Monday, April 29, 2013

The NECSS of Thought and Reality - Year 3 (Part 1)

Over the weekend of April 6-7, I attended the fifth annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS). Organized by the New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society, NECSS is a conference that focuses on science and critical thinking. They invite scientists, educators, artists and activists on a wide range of topics, but all of which tie into those two themes. There are individual presentations, panel discussions and performance pieces. If you're interested in the first two years I attended, here are my reviews of the third NECSS and fourth NECSS conferences.

My reviews of NECSS have become a good opportunity to address just what "skepticism" means. As I've said before, colloquially, it has taken on some baggage, often carrying a pejorative connotation or equated with cynicism. A lot of people view skeptics merely as naysayers who will simply jump to "I don't believe X" or "X doesn't exist". They are often viewed as close-minded and unwilling to examine the evidence. But nothing could be further from the truth. To me, skepticism is a manner of thinking, a set of tools by which to understand the world around us. Every conclusion is provisional and open to revision, based on the available evidence. It is the application of logic and the methods of science to evaluate claims and examine data. It is not a belief system, religion, ideology, or position, and it has no subject or claim that is off-limits. Or, as the Skeptic Society says, "no sacred cows allowed". It's an approach I try to apply in my life. I may not always be successful, and I know that there are simple biases that affect me just as every other person, but I try, and I think it a noble feature when I see it in others, as well. This is a theme that came up during the conference, as well, but more on that later.

For now, on to the conference.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Measles Running Rampant in Pakistan and Wales

Whenever I hear someone say that vaccine-preventable diseases are harmless or that they are just a right of passage for children, I can't help but shake my head a bit. Part of the reason behind this mindset is a lack of experience with these diseases. Many young parents have never seen them in action. The most they know is their own childhood experiences with them; they clearly survived and, with death being thankfully uncommon, probably don't know or remember anyone who died of one of these illnesses, especially if anyone contracted a disease at a young age. And then there's the rarity of the diseases thanks to the success of vaccinations. I have to admit that before I developed an interest in vaccines and the manufactroversy surrounding them, I probably would have held a similarly flippant opinion of childhood diseases.

But I learned more about them. I read about their typical presentation, what some of the more serious complications are and how commonly they occur, and how long a person is contagious (often starting before any symptoms appear). I learned that while one needn't panic and run for the hills when there's an outbreak, a healthy respect for the seriousness of vaccine preventable diseases doesn't go amiss. Above all, I've learned that they are worth preventing, if not for one's own health, then for the health of those around them. While I might be healthy and think I might fare well if infected, the same may not be true for others I infect.

To this end, vaccinations are one of the best public health measures in modern medicine. When people avoid or reject them in sufficient numbers, we invariably see outbreaks of disease sooner or later. Outbreaks like the current measles outbreaks in Pakistan and Wales.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Thoughts on the 2013 Boston Marathon

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you probably know that on April 15, 2013 there were two explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Some of you might not be aware that I am in the Boston area. For those that do, this post is mainly to let you all know that I am okay, but I also wanted to get some of my thoughts out about the day's events. I will do my best to stick to the facts and avoid spreading unsubstantiated claims.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Pox on Health Reporting

Science and health reporting in the U.S. can be a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes, reports on these topics are level-headed, presenting accurate information in the proper context. There is often a great deal of nuance involved. More often, though, news outlets do a less than optimal job. They oversimplify. They leave out important details. They get details wrong. They engage in inappropriate emotional appeals to spin the story, often to the detriment of truthful reporting.

You may have heard in the news, recently, of FrankieElizabeth Staiti, a 5-year-old New York kindergartener who has been barred from school because she has not received the varicella vaccine. The reason? Her pediatrician refuses to give the varicella vaccine to any child who has an infant sibling, believing that the varicella vaccine poses too great a risk, since it uses a live, weakened virus. FrankieElizabeth has a 14-week-old sister. Her mother, Elizabeth Wagner, applied for a medical exemption for her daughter, but it was rejected after the Department of Education reviewed it with her and FrankieElizabeth's pediatrician.

That is the basic story. But there are some problems with the way that a lot of outlets are reporting on this.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Off to the NECSS of Thought and Reality

Just a quick post to let you all know that tomorrow, April 5, I'm off to New York to attend NECSS, the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism. This will be my third year attending (here are my reviews of my first year and my second year), and I'm very excited for it. It is a great opportunity to learn about new topics, expand on what you may already know, and most importantly, meet other intelligent people. If you are going to be there, find me and say hi! Best way to reach me will probably be via Twitter (@Tweek75). I will be bringing some of my VPD Wanted Poster cards with me, so seek me out if you want a set. And just as a reminder, if you are not going to be there, but still want a set, you can click the button below to request one.

Hope to see you at NECSS!