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Saturday, April 19, 2014

For Some Diseases, It Was Vaccination, Not Sanitation

Posted by jlwile on February 3, 2014

This is the logo of Project Tycho.  It depicts Tycho Brahe with his unique view of the universe. (click for credit)

This is the logo of Project Tycho. It depicts Tycho Brahe with his unique view of the universe.
(click for credit)

Dr. Wilbert van Panhuis and his colleagues have started an exciting initiative called Project TychoTM. In it, they are taking public health data that have been collected over the years and putting them into an easy-to-access digital system that is open to everyone. They describe the goal of their project in this way:

We aim to advance the use of public health data for the improvement of public health. Oftentimes, restricted access to public health data limits opportunities for scientific discovery and technological innovation in disease control programs. A free flow of data and information maximizes opportunities for more efficient and effective public health programs leading to higher impact and better health. Our activities are focused on accelerating the availability and use of public health data…

They named the project after Tycho Brahe, one of the more colorful 16th-century astronomers. Not only did he live an interesting life, he had a very interesting view of the universe. He made an enormous number of astronomical observations that he meticulously documented, and those observations convinced him that the planets must orbit the sun, not the earth. However, he couldn’t give up the idea of the earth being at the center of everything, so he produced what is probably the most interesting view of the universe ever. As shown in the logo above, he put the earth at the center of the universe, and he had the sun and moon orbiting the earth. The rest of the planets were then assumed to orbit the sun, as it moved in its orbit around the earth. While this view of the universe is clearly unworkable, it was incredibly original!

Why would a project involving public health data be named after this colorful character? Because his main contribution to science was the data he collected. While he couldn’t make heads or tails of his data, another astronomer, Johannes Kepler (who was once employed by Brahe) did. Kepler was able to use Brahe’s data to develop three laws of planetary motion that demonstrated all the planets, including the earth, orbit the sun. Sir Isaac Newton was then able to use Kepler’s Laws to develop his Law of Universal Gravitation, which describes how gravity works both here on earth and throughout the universe. Brahe’s data, then, were the foundation of some of the greatest advancements in the field of astronomy in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In Dr. van Panhuis’s view, the data he is collecting could end up being like Brahe’s data. It might be used by other scientists to better understand diseases and how to deal with them as they spread through populations. While I can’t say whether or not that will ever happen, I can say that these data make it easy for me to address a popular myth about vaccination.

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Will This Bring Back the Moon Dust Argument?

Posted by jlwile on January 22, 2014

This NASA photo shows the thin layer of dust on the moon.  (public domain image)

This NASA photo shows the thin layer of dust on the moon. (public domain image)

Answers in Genesis keeps a list of creationist arguments that should never be used. It is a good list, and I am glad that Answers in Genesis maintains it. It would be nice if an evolutionary source did the same thing. I don’t know how many times I have to refute nonsense like vestigial tails, lanugo hair, vestigial hair, the vestigial appendix, junk DNA, and all manner of evolutionary arguments that are simply not consistent with the data we currently know.

In any event, the first item on the list of creationist arguments that should never be used is the Moon Dust Argument. In brief, the argument used an estimate of how quickly dust accumulates on the moon to calculate how much dust the astronauts should have found when they landed there. It claims that if the moon were really billions of years old, there should be more than 100 feet of dust on its surface. Astronauts found only a thin layer of dust when they landed, so the moon is not billions of years old.

The problem with that argument rests on the estimate for how quickly dust accumulates on the moon. It was based on how quickly dust accumulates on earth. Obviously, the earth is quite different from the moon, so it’s not clear how good such an estimate is. In addition, other estimates have been made using other methods, and those estimates mostly disagree with one another. Since there seemed to be no good way of estimating how quickly dust accumulates on the moon, responsible creationists stopped using the argument, and that’s how it ended up on the Answers in Genesis list of arguments that should never be used.

Well, some interesting experiments have been done to provide a more direct measurement of dust accumulation on the moon, and the results are surprising, at least to those who are committed to an old earth.

