Archive for the ‘medicine’ Category

I had a 1700-word post all ready to go, and then WordPress decided to delete it. Sigh. Here’s my attempted reconstruction of this highly informative topic:

Federal research grants are important. They provide money for a huge range of scientific research that otherwise would not be done. We, as a society, have decided that they are good, though both the left and right and everyone in between may disagree about specific programs.

Because they are public, certain laws and regulations exist whereby the public gets to know what their tax money is going to. And, there exist many website that will let you search them. Here’s one that I have found useful because it links to the search forms for what looks like all federal research funding agencies.

What information is shown is somewhat variable, but in general, you will find: The funding agency, the PI (principle investigator), the PI’s institution, Co-Is (co-investigators), the date the funding starts, the date the funding ends, the amount of funding, and an abstract that describes the research that was provided within the proposal. You won’t find the actual proposal because it contains proprietary information — not only sometimes classified information, but also the ideas and methodology behind the proposal (so the team doesn’t get “scooped”), and even the layout and style of the proposal itself (trust me, there are many ways to write a proposal, and some of them are very effective, while others are very ineffective).

The problem with this information is that to a non-expert, and without any of the broader context of the many pages explaining what the proposal may do and the implications for it beyond the immediate research, the proposal easily looks like a waste of money to the average person. And, despite a tiny fraction of the federal budget going to research grants, various bloggers, reporters, and even congresspersons will often pull up a random title and claim that it’s an amazing example of government waste.

Such seems to have been the case with a Free Beacon article titled, “Feds Spent $532,000 Studying Gay Hookup Apps” with the subtitle, “NIH project studied ‘arousal’ of gay men when using Grindr.” The image is of two men, ostensibly gay, laying on each other and smiling.

The World Net Daily subtitle is the same, but they slightly modified the title: “Feds Spent $432,000 Studying ‘Gay’-Hookup Apps.” See, they added a hyphen and put “gay” in “quotes” because “gay” is scary and fake and a choice, because it’s WND.

There are three distinct problems here, and I don’t know if there’s a good solution to any of them: (1) There is no context, making it easy to complain; (2) titles of proposals are often whimsical; and (3) people don’t realize that less than half of the money goes to the actual researcher(s).

The first issue is that when we write grant proposals, we write them at a level where someone in our field or closely related field can understand them. When I write a crater-related proposal, I try to generalize the abstract to explain to a general person familiar with planetary geology what I plan to do and why. I then spend several pages within the proposal giving background information so that someone who models the interiors of planets would be able to understand why I want to do an observational study of impact craters.

I don’t write my abstract so that someone who has a 9-5 job working for a law firm, or working retail, or who works in Congress, would understand it. That would simply require “dumbing it down” too much. I don’t mean to imply that those people are dumb; rather, we have a very limited amount of space to explain why we want to do the research, how we’re going to do it, the broader implications, the proposal team, the management structure, and justify the budget. If we also had to write it at a level that anyone could understand it, we’d never be able to get into details.

Therefore, what makes it into the abstract that would be made public should I win the grant will rarely make sense to a general person just picking it up randomly.

Similarly, we often write titles to try to stand out to the review panels. Something fun and whimsical, for example, to make someone smile. For example, one might entitle a proposal, “Studying Martian ‘Holes in One.'”

A congressional staffer or random blogger may pick that up thinking, “Wow, why is NASA funding something about golf on Mars?” In reality, my proposal is about studying meter- and decameter scale craters in a broad statistical study to try to understand where they are most common, how dense they are, and therefore what the likelihood is that a a future spacecraft may inadvertently land in one. This happened with the MER Opportunity when it landed on Mars eleven years ago. It turned out to be good because the crater’s walls let Opportunity see a lot of otherwise buried layers, and it was able to get out of the crater. But if the crater were a little steeper, or a little smaller, then the rover would not have been able to escape or it may have fallen over and not have been able to righten itself.

Now it seems much more important: You send a half-$billion craft to Mars, you’re going to be more willing to fund a $300k study into impact crater hazards for landing, right? But, a layperson may never get past the title and flag it for government waste.

