04/8/14

The dangerous idiocy of the anti-vax movement


Measles outbreakMeasles is on the rise in Canada. There have already been many cases in 2014: in PEI, London, Ottawa, southern Alberta, Regina, Qu’Apelle, Calgary, Fraser Valley (320 cases), Hamilton, Halton, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Waterloo, Nanaimo and other locations. Eleven cases in Ontario this year alone. Nine in Alberta.

That ancient, deadly foe we recently believed we had conquered, is coming back. And it’s going to kill children again, this time with the complicity of their parents.

Fifty years ago, science found the cure and made a vaccine for it. In 2000, the United States optimistically declared ongoing measles transmission had been eliminated. But it’s come back.

So have mumps and whooping cough – both easily and safely prevent by vaccinations. Both are deadly threats to children again.

Who’s to blame? And why is this happening? Why are people putting children at such risk?

It’s because of the anti-vaccination movement, a cult of pseudoscience, anti-medicine sentiments, gullibility, fear, superstition and mostly quackery promoted by witless and devious celebrities and greedy marketers, then spread on the internet to people who jump on every passing bandwagon. Parents who get their medical advice from unreliable online sources – mostly lies, rumour, gossip and unfounded allegation, like all conspiracy theories – or from quacks, not doctors.*

Health Link Alberta tells us how easily measles can spread:

Close contact with an infected person is not necessary to catch measles.
It is an extremely contagious airborne disease that can spread by coughing and sneezing, and through air currents.
Although there is no specific treatment or cure for measles, it can be prevented through immunization.
The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is part of the routine childhood immunization program in Alberta.
Children should receive their first MMR dose at 12 months and the second between the ages of four and six years. Both doses are required to be fully protected.

The anti-vaxxers are creating a public health disaster. Rather ironically, North American parents have that in common with the Taliban:

In Pakistan, polio remains an epidemic because the Taliban has banned aid workers from vaccinating children. They say they fear that vaccination efforts are simply a ruse meant to disguise espionage. Health workers attempting to distribute vaccines there have been attacked and killed. A total of 101 polio cases have been reported in the country as of mid-November, and another 240,000 children have not been vaccinated.

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04/1/14

Is this the end of the gluten-free fad?


 

Gluten-free fad madnessLast November, when I first wrote about the gluten-free diet fad, I bemoaned how an everyday protein, a staple in human diets for many millennia, had become demonized by the diet fad crowd. In fact, the gluten-free fad rapidly grew into a multi-million-dollar industry in Canada to accommodate that vulnerable intersection of consumer fears and gullibility.*

Back when I was writing my piece, the National Post had a piece that indicated while nine million Canadians were allegedly on a gluten-free diet or avoided gluten for non-medical reasons, only 1% of us – about 330,000 people – actually have Celiac disease (of whom only 33,000 are actually diagnosed with it).

A whole lot of people have self-diagnosed themselves with gluten-sensitivity, based more on what they’ve seen on TV or read on the internet, rather than on actual medical advice, let alone the results of tests. But that’s a psychosomatic illness, not a real one. And in fact, some people may simply be faking it (i.e. if you claim a gluten allergy and yet you still drink beer…) or because it fits with their other pseudoscience interests or fads.

As one writer says,

Are you into reiki, homeopathy, or the healing power of crystals, magnets or Head of the Class reruns? You might be a phony celiac.

Many self-diagnosed “sufferers” seem likely instead to have “orthorexia nervosa” – “an extreme or excessive preoccupation with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy.” An obsession with righteous eating. Psychiatric Times calls it a “disease that masquerades as health.”

Orthorexia is marked by the compulsive and rigid imposition of a set of ideals about what is correct to consume and the distress that ensues when actual eating does not adhere strictly to these ideals. In anorexia, the goal of food restrictions is to lose or to avoid gaining weight, so the focus is directed toward how eating (or exercising or purging) affects the morphology of the body. Orthorexia instead is a preoccupation with ideas of health or other philosophical ideals.

