Federal government to anti-vacc parents: No childcare payments

In a proposal supported by the incumbent and opposition governments in Australia, parents who opt out of vaccinating their children will no longer receive federal payments for childcare and family tax.

“Parents who vaccinate their children should have confidence that they can take their children to childcare without the fear that their children will be at risk of contracting a serious or potentially life-threatening illness because of the conscientious objections of others,” Mr Abbott said. […]

The change will need to be approved by Parliament.

There is, fortunately, bipartisan agreement with the facts in this issue.

Under the policy which the coalition took to the last election, and which is supported by Labor, “conscientious objection” would no longer be allowed for parents who refuse to vaccinate their children but still want to receive child care payments and family tax benefit supplements.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said it was a sensible step.

“We believe fundamentally in the science of vaccinations and we fundamentally believe that policy should be made by the best evidence and the best science,” he said.

“And we would say to the Liberal Government, we’re pleased that you’re agreeing with our position and yes we will cooperate to make sure that the safety of our children is what is paramount in public policy.”

As skeptics we should highly applaud the proposal. Parents who through ignorance, whether innocent or wilful, endanger the health of their children and those around them, should not receive public child support funding until they acknowledge the scientific facts of how disease works.

Unhealthy skepticism — When a request for evidence sounds like a hostile accusation

How should we ask for verifiable evidence from someone whose claims, if true, make them and others like them more vulnerable? Simple requests for information can easily be perceived as hostile accusations of fraud.

When one public figure is subject to claims of fraud, and those who previously supported them are shamed for not being more skeptical, people with similar claims often get defensive in a form of collateral damage.

The author, Sarah Darmody, has promoted a book about her cancer and received donations to support her, all the while looking vibrant and healthy. Belle Gibson has done the same.

But in the wake of claims Gibson lied about having cancer, Darmody asks how public scrutiny could be expected to be better:

I [Sarah Darmody] spent a year talking about cancer while looking well. No one ever asked to see a letter from my doctor. No one asked where my surgery was performed. No one questioned why I looked so healthy after enduring what amounted to a debilitating double amputation. No one asked who my physiotherapist was. No one suggested that my then strange-sounding malady might be self-serving bollocks. No one asked to see my scars.

So when I read comments that the well-meaning publishers and supporters of Belle Gibson should have been somehow icily vigilant; that Gibson’s apparent health and youth and unusual-sounding diagnoses should have led to immediate fact-checking and distrust, I want to ask, how? How exactly do you say to a young person who tells you that they were ill and are now looking to help others, “Sorry, I just don’t buy it…”?

On one level, Darmody’s question has an easy response: Don’t say that. Asking for specific evidence doesn’t ever need to be phrased as “you’re a fraud”, it can just as easily come as earnest requests for information.

James Randi has shown us the way for decades. Not in his rightly-hostile castigation of people demonstrated to be frauds; I mean, rather, in the moment of asking questions to claimants. You can look through his countless videos where he actually speaks with the people making extraordinary claims. His questions are not phrased accusingly; they overwhelmingly are polite but insistent requests for specific information about the claims.

Sarah Darmody’s question asks something more insightful, though. The Randi mode of making no accusation while asking for verifiable information is easy to phrase in the form of an honest question, but very difficult to address to the person without it being perceived as a challenge, an accusation of bullshit.

So she asks: How do we exercise critical inquiry without making the claimant, no matter what the truth of their claims, defensive and uncooperative? If we don’t actually get verifiable information out of them, that doesn’t tell us anything useful: it can easily mean they are truthful but unwilling to bear a perceived insult. So it’s counter-productive to provoke that reaction when the claims are true.

It is a good question, and one that is at the core of the skeptical mission: learning how to promote critical inquiry and ask people to reserve judgement in the absence of positive evidence, yet at the same time not make people feel impugned by our (typically repeated) requests for verifiable information.

This is essential to the job of the journalist, of course. My position with regard to publishers, reporters, TV hosts, etc. is that those with whom Gibson or Darmody speak should, with all the benefit of their journalistic training, ask hard questions to get verifiable answers, and proportion their support for the claims to the quality of the supporting evidence.

It is the shame of our current media landscape that it cares so little for journalism that they almost never do this; the times when they do are laudable, but they are also rare exceptions.

For the rest of us? I think we would all do well to keep Darmody’s question in mind, and take care to think how our requests for verifiable evidence sound to those who, even if truthful, will be alert for accusations of falsehood.

We can usually find a way to ask without being perceived as hostile, if we acknowledge the context and tone of our question. Learning to do this better can make us better skeptics, because we actually get more specific answers this way.