And that leads into the third issue: We don’t get that money. On a proposal I wrote several years ago, just as an example, the total budget for the three-year proposal was $328k. Salary was $127k, a little over one-third of the total amount. That was my salary as a graduate student half-time for 1 year, and postdoc half-time for 2 years, and my then-advsior for 1 month each year. What did the other money go to? The vast majority was institutional overhead, which covers administration staff salary, budget office salary, building rent, lights, computer support, custodial staff, etc. Then there were benefits, like health insurance, life insurance, and retirement. There was also money in there for a new computer and software licenses so I could do the work. About $10k was travel to conferences and another $6k was publication costs: After all, I could do the most ground-breaking study ever, but if I never told anyone about it, then what’s the point?

So, while a study may look like it costs a lot, and overhead rates vary considerably across different institutions (and are generally higher at private companies versus public universities), a very very general rule-of-thumb is to divide the total amount by 3, and that’s salary.

That brings us back to the article in question. Now that you have all that in mind, let’s look at it. Using the NIH (National Institutes of Health) search form, here’s the grant, awarded to Dr. Karolynn Siegel, entitled, “Use of Smartphones Applications for Partnering Among MSM.” MSM is “men who have sex with men” (since many men are unwilling to identify as bi or gay but do have sex with other men).

While Free Beacon doesn’t seem to have much of a spin, and it does not allow comments so I can’t quite tell which end of the political spectrum it’s on, WND clearly does have an agenda: This study is a waste because who cares about gays (or “gays”) hooking up? What benefit could there possibly be!?

Well, take a moment and think more broadly about it from both a social and medical standpoint: Smartphones and GPS-enabled devices have drastically changed how we interact, so from a social standpoint we need research to better understand that phenomenon. From a health standpoint, it’s dramatically increased the ease of casual sex, especially among gay men where there is still a stigma of trolling the bars or streets for a partner. Heterosexuals have their own app (Tinder), and so the findings from a study of gay males hooking up could have implications for straight men and women, too. And, casual sex will increase the risk of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). So, from a public health standpoint, understanding a strong new vector for how diseases spread is the first step to trying to determine ways to minimize that risk. Both for straight and gay persons.

If the blogger or WND had bothered to read the abstract on the NIH site, they would have found that (emphasis mine):

The study aims are: 1. Examine how and why smartphone applications are used for sexual partnering, the situations and locations in which they are used, in order to gain insights into how these use patterns might contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 2. Investigate the process by which MSM use smartphone applications to find sexual partners (i.e., who they look for, how they present themselves, how they communicate, extent of safer sex negotiation,and disclosure) to gain insights into how this process may contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 3. Investigate the sexual and emotional states (e.g., more/less urgency, arousal, impulsivity) that MSM experience when seeking or meeting sexual partners using smartphone applications and gain insights into how these states may contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 4. Examine the perceived need and acceptability of a smartphone delivered intervention and assess what MSM perceive as needed components for a smartphone-based sexual risk reduction intervention.

It also contains a public health relevance statement (likely unique to the NIH, since I don’t have to do that for NASA).

Meanwhile, the cost – $432k – may seem high. But, divide by three, and we’re down to around $150k salary. For a medical researcher, working for two years, at maybe half or a third of their time on this particular grant, that doesn’t seem very high anymore. Especially if most of it is given to graduate students who will be conducting the actual interviews with the 60 MSM in the study and Dr. Siegel is there for a month a year to supervise and then more at the end to crunch the data. In medical studies, there’s also money that is sometimes paid out to participants as compensation (I have no idea if that’s the case in this study, but I know it happens in others).

And so, we went from a sensationalist headline that clearly is meant to drum up a specific reaction (government waste! who cares about gays!?) but that’s because it leaves out any form of context as to the broader implications of this kind of study and why it’s being done. It also completely ignores that the amount of money in the federal budget for government-funded scientific research is somewhere around 3.4%. (FY2015 budget is around $3.97T, but science is $135B, and just under half of that is defense, leaving 1.8% for non-defense.)

And, World Net Daily got that reaction. In the 22 hours the article on their site has been posted, they have gotten 42 comments. They broadly fit into saying that President Obama is gay (which is another odd conspiracy they’ve been floating for years, and remember that being gay on WND is bad), that this is government waste of tax money, and that the study is stupid because it’s about The Gays.