A food blogger lists some of the symptoms of orthorexia:

  • Feeling virtuous about what they eat, but not enjoying their food much
  • Continually cutting foods from their diet
  • Experiencing a reduced quality of life or social isolation (because their diet makes it difficult for them to eat anywhere but at home)
  • Feeling critical of, or superior to, others who do not eat as healthily they do
  • Skipping foods they once enjoyed in order to eat the “right” foods
  • Choosing to eat foods based off of nutritional value, instead of eating what they’re craving
  • Feeling guilt or self-loathing when they stray from their diet
  • Feeling in total control when they eat the “correct” diet

So maybe that’s the real culprit here.
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03/2/14

Reading: A Canadian tragedy… or not?


World Reading Map
The map above might show the making of a serious tragedy for Western and especially Canadian culture. It indicates in colour which nations read the most. Yellow is the second lowest group. Canada is coloured yellow.

TV zombiesIn this survey, Canada ranks 10th – from the bottom! Twenty countries above us have populations which, on the average, read more per week than we do. That surprises and shocks me. And it disappoints me no end.

I’m not only a voracious reader, I’m passionate about books, language, reading and writing, and have been on the library board for 20 years actively helping it grow and develop. Is it a futile task?

I don’t believe so. In fact, I’ve seen the library grow more and more into a vital community resource in the past two decades. It has more users, more books and more reads than ever. That flies in the face of what the map suggests.

The map showed up on Facebook via Gizmodo, The stats come from the NOP World Culture Score (TM) Index (press release here). They’re scary – but are they accurate? They’re certainly not recent: the data were collected between December 2004 and February 2005.

Here are the 30 countries, ranked by the number of hours people there read every week:

  1. India — 10 hours, 42 minutes
  2. Thailand — 9:24
  3. China — 8:00
  4. Philippines — 7:36
  5. Egypt — 7:30
  6. Czech Republic — 7:24
  7. Russia — 7:06
  8. Sweden — 6:54
  9. France — 6:54
  10. Hungary — 6:48
  11. Saudi Arabia — 6:48
  12. Hong Kong — 6:42
  13. Poland — 6:30
  14. Venezuela — 6:24
  15. South Africa — 6:18
  16. Australia — 6:18
  17. Indonesia — 6:00
  18. Argentina — 5:54
  19. Turkey — 5:54
  20. Spain — 5:48
  21. Canada — 5:48
  22. Germany — 5:42
  23. USA — 5:42
  24. Italy — 5:36
  25. Mexico — 5:30
  26. U.K. — 5:18
  27. Brazil — 5:12
  28. Taiwan — 5:00
  29. Japan — 4:06
  30. Korea — 3:06

Canada is listed well below the global average of 6.5 hours a week. Five-point-four-eight hours translates into a mere 49 minutes a day, on average. Are we losing our minds to TV?

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02/28/14

Conspiracy Theories: 2014 Update


Conspiracy theoriesIt’s time to update a piece I wrote in December, 2012, outlining the secret deals, backroom negotiations and “barbecue politics” that our council has been involved in since that date, more than a year ago.

So here comes the update, the emperor without his clothes:

  • Secret meetings: none
  • Backroom negotiations: none
  • Barbecue deals: none

Sorry, I know this is a disappointment to local conspiracy theorists and bloggers, coming hard on the failure of the world to end as per the Mayan Calendar, or the failure of any number of predicted ends of the world, coupled with the lack of any substantial conspiracy proof against council despite dozens (hundreds?) of Freedom of Information Act requests filed (sorry if the clerk didn’t tell you what sort of lubricant one councillor uses on his chair, though…).

Aliens didn’t make contact in 2013. Bigfoot wasn’t found. Tom Cruise is still in Scientology. Stephen Harper didn’t quit politics and join a monastery. Council didn’t hold any secret meetings.

It was a tough year for psychics and conspiracy theorists alike.

