Huffpo Science – already slipping into anti-science

Our initial optimism over Huffpo science being a haven for reason in a den of disease-promotion and quackery appears now to be misplaced. It appears the animal rights cranks have made inroads with Bruce Friedrich, a member of PETA and advocate of animal liberation, who has jumped from Huffpo “green” to Huffpo “science”. The science gatekeepers at Huffpo have clearly failed.

Writing about “Speciesism: The Movie”, he exposes the anti-science ideology of the animal rights movement, and Huffpo science doesn’t seem to have noticed:

Every now and then, a movie comes along that is capable of fundamentally changing the worldview of its audience. Speciesism: The Movie, a new documentary by Mark Devries, is that kind of film.

The word “speciesism,” which has been popularized by Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer, refers to the assumption that a vast gulf exists between the ethical value of human interests and the ethical value of the interests of other animals. At its extreme, we may see ourselves as the only species that matters morally, and view other animals as existing merely for our use: to eat, to make into clothing, to perform experiments on, to be entertained by in circuses and zoos. Like those who grew up having overt racist beliefs assimilated into their worldview, some degree of speciesism has been so well-assimilated into the worldview of most of us that it does not even appear to be worth questioning.

Devries goes to great lengths to put together a thoughtful and entertaining film–whether commissioning an airplane to fly over factory farms’ giant “manure lagoons” with an anti-CAFO Republican from North Carolina, or (somehow) scheming his way into receiving a guided tour of a factory farm.

Along the way, he meets and questions a remarkably broad range of people, including Peter Singer (whom the New Yorker has named “one of the most influential philosophers alive”), Richard Dawkins (the most influential evolutionary biologist of the past century), and Temple Grandin (designer of the animal handling systems used by over half of the slaughterhouses in the United States).

He also speaks with anti-factory farming activists, a man who is dying next to a huge hog farm, a current member of the American Nazi Party, a disability rights activist, a vivisector, quite a few people on the street, and more–all in his quest to thoroughly consider the philosophy that says that bias on the basis of species is unjustifiable. Disclaimer: He also spoke with me.

Above all, Devries confronts some very difficult and uncomfortable questions head-on. For example: How strong are the grounds for believing that humans have special moral worth? How valid are the comparisons between our use of other animals and the slavery of other humans?

My emphasis added. So here we have it on Huffpo science. Believing that our species should be valued over other species is a sin equivalent to racism. Use of other animals is like slavery. Biologists aren’t scientists we’re “vivisectors”. We’re all going to hell.

To be clear, biological science without use of animals is impossible. It’s not just toxicity testing of drugs either, and we are fully aware of the limitations of our animal models, thankyouverymuch. But from the ground up, the study of life depends on the use of living things. From the cells we harvest for culture (we can’t all study wacky immortalized cancer cells you know), to the serum we grow them in, to the antibodies we generate by exposing animals to antigens, to the transgenic animals we use to study genes in vivo, to the model animals that modern surgical techniques and technologies are refined in, biological science is intimately tied to living things. The face transplant I wrote about yesterday? Impossible without prior animal modeling, practice with surgical technique and molecular investigation of immunosuppression. Transplant in general? The earliest investigations of skin grafting and surgical techniques for transplant were honed in animals – with some hefty human experimentation as well. Every major surgical advance, medical advance, and plain basic biological science knowledge comes from our manipulation of the living things around us. But are we in any way noble for our pursuit of knowledge, for yes, explicitly human benefit? No, we’re speciesist, we’re vivisectors.

Well fine, I admit it. I value human life over that of other species. I’ve devoted my life to saving human lives, and as a scientist, I’ve sacrificed animal lives to do so every time I’ve ordered a polyclonal antibody or bottle of FBS. According to radicals like Friedrich that makes me “vivisector”. I’m therefore a monster, like a slaver or murderer.