Ignoring the first, some examples of the second are:

    • dan690: “The government says there is no room in the budget for cuts. Here is an excellent example of where to cut and there are thousands more.”
    • Tomas Cruz: “And they wonder why we reject every call for more taxes for this or that because it ends up with this nonsense.”
    • James Frost: “What the hell is going on with our officials? They spend our money on conducting such stupid research. But what`s the use? They`d better spend money on veterans, poor families, security measures. This gays have too much public attention!”

And examples of the third are:

    • Sharknado: “A government of perverts…just great…thanks a lot.”
    • ThoLawn: “What was the purpose to spend (waste indeed) half of million dollars to interview all that gays? What they’re going to do with that “research” results? Would it help to solve any problems? What a stupidity…”
    • HardCorePress: “Talk about in your face government sponsored hommoman wanna pump a guys *** pervertedness. This type of blatant sin has been seen by God and God will send his wrath upon this country. May it be nuclear fire to cleanse the cancerous mass of homosexuality (the pinnacle of debauchery and Obamanibale hedonism).”

I feel sorry for the child of Missouri state rep Paul Weiland and his wife, Teresa Weiland. Why? Well, they’re suing U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Labor and Treasury departments because they are required to have an insurance plan that would include contraception as a benefit: “Couple Fights Obamacare Over Birth Control.”

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Birth control is not abortion. Despite what “personhood” people want you to believe. Post-intercourse birth control tends to work by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg in the womb, such that it will not gestate and will be removed with normal removal processes (yes, I’m a tad squeamish about this). It’s like not planting a seed. I would not consider not planting a pepper seed from the pepper I just ate to be the same as uprooting a baby seedling that had just sprouted.

But, this couple is so religious, so Catholic, that not only would they never even consider using birth control (il Papa still says Catholics can’t even use condoms because Every Sperm is Sacred) that they can’t even have a health care plan that would let them have access to it for reduced or no cost.

And not them, but their daughters:

The Wielands’ daughters, though no longer living at home, were covered by the couple’s insurance. And that’s why the coverage for birth control became objectionable, he said.

“If Barack Obama and his HHS want to send a package of contraceptive tablets to our college-age daughters every month, they can do that,” he said.

But Belz said the parents should not be made co-conspirators with the administration.

Belz here is their lawyer, Timothy Belz, of the Thomas More Society of Chicago.

So, let’s repeat that: These two are so against any form of birth control that they are suing the federal government to prevent the couple from getting an insurance plan that would cover birth control for their college-aged daughters.

I actually feel sorry for their daughters.

“Corporations are people, my friend.”  –former Presidential nominee, Mitt Romney

The Roberts Supreme Court may be known for many things when looking back on it in a century, but I expect that one of them will be taking broad steps to give the same rights to corporations that are enjoyed by individuals. Yesterday (Monday, June 30), the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling that many of us more progressive folks, and almost certainly non-religious folks, had been watching closely, and dreaded: In Burwell et al. v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. et al., SCOTUS in a 5-4 decision ruled for Hobby Lobby.

At issue, to the layperson like myself, was whether the federal government could force a publicly owned corporation to provide a service to its employees just as all other corporations, but against this corporation’s religious beliefs. SCOTUS ruled “no.”

I opened over two dozen stories about this yesterday and today, and it’s actually not quite as bad as I thought. The “real” issue, or at least the legal justification of this much narrower decision than it could have been, is that the mandate to provide contraception as part of the health care plan offered to employees actually conflicts with a 1993 religious freedom law (“Religious Freedom Restoration Act”):

The legislation said that “governments should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification.” It went on to say that the measure’s purpose was “to provide a claim or defense to persons whose religious exercise is substantially burdened by government.” –NY Times

SCOTUS decided that requiring Hobby Lobby to provide contraception under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, against those in charge’s religious feelings, violated the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They did not issue a blanket ruling saying that the ACA was unconstitutional, that the 1993 law is constitutional, or anything like that.

Which means that there are two very clear ways around this. First, the government could subsidize birth control for women who do not have it covered by their employer. Second, Congress could repeal the 1993 Act. I think that the former via Executive Order is much more likely to happen in this political environment than the latter. Though they may be trying for the latter at the moment.

