Antivaxxers grow increasingly bolder

December 30, 2011

Over the last year, the anti-vaccination movement has grown more bold in their misinformation campaigns. It began Thanksgiving weekend of 2010, where they tried to advertise their propaganda in AMC movie theaters. This effort was thwarted however in no small part because of SkepChick activist Elyse Anders. Then months later, they succeeded in getting a commercial running on the Time Square CBS Jumbotron. And last month, they succeeded in getting Delta Airlines to air their propaganda on flights.

Each time Elyse Anders used a change.org petition to influence those who have agreed to work with these antivaccine groups and I discussed this during my recent SkeptiCamp talk, which was focused on promoting more skeptical activism in NYC because as great as Elyse has been for NYC, she doesn’t live here and I hate needing her to fight our local battles when we have a sizable skeptical community, many of whom I suspect would be interested in skeptical activism.

Well now the inaccurately named National Vaccine Information Center is back to their old tricks and are currently, as well as during New Years, running another dishonest ad in Times Square on ABC Full Circle’s 5000 square foot TSQ Digital Screen. And the ad is scheduled to run during the New Years celebration. Also, Jenny McCarthy will be part of the televised show and has promised to try to draw attention to the ad.

And again, since there’s no organized NYC skeptical activism…yet (hopefully more on this soon!), New York’s protector, Elyse Anders, is back with another change.org petition. Please sign this petition urging ABC to pull the ad at once.

Yay! Sweet, sweet death!

Now unfortunately, that’s not the only antivaccine news story lately. The antivaccine Australian Vaccination Network is currently promoting a children’s book that teaching kids that measles is awesome. I shit you not. The book is called Melanie’s Marvelous Measles, and it’s written by a woman named Stephanie Messenger. I’m reminded of another children’s author who wrote about measles, Roald Dahl. Though he wasn’t marveling at the disease so much as cursing it for having killed his kid. For more commentary on this sickening book, check out PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson and Reasonable Hank.

The other big news from Australia was that the head of the Australian Vaccination Network, Meryl Dorey was originally scheduled to give a talk at the Woodford Folk Festival about the evils of vaccines. After our friends at the Australian Skeptics campaigned against it, her talk transformed into a panel featuring Dorey and a bunch of actual qualified experts with the know-how to demolish her arguments. But the Australian Skeptics didn’t stop there. They amusingly paid to have an airplane fly over the Festival with a sign reading:  VACCINATION SAVES LIVES.

Bravo Australian Skeptics on a job well done. Now we just need to bring the same level of activism to NYC.

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News From Around The Blogosphere 5.23.11

May 23, 2011
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1. Actor Paul Giamatti identifies himself as an atheist – Yup, in keeping with centuries of Jewish tradition, Mr. Giamatti doesn’t believe in any gods. He even goes further than many other celebrity atheists in that he’s not afraid to even use the label “atheist.”

2. Australian distributor of Power Balance bracelets goes out of business

The Australian distributor of the controversial Power Balance wristbands will be placed into receivership today, with the owner of the business saying that sales have “evaporated” since the business provided undertakings to the ACCC to stop claiming the wristbands could improve balance, strength and flexibility.

Power Balance Australia owner Tom O’Dowd has exclusively told SmartCompany that while he had been “naive” in thinking that the business would not by [sic] subject to laws surrounding the regulation of health products, the ACCC’s aggressive stance against the products effectively killed off any survival hopes.

3. 60 Minutes reports on Lance Armstrong scandal – Last week, I defended a piece by 60 Minutes about the cult group calling themselves Sovereign Citizens, but this week, I’m taking issue with one of their stories. Now I haven’t been following the investigation into possible use of performance-enhancing drugs among professional bicyclists, nor the particular accusations against Lance Armstrong. But it seems to me, at least as it was presented on 60 Minutes, that the real story here is an abuse of government power. From what I could tell, the entire investigation has turned into a witch hunt based not on any empirical evidence, but on nothing more than hearsay.