Federal court penalizes Homeopathy Plus! over false vaccine claims

A homeopathy seller’s claims, undermining of public health, have been dealt another strong blow in Australian federal court.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) prosecuted Homeopathy Plus! in Australian federal court, and the court has ruled in favour of the ACCC:

The Court found that Homeopathy Plus! and Ms Sheffield engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct and made false or misleading representations by publishing statements on the Homeopathy Plus website to the effect that:

the whooping cough vaccine is short lived, unreliable and no longer effective;
the vaccine may not be the best solution for, of limited effect, and is unreliable at best in protecting against whooping cough; and
the vaccine is largely ineffective in protecting against whooping cough,

when in fact the whooping cough vaccine is effective in protecting a significant majority of people from contracting whooping cough.

By itself, a homeopathic product is wholly ineffective because they are entirely devoid of active ingredients (although the products are regulated very loosely, so the products sold may cause harm if they differ from what the package claims are the ingredients).

When homeopathic practicioners or producers make misleading claims about actual medicine, though, they become agents of harm to public health. It’s very heartening to see the Australian federal court recognise this, and is an excellent evidence-based gift for the Solstice season, to all Australians.

Please be happy and safe in the festive season, and we will see you in 2015!

New CSIRO head wants to make water divining easier for farmers

The incoming leader of our top scientific research organisation is promoting water-dowsing to Australian farmers.

The CSIRO has a new leader, Dr. Larry Marshall, who will take the reins in 2014-12.

Currently the managing director of the California-based Southern Cross Venture Partners, an outfit specialising in creating and growing Australian technology companies, Dr Marshall holds a doctorate in physics from Macquarie University. He has 20 patents to his name and has co-founded six companies.

The 52-year-old, who admits he hasn’t applied for a job in 25 years, suspects it was this combination of science and business that got him the CSIRO’s top job following a competitive global search.

“I started as a scientist, became an entrepreneur and learnt a lot about business the hard way,” he said.

[…]
Innovation Minister Ian Macfarlane, whose portfolio takes in science, welcomed Dr Marshall’s appointment.

Highlighting his commercial background, Mr Macfarlane said Dr Marshall’s arrival came at a time when the agency was embarking on a “significant new phase” in which the CSIRO would play an increasingly important role in the economy. This included strengthening links between business and science, he said.

The leader of CSIRO is chiefly welcomed by Australia’s Innovation Minister? What about our Science Minister? Oh that’s right, Australia’s current government has scrapped the ministry for science. Instead, our Prime Minister has appointed himself the head of a Science Council, with no minister responsible for science — and CSIRO left to the mercies of the “industry” portfolio.

So our federal government’s appointed head of CSIRO, Larry Marshall, himself seems to place much more emphasis on what is financially profitable than what is scientifically sound. He’s not been working as a scientist for a very long time; the past 25 years was spent as a venture capitalist.

And now, on the basis that charlatans can fool him, he wants to use his new position as head of CSIRO to fund research for water dowsing.

He’d like to see the development of technology that would make it easier for farmers to dowse or divine for water on their properties.

“I’ve seen people do this with close to 80 per cent accuracy and I’ve no idea how they do it,” he said.

“When I see that as a scientist, it makes me question, ‘is there instrumentality that we could create that would enable a machine to find that water?’

“I’ve always wondered whether there’s something in the electromagentic field, or gravitation anomaly.”

Dr Marshall believes the CSIRO can ‘push the envelope’ with such projects and contribute to improving agricultural productivity.

Really? Shouldn’t we reserve funding for technologies whose claimed phenomenon can pass a simple blinded controlled objective study, rather than assuming Larry Marshall has seen it and he can’t be fooled? (The Victorian Skeptics has a guide to dowsing among other educational materials.)

In an age when all of climate science shows that we are in for, among other catastrophic results, devastating drought unless we act now to reverse our damaging activities, Australia’s leading government science body will spend its precious attention on pseudoscience and fakery.

We are under the rule of one of the worst governments in Australian history, in terms of the scientific soundness of policy.

The stubborn persistence of false beliefs

Maria Konnikova at The New Yorker gives us a familiar truth phrased in understatement:

Until recently, attempts to correct false beliefs haven’t had much success.

In Why do people persist in believing things that just aren’t true? she reports on recent research into the factors influencing the stubbornness of people’s false views of the world.

One such researcher is Brendan Nyhan, who did a longitudinal study into how the beliefs of parents changed on the topic of childhood vaccination, before and after various kinds of pro-vaccination campaign.