So now that you’ve suffered through my legal opinions, let’s go for some linky-dinks (the “dinks” because we’re talking WND here):

You can get a good idea from the headlines where they’re headed with this, and among the hundreds of comments (435 alone on Bob’s), most are quite pleased.

Most liberals are not. There are many implications, and perhaps the most scathing dissent from the majority was by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But before I get to that, the LGBT community is particularly worried about the implications.

Top-rated comment by “GeorgiaPeachie” on Bob Unruh’s article tells you why: “WOOHOO!!! This ruling can be used by Christians when sued by HOMOSEXUALS. The Wedding Cake, Wedding Photography and others related small businesses now have a ruling in their favor!!! HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY DAY!!!”

Yeah … now, I’m no “law-talkin’ guy” (lawyer), but it seems to me that if the justification for the mandate being illegal (not unconstitutional) is that employers can impose their religious beliefs on the kinds of services offered their employees, then what’s to stop a Christian-bent company owner from refusing to honor the marriage (and therefore spousal plans for health insurance) to a same-sex couple that is legally married in that state? Or innumerable other things. RightWing Watch has already pointed to many of the leaders of the anti-gay movement saying as much.

With that taste in mind, here are several other articles that have a more liberal feeling on the ruling, generally in temporal order from when I found them:

There are many things in these other writings that I like, and I’m going to quote several of them. From Hemant (first link):

Congratulations, conservative Christian business owners. You win. You can finally legally discriminate against women by denying them access to certain kinds of birth control normally available through their insurance.

Just remember this, Green family: While you’re reveling in victory, millions of young people are fully aware of what you’re really celebrating. It’s not about “religious liberty” because your rights were never up for debate. We know you’re happy because, once again, Christianity has been used as a weapon of discrimination. Enjoy your Supreme Court victory while it lasts because, in exchange, you’re about to lose even more of your social power.

This is just a continuation of all those other times you used your power to make others’ lives worse. Every time you stood in the way of marriage equality, more people left their churches, vowing never to return. For years now, we’ve known that the reputation of Christians is that they’re anti-science, anti-gay, and anti-women. You’ve only solidified those stereotypes and churches will pay for that as they lose members fed up with being associated with an organization that takes joy in denying others freedom and happiness.

The Center for Inquiry:

“This is not a decision that advances religious freedom — it is a decision that enshrines religious privilege over and above employee well-being,” added Lindsay. “This decision defies common sense, lacks compassion, and has the potential to harm us all.”

From RightWing Watch:

Writing for the majority in the Hobby Lobby case, Justice Alito emphasized [PDF] that the ruling, which partly overturned the Obama administration’s rules on birth control coverage, does not apply to other cases involving religious objections to government regulations.

… While Alito stresses that only closely-held corporations are involved in this case, what about a company board dominated by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, or evangelicals like David Barton who believe “that the Bible opposes the minimum wage, unions and collective bargaining, estate taxes, capital gains taxes, and progressive taxation in general”?

With Congress currently debating the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, what if Hobby Lobby’s owners cited their religion as a reason to discriminate against LGBT employees? Or refuse to cover HIV/AIDS treatments?

The Washington Post, who showed a lot of different poll results:

It suggests that Americans’ opinions on the topic are quite malleable and — by extension — pretty soft. If Americans can offer such different responses based on just a few words being changed in the question, they probably don’t feel all that strongly about the issue or haven’t really paid attention.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who feel very strongly. It just means they they are probably in the minority.

Which means today’s Supreme Court ruling is probably a lot more about precedent and legal wrangling than about the 2014 election.

The Washington Post’s Q&A article:

Does this mean I will no longer get free birth control through my company insurance plan?

It probably does not mean that — unless you work for Hobby Lobby or Conestoga Wood Specialties, or one of the more than 40 other companies that have filed similar complaints. Other companies might jump on the bandwagon, but a deluge is unlikely.

For one thing, the justices were specific that a company dropping this coverage had to be motivated by sincerely held religious convictions. Most companies, even if their owners are religious, are secular in their day-to-day operations.

Also, even before the law, most employers covered contraception, suggesting they do not have to be compelled to offer the benefit.