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More Consequences of Anti-Vaccination Misinformation

Posted by jlwile on January 2, 2014

Even though the standard vaccines have been demonstrated to be safe and effective, many people decline to get them for their children, and the results can be serious. (public domain image)

Vaccines are a powerful means by which certain diseases can be prevented. Many scientific studies demonstrate that they are both safe and effective, but unfortunately, there are those who have been convinced by misinformation produced by anti-vaccination groups. As a result, some infectious diseases are beginning to make a comeback in the United States. One of those diseases is measles.

One reason measles is making a comeback in the United States is that there are several other parts of the world where measles has a stronghold. Since world travel is common, it is easy for someone to import the disease back to the U.S. In most cases, this isn’t a problem, because most travelers come into contact with people who have been vaccinated. As a result, the virus has a difficult time spreading, and the traveler is usually the only one who ends up suffering from the infection. Every once in a while, however, a traveler will come into contact with a group that has a very low vaccination rate. When that happens, the disease spreads quickly.

For example, in April of 2013, an unvaccinated person returned home to North Carolina after spending three months in India. Along with souvenirs and stories, the traveler brought home the measles virus. Two other unvaccinated family members got the disease, and in the end, there were 23 confirmed cases of the measles. The vast majority of them (18) were among unvaccinated people. Two of the measles cases were in people of unknown vaccination status, and three were in people who were fully vaccinated.

This, of course, brings up a very important point. When people refuse vaccination, they often think that the only possible consequences will be to them and their family, but that’s just not true. No medicine, including vaccines, is 100% effective. Thus, there will be a small percentage of people who get the vaccine but are not fully protected against the disease. When unvaccinated people provide a breeding and transmission population for the disease, this increases the risk to all people, even those who are vaccinated.

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It’s Interesting, But It’s Probably Not a Footprint

Posted by jlwile on June 5, 2013

A student sent me the video you see above. In it, a man highlights a South African geological curiosity. He says it is a giant footprint in rock that is somewhere between 200 million and 3 billion years old. He goes on to say that it is so amazing it should be drawing 20 million tourists to South Africa every year, but no one knows about it. He then takes you up a hill to the geological formation, and he shows you what appears to be a huge footprint in a wall of rock. The man points out the features of the “footprint,” and he ends the video with the statement, “There were giants on earth.”

I had the privilege of visiting South Africa in 2004. It is an amazing country, and the people there are simply marvelous. I would strongly recommend it as a vacation destination. However, I wouldn’t put this site on my “top 20″ list of things you should see. While it is an interesting geological formation, it is almost certainly not a footprint.

The first problem with the idea that it is a footprint comes from the type of rock in which it is found. The man in the video says that the rock is granite. Now, I am not a geologist, so I can’t be sure that the man is right, but the rock’s appearance is consistent with it being granite. Well, granite is an intrusive, igneous rock.1 What does that mean? An intrusive rock is one that is formed underground. An igneous rock is one that is formed from molten rock, such as magma. So if this rock is granite, there is no way it could harbor a footprint. The only time a foot could have sunk into it was when its temperature was several hundred degrees, and it was below the surface of the earth!

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Direct Evidence that a Father’s Age Affects Autism Risk

Posted by jlwile on October 10, 2012

A magnified image of stained human sperm (click for credit)

While there is some disagreement on the subject, most medical scientists would agree that Autism rates are on the rise in the U.S. and in many other parts of the world. What’s the reason for this increase? Like most medical issues, there are probably a variety of reasons. Some have suggested that the increase in autism can be linked to childhood vaccination, but the data argue strongly against it. Most likely, there are a series of genetic and environmental factors that play a role in the increase.

For quite some time now, there has been strong evidence that the age of the father has a significant effect on the chance of his child having autism.1 There has been evidence that the mother’s age also plays a role, but its effect is much smaller.2 However, these studies simply demonstrate a correlation between parental age and autism. They do not show that increased parental age plays a direct role in the cause of autism. However, a recent study published in the journal Nature has changed that. It seems to provide a direct link between the age of the father and autism in the child.

The authors of the study examined the entire genomes of 78 parent-offspring trios (mother, father, and child) to directly determine what mutations the child received from the father’s sperm cell and what mutations the child received from the mother’s egg cell. Because they were specifically interested in the cause of neurological disorders, they used a large number of trios that contained a child with either autism or schizophrenia. In the end, 44 of the children had autism spectrum disorder, and 21 were schizophrenic. In addition, the genomes of 1,859 other people were sequenced to serve as a population comparison.