Back at the end of 2012, I wrote:

I can only offer a glimmer of hope that we still have two years left to go, so there’s still a chance we might fail to live up to our oath of office in future. A slim chance, mind you, but those odds don’t stop people from buying lottery tickets.

I have to say, I don’t think it’s going to happen now. We’re sticking stubbornly to the oath. Not only that, we brought in an Integrity Commissioner to ensure the public knows we stay on the straight and narrow.

I also wrote then:

I understand that from the outside, it may look like we’re doing the double-double-toil-and-trouble routine in the “cone of silence” but all we were doing is just treading the slow path of bureaucracy and legality, under the watchful eyes of staff (who wield a rather mean Municipal Act when we stray). We call it “due diligence.”

Not to mention a rather stern CAO who has little tolerance for inappropriate behaviour by councillors, no matter how well-meaning.

Political conspiracy theories get spun by those who don’t participate in or understand how the process of governance works. And like all conspiracy theories ever coined, despite lack of proof, they keep resurfacing and circulating among people who are sure that their government – any level of government – is up to no good.

Clandestine meetings and secret deals  are more exciting, more titillating to believe in than the rather pedestrian, but convoluted process of governance.

You think the truth is out there? The way to find out is to get involved. Working on a committee or sitting at the council table sure strips you of your illusions about government conspiracies. At the very least, sit down with someone who is involved and ask how things work.
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02/26/14

Time to get serious with distracted drivers


Distracted drivingIn March, the fine for being caught texting,  talking on your cell phone, or tinkering with your MP3 player while driving will jump from $155 to $280 in Ontario.

That’s better, but not good enough.

Distracted drivers are a growing threat to everyone sharing the road – other drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. We are all at risk.

As the CBC reported:

The fine for distracted driving in Ontario will soon nearly double.

As of March 18, driving with the display screen of a phone, computer, MP3 player or tablet computer visible to the driver will jump to $280 from $155. The total includes a $25 victim surcharge and $5 court costs.

Last week Ontario chief justice Annemarie Bonkalo signed a judicial order approving the new fines.

The fines will not apply to GPS screens.

It’s not enough. The legislation needs to be tougher. It needs to parallel the legislation about impaired driving, or street racing, with similar penalties and fines.

Curiously, as The Star notes, the provincial Liberals (an inconsistent and meandering party seemingly adrift the policy sea, but that’s another post…) didn’t support one of their own MPP’s private member’s bill which would have increased fines and added demerit points:

…the Liberals haven’t pushed a private member’s bill introduced last year by one of their own MPPs, Bas Balkissoon (Scarborough-Rouge River), calling for fines between $300 and $700 and demerit points after one of his constituents, a young mother and community volunteer, was killed by a distracted driver.
“This is a serious, serious community safety issue,” Balkissoon said. “One way or another, I’ll get it.”
He said he was concerned any legislation the government introduces could be delayed by a spring election, and also said he was “disappointed” Bonkalo set the fine at $280 and not his preferred level of $500, the Highway Traffic Act maximum.

So one has to question how seriously the Liberals take the problem.

As the Economist calls it, distracted driving is the “new drunk driving.”

THE driver who killed Jennifer Smith’s mother in 2008 by hitting her car at a crossroads was sober and had never received a speeding ticket. But he was talking on his mobile phone. He was so engrossed that when the policeman later asked him what colour the traffic light had been, the driver said he had not even seen one.

As the article notes, even hands-free devices add to distracted driving:

The human brain has to work harder to process language and communication with somebody who is not physically present. (Conversation with passengers is much less distracting, apparently because those passengers are also aware of the traffic situation and moderate their conversation.) A study by Carnegie Mellon University using brain imaging found that merely listening to somebody speak on the phone led to a 37% decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, where spatial tasks are processed. This suggests that hands-free use of mobile phones cannot help much. Such distractions, according to one study, make drivers more collision-prone than having a blood-alcohol level of .08%, the legal limit in America. It appears to raise the risk of an accident by four times. Texting multiplies the risk by several times again.