George Takei:

“In this case, the owners happen to be deeply Christian; one wonders whether the case would have come out differently if a Muslim-run chain business attempted to impose Sharia law on its employees. As many have pointed out, Hobby Lobby is the same company that invests in Pfizer and Teva Pharmaceuticals, makers of abortion inducing-drugs and the morning after pill. It also buys most of its inventory from China, where forced abortions are common. The hypocrisy is galling.

“Hobby Lobby is not a church. It’s a business — and a big one at that. Businesses must and should be required to comply with neutrally crafted laws of general applicability. Your boss should not have a say over your healthcare. Once the law starts permitting exceptions based on ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’ there’s no end to the mischief and discrimination that will ensue. Indeed, this is the same logic that certain restaurants and hotels have been trying to deploy to allow proprietors to refuse service to gay couples.”

Finally, from Justice Ginsburg’s dissent (copied from TFA):

Persuaded that Congress enacted RFRA to serve a far less radical purpose, and mindful of the havoc the Court’s judgment can introduce, I dissent.

… The distinction between a community made up of believers in the same religion and one embracing persons of diverse beliefs, clear as it is, constantly escapes the Court’s attention. One can only wonder why the Court shuts this key difference from sight.

… the Court’s reasoning appears to permit commercial enterprises like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga to exclude from their group health plans all forms of contraceptives.

… Would the exemption the Court holds RFRA demands for employers with religiously grounded objections to the use of certain contraceptives extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations (Christian Scientists, among others)? According to counsel for Hobby Lobby, “each one of these cases… would have to be evaluated on its own… apply[ing] the compelling interest-least restrictive alternative test.”… Not much help there for the lower courts bound by today’s decision.

You would think that Republicans would have learned that with Social Security, a Democratic proposal during the height of the Great Depression that economists said would kill jobs because employers couldn’t afford the 2% and then 6% payroll tax to pay for it. Conservative Christians decried it as the Mark of the Beast.

These days, even reform of Social Security – let alone canceling it – is a political non-starter. Medicare and Medicaid are similar. And, I think, the Affordable Care Act (derisively called “ObamaCare”) will soon follow.

Like it or not, it is in effect almost in full at this point. That means that over 7 million people are getting benefits in some way from it. I think Republicans (the pragmatic ones) have recognized that, but WND doesn’t like it: “GOP Leader Throws in Towel on ObamaCare Repeal.”

There are only 151 WND comments at this time, and they did not like what “Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a stalwart opponent of the Affordable Care Act,” had to say.

The highest rated comment was from “jtrollla:” “Rodgers has now officially joined the Boehner-McConnell camp and must be one of those purged if the Republican Party is to redeem itself, rather than damn itself to oblivion.”

Second-highest “LynxNews” agreed: “We now know what side she is on…. the wrong one. And I’d guess she has been since the beginning. What a coward, and traitor.”

In 50 years — heck, probably in 10-20 — I would guess that most Republicans will be on the opposite side, pushing to keep it in the face of desired reform. It happened with Social Security, it’ll happen again.

A short post about a WND snippet: “Couple Face Prison After Sons’ Prayer Deaths.” It’s a sad, sad story that didn’t have to happen, and this is the second child that this couple, Herbert and Catherine Schaible, has let die of a completely curable ailment, just because they think their religion says you can’t use the new-fangled invention called “modern medicine.”

I would consider that a particularly extreme version of religiosity, but World Net Daily tends to cater to that extreme. This is why I was pleasantly surprised that 10 of the 13 comments – and the five most highly rated comments – were against the couple, in support of seeking medical care. As “steadfast” started with their comment: “Gods people are to have faith, faith enough to utilize the health care and life saving ministries of doctors when needed.”

Based on searching through my archives, I’ve decided to start numbering yet another series on this blog, in this case, “Rules Apply to Everyone but Christians!” The rule in question this time is whether, if you’re hired to do a job, you shouldn’t have to do some parts of that job because it conflicts with your religious values. Um, yes? You were hired to do a job. If you don’t want to do all of that job, get a different one. Duh.