The authors focused on the de novo mutations in the children. These are mutations that do not exist in either parent but do exist in the child. Thus, they must arise from a mutation that occurred when the father made his sperm or the mother made her egg. Such mutations happen in every production of egg and sperm cells, and the authors wanted to know which parent (if either) was more responsible for them. The results were surprising, to say the least!

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CHARGING Towards an Understanding of Autism

Posted by jlwile on June 22, 2012

There are many myths about medicine these days. Some are harmless, but many can lead to all sorts of problems. One very harmful medical myth is the idea that autism is caused by childhood vaccination. Although many careful studies have demonstrated that there is just no link between vaccines and autism, you can still find many websites that try to argue that vaccination causes autism. A while back, I participated in a debate hosted by one such website.

In the debate, I discussed and explained the studies that show there is simply no link between vaccines and autism. I also pointed out that some of the authors involved in these studies have a proven track record for finding a link between a vaccine and a serious medical condition, so it is hard to believe that they would miss a link between vaccines and autism if there is one. Not surprisingly, the website that hosted and heavily promoted the debate removed all mention of it afterwards, because the debate clearly showed the error of the idea they they are trying to promote.

Fortunately, real scientists are searching for the actual cause of autism, and lots of progress has been made. I recently ran across a study that addresses autism and the health of the mother during pregnancy. As a result of that study, I learned about a very interesting program that was started in 2003 and is just beginning to produce some very interesting results. It is called the Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) study. The study recognizes that there seem to be both genetic and environmental risk factors for autism, and it is designed to produce rigorous research that will help us understand both.

The CHARGE study has already produced at least three very important and somewhat surprising results.

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You Cannot Promote Truth With Lies!

Posted by jlwile on June 20, 2012

Not long ago, I wrote an article about how Dr. Richard Dawkins attributed a quote to St., Augustine, but the quote turned out to be 100% false. A while before that, I wrote an article about how an evolutionist and a young-earth creationist both mangled quotes by C.S. Lewis in order to make it sound like Lewis believed things that he didn’t believe. Well, here’s yet another example of someone using made-up quotes in an attempt to prove her point of view.

This article comes from World Net Daily, which is not exactly a paragon of responsible journalism. It was written by Marylou Barry, and it tries to make the case that scientists don’t believe in evolution because of the evidence. Instead, they believe it because they dogmatically reject the idea of a Creator. This, of course, is absurd, as there are many, many Christians who believe in evolution. If belief in evolution is based on the rejection of a Creator, no Christian would accept it. Nevertheless, Marylou Barry tries to make the case, and she does so by quoting famous scientists. Some of the quotes sounded a bit odd to me, so I did some checking. It turns out that many of them are either made up or taken completely out of context.

Let’s start with a simple one. Ms. Barry reports:

“Evolution is unproved and improvable, we believe it because the only alternative is special creation, which is unthinkable,” wrote the late Sir Arthur Keith, physical anthropologist and head of the Anatomy Department at London Hospital.

Since she doesn’t bother to source any of her quotes, I had to do a bit of research. The only source that has been given for this quote can be found in Comparative Views on Origins. The author (Brock Lee) claims that this quote comes from the forward to 100th anniversary edition of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, 1959.1 The problem with this reference is that Sir Arthur Keith died on January 7, 1955. That’s a full four years before this book was supposed to have been published! Keith did write an introduction to an edition of The Origin of Species that was published by J. M. Dent. However, it was published in 1928, and Keith’s introduction does not contain anything even approaching the quote that Barry gives. In the end, then, this is simply a made-up quote, and it doesn’t belong in any legitimate discussion of evolution.

Now if this were just one example among many quotes, I might be able to overlook Barry’s irresponsible behavior. Unfortunately, several other quotes in the story are either made up, edited, or taken way out of context.

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Dr. Frank Logsdon and the NASB: Another Christian Myth

Posted by jlwile on December 22, 2011

When I decided to start a blog, I wanted to devote a section of it to ideas that are popular in modern Christendom but are simply not true. I call these “Christian Myths,” and you can see the ones I have written about so far. Interestingly enough, one of those articles (Laminin Shaminin) is the most common article on this blog that people find via search engines. Even though the majority of my writing is devoted to scientific issues, I do keep a lookout for any Christian myths that need to be addressed.