The result was dramatic: a whole lot of nothing. None of the interventions worked. The first leaflet—focussed on a lack of evidence connecting vaccines and autism—seemed to reduce misperceptions about the link, but it did nothing to affect intentions to vaccinate. It even decreased intent among parents who held the most negative attitudes toward vaccines, a phenomenon known as the backfire effect. The other two interventions fared even worse: the images of sick children increased the belief that vaccines cause autism, while the dramatic narrative somehow managed to increase beliefs about the dangers of vaccines. “It’s depressing,” Nyhan said. “We were definitely depressed,” he repeated, after a pause.

Stephan Lewandowsky has conducted psychological research into how humans treat misinformation and correction: a series of studies presented a scenario, with or without racial information, followed by retracting or not retracting the racial information.

Everyone’s memory worked correctly: the students could all recall the details of the crime and could report precisely what information was or wasn’t retracted. But the students who scored highest on racial prejudice continued to rely on the racial misinformation that identified the perpetrators as Aboriginals, even though they knew it had been corrected. They answered the factual questions accurately, stating that the information about race was false, and yet they still relied on race in their inference responses, saying that the attackers were likely Aboriginal or that the store owner likely had trouble understanding them because they were Aboriginal. This was, in other words, a laboratory case of the very dynamic that Nyhan identified: strongly held beliefs continued to influence judgment, despite correction attempts—even with a supposedly conscious awareness of what was happening.

The growing impression is that false beliefs are easy to change *only* if they are not tied to the person’s self identity or group identity.

If someone asked you to explain the relationship between the Earth and the sun, you might say something wrong: perhaps that the sun rotates around the Earth, rising in the east and setting in the west. A friend who understands astronomy may correct you. It’s no big deal; you simply change your belief.

But imagine living in the time of Galileo, when understandings of the Earth-sun relationship were completely different, and when that view was tied closely to ideas of the nature of the world, the self, and religion. What would happen if Galileo tried to correct your belief? The process isn’t nearly as simple. The crucial difference between then and now, of course, is the importance of the misperception. When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.

This important difference informs possible improvements in approaches to correct false beliefs that are unfortunately tied to a person’s identity.

Normally, self-affirmation is reserved for instances in which identity is threatened in direct ways: race, gender, age, weight, and the like. Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without. That effect held even when no additional information was presented—that is, when people were simply asked the same questions twice, before and after the self-affirmation.

Still, as Nyhan is the first to admit, it’s hardly a solution that can be applied easily outside the lab. “People don’t just go around writing essays about a time they felt good about themselves,” he said. And who knows how long the effect lasts—it’s not as though we often think good thoughts and then go on to debate climate change.

The message is a poingnant and important one for skeptics:

Facts and evidence, for one, may not be the answer everyone thinks they are: they simply aren’t that effective, given how selectively they are processed and interpreted. Instead, why not focus on presenting issues in a way keeps broader notions out of it—messages that are not political, not ideological, not in any way a reflection of who you are?

The harm of “traditional remedies”: Rhino horn for a hangover

A rhinoceros killed by poachers in Karbi hills, near India’s Kaziranga National Park. (AP Photo)

Via MSN, we learn that one of the most iconic African species is under additional threat of extinction, because of uncritical Vietnamese customers purchasing rhinoceros horn for magical cures for anything from cancer to hangovers:

What happened in 2008 to prompt a resurgence in demand? The closest guess is a rumor that swept Vietnam in the mid-2000s that imbibing rhino horn powder had cured a Vietnamese politician’s cancer. That rumor persists to this day. And note that this has nothing to do with traditional Chinese medicine. As Huijun Shen, the president of the UK Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine explained to Nature magazine, there’s no record of using rhino horn to treat cancer in nearly two millennia worth of Chinese medical texts (p.23).

In Vietnam, however, at least some respected doctors vouch for rhino horn’s cancer-curing properties. One woman who purchased $2,000 worth of horn powder on her doctors’ advice.

There will never be a shortage of devastation of our natural world, until the demand for that devastation is ended. Fighting against magical thinking, and marginalising ludicrous “traditional remedy” claims, is a key element and a worthy aim for skeptics.

The story behind those creationism test papers

The Blue Ridge Christian Academy 4th grade 'science' quiz that went viral.

The Blue Ridge Christian Academy 4th grade ‘science’ quiz that went viral. Click to embiggen.

You’ve probably seen these images before. They’ve been circulating around the internet for the last month or so. An American 4th grade ‘science’ test from a school that’s clearly teaching Young Earth Creationism. The student has gotten full marks, for answering the most ludicrous questions.