But apparently not “Duh” to the Thomas More Society (a religious “liberties” law firm), who has decided to file “a federal lawsuit in Tennessee on behalf of former Walgreens pharmacist Philip Hall, alleging Hall was unfairly fired because his faith would not permit him to sell the Plan B morning-after pill over the counter.” The WND post is by Michael Carl: “Walgreens: Leave Your Beliefs at the Door.”

I think that should be: “All Employers Say: Employees – Leave Your Beliefs at the Door.”

Here’s what the Thomas More Society says is the basis of its lawsuit:

Thomas More Society attorney Jocelyn Floyd is representing Hall in his federal lawsuit and she says that Hall’s constitutional rights have been violated.

Floyd says that the law recognizes an enormous list of reasons people can lodge religious objections, but she says there are limits. The law requires the employer make a “reasonable accommodation,” a process that begins with the employee.

“If someone has a religious objection, they have to go to their employer and say they can’t do something. In this case it’s selling the morning after pill for religious reasons. The employer is required to make what is called the reasonable accommodation.

“In this case, this would require the store to allow Dr. Hall the opportunity to have another cashier process the sale. That is a reasonable accommodation. Now that it is over the counter it can be any cashier,” Floyd said.

She also says that the over-the-counter status of Plan B makes it easier for the store to accommodate Hall’s beliefs.

“Before, when it was a prescription drug, the dispensing of the drug and the sale had to be done by another pharmacist. Now it can be any cashier and that means that finding another cashier doesn’t place an undue burden on the store.

“It might be a slight hassle and it can be a little annoying to have to find another cashier, but it is not an undue burden. If he believed his religious beliefs were such that he couldn’t even work in the store and that the company would have to stop selling the product altogether, that would be an undue burden,” Floyd said.

If they don’t settle out of court, I would expect Walgreens to win this one. To me, at least, this is simple: Your job as a pharmacist is to dispense medication. Even if it’s OTC and not prescription, that is the fundamental raison d’être for being a pharmacist. Just as an Orthodox Jew working at the meat counter should not expect to be allowed to refuse to serve any meat product that has pork in it, a pharmacist should not get away with not having to dispense various drugs they don’t agree with.

Jews tend to circumcise (remove the foreskin of the penis) their male children generally because their religion tells them to. The American medical profession tended to do it by default. That is changing, and circumcision rates are dropping significantly in the US, as WND indicates in their snippet from the Washington Post on December 28, 2013: “More U.S. Jews Questioning Circumcision.” The sub-title is, “Rabbi: ‘If America starts turning against this, give it one generation.'” ‘Cause, you know that England and Australia and other countries that don’t circumcise by default are cesspools.

The article only has 9 ratings (2.7/5 stars), but it garnered a respectable 139 comments, though the comments were not widely engaging (indicated by relatively few ratings on the top-rated ones).

The top-rated comment was by “wearyconservative1946” with 6 up and 1 down vote: “Sure, why not? Most U.S. Jews long ago abandoned everything else God told them to do (and not to do).”

Next is an interesting point by “George73” (3 up, 0 down votes): “Circumcision is not a part of Christianity. When the Apostles met at Jerusalem to determine the requirements to be a Christian, circumcision was omitted from the list of requirements. Circumcision is not necessary. This is all made clear in the 15th Chapter of the Book of Acts. The Catholic Church officially opposes circumcision.”

Next is a comment by “ngorgh” which is just a bunch of Bible quotes. Next is “Hot Stuff” who got 6 up and 2 down votes: “I was circ’ed at 5 years of age by my mother’s wishes; she wanted her son to look like his father. They tried to cut me without anesthetic but I put up too great a fight. So I went under the ether. When I awoke my little weewee was bandaged and hurt like hell. It was so sore that I couldn’t wear my levis for over a week. No wonder boy babies cry so much in their diapers. I think that mothers who force this babarian mutilation on their sons should submit themselves and their daughters to female circumcision like they do in Africa.”

Many other comments are just debating if it’s good or bad.

What I don’t understand is how this religious dictate is justified. Granted, an all-powerful deity doesn’t “need” a reason per se, but it would be nice to get one. I’ve heard it described as a “covenant” made with God, something like a man willing to sacrifice a part of himself to a creator that made him perfect to begin with? Or something like that.