A few days ago, someone left a comment that was a bit far away from the topic of the post for me to approve. However, I read it and replied to the commenter via E-MAIL, as I always do in such situations. The person’s comment included a discussion of Dr. Frank Logsdon, a man who claims to have been an integral part of the team that developed the New American Standard Bible (NASB). I tried to track down the primary source for the quote, but I could not find it. The closest I could come is an article by David Sorenson. Here is what that article says:

Dr. Frank Logsdon was the co-founder of the New American Standard Bible (NASB). He since has renounced any connection to it.

“I must, under God, renounce every attachment to the New American Standard Version. I’m afraid I’m in trouble with the Lord… We laid the groundwork; I wrote the format; I helped interview some of the translators; I sat with the translator; I wrote the preface… I’m in trouble; I can’t refute these arguments; its wrong, terribly wrong… The deletions are absolutely frightening. . .there are so many. Are we so naive that we do not suspect Satanic deception in all of this?

Upon investigation, I wrote my dear friend, Mr. Lockman (editor’s note: Mr. Lockman was the benefactor through which the NASV was published) explaining that I was forced to renounce all attachment to the NASV (editors note: This is the same as the NASB)…”

Now, of course, this sounds very bad for the NASB. If the “co-founder” of the translation – the man who wrote the format, interviewed and sat with the translators, and wrote the preface – denounces the NASB, it must be a terrible translation. Fortunately, it is almost certainly not true.

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David Barton Needs a Fact-Checker

Posted by jlwile on October 3, 2011

I recently received this video via E-MAIL. The subject line of the message was “What you won’t be taught in school.” That intrigued me, so I watched the video. It is of a man named David Barton who is leading a tour of the U.S. Capitol. According to his company’s website:

David Barton is the Founder and President of WallBuilders, a national pro-family organization that presents America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on our moral, religious and constitutional heritage….His exhaustive research has rendered him an expert in historical and constitutional issues and he serves as a consultant to state and federal legislators, has participated in several cases at the Supreme Court, was involved in the development of the History/Social Studies standards for states such as Texas and California, and has helped produce history textbooks now used in schools across the nation.

As I listened to just the first part of the video, however, something seemed off…way off. So I decided to do a little fact-checking. Now I am not a historian, but I am able to do some investigative research. When I checked the facts on just one segment of the video, I was rather disappointed.

I don’t normally do this, but I ask that you watch the video before you read the rest of this piece. You needn’t watch the entire thing. Just watch from 0:40 to 1:26. It’s only 46 seconds of video, but it allows you to see just how wrong he is, at least in that section of the video.

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Good News in Autism Research

Posted by jlwile on August 17, 2011

A model of the human brain, highlighting the different lobes. Click for credit.

Autism is a poorly-understood neurological disorder that affects many people throughout the world. Unfortunately, because it is poorly-understood, there is an tendency for people to blame autism on anything they don’t like. For example, there are those who try to claim that vaccines cause autism. When confronted with the overwhelming scientific evidence against such a claim, many of those people simply ignore the data.

For example, not long ago, I did an online debate on whether or not vaccines cause autism. The debate was heavily-publicized by the anti-vaccination group that hosted it, but after the debate, all mention of it was removed from the group’s website. Why? Because I simply presented the data that clearly show there is no way autism could be related to vaccination. The group decided to pull all mention of the debate rather than risk some of their readers learning what the data actually say about vaccines and autism!

Fortunately, most people are more interested in finding the real causes of autism. Thus, they have looked at the data and realize that vaccines simply aren’t a possibility. As a result, they have moved on and are looking at other possible causes. About a year ago, I blogged about a study that tried to pin down the genetic causes of autism. Since autism is a highly heritable disease1, it makes sense that the cause should be genetic. However, rather than implicating just a few genes, the study came to the conclusion that there are a lot of genes involved in autism. That made the results rather disheartening, because it is hard enough to treat a disease that is caused by only one or two genes. How can you possibly treat a disease that is caused by lots and lots of genes?

Well, researchers from UCLA might have found an answer to that question.

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