Now maybe Armstrong cheated and maybe he didn’t. I have no clue, nor any commitment to either conclusion. Certainly, as with any professional athlete, there is a clear motivation to cheat…at least as long as one  can keep it a secret, as exposure would almost certainly destroy one’s career. But if federal officials couldn’t even nab Al Capone for anything other than tax evasion, why is it that they can potentially bring down Lance Armstrong without anything other than the testimonies and conspiracy theories of people who may have a grudge against him?

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Skeptics get Power Balance to admit their wristband product doesn’t work

December 22, 2010

The Australian Skeptics have been fighting to expose the Power Balance scam for some time now. Power Balance are rubber wristbands with little hologram on them that are marketed with all sorts of vague claims like improving the wearers’ balance, strength, flexibility, etc.  But no longer:

As of today the manufacturers will no longer be making those claims, after a ruling proved them to be unsubstantiated. What follows is a press release from the ACCC explaining further, but it’s worth pointing out that without the work of the Australian Skeptics in demonstrating the falsehood of Power Balance’s claims this ruling would never have happened. So, once again – excellent work, guys!

Misleading advertising claims about the alleged benefits of Power Balance wristbands and pendants have been withdrawn by the manufacturer after Australian Competition and Consumer Commission intervention.

As a result consumers will be offered a refund if they feel they have been misled and Power Balance has agreed not to supply any more products that are misleadingly labelled.

“Suppliers of these types of products must ensure that they are not claiming supposed benefits when there is no supportive scientific evidence,” ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel said today.

Power Balance has admitted that there is no credible scientific basis for the claims and therefore no reasonable grounds for making representations about the benefits of the product. Power Balance has acknowledged that its conduct may have contravened the misleading and deceptive conduct section of the Trade Practices Act 1974.

Another great victory for science and reason!

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Robot News 10.18.10

October 19, 2010

I found two interesting robot-related news stories.

1. First, Australian computer scientist Graham Mann is working on developing algorithms to simulate day-dreaming. Believing that an intelligent system requires built-in emotions to function, he set out to translate the “feel” of Aesop’s Fables for machines. In other words, his goal was to achieve more flexible processing of storylines, which were deemed “simple and short enough to represent as conceptual graph data structures”.

His algorithm was based on Plutchick’s Wheel of Emotions, which illustrated emotions as a colour wheel and disallowed mutually exclusive states – like joy and sadness – from being experienced simultaneously.

The machine freely associated three stories: The Thirsty Pigeon; The Cat and the Cock; and The Wolf and the Crane.

When queried on the association, the machine responded: “I felt sad for the bird.”

No, the machine’s not really feeling sad, but it seems to be able to recognize that that’s an appropriate human-like reaction to the story.  And that in itself might be a major accomplishment in the continued pursuit of AI.

2. The other story isn’t so much news as already available footage that was new to me of the rat-brain-controlled robot. If you hadn’t heard about this before, researchers had previously used the brain cells of rats, cultured them, and then in true Robocop fashion, used them as the guidance control circuit for simple wheeled robots. The cells are able to form new connections that turn the machine into a true learning robot. If this isn’t a huge step forward on the path to AI I don’t know what is.

Take a look at this robot that is literally being controlled by biological cells:

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AVN loses its charity status

October 14, 2010

The Australian Vaccination Network (AVN – not to be confused with the Adult Video Network) has been stripped of its status as a charitable organization on account that it’s, you know, not really a charitable organization but just anti-vaccination propaganda distribution center.

Well, the official reason is that the Australian Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) found the organization’s appeals to have not been in good faith. You see, as I’d written about several months ago, the AVN was ordered to post a disclaimer on their website telling visitors that the site should not be read as medical advice and that the site is not an objective source on vaccines but rather is ideologically determined to oppose vaccination.

But you see, Meryl Dorey and her organization chose to ignore that ruling and not advertise their bias. Soooo, that brings us to today, when the New South Wales Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing (OLGR) revoked the AVN’s charitable status on the grounds it had failed to publish the recommended disclaimer.