This is the unexamined ethics and thoughtless smug moral superiority of the animal rights activist. I doubt, when push came to shove they would sacrifice a human for an animal. Or even a large number of animals. Who, after all, swerves to avoid the squirrel and instead hits the kid on the sidewalk? No one. Human life is more valuable to us because we’re human and that’s OK. It’s not wrong to be self-interested or interested in our survival over that of other species. Survival requires a certain amount of self-interest, human survival requires the ingestion of other living things, and agriculture is never going to be cruelty free.

The vegan militia have forgotten that to get their cruelty free vegetables, the land has already been cleared, all competing species have been killed or driven out, those that remain are poisoned (even by organic farmers – they just use “certified organic” methods of pest control or even other animals like ladybugs). We put humans first every time we clear a field, dig a foundation, fence and spray our crops, and burn diesel to harvest and bring them to market. We have said, these resources are ours, we own the land, and all the beetles, voles and deer can go right to hell. Survival is cruel, and will always involve putting ourselves before other species.

The health benefits and technology they enjoy everyday has already been tested and worked out thanks to comparative medicine. It’s easy to feel morally superior about eating greens, and denigrating scientists, now that all that messy stuff has been done and the last time you were on a farm it was to pick a pumpkin in 3rd grade so you don’t know what actually goes into agriculture, even organic agriculture.

This is not to say I agree with CAFOs, food monoculture, the slimey tactics of Monsanto, or any of the extremes of poor infrastructure, corporate malfeasance and environmental stupidity of our food supply. But lets stop pretending that you become morally superior for eating tofu, all the while you happily ignore the habitat destruction, mass removal of unwanted species, and outright extinctions we’ve caused in order to create our agricultural dominance.

So let’s stop calling the people who are trying to understand, preserve and extend human lives speciesist (read racist) and vivisectors. Life is complicated. Living it without cruelty to something either requires you to be oblivious to our constant impact on the living things around us, or to retreat into some Jainist agrarian fantasy world that will never exist. Isn’t it better to have a healthy understanding that human beings survive in competition for limited resources with the species around us? We evolved to the point where we’ve become adapt at manipulating and controlling the natural world, and rather than being ashamed of it, we should accept it as a gift from our ancestors after eons of struggle.

Is Huffington Post no longer a denialist site?

Seth Mnookin has reasons to hope. It has been clear though for years that Huffpo was a clearinghouse for what I would describe as liberal crankery, which includes things like Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine crankery, or Bill Maher’s anti-pharma paranoia.

But now they have a new site, Huffpo Science, and after my head stopped ringing from that particular oxymoron I went and checked it out.
Continue reading “Is Huffington Post no longer a denialist site?”

The Autism/Vaccines Fraud

I have to admit I’m somewhat surprised (even if Orac isn’t). We all knew that Andrew Wakefield’s research was bogus and the link between vaccines and autism was engineered by ideologues who fear vaccines irrationally. But fabrication of data? Sloppy research is one thing, but the need for cranks to be correct, no matter what reality reflects, has resulted in yet another example of egregious dishonesty.

This is in line, however, with what we know about cranks. Mark Crislip recently wrote an interesting piece on mathematics crankery which bears upon just this phenomenon. Mathematics is a wonderful area to study crankery because as Crislip points out, mathematics is a field in which it is possible to distinguish between the possible and the impossible.

In mathematics there are things that are impossible. Absolutely impossible. No ifs, ands, or buts. Impossible. Can’t be done no how no way. In the world of mathematics, things are not only impossible, they are proven truly impossible within the boundaries of the mathematical discipline.

An example of mathematical impossibility is the quadrature of the circle, also called squaring the circle.

It is impossible, using only a straight edge ruler and a compass, to construct a square with the same area as a given circle. It was proved to be impossible in 1882 by Lindeman. Not improbable or unlikely or very, very, very difficult. With in mathematical reality, it is impossible.

But in his review of Mathematical Cranks he hits upon many of the commonalities between cranks we discussed in the Crank HOWTO.

Here is Crislip’s description of the mathematical crank:

1) They are convinced that their opinion is superior to the accumulated opinion of 2000 years of mathematics and mathematicians. That hundreds of mathematicians have worked for hundreds of years on these problems and found no errors in the proof that it is impossible to square a circle is of no consequence. Despite the accumulated mathematical knowledge of uncounted mathematicians, they are convinced that their solution is the right solution. Everyone else for all of history has been wrong. There is a tinge of megalomania in all the correspondence, and some appear to me to be clinically insane.

