preventable diseases in the USA, including measles, polio, chickenpox, and many others. It is considered one of the 10 greatest achievements in public health. Vaccines should probably be number 1 on the list. Overall, the immunization mandate has established a strong herd effect, which has generally ended transmission of these diseases.

Even though vaccination is mandatory, there are ways around it, if you choose. Every state allows medical exemptions, which is based on a proven risk for a child to not be vaccinated with one or more vaccines. For example, some vaccines are produced in chicken eggs, and a tiny percentage of children are allergic. Medical exemptions are absolutely critical to the well being of the child, and no pro-science (pro-vaccine) writer or researcher would be opposed to those types of exemptions.

But most of the exemptions are personal belief exemptions (PBE), which fall into one of two groups–religious exemptions, that is, the parent “claims” that their religion is opposed to vaccines; or personal exemptions, which are simply based on the fact that the parents are opposed to vaccination for whatever reason that hits their brain after 20 minutes of Googling “facts.” Most states allow both types of exemptions, some only allow religious exemptions, and one state, Mississippi, allows only medical exemptions. As a progressive, there is little positive I can say about Mississippi, but this is a major positive. So congrats Mississippi for caring about children, at least in this one important way.
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Hobby Lobby and Religious Exemptions: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

church-state-roadsignIn the recent Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (Hobby Lobby) decision, a majority of the Supreme Court ruled that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)’s requirement that qualifying employer health plans under the the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA) include coverage for all FDA approve contraceptives cannot be applied to at least certain corporations stating religious objections. The Court found that the regulations violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA)’s prohibition on burdening exercise of religion. The majority made every effort to make that decision narrow as possible – but it still has concerning implications for the future, and Justice Ginsburg’s ringing dissent raises very important questions.

When the Skeptical Raptor asked me to write about this decision, we intended that I will discuss how it affects religious exemptions to vaccination. But this decision is too important to stop there, so while I also address the vaccination aspect, my discussion is about the decision generally.

From my point of view – as a secular individual who believes reproductive freedom is crucial to women’s equality – the decision has some positives, but also much to be concerned about (I hope the analysis will also be useful to those whose views are different from mine, however). It’s not, however, a decision that turns the United States into a theocracy, as some of the more impassioned posts I’ve seen on Facebook suggest. In some ways, actually, just the opposite.
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Court upholds school policy denying religious exemptions to vaccines

school-vaccine-mandatoryGuest blog by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss. Dr. Reiss is a Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, CA. Dr. Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination.  She is also member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease.

This article focuses on a recent Federal court ruling in New York that re-stated the precedent that the state has significant authority to mandate immunizations to protect individuals and the community from vaccine preventable diseases–despite claims for religious exemption from those mandates.

It’s in Our Hands, the Courts Say Again: Wake up, Sheeple

Last week the Federal District Court of the Eastern District of New York rejected a claim brought by three plaintiff families against various aspects of New York’s school immunization requirements. The decision did not include any legal innovation: it was completely based on well-established precedent. But it offers a chance to reflect on what that precedent is, why it is in place, and what it means for us.

The take-home point? Our immunization jurisprudence gives states substantial leeway to protect the public health via vaccination requirements, specifically, in this context, by allowing states to decide whether, and under what conditions, to exempt students from school immunization requirements. But states have to actually use that power to achieve anything. By leaving the floor to the passionate, if passionately wrong, anti-vaccine minority, we are allowing them to undermine the right of the rest of us to be free from preventable diseases.

In other words, those who vaccinate need to speak up and make it clear to their elected representatives that they want state law to protect their children – and the community – against outbreaks of preventable diseases. The laws will not enact themselves, and our representatives need to know the public wants this protection, that the public does not want high rates of measles cases or other diseases.

Just like the diseases, anti-vaccine legislative successes are preventable. And just like the diseases, doing nothing won’t prevent them.
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No faith–vaccines, religion, and healthcare workers

dorit-reissGuest blog by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss. Dr. Reiss is a Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of  the Law in San Francisco, CA. Dorit writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. This article focuses on a recent court decision regarding mandatory vaccination–but it ends up being more about religion than vaccines.

