Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Amazing Meeting 7: Swiss/Randi, Ouellette, anti-anti-vax panel, Nickell

This is part three of my summary of TAM7, still on Friday, July 10. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here, and my coverage of the Science-based Medicine conference begins here.

Jamy Ian Swiss and James Randi
After lunch on Friday was a conversation between Jamy Ian Swiss and James Randi about Randi's early career, beginning with an old BBC live broadcast of Randi making a radio disappear, and an escape he did in Quebec as the "Amazing Randall." They discussed Randi's early appearances on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," and how Carson, himself a magician, would visit Randi in his dressing room when he appeared on the show, leading show staff to wonder who this guy was, since Carson never visited other guests. Other old footage included an underwater survival stunt on "You Asked for It," in which Randi stayed underwater for an hour and 50 minutes, breaking Houdini's record. Randi was embedded horizontally in a block of ice on Boston Common for the Dick Cavett show, somewhat reminiscent of the more recent stunt by David Blaine. Footage was also shown of Randi's water can escape when he was a closing act after David Copperfield and Shibata, which Randi commented was made more difficult for him by the fact that Copperfield and Shibata were standing on the catwalk above him cracking jokes while he was supposedly drowning in the milk can (but was actually already on top of it trying to look out-of-breath and using a sponge to make his head wet again before the big reveal).

Then was shown a lot of amusing footage from Alice Cooper's "Billion Dollar Babies" tour, for whch Randi played a mad dentist and created various illusions for the stage, culminating with Alice Cooper's head being chopped off by a realistic-looking guillotine. Randi told various stories of the tour and how he came to be involved with it, saying that it paid very well and he knew he was going to get alone well when he visited the offices of Cooper's Alive Enterprise and found it was full of potted plants, all of which were dead. A DVD of the film made during that tour was recently released on DVD, which includes the original version of the film rejected by the studies, which included a bunch of comedy sketches, a few of which feature Randi.

When the tour came to Phoenix, Cooper asked Randi to sit in the audience with his mother, who wasn't aware of the nature of his show. Randi kept reassuring her--the wife of a Mormon minister--that Alice Cooper is just a character being played by her son (Vincent Furnier). Randi said that he saw Mrs. Furnier again a couple of years ago at Alice Cooper's 60th birthday party, and she remembered him and thanked him for the reassurance he provided during that show.

Footage was then shown of two version of Randi's upside-down strait jacket escape, one in Niagara Falls in January. He said it was so cold that he beard became completely frozen and he was unable to speak when he had freed himself and was brought down, until hot water was poured over his beard. He said it took two years to get permission to do that stunt, and they had the whole area blocked off so that only the film crew was present. But while he was hanging upside-down, he saw a Chinese family standing there watching him--they had gone sneaking through the woods to get there and watch the performance up close.

The second version of the escape was for the Japanese show "Supermen" and was performed while hanging upside-down from a helicopter flying around Tokyo. Randi, who does not like heights, said he kept telling himself, "I'm doing it for the money."

Jennifer Ouellette on the Science and Entertainment Exchange
Jennifer Ouellette, executive director of the National Academy of Science's new Science and Entertainment Exchange project and author of the book The Physics of the Buffyverse, spoke about the project. She began with a short film clip from the TV show "Numb3rs" that illustrated a scientific point about geographic profiling by reference to the physics of water drops from a sprinkler head, which she used as an example of the productivity of having scientists and entertainment producers working cooperatively.

She observed that science and Hollywood have had a love/hate relationship. Hollywood sees scientists as nitpickers who don't understand entertainment, which she depicted with a reference to an episode of "The Big Bang Theory" which pointed out that the ending of the film "Superman" was unbelievable not because of the time travel but because if Superman caught Lois Lane while she was falling at 32 feet/second/second she would be cut into three pieces by the arms of the Man of Steel. (This reminded me of Larry Niven's classic analysis of why Superman can't have sex with a human woman, let alone produce a hybrid offspring, "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.") Scientists, on the other hand, see Hollywood as promulgators of misinformation, a point she illustrated with reference to an anti-vaccination episode of "Eli Stone" and the fact that DNA results on "CSI" and "Bones" are always returned within hours (also illustrating the nitpicking point).

The Science and Entertainment Exchange provides producers of film, television, comic books, video games, novels, etc. with a free way to obtain accurate scientific information early on in a project, and has already worked with major productions including "Bones," "Tron II" (now "Tron Legacy"), and several that she was contractually forbidden to mention.

She told the story of how she met the showrunner for "Bones," and when she told him she was a scientist, "he instantly cringed, flinched, and apologized." She subsequently worked with him on the "Death by Physics" episode of the show.