2) To accommodate their solutions, they are willing to alter reality to fit their proofs. There are solutions to squaring the circle, but they require a value of pi that is different that 3.14159265… Pi, for those that have forgotten, is the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle and is a constant of the universe. For some circle squarers, Pi has a different value and all the mathematics that has confirmed the current value of pi is wrong. Others deny that pi exists or that the definition is meaningless, since they can construct a squared circle with pencil and paper, and send in the (flawed) construction.

3) When errors of math or logic are pointed out, they respond not with understanding, but a redoubling of efforts to prove that their erroneous solution to the problem is actually correct. They are incapable of recognizing flaws in logic, or mathematics, or flaws that are in opposition to mathematical consistency. A crank cannot recognize their error because they cannot recognize that their reality differs from mathematical reality.

4) Cranks are impervious to arguments based on mathematical reality. They do not recognize or understand that their solutions are in error because the solution contradicts known mathematical reality. They do not base their solutions on known mathematics, but on their own flawed understanding of mathematics.

5) Cranks evidently send their ‘solutions’ to multiple mathematical departments and rarely receive a reply. This silence from academia is interpreted not that their solution is worthless, but that there is a conspiracy of Professors of Mathematics to keep their solution secret, to the detriment of human kind. Big Math, out to suppress the truth THEY don’t not want you to know.

It is obvious to me that no matter what the field, the problem is crankery – the defective thought processes that allow people to believe in nonsense, no matter what obstacles reality throws in their path. Every description of every crank in every field ultimately boils down to these same factors. Cranks believe in something contrary to observable reality. They will do anything to prove it. When reality gets in their way, they ignore, subvert, lie, cheat, or obfuscate to create confusion. And when it’s proven beyond all doubt they’re wrong? That’s when the conspiracies come out. The comments on the Huffington Post coverage of the most recent Wakefield dishonesty are an excellent example of this. Wakefield is a victim of Big Pharma, being persecuted by Brian Deer, it’s all a conspiracy against children by doctors and pharmaceutical companies etc.

The more time passes the more I’m convinced that our original thesis on cranks and denialism in general has been confirmed again and again. No matter what the foolish belief the problem the reality-based community is fighting is a defective pattern of thought, an incompetence in evaluating the quality of evidence that afflicts millions of individuals and ultimately is why so many people believe in such stupid things. Wakefield, ultimately, is just another in a long line of cranks. And while biology is never as concrete as mathematics, it is clear that accepting reality was never a part of the the anti-vaccine movement’s ideology. And what do cranks do when reality opposes your world view? They do what Wakefield did. Reject reality, and substitute their own.

Even after all this time I was surprised they would find outright fabrication in Wakefield’s work, but I shouldn’t have been.

If you ever get tired of sanity, Huffington Post is still there

In this morning’s post, Mark mentions an article from the alternative medical universe that is the Huffington Post. One of the latest bits of idiocy to come out of HuffPo is from Barbara Fischkin. I have no idea who this person is, but her writing shows a few things: she is willing to go against scientific consensus without any evidence, and while the rest of the country sits agape at the anti-scientific pandering of all of our presidential candidates, she applauds their senseless bloviations.

The candidates are all talking about it, but when Hillary Clinton said it, I cried. (So did I. –ed)
“We will tackle everything from autism to Alzheimer’s, cancer to diabetes, and make a real difference,” she said, in her Pennsylvania primary victory speech. Later, looking at that one sentence in the light of day, I understood why it stopped me in my tracks. Hillary Clinton put autism first on her list of dreaded diseases. First, even though it wasn’t in alphabetical order.

Well, actually, it was roughly in alphabetical order.

More below the fold…
Continue reading “If you ever get tired of sanity, Huffington Post is still there”

Huffington Post is a denialist website

How else can you describe a site that regularly publishes David Kirby’s anti-vaccination denialism, Jennifer McCarthy’s insanity, and conspiracy theories from the like of Diedre Imus?