June Valent started working for Hackettstown Community Hospital, New Jersey, in 2009. In 2010, the hospital adopted a policy requiring workers to be vaccinated against influenza, unless “there [was] a documented medical or religious exemption. For those with an exemption, a declination form must be signed and accompanied with an appropriate note each year.” An employee claiming a religious exemption just has to sign a form and bring a note from a religious leader. Employees using an exemption were required to wear a mask.

To her credit, Ms. Valent was unwilling to pretend her reasons for refusing the vaccine were religious. Less to her credit, she refused to be vaccinated, even though she had no medical reason, and vaccinating would reduce her chances of contracting influenza and transmitting it to her vulnerable patients. She did agree to wear a facemask, as any vaccine exempt worker would.

The hospital fired Ms. Valent for violating the policy. The issue under consideration was whether she was entitled to unemployment benefits. Under New Jersey law, an employer may deny unemployment benefits if the employee engaged in misconduct, which includes violating a reasonable rule of the employer. After somewhat complex proceedings, the Appeal Tribunal of the Board Of Review of the Department Of Labor decided to deny her the benefits because the employer’s requirements were “not unreasonable.”

The New Jersey Appellate Division reversed (pdf), reinstating the benefits. There is often a lot in a court decision, but for our purposes, the main points were:

  1. Because the employer offered a non-medical exemption, a religious exemption, the employer’s policy was clearly not just driven by health concerns.
  2. Firing Ms. Valent “unconstitutionally violated [her] freedom of expression by endorsing the employer’s religion-based exemption to its flu vaccination policy.” The policy “discriminates against an employee’s right to refuse to be vaccinated based only on purely secular reasons.”

Note that the question was not whether it is permissible to fire Ms. Valent for refusing a flu vaccination–reinstating her was never at issue. The question was does she deserve unemployment benefits. On this issue, this post makes three points:

  1. The Court’s decision is problematic – it’s not analytically strong and ignores existing exemption jurisprudence.
  2. The result – extending this specific exemption – does fit current jurisprudence, though not for the reasons provided.
  3. Hospitals should not offer a religious exemption from vaccination. That’s a losing proposition.

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Mammoth created on sixth day–according to South Carolina

Ah, South Carolina. The Palmetto State. A lovely state, with beautiful beaches and forests. 

But also known as the Whoopee Cushion of the Nation. And they’ve blown up the cushion again, and the rest of the country is snickering.

south-carolina-mammoth

Through the persistence of an eight-year old third grade student, Olivia McConnell, the South Carolina House voted 94-3 on HB 4482 in February to specify that the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) as the official state fossil. Olivia wanted the mammoth as the state fossil because its teeth were one of the first vertebrate fossils found in North America, dug up by slaves on a South Carolina plantation in 1725. 

The bill was sent to the South Carolina Senate, where it got quick treatment from the Senate Judiciary committee, and sent to the full Senate for a vote in late March. 

So far, this is a great story. Young child, interested in fossils and history, trying to honor the fossil for her state. The bill to make this happens sails through the state House, and quickly moves through initial review in the Senate.

But this is South Carolina, and here comes that whoopee cushion.

On 25 March 2014, while HB 4482 was under discussion in the Senate, Kevin L. Bryant (R-District 3) sought to amend the bill to acknowledge Genesis 1:24-25, which describes the sixth day of creation, to recognize that some “god” was responsible for creating the Animal Kingdom. It was reported that Bryant explained on his website, “I attempted to recognize the creator.” Bryant’s amendment was ruled out of order based on parliamentary rules.

So did Bryant give up? Not when you have a whoopee cushion to make a great sound. So he doubled-down on his effort, and he sought to amend the bill to add “as created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field” after each instance of “mammoth.” This amended bill passed the South Carolina Senate by a vote of 35-0 (so that means progressive Democrats voted for it), and was sent back to the Senate, where they could change the Senate wording.

There you go. The South Carolina whoopee cushion just let out the best flatulence sound ever

Note. for those of you who actually accept science as the most accurate description of the age of the planet and evolution of organisms. The earth is 4.5 billion years old, and we have no evidence that it was created by anything other than the accretion of material from the early Solar System. Life on Earth arose 3.7 billion years and is described by the theory of abiogenesis, that is that life arose from organic compounds. The Columbian mammoth appears to evolved in North America around 126,000 years ago, dying out at the end of the last ice age, around 10,000 years ago. There are some unreliable information about Columbian mammoth remains dating to around 7600 years ago. In other words, the mammoth died out before it was even created in Christian religious myths.