She pointed out that this is a great time for science and skepticism, with the popularity of current programs like Numb3rs, Bones, Lie to Me, The Mentalist, House, The Big Bang Theory, and, "a fringe case," Fringe (one of the writers of the show is Glen Whitman of the Agoraphilia blog; and for those interested in the glyph code on that show, here's the solution).

Ouellette argued for the importance of this project by pointing out that a factoid about breast cancer which appeared in a soap opera was found to triple the knowledge of that factoid in its viewing audience (based on testing viewers before and after watching the episode), and that these new shows do a good job of humanizing scientists. When debunking messages come from sympathetic characters, that softens them and makes them more persuasive. She suggested that The Mentalist saying that there are no real psychics, or Lie to Me debunking the polygraph, has huge potential impact.

She closed by saying that the success of these popular programs suggests that critical thinking and science placed in an entertaining context do sell, and asking those with a science background who want to be consultants for her project to contact her--and CSI needs new ideas on how to kill people.

In the Q&A, the first questioner said that they don't like when scientists are depicted not acting like scientists--misusing words like "proof" and "theory," and misrepresenting the process of science. Another asked whether she could say anything about science on "Lost"; she said that scientists consulted and commented on the DVD extras about the temporal anomalies and "chronology projection conjecture," and that it's the best-selling TV show on DVD. One questioner asked whether there is any way to do something like this for the news media, as well as for entertainment; she answered that people in the news media need to be paid better (I presume she was referring to print reporters rather than talking heads on television), and those outlets are in their death throes. Another questioner asked why skeptics have to be depicted as dumb in shows with supernatural or paranormal phenomena, rather than showing them change their minds when presented with overwhelming evidence of these things.

Anti-anti-vaccination Panel
Steven Novella, David Gorski, Joe Albietz, Harriet Hall, Michael Goudeau, and Derek Bartholomaus made up the panel to criticize the anti-vaccination movement. Novella began by recounting the Andrew Wakefield case, a study published in Lancet allegedly connecting measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccination with harmful effects in children, which subsequently turned out to be a thoroughly bogus study ("if I can use that word," he said, referring to the Simon Singh lawsuit). But that study caused a decline in MMR vaccination in the UK, and a corresponding leap in news cases of measles, mumps, and rubella. When Novella blogged about this, journalist David Kirby contacted him and argued that thimerosol (sodium ethylmercurithiosalicylate), was the issue. Novella read Kirby's book arguing that thimerosol causes autism, Evidence of Harm, and did 3-4 months of research. (Novella's Skeptical Inquirer article on the subject is here; a reply to Kirby on Novella's blog is here.) He said Kirby's book was a terrible piece of journalism but a good collection of data sources to start with. By 2005 there was strong evidence of no link between thimerosol and autism. Novella's panel intro is now on YouTube here; Dr. Joe Albietz's talk is on YouTube here.

Back in 2002, thimerosol had already been removed from routine vaccine schedules, and Kirby said that autism rates would subsequently plummet to pre-1990 levels. Novella said no, If I'm right it will continue to increase until it hits some ceiling--and the autism rates have continued to rise for the last four years. Kirby moved the goalposts for his prediction out to 2007 and then to 2008, but there is no more room to move them now, said Novella--thimerosol is demonstrably not the cause of autism.

Novella said that the antivax movement has grown as evidence has accumulated against them, spearheaded by promotion by Jenny McCarthy and Generation Rescue.

David Gorski talked about how "I'm not antivaccine" is the biggest lie of the antivaxers. They will say things like (quoting Jenny McCarthy), "I'm not anti-vaccine, I'm pro-safe vaccine. I'm anti-toxin." Examples of people making such statements include Jenny McCarthy, Dr. Jay Gordon, a frequent visitor to Gorski's blog, and J.B. Handley, the founder of Generation Rescue.

He quoted a statement from Jenny McCarthy saying that mercury, the "second worst neurotoxin in history" is injected into children, but noted that she's not so anti-toxin as to avoid injecting the worst neurotoxin, botox, into her face. He also noted that despite claiming not to be anti-vaccine, she has also said, "If I had another child, I wouldn't vaccinate at all. Never, not ever."

Claimed toxins in vaccines include aluminum, ether, and mercury. Generation Rescue claimed in 2005 that autism is a misdiagnosis of mercury poisoning, then they've shifted to being caused by heavy metals, to being caused by toxins, to being caused by too many vaccines, too soon--but it's always about the vaccines.