So we need some serious attention paid to technology and its social and cultural impact. One of the reasons our health care costs are skyrocketing seems to be easily found here: distracted drivers are causing an increasing number of accidents and deaths.

Distracted driving sticker

Simply raising the fine won’t change that. Paying $280 may be more of an annoyance to people than a real game changer.

Why don’t we treat it like street racing and stunt driving? That gets the driver an immediate suspension of his/her licence at the roadside, a minimum fine of $2,000, and it can be as high as $10,000. A street racing conviction can mean imprisonment for up to six months. It can also lead to a further suspension of the driver’s licence for up to two years for the first conviction and that can go as high as ten years for a second conviction! A convicted driver’s insurance rates increase 100% for the next three years, plus they get dinged six demerit points!

Now that’s a serious law. Distracted driving law? A slap on the wrist. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s own Road Safety Report for 2010 (the latest published) barely mentions distracted driving. Yet clearly the problem – and threat – is accelerating.

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02/23/14

Lucretius and the Renaissance


WikipediaIt’s fairly clear, even after reading only a few verses, why Lucretius’s didactic poem, On the Nature of Things - De Rerum Natura -  made such an impact on thought, philosophy, religion and science in the Renaissance. It must have been like a lighthouse in the dark night; a “Eureka” moment for many of the age’s thinkers.

For others, especially the church leaders, it must have arrived like a mortar shell among their intellectual certainties and complacencies; shattering walls and window. An act of war that threatened to tear down whole schools of thought and belief.

While today his descriptions of atoms, void, and immortal substance may seem obvious and even a little quaint, they were revelations then, in the Renaissance. They shook the comfortable world picture of the Renaissance and challenged both faith and science.

Yet Lucretius wrote his poem in the time of Julius Caesar, before the Christian church even began. Then it was lost for more than 1,400 years, to be rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. Poggio was hunting lost manuscripts through European monasteries, trying to copy them so he could restore the lost words of the Romans for everyone to read. His discovery of On the Nature of Things was serendipitous in the extreme,* but it opened a Pandora’s box of effects.

Stephen Greenblatt, in his excellent book, The Swerve, about the fortuitous discovery and its impact, opens Chapter Eight with this:

On the Nature of Things is not an easy read. Totaling 7,400 lines, it is written in hexameters, the standard unrhymed six-beat lines in which Latin poets like Virgil and Ovid, imitating Homer’s Greek, cast their epic poetry. Divided into six untitled books, the poem yokes together moments of intense lyrical beauty, philosophical meditations on religion, pleasure and death, and complex theories of the physical world, the evolution of human societies, the perils and joys of sex, and the nature of disease. The language is often knotty and difficult, the syntax complex, and the overall intellectual ambition astoundingly high.

So it’s a tough, challenging read, as much so today as it ever was. I’m reading it, but have to admit it’s a bit of a slog, even in the modern Penguin edition.

Omnis cum in tenebris praesertim vita laboret.
Life is one long struggle in the dark.
Book II, line 54.

It’s astounding how anyone in Caesar’s day could by reason, logical, analysis and inference alone – no highly technical equipment, no advanced mathematics, no electron microscopes, no particle colliders, no Hubble telescope – deduce the structure of the universe was based on atoms. And then to infer that those atoms were constantly in motion, indestructible and timeless.

That’s what the Epicurean philosophers did. Lucretius, perhaps the last of them (or certainly at least the last outstanding Epicurean) put their theories and ideas together into one long, rhetorical poem to teach his fellow Romans what Epicureans stood for.

In doing so, Lucretius deconstructs and dismisses the theories of his contemporaries about the nature of the universe, using the same tools of thought and reason. Those theories – now long dismissed –  fossilized into accepted dogma for many centuries before his book was rediscovered. On the Nature of Things had no less an impact on Renaissance thought than On the Origin of Species had on modern thought.

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