A second note. See, no vaccines. Or Chili’s. But if Chili’s is making chili with vaccinated mammoth meat, I will certainly discuss it here. It would be an awesome story.

A third note. Because I was spending so much time on vaccines and Chili’s, I didn’t get to this article earlier. I’m like a week late, and on the internet that’s like 5 years late.

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One hour of research on Google–obviously all science is wrong

I’ve been told that I need to quit relying on the peer-reviewed journals for my scientific knowledge, because they are paid for by Big Government, Big Pharma, Big Agra, Big Hebrew and Big Whatever. They’re all just big with every single person involved dedicated to providing information to fool the people of earth. 

Science is obviously wrong about everything. Including unicorns. Obviously wrong about unicorns.

Science is obviously wrong about everything. Including unicorns. Obviously wrong about unicorns.

Apparently, the only acceptable type of research is doing it yourself using Google. Or in a pinch, Bing. 

Because I wanted to be more open-minded and to learn the Truth™ about everything. And here’s what I found.
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Religious Exemptions for Vaccination–Abuse and Reform

vaccines-religious-exemptionGuest blog by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss. Dr. Reiss is a Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of  the Law in San Francisco, CA. Dorit writes extensively in law journals about the social policies of vaccination. Originally published on 7 February 2014, pdated on 16 February 2014.

In November 2013, the New Mexico Department of Health published the results of a survey examining people getting an exemption from school immunization requirementsThe survey found that most people getting an exemption – 54.9% – explained their reasons to be “philosophical” or personal belief, including concerns about vaccine harms, a preference for natural immunity, and a belief they could protect their children in other ways. 

The problem is that New Mexico does not offer a personal belief exemption. It offers a religious exemption and a medical only. In other words, these people got their vaccine exemption using an exemption that did not reflect their real reasons.

Our host, the Skeptical Raptor, invited me to describe an article I wrote on this that is forthcoming in the Hastings Law Journal. The article argues that:

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Poll: Vaccine Exemptions

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Americans are ignorant fools about evolution–Part 2

We have fossils. Evolution wins.One of the more crazy anti-science groups are the evolution deniers, sometimes called “creationists.” The body of science that constitutes evidence for evolution is literally mountainous, making up over a million peer-reviewed studies and books that explain what we have observed in current living organisms and the fossil record. Based on this nearly irrefutable evidence, over 99.9% of scientists in the natural sciences (geology, biology, physics, chemistry and many others) accept that evolution is a scientific fact (pdf, see page 8). If science was a democracy, evolution would win in a landslide of epic proportions.

The scientific theory of evolution simply states that there is a change in inherited characteristics of a biological population, over time and generations, through the process of natural selection or genetic drift. Setting aside the misunderstanding, by intention or ignorance, by creationists about what constitutes a scientific theory, evolution is a scientific fact, about as solid as the fact that the earth revolves around the sun or that gravity causes objects to fall to the earth.

There is no genuine scientific debate about evolution, although there is continuing discussion about all of the possible mechanisms that drive evolution beyond natural selection and genetic drift. These discussions are based on the observations and evidence that evolution lead to the diversity of organisms we see today, arising from a common ancestor from about 3.8 billion years ago.

Despite the ongoing scientific discussion regarding other mechanisms for evolution (which are all scientifically based, and none that include magical actions of mythical supernatural beings), the matter of evolution is settled. There are no disputes, among scientists, about the fact that evolution commenced when the first living organisms appeared over 3.8 billion years. None. Other than literature published in self-serving creationist journals, it is impossible to find a peer-reviewed article that disputes the fact of evolution published in any real scientific journal over the past 25 years, if not past 50 years.

Despite the scientific facts, American politicians, almost exclusively conservative Republicans, continue to push legislation to force public school districts to teach creationism. Though this legislation is rarely successful, Louisiana and Tennessee have recently passed antievolution bills. The right wing politicians, mostly in southern US states, are convinced that evolution and creationism are equivalent, and they conflate a ridiculous political and social argument with a scientific debate. 
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