The latest this weekend is the goalpost-moving from David Kirby, which based on the egregious misinterpretation of the Hannah Poling case, represents the new front of anti-vaccination denialists in their war on reason. In the never-ending quest to pin autism on vaccines no matter what the evidence, the anti-vaccine denialists now are trying to make autism a mitochondrial disorder in order to fit their latest imagined victory. Despite the obvious fact that the disorder in the Poling case was a pre-existing genetic dysfunction that was possibly aggravated by vaccines, Kirby has decided to add to the confusion by now suggesting that this was a “concession” by the government of a causative link between vaccines and autism.

There is no evidence of a link. between autisms and vaccines.

This post from Kirby is joined by this article from Barbara Fischkin which has the audacity to blame autism on thimerosal:

These people were poisoned. One of the culprits is, no doubt, the mercury preservative that was put willy-nilly into so many vaccines.

Let’s be clear. The thimerosal-autism link is one of the clearest examples of a failed hypothesis that I can think of. It was extensively studies, and roundly disproven by the fact that 6 years after it’s removal autism diagnoses continue to increase (A longer discussion for why this is). Even Kirby won’t support this nonsense, yet the HuffPo will gladly let other cranky celebrities and other morons write whatever the hell they want about science as if they have any idea what they are talking about.

This is an example of something we here at denialism blog have been talking about lately. Liberalism is no protection from anti-scientific thinking. In fact, if there is a unifying theme of denialism, it is that any extreme of ideological thinking leads to the necessary denial of fact. When one considers the causes of denialist worldviews, one sees again and again some form of fundamentalist belief. Fundamentalist religion leads to the rejection of evolution. Free-market fundamentalists are the leading source of anti-global warming denialism. On the liberal side, a mixture of technophobia and neo-luddism leads to paranoid suspicions about everything from GM crops causing non-existent illnesses to fear of harmless radio technology such as wifi to the fear of vaccines and medicine innovations exemplified by the HuffPo cranks and the evidence-based medicine/HIV/AIDS denialists like Mike Adams and Gary Null.

All overvalued ideology ultimately represents a threat to scientific or rational thinking. Science doesn’t respect political values or preconceived notions about how the world works. Liberals may side with global warming science because it fits with their preconceived paranoia of corporations and technology, and conservatives may love evidence-based medicine because it protects Dick Cheney from the Grim Reaper but it’s clear no matter what the ideology, whenever there is a conflict between science and politics there is always a constituency that favors rejection of fact to maintain a fixed belief.

Medicine is no exception. Conservatives don’t generally object to medicine, but are happy to lie about contraception, abortion, embryonic stem cell science or the evil FDA regulators when it conflicts with their pro-life or fundamentalist free market agenda. Liberals don’t object to object to being put together after car accidents either, but their anti-corporate and anti-authority ideology leads them to dream up all sorts of paranoid conspiracy theories that fit with altie-woo and luddite denialism.

I believe public policy should be informed by the evidence first, and ideology should always play second fiddle to what can be demonstrated by the facts. When that order is reversed you are playing a dangerous game. Huffington Post, by supporting this denialist claptrap is risking its reputation on writers who are little more than kooks. I think they should follow the model of Daily Kos. The scientific standards for what appears on the front page is consistently top-notch. The diaries, which are essentially a free-for-all, are monitored for the presence of 9/11 conspiracy nonsense and other kinds of embarrassing crankery which damages the ultimate goal of the website. I would hope that Huffington Post could learn from this and understand the importance of standards for inclusion of posts on their site. These kooks will bring them down, because, dammit, lot’s of us out here in the real world think science is important. I would also hope that contributors to Huffington Post who care about science will realize that Huffington Post shouldn’t get a pass just because they might happen to be right on global warming or evolution. These types of posts from pseudoscientific crackpots are an embarrassment, and the inclusion of these kooks undermines the legitimacy of the site as a whole. If there are people who care about making HuffPo sound like a source of legitimate opinion and analysis, they should take a stand, now, before it’s too late.