According to the test, dinosaurs were the size of sheep, lived with humans on a planet less than a billion years old. Fossils were caused by a ‘global flood’, and the Bible is the ‘history book of the universe’. To anyone who challenges these ideas, the child should simply ask “Where you there?”. Yeah, that’ll show ’em.

So it’s not surprising this test went viral. The claims are so ridiculous, they are ripe for condemnation. Identifying the school that supplied the test turned out to be a challenge. To the degree that even Snopes.com thought they could be faked (at the time of writing, it’s status is ‘Undetermined’)  – surely no school could actually be teaching that sort of stuff? But eventually Australian ex-patriot Ken Ham, President of Answers in Genesis, revealed the school in a blog post.

In South Carolina recently, a fourth-grade teacher at Blue Ridge Christian Academy (a nondenominational K–12 Christian school) showed students a DVD of a children’s program, in which AiG song-writer and dinosaur sculptor Buddy Davis and I are featured. In this DVD, we teach children the history of the universe from the Bible, with a special emphasis on teaching dinosaurs from a biblical perspective (as we do inside our Creation Museum). The teacher handed out a question sheet to the children to test what they learned from the DVD…
A friend of one of the parents who has a child enrolled in the fourth grade class posted the quiz sheets on the internet. The parent, like all parents who have children enrolled at this academy, had signed a statement, which acknowledged an understanding that sending their child to this Christian school would mean they would be taught biblical Christianity. The parent expressed dismay that his daughter was taught a biblical approach to dinosaurs. The quiz’s posting to the internet resulted in a number of atheist websites reposting the questions and answers, and many of them responded in rage and vehement attacks on the school.

If,  when Ken describes “rage and vehement attacks”, he means threats of violence or personal attacks, then that’s something I cannot condone. But I suspect he’s actually referring to people ridiculing his beliefs and criticising the brainwashing of children with nonsense. If that’s the case, it’s to be encouraged. Young Earth Creationism is something that has been so thoroughly debunked it has absolutely no place being taught in a science class. This is a timely reminder that we need to actively campaign to keep religion – especially Young Earth Creationism – out of science class.

For the full story of the Blue Ridge Christian Academy science quiz papers, including samples of the ‘attacks’ and summaries of some of the other subjects taught at the school, read The Friendly Atheist’s post.

A response is received from the Chiropractic Board of Australia

Earlier this week I republished Mick Vagg’s article from The Conversation, Concerns about chiros are about quality and safety, not some phoney turf war. Mick’s posted another article on The Conversation, detailing a response he received from the Chiropractic Board of Australia.

Mick writes:

First up, let me say I welcome the response from the statutory regulator to my piece. I raised what were for me some very concerning issues, and I can say that their response is reassuring in many places.

Read the full article at The Conversation.

Concerns about chiros are about quality and safety, not some phoney turf war

A man giving a chiropractic 'treatment'. Image: Jim Dubel Chiropractic / WikiMedia Commons

A man giving a chiropractic ‘treatment’.
Image: Jim Dubel Chiropractic / WikiMedia Commons

By Michael Vagg, Barwon Health

This weekend saw another exchange of views between chiropractors, the AMA and the Friends of Science in Medicine. It was set off by a number of stories by Amy Corderoy, the Health Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, here and here and here. In a nutshell, the issue was that government funding of chiropractic care for children under 14 was reported to have risen by 185% in four years. This prompted the AMA and others to question the advisability of this spending given the poor scientific evidence base for such care, as well as the potential for harm to children given that no clear benefit has been established. A particularly worrying point was the apparent tacit support of the Chiropractic Board of Australia for professional development courses run by opponents of mass immunisation. The response from the Chiropractors’ Association of Australia (CAA) can be found here. Predictably enough, the CAA has chosen to cast chiropractors as the hapless victims of a league of overpaid bullies representing unnamed but powerful medical interests.

What concerns me? The back story…

What particularly concerns me is the near-complete avoidance of any plausible effort to address the concerns raised by the AMA and FSM. The CAA release simply dismisses them as “purported concerns” and claims there is no evidence presented to back them up. According to one of the SMH articles,

National director of the Chiropractors Association of Australia Tony Croke said in the past 40 years no serious adverse health consequences of chiropractic had been recorded in a child.