Or maybe God just likes calamari but doesn’t want to kill squid. Yeah, I think that’s it. God takes all those foreskins, puts ’em in some buttermilk for an hour or two, breads ’em, and deep fries for 4-5 minutes. Mmmmmmmm … sacdelicious.

It’s something that science-based medicine folks, and skeptics, and others have been proclaiming for years, but apparently the latest studies (three plus an editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine) were what caught on in the press: “Doctors: Multivitamins Have No Benefits.”

“We believe that the case is closed — supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful,” concluded the authors of the editorial summarizing the new research papers, published Dec. 16 in the Annals of Internal Medicine. “These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough.”

In a normal world, and even in a conservative worldview, I would think that this would be confirmation of what conservatives would want: “Big Pharma” has been marketing pills that do nothing, so save your money and don’t buy them! Right? Wrong …

Because apparently, this is a big plot to take away our freedom of choice and freedom to self-medicate and make America beholden to “the UN agreement that says food is a medicine to be regulated by the state and that vitamins and minerals in the diet should be criminalized” (commenter “Locke-Fawkes” with 19 up and 0 down votes — top-rated on that story). Sigh.

You also apparently can’t trust doctors (“Doctors…..about as trustworthy as liberal Democrat used car salesmen.” —”nampilot68″ with 18 up and 0 down votes). Despite many polls indicating that doctors are typically among the most-trusted people profession-wise.

Apparently, this study really is about trying to ween us from self-medicating on multivitamins that can prevent illness in order to get us to take more drugs that Big Pharma makes to alleviate symptoms (from “tiza” with 12 up and 0 down votes): “This study is so laughable and ridiculous, as well as the doctors for trusting in it. Physicians rarely have much nutrition study. They need to have a very long talk with the likes of Dr. Russell Blaylock. Actually they could learn something about the importance of specific supplements. But they are only interested in the drugs, and those drugs can make folks very, very ill.”

What I think most of these people don’t realize is that it’s “big pharma” drug companies making the friggin’ multivitamins!!!! (for the most part) Why wouldn’t they? The vitamins don’t have to be regulated in the US, they don’t have to be tested, don’t have to have proven efficacy, or any of that other stuff that costs butt-loads of R&D money. Sigh.

Meanwhile, a month later on January 13, Lee Hieb, M.D., “an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in spinal surgery,” wrote an article for WND. The image accompanying it is incredibly unappetizing with about four different kinds of pills, all amber-yellow except one set of black. It’s entitled “So ‘Vitamins Don’t Work,’ Eh?” It’s hard to pass Dr. Hieb off as a new-age quack or alt-med person, being the past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, though that group is a “free market medical organization.” But, using her as an individual is an argument from authority, and anyone using the, “but people like them!” is using an argument from popularity. Perhaps one can pass on Dr. Hieb as a medical authority by her third paragraph, though:

Now I will admit my bias. My bias is that modern medicine is the “Flat Earth Society,” and its adherents are infused with hubris – they “know not that they knoweth not.” In other words, classically trained physicians (and I am one) fall into the trap of forgetting that they don’t have all the answers, and that the truth is always unfolding. Today in 2013 what we believe is true will not be seen to be true in a hundred years.

What she sets up, unfortunately, is a straw man in her next two paragraphs:

In reality, even classically trained physicians use vitamins and mineral supplements all the time in their practice, and believe that they work – even the guys from the Ivy League who treat naturopaths and “complementary” physicians with such contempt. They prescribe Vitamin D all the time for bone preservation. They give iron for blood deficiency. They use sublingual and injectable B12 for pernicious anemia and neuropathy. These are vitamins and minerals.

They just don’t want you, the patient, to have the option of taking things you believe make sense. They want the FDA to control things, so only someone with an MD or DO behind their name can prescribe supplements.

What she says here is true: “They prescribe Vitamin D all the time for bone preservation. They give iron for blood deficiency. They use sublingual and injectable B12 for pernicious anemia and neuropathy. These are vitamins and minerals.” The difference is that those are things (vitamins and minerals in this case) used to treat a specific indication, and they are used because they have been shown in clinical trials to work.

This is in contrast with the innumerable shelves of “supplements” such as multi-vitamins that have not been shown in robust, controlled clinical trials to do much of anything. Other than produce expensive urine. And that’s what the latest research / popular article was showing. Hence the straw man.