“This has led to appeals not being conducted in good faith,” the office says in a letter sent to the AVN.

“The organisation’s website is misleading in that it may lead people making donations to believe they are donating to a cause which promotes vaccination, whereas the organisation adopts an anti-vaccination position.”

This all follows copyright infringement charges made against the organization a month and a half ago.

Suffice it to say, this has not been a good year for Meryl Dorey and her Orwellian “Ministry of Truth.” And unfortunately for Ms. Dorey, this is only the beginning as we will take apart her organization piece by piece. The blood of Dana McCaffery and possibly other infants is on her hands, and we’ll make sure she never forgets it.

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News From Around The Blogosphere 7.13.10

July 14, 2010

1. Church sued because world didn’t end – Two members of Australia’s Agape Ministries donated $1.4 million under the belief that doomsday was coming. But when the doomsday came and went without incident, they demanded their money back since it their generous gift was predicated on the church’s lies of impending doom.

2. Muslim Cleric calls for death to ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’ cartoonist – Although we must take Anwar al-Awlaki‘s threat seriously, I suspect nothing will happen to Molly Norris, the subject of his outrage. Even he’s got to realize that the golden age of the West folding under the threats of Islamofascism are over. That was the indeed the whole point of Everybody Draw Mohammed Day in the first place. They can’t get all of us and there’s safety in numbers. Further, like a quicksand, every recent attempt by Muslim fundamentalists to quash “blasphemy” has only causes them to sink even faster. These scare tactics no longer work and only end up blowing up in their own faces (no pun intended, Muslim suicide bombers) in the Internet Age.

3. 2012 survivalist nut appears on Wife Swap -Yup, it’s another doomsday-related news story:

Dawn, a staunch 2012 believer, makes her adopted clan — a family whose daughter is a golf prodigy — train for the end of the world. “Apocalypse training” apparently means wearing matching camo shirts and making your dog don a flotation vest. Amazing television.

You can see a clip of this in the link above.

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Australian Vaccination Network condemned by health authorities for harassing & misleading parents

July 13, 2010

I’ve written before about the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN – [snicker]) and its despicable leader, Meryl Dorey. Now it seems that Australian health officials have something to say about them as well. The New South Wales Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) has produced a report condemning the claims and activities of the AVN.

Unfortunately, the HCCC is only demanding the AVN to place an easily ignorable disclaimer on their website. According to the HCCC’s AVN Final Report (PDF):

The Australian Vaccination Network should include an appropriate statement in a prominent position on its website which states:

  1. the Australian Vaccination Network’s purpose is to provide information against vaccination in order to balance what it believes is the substantial amount of pro-vaccination information available elsewhere;
  2. the information provided should not be read as medical advice; and
  3. the decision about whether or not to vaccinate should be made in consultation with a health care provider.

The report also makes reference to the alleged harassment of the parents of Dana McCaffery, a 4-week-old Australian infant who died of the easily preventable pertussis specifically because she was too young to receive the vaccine and the disease was allowed to spread by irresponsible locals who chose not to vaccinate.

ABC covered the story here:

And you can hear more of Meryl Dorey spouting out dangerous misinformation on a radio show where fortunately, the hosts weren’t buying her bullshit.

Meryl Dorey and the AVN are so despicable they make the Westboro Baptist Church seem pleasant by comparison.

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News From Around The Blogosphere 6.29.10

June 29, 2010

I am so behind on news stories that I’m going to ignore my usual rule of keeping this News From Around The Blogosphere chunk to only a few stories in order to play catch-up over the next few days.

1. Australia elects atheist Prime Minister…who sadly turns out to be anti-gay – Early reports of Julia Gillard’s appointment were met with cheers from the atheist community but now some of our hopes may have been dashed as news comes out that she opposes marriage equality:

“We believe the marriage act is appropriate in its current form, that is recognising that marriage is between a man and a woman, but we have as a government taken steps to equalise treatment for gay couples,” Ms Gillard said.