Well, I have some news for CAA. It took me about a minute to find it on PubMed. Here is one case. And here is another. Here is a whole systematic review of serious adverse events in children receiving chiropractic care, including some fatalities. How about some more evidence to support the concerns raised in the SMH that chiropractic continuing professional development (professional education or CPD) actively supports presenters with an anti-vaccination agenda? Here is a flyer for Tim O’Shea, a well-known antivax chiropractor. As you can see, it was advertised as “CAA Accredited”. Nimrod Weiner, the CAA’s current NSW Branch Secretary has regularly presented a “vaccination information” seminar that is packed with misleading inaccuracies. Chiropractors remain by far the largest professional group supporting the Australian Vaccination Network. A paper presented at a major international chiropractic conference gives more cause for concern about the teaching of attitudes to immunisation in chiropractic training. (the abstract concerned is on page 63). This Canadian study demonstrated that positive attitudes to vaccination declined from 60% among first-year students (which is worrying enough you might think) to under 40% by fourth year and graduation. What is it about going to train as a chiropractor that could convince a third of those with pro-vaccination attitudes to drop their support?

Denial of public health responsibilities is unacceptable

If the CAA figure of 215,000 weekly visits to chiropractors is to be believed, the antivax activities of chiropractors may be creating a huge reservoir of underimmunised Australians. Preventable diseases spread quickly where such reservoir populations exist. For an AHPRA Board to tolerate the creation of such a massive threat to public health is frankly alarming. It’s not that hard to join these dots, yet the Chiropractic Board of Australia (CBA) seems unable to understand or accept that as a regulated profession, chiropractic shares the responsibility for maintaining public health. Resorting to the PR technique of pretending to know nothing about immunisation isn’t good enough. The CBA has released a position statement advising that,

Patients have the right to make their own health decisions, but they need to be appropriately informed about the benefits and the risks to both the individual and the broader community associated with their health decisions. Practitioners may often be asked to provide information not directly relevant to their competency or the scope of their practice; in such cases patients should be referred to someone with sufficient expertise in that field to have their questions or concerns addressed. Advice about vaccination is not typically within the usual area of practice for a chiropractor. Current evidence indicates that preventative measures such as vaccination are a cost and clinically effective public health procedure for certain viral and microbial diseases.

The Board would clearly seem to have a direct and insoluble conflict of opinion with the likes of Tim O’Shea and the (soon to be renamed) Australian Vaccination Network, who both provide CPD resources to chiropractors.

Restoring credibility

In the interest of being seen as constructive, I’ll give some free advice to the CBA and CAA. Following these suggestions would go some way towards restoring some badly needed credibility for both organisations.

  1. CAA should stop pretending that children have never been harmed by chiropractors, and should publicly retract their assurances to the contrary. After all, I’ve already pointed them towards some published evidence with a brief online search. I’m sure there’s probably more to find.
  2. CBA should decline to acknowledge the CPD hours of those who have attended events which have a clear antivax agenda. It’s the least they could do now it is clear that CPD credit shouldn’t have been given to events which conflict with the Board’s clear directives.
  3. Both CAA and CBA should acknowledge that chiropractors have a public health duty to participate in immunisation and recommend it to the general public. They should do this to prevent the creation of a large community who all are in contact with each other and have inadequate herd immunity.
  4. CAA and CBA should encourage chiropractors to be educated about immunisation if they are of the opinion that it is not a particular area of expertise. Instead of giving their imprimatur to vaccine deniers, they could award CPD hours for undertaking online courses such as this one from the University of Pennsylvania.
  5. Both organisations should acknowledge that the scientific rationale for treating children with chiropractic methods is substandard. The usual course for a responsible profession is that such treatments should be considered experimental, and not offered widely until compelling evidence of their safety and effectiveness exists. Neither should endorse treatment for children with the current state of the literature, since harm can exist, and benefits are not established.

This isn’t a turf war

It is quite clear that this is not a turf war. It never was. With just over 4300 registered chiropractors compared to over 91,000 registered doctors I don’t think we’ll be seeing doctors lining up at Centrelink due to chiropractors taking over any time soon. Despite the protestations of CAA, this is very much a quality and safety issue. In large part it has been brought about by the ongoing denial of chiropractors that they have such responsibilities. People like myself, the AMA, FSM and many others expect a lot of an AHPRA-regulated profession. We are not picking on chiros as much as we are holding them to the same standards we would expect of any health profession. I’m sure many rank-and-file chiropractors would welcome decisive leadership from the largest of their professional bodies to put these issues to rest.

Michael Vagg does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

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A Week in Science – 15 March 2013

Paul Willis, from the Royal Institution of Australia, presents a weekly video update of the news in science. Each show goes for 3 – 5 minutes, and is always worth watching.

Here’s this week’s episode, featuring Martian life, ‘hearing’ earthquakes and annoying phone talk:

Check the RIAus page for more information about each story.