Gorski suggested the following questions for those who say they are not anti-vaccine, yet are still challenging vaccines in this way:
  1. You say you want safer vaccines. By what measure?
  2. What toxins would you remove? What's the evidence for toxicity?
  3. What evidence would it take to persuade you that vaccinations are safe with respect to the risk of the disease (i.e., using the vaccines saves significantly more lives than not using the vaccines)?
Dr. Joe Albietz then spoke on how every major medical breakthrough and development to save lives pales in comparison to vaccination. This was a powerful talk that I'd like to see turned into a viral vaccination video for YouTube.

Smallpox vaccine has saved over 300 million lives. In 1967, a global eradication campaign was begun, at an estimated cost of $10M-$15M/year over 31 countries. After ten years--in 1979--the disease was officially eradicated at an expense of about $23M/year.

Dr. Albietz presented a list of vaccine-preventable diseases, and noted the number of incidents per year before and after the vaccines. For just the top ten diseases, over 1.1 million lives per year have been saved from disease by vaccination.

He noted that polio and measles are scheduled for eradication. In 2008, the number of cases was 1,652, which amounts to over 5 million cases of paralysis prevented. Measles used to be the second leading cause of infectious disease death, killing 1 million children per year. The goal is to reduce measles cases by 90% by 2010, which will probably be missed.

The anti-vax movement not only affects the lives of children who are not vaccinated, the reduction of the rate of vaccination reduces the herd immunity of the population, making it more likely that even those who are vaccinated will get the disease.

Dr. Harriett Hall spoke on "Two False Alarms," which gave much more detail about Andrew Wakefield and Neil Halsey. She began by talking about Andrew Wakefield's 1998 Lancet paper on MMR vaccines, which used no controls and had an honest conclusion ("we did not prove a link"), but Wakefield called a press conference saying that the MMR vaccine should be stopped and made into separate vaccines--without disclosing that he had just filed a patent for such single vaccines. This resulted in measles again becoming endemic in the UK, Wakefield's study was retracted after problems were found in it, and Wakefield was exposed as unethical. He had been hired by a lawyer to find a link between vaccination and some harm in order to sue drug companies, and was paid 500,000 pounds for the purpose. His study was performed on the children of plaintiffs in the legal case, there was no ethics committee approval, and he didn't disclose his conflicts of interest.

Neal Halsey raised warnings about thimerosol, which contains ethyl mercury. We knew that methyl mercury can cause problems, but not ethyl mrcury. Experiments on adults with amounts 20,000 times higher than in thimerosol in vaccines have caused no symptoms of mercury poisoning. Halsey didn't raise autism as a concern, just mercury poisoning, but two mothers of autistic children who learned of his claims decided, incorrectly, that the symptoms of mercury poisoning were the same as the symptoms of autism. Today 2/3 of the U.S. population incorrectly think that mercury causes autism.

Michael Goudeau, juggler in Lance Burton's Las Vegas show and writer for Penn & Teller's Bullshit!, briefly spoke about his experience as a parent of an autistic child, and pointed out in his closing statement that nobody can hold up a healthy kid and say "Look, my kid got vaccinated and didn't get autism." But maybe, he suggested, the parents of those whose children get measles, mumps, or rubella as a result of the spread of the disease from unvaccinated children can effectively raise that issue. He said that Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy are assholes, and you shouldn't base your opinions on the science of celebrities (or jugglers).

Derek Bartholomaus spoke about how he decided to try to find the "Jenny McCarthy body count"--the number of preventable deaths and illnesses caused by non-vaccination--as a result of hearing Steven Novella make references to such a body count on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast. He announced his website,, on Twitter and Facebook three months ago, and it has received tremendous traffic as a result of links from the Pharyngula, Bad Astronomy, and Respectful Insolence blogs.

In the Q&A, Hal Bidlack said "my wife died of cancer, and I'm still angry at her surgical oncologist. I understand these people--does calling them stupid help?" Dr. Novella said that Jenny McCarthy needs to be called out on her misinformation, but the rank and file are victims and we have nothing but sympathy for them--our interpretation of the evidence is diametrically opposed. Dr. Gorski said that it's human nature to want to blame someone. A child born with a disability is painful, but they shouldn't be allowed to use that as a shield against criticism--but they do it because it's effective.

Another questioner asked whether Oprah can be made aware that there is a Jenny McCarthy body count to try to put a stop to McCarthy's TV show. Dr. Gorski suggested that giving McCarthy her own show might have been "a woo too far" provoking blowback in the form of criticism of Oprah such as appeared in Newsweek.

One questioner whose sister is a pediatrician in L.A. said she sees the most resistance to vaccination from high-income people in Beverly Hills. Dr. Albietz said you're 23 times more likely to get whooping cough if not vaccinated, and that he sees nonreligious vaccine refusal as the top reason for children not being vaccinated, but others are still not being vaccinated due to poverty and lack of access, which was the reason for TAM7's vaccination drive.