Seriously, how does that sentence come out of the mouth of an atheist?

2. Copenhagen atheists create declaration of principles – The principle focus on religion’s role in public life.

3. Chuck Norris vs. the Secular Student Alliance SSA – Chuck’s pissed that with all the crises happening in the world, Obama found time to honor the SSA but has neglected the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and feels its’ persecution or something. What is it with these Christians who think just being their wishes aren’t met, that makes it persecution? No Bill Donohue, the Empire State Building is not honoring Mother Teresa, so get over it. Anyway, for some reason Chuck feels the BSA should have been invited to a conference on “Advancing Interfaith and Community Service on College and University Campuses.” Why I don’t know. I guess Chuck still harboring a grudge against atheists ever since Bruce Lee kicked his ass. Personally, I’m still waiting for Chuck to respond to the email I wrote him three years ago.

4. Robot fish is accepted by shoal as one of their own – Wow, it’s kind of like Avatar except instead of the dude from the last Terminator film transferring his consciousness into a biological shell, it’s a frakkin’ robot.

University of Leeds scientists have created the first convincing robotic fish that shoals will accept as one of their own. The innovation opens up new possibilities for studying fish behaviour and group dynamics, which provides useful information to support freshwater and marine environmental management, to predict fish migration routes and assess the likely impact of human intervention on fish populations.

Robots–is there any news story they can’t make awesome?

5. UK trying to ban homeopathy

Recently representatives of the British Medical Association (BMA) condemned homeopathy as “witchcraft.”Now the BMA is going one step further – calling for a ban on homeopathy in the UK. They do not want homeopathy to be illegal, but they want a ban on any National Health Service (NHS) support for homeopathy. The NHS currently spends about 20 million pounds a year on homeopathic remedies (about 0.01% of the NHS budget) and maintains four homeopathic hospitals. This is a small amount overall – but anything spent on homeopathy is a waste. More importantly, as the BMA notes, homeopathy has “‘no place in the modern health service.’

6. Nick Fury, Black Widow, and S.H.I.E.L.D. to investigate Phil Plait? – Apparently someone over at Marvel Comics is a fan of the Bad Astronomy blog because Phil Plaits’ name is in Black Widow’s phonebook.

7. Teenager turns into Spiderman – In other Marvel Comics-related news:

A Cambridge schoolboy has converted two budget vacuum cleaners into a Spiderman gadget which helps him scale walls.

Hibiki Kono, 13, a big fan of the superhero, made the incredible climbing machine using the suction from two Tesco Value vacuum cleaners.

The schoolboy then amazed his friends by using the giant suckerpads to climb the school wall during morning assembly.

“I used to dress up as Spiderman when I was younger and I love all the films so it’s great to be able to climb walls like him,” said Hibiki.

You sir, are awesome.

8. Stem Cells cure blindness

STEM cells have restored sight to 82 people with eyes blinded by chemical or heat burns.

Once again, as Carl Sagan once said, science delivers the goods.


This Week in God 6.7.10

June 8, 2010

1. If Cat Stevens wants to sing out, he can’t sing out. If he wants to be free, he’ll have to abandon Islam – Yusuf Islam aka the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens may soon be banned from Australia thanks to a member of the Australian Parliament, Peter Kavanagh. The reason Kavanagh doesn’t want Stevens/Islam to perform in the country is that he’s publicly stated that he wants Salman Rushdie to die because of the Islamic fatwa against Rushdie over his book, The Satanic Verses:

“Yusuf has evaded on this matter for years,” he said. ”I call on the Minister for Immigration to deny Mr Yusuf a visa to enter Australia unless he publicly and categorically states that he does not and will not support the murder of any person for the expression of views, no matter how offensive.”

In other words, he wants the artist who once sang Peace Train to publicly condemn violence. I’m sure that will happen any day now. Yup, any day now.

