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.

Patients indulge wishful thinking in medicine

We humans are a species of animal that tends to look for the hopeful side of anything, especially when addressing our health.

A new meta-study conducted at Bond University in Australia finds that most patients are unreasonably optimistic about the potential benefits and the risks of medical procedures.

“What struck us is that, in general, people thought that treatments were going to be much more beneficial to them [than the evidence suggested],” says researcher Professor Chris del Mar of Bond University.

“And that the harms would be much less,” says del Mar.

He says clinicians and patients need to make decisions based on more accurate information on the pros and cons of such interventions.

“This is one of the most important ways we can save the healthcare system from going bust.”

Del Mar and Associate Professor Tammy Hoffmann carried out a systematic review of 35 studies analysing patient expectations of tests and treatments.

The studies covered such interventions as mammography, prostate specific antigen (PSA) tests, angioplasty, stem cell transplants, statins, kidney transplants, bariatric surgery, inflammatory bowel disease drugs and resuscitation after a cardiac arrest.

This wishful thinking must be a factor in the general mistrust of medical science. Either the facts are poorly communicated by the medical profession, and/or patients are strongly prejudiced against factual assessment — biasing their understanding toward the overly optimistic.

Such mistrust in medical science is powerfully exploited by practicioners of alternatives to medicine, whether they are “Big Placebo”, “Big Herba”, or any other industry of quacks preying on the sick and vulnerable who hope for more.

The science-based medical profession is often rightly criticised for spending so little time with each patient that they treat symptoms, not people. This in turn is also exploited by charlatans promising “holistic” treatment, but providing nothing more than would be expected from paying closer attention to overall health with any non-expert.

The Bond University researchers argue that better consultation is needed in medicine, but find that this doesn’t need to occupy significantly more time.

Del Mar says some people argue that more talk will lead to longer consultations but he says studies show this is a “myth”.

“You can do it all in the same time frame. All you’re doing is exchanging one kind of discourse with another,” he says.

“It does require a change in mindset.”

In fact, evidence suggests more talk results in less intervention, says del Mar, citing the case of PSA testing.

“If you talk to people first before you do the screening, and explain all the downstream consequences of being screened, a lot of men say they don’t want it,” he says.

While unnecessary or unwanted treatment and tests add to the cost of healthcare, del Mar says “overtreatment” can also result in physical and emotional harms.

“I think [more talking] will save money but I don’t think that’s the main driver. The main driver is delivering better care,” he says.

Here’s hoping better science will lead to better health services.

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.

Perth Zoo hosts an “Animal Dreaming” course

Brochure of Animal Dreaming course

If you’ve got a spare thousand dollars, you might like to spend some of it travelling this weekend to attend this AU$660 course in “Animal Dreaming” at the Perth Zoo.

During this event, you can expect to:

  • Look to the Earth Mother for wisdom, guidance and healing and remember the sacred bond you forged with her at the beginning of time
  • Interpret the messages offered by animals encountered during real-life encounters, dreams and vision
  • Learn how to invoke animal spirits to aid in healing, manifestation, protection, fertility and more
  • Enjoy impromptu readings from Scott
  • Learn about ‘stilling the mind’ and finding your very own ‘Power Spot’
  • Participate in a guided meditative journey to find your Totem / Power Animal
  • Reconnection to the heart essence of Earth Mother herself
  • The sacred act of surrendering, offering thanks and showing gratitude
  • Spiritual coaching and intuitive development that ensure a deeper connection to Spirit, the Earth Mother, your Higher Self and the Life Force in all things
  • Ways to develop intuition and inherent psychic abilities
  • Ways to shed and release your old ‘familiar’ self, and heal, rebirth and activate your inherent creative self
  • Ways to turn FEAR into FERTILITY on ALL LEVELS
  • Techniques to ensure spiritual health and psychic protection for the self, the family and the home / office
  • Ways to realise and embrace your Life Purpose and Personal Power

No mention of getting the course fee refunded if one’s expectations are not met — like, say, the expectation of “Reconnection to the heart essence of Earth Mother herself”.

Why is a zoo giving their facilities over to this scam? Maybe our Perth friends – or any Zoo members – can contact their management and express their opinions.

(credit to The Worst of Perth)