Another questioner asked if anyone had heard of an increase of cases of polio in India due to anti-vaccination superstition. Dr. Novella said that there were rumors of polio vaccine being tainted with AIDS in Nigeria, which resulted in an outbreak of polio due to lack of vaccination. Harriet Hall said that there were antivaxers back at the beginning of the smallpox eradication effort, but it was nothing like the current scale of opposition.

Someone asked whether we're just speaking in an echo chamber, or is someone working to craft a media message. Dr. Albietz pointed out the Rethinking Autism videos, and observed that we should bring the fight to every front that the anti-vaccination movement uses.

Anti-vaccination is being pushed by chiropractors and practitioners of alternative medicine, observed another questioner, and it won't stop until we stop them. How can we do that? Dr. Hall said that she reported a homeopath to the Department of Homeland Security, since he claimed to be making homeopathic smallpox vaccine, which requires access to smallpox. Dr. Gorski said that we're also combatting the view that natural is better, that getting a disease naturally is a better outcome than vaccinating and not getting the disease. Dr. Albietz pointed out that you cannot strengthen your immune system any better than by vaccinating, and that the keyelements of vaccines are natural ingredients. Dr. Hall observed that delaying the vaccine schedule is based on the misguided idea that it will lessen negative impact to immune systems, when in fact vaccinations promote immune response.

In closing, Dr. Gorski said that most antivax parents are probably persuadable, but he fears that the return of vaccine-preventable diseases will be what it takes to persuade them. Dr. Novella said that if anything is going to help mitigate the problem, it is probably going to come from the people in the room.

Joe Nickell on Bigfoot and Aliens
Joe Nickell gave a visual travelogue of photos of Bigfoot-related signs and places in the Pacific northwest, which included all sorts of Bigfoot-related oddities. The Bigfoot Highway, the Bigfoot Museum at Willow Creek, Bigfoot Rafting, Bigfoot Ave., Little Foot Ct., Bigfoot Breakfast, Bigfoot Motel, Bigfoot Crossing signs, Bigfoot Burger, Bigfoot Books (with big selection of books on bigfoot, as expected). He showed murals of Bigfoot, Bigfoot chainsaw sculptures, and Bigfoot statues. A lot of it was tongue-in-cheek, but some was serious and some included religious elements--he observed that some think that Bigfoot is supernatural.

He covered aliens and UFOs in a similar manner, starting with photos of Roswell, the Mac Brazel ranch house, and the famous photo of Jesse Marcel and the pieces of foil, sticks, tape, and rubber. He did an experiment with boxkite-like devices (corner reflectors) on a train attached to a weather balloon, that was shot down to see what the wreckage looked like. He also discussed Alien Autopsy "fakelore" and showed a timeline of alien evolution. Hypnagogic experiences that used to be reported as ghosts or demons are now commonly reported as aliens.

In both the cases of aliens and Bigfoot, he sees them as mythical creatures, and remarked that Bigfoot seems to be used as something like an "eco-messiah." Aliens have also been used in the employ of environmental causes.

In the Q&A, the first question was why there seems to be a rise in alien abduction claims, rather than UFO sightings, and whether this might be related to the rise of camera phones. (If I can reconstruct the reasoning, I think the issue is that there are more people out there with cameras at all times, yet fewer UFO sightings, while if there were really alien spacecraft, you'd expect more successful photographs. But if it's more of a psychological or mythical phenomenon, then perhaps it transforms to fit the evidence.) Nickell responded by observing that alien stories have evolved and continue to change. In my notes I commented that there seems to be a shift in the UFO community from "alien spacecraft" to "another reality" as an explanation of UFOs, and even some creationists have gotten in on the latter sort of view with the claim that UFOs are demonic influences. That view was expressed by Norman Geisler's testimony in the McLean v. Arkansas creationism case back in 1981, and has more recently been propounded by Gary Bates of the Australia-based Creation Ministries International.

That concluded the regular conference programming for Friday, July 10.

Saturday continued with a very special Skeptics Guide to the Universe recording session, Michael Shermer, and Adam Savage, summarized in part four.


Unknown said...

Nice write up. I didn't know about the change in UFO encounter make up.

Lippard said...

The older UFO organizations--CUFOS (now defunct), APRO (now defunct), MUFON, BUFORA in the UK, etc., were all in the "alien spacecraft" camp, while Jacques Vallee, John Keel, John Mack, and Whitley Strieber all took a more mystical view, as did some of the early "contactees." I think the latter view tends to get more support from the New Age community, as well as being more insulated from empirical refutation.