Boobquake!

And speaking of fatwas:

2. Saudi Clerics are advocating adult breast-feeding because of fatwa – A fatwa has been declared calling for adults to breast-feed to establish “maternal relations” and preclude the possibility of sexual contact.

Some have found the debate so bizarre that they’re calling for stricter regulations about how and when fatwas should be issued.

Stricter regulations? But c’mon. If this doesn’t warrant a fatwa, nothing does (and I sincerely mean that).

3. Oh, and in more Islamic related story, here’s a look into the secret school for girls:

It’s a loving religion, isn’t it?

4. Some Christian fundamentalists see the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a sign of the apocalypse – Really, wouldn’t it just be easier to compile a list of things that aren’t a sign of the apocalypse to these people?

5. South Australia overrules Jehovah’s Witnesses right to let their kids die

In a South Australian legal first, the Supreme Court this afternoon gave the Women’s and Children’s Hospital the right to give a 10-year-old boy – a member of the Jehovah’s Witness faith – transfusions as part of his cancer treatment.

The decision, in line with similar rulings from around the world, paves the way for hospitals to take action in future debates with religious parents.

Sorry kid but you’re just going to have to wait a while before going to heaven.


News From Around The Blogosphere 6.3.10

June 3, 2010

1. Al-Jazeera’s female anchors fleeing over ‘immodest’ dress

Five female anchors at Al-Jazeera, the Arabic news network, have quit after being pressured by executives to wear more modest clothing. Lest you think Al-Jazeera is anything like Naked News, you should know that these anchors usually don’t wear anything sexier than a blouse under a suit jacket.

I guess these women should just be grateful Al-Jazeera allows them to speak at all, right? It sounds like we need another boobquake.

2. Australian officials investigating $cientology’s slave wages – I look forward to hearing Spokesman Tommy Davis reversing the accusations of these ungrateful asshole former members who felt they were above making a few thousand dollars a year and that it was really the accusers who criminally underpaid $cientology.

Janette Lang, who worked for the church for seven years, says the most she was paid in a year was $3,114 in 2001.

Yeah, but that was back in 2001. I mean wasn’t that like equivalent to a bajillion dollars today?

3. Are our airports being protected with pseudoscience? – Airport security has begun using a program called Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT) where TSA employees supposedly learn how to identify suspicious travelers:

SPOT is supposed to help pick out people who are trying to hide their cruel intentions. The pushy, cranky guy behind you in line who’s yelling at his kid = no. Sneaky terrorists trying to look innocent = yes.The problem, of course, is that there’s no evidence this system works any better than a lie detector. Which, just to be perfectly clear, means it doesn’t work.

While we’re at it maybe we should start using dowsing rods to detect bombs.

4. Crazy Christian bringing Jesus to high schools – Bradlee Dean of “You Can Run But You Cannot Hide Ministries” convinces schools to let him “perform” for the kids with a rock concert with an anti-drug and anti-sex message only to then turn around and proselytize to them. Oh, and did I mention that Dean believes in killing gay people:

5. Ellie Wiesel calls for censorship – I share Orac’s disappointment over Wiesel’s call for the censorship of Holocaust denialist rhetoric. Not only do idiots have the fundamental right to voice their idiocy but even if this could be morally justified, it’d only help spread Holocaust denial as then scumbags like David Irving would have an excuse to argue that their views are being censored. Irving and his cohorts would shout, if we’ve got truth on our side, what do we have to hide? And he wouldn’t be wrong. We don’t have anything to hide.

In case Wiesel hasn’t noticed, Holocaust denial was been successfully relegated to the fringe and shows no signs of that changing. I fear Wiesel is far too emotionally attached to this one issue and is just guilty of applying special pleading here.

6. The Little Black Book of Scams available for free – If you follow the link, it will take you to a .pdf file containing a 46-page e-book exposing all kinds of common scams. Because we’re all capable of being fooled by con artists, I highly recommend everyone check this out.