What she also fails to mention is that supplements are drugs! They are vitamins, minerals, or other complex molecules that have a physiological effect on the human body. That is a drug. If you have no medical knowledge, why would you want to put something in your body that has not been proven to do what you think it does, convinced by some slick marketing ad or your friend Donna down the street? The second paragraph in that block quote is just conspiracy wrapped around what I said.

The bulk of the rest of her article is more conspiracy (“Pharmaceutical companies have everything to lose by you treating yourself” –no, because they can still sell you the drug you use to treat yourself!), examples of individual vitamins or minerals that are known to treat certain things, and of course, the “freedom” issue.

Americans value their freedom of, well, everything. Should you have the freedom to self-medicate yourself to death? I think mostly so, probably yes. With the very strong caveat that you must be fully informed of what you are doing, go in with your “eyes open,” as the saying goes. Vitamins and supplements for the most part are sold not because they have proven efficacy to prevent the common cold (common claim for Vitamin C), but because companies market them because they are cheap and there are no regulations that prevent them from making dubious (though do prevent them from making false) claims. And most marketing is done form them by people like Dr. Hieb. Or your friend Donna who takes a daily multivitamin and hasn’t gotten the flu in 40 years.

That’s my issue with this, and why I’m in the scientific skepticism movement in general: Critical thinking is sorely lacking, and people who think they are informed typically are not.

Catholics, by doctrine, are against abortion. That’s kinda a “duh” statement to anyone who knows much of anything about Catholicism. The grey area is how much against it when the consequence of not inducing an abortion is that the mother will die?

It’s one of those moral quandaries that we all (hopefully) hope to never have to make, but statistics show that most people would rather do nothing and let someone die than do something to save someone else but lead to someone else’s death. The classic example is that a train is coming, and it will kill 5 people on one track. But, you could switch tracks, and it would only kill 1 person. Do you switch? Most would say “no.”

This moral question apparently has a Doctrinal answer from the Catholic Church: Women are baby factories, abortion is NOT ALLOWED UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. No exceptions.

With that lovely preamble, we are brought to December 3’s short snippet from NBC News, “ACLU Sues Catholic Hospital.” At issue is that a woman, 18 weeks pregnant, was taken to the nearest ER in Michigan with complications. She was sent home with some drugs. She came back later and ended up suffering a very dangers, painful, and prolonged miscarriage. The standard medical practice – as witnesses will testify at trial – is to induce labor to result in a miscarriage (“abortion”) in such circumstances to save the life of the mother. The doctors apparently knew that (or should have if they were competent), but did not tell the mother because they were a Catholic hospital and driven by Catholic Bishops’ directives.

So, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) is suing with the woman as the plaintiff. (By the way, I got a lot of the information above from memory from reading another article on this story, NOT from the WND snippet.)

The story, posted nearly two weeks ago now, has 6 ratings with an average of only 2.5/5 stars. It does have 39 comments, pretty much all of them talking about the downfall of society. ‘Cause, you know … Jesus.

For example, “General Quarters” wrote, with 10 up-votes and 1 down-vote: “Go ahead and sue. “We must obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:29. If the Catholic hospital loses, they might close their doors. If that is the case……We the People will lose since the Catholic hospitals treat anyone regardless of race, creed, religion or ability to pay. Close all the Catholic hospitals and watch the choas that ensues. That rigid ideology of death to the unborn will become the death of this nation. I will watch for the outcome of this trial. God’s Church v Satan once again. I have noticed that whenever the ACLU takes on a lawsuit they win when they are unopposed. There will be plenty of lawyers out there to take this case against the ACLU. Abortion is nothing more than pre-meditated murder! Keep in mind, this is a press report prior to the trial. So the verdict is already in as far as they are concerned. The original source is the vastly liberal NBC News. So I can almost guarantee the news is slanted against the Catholic Hospital. The press no longer informs, they form the public mind.”

Edited to Add (December 21, 2013): The New York Times points out that the Catholic hospitals, because of the Bishops’ rule(s) on abortion, violates medical ethics and existing laws.

I think that World Net Daily tends to be a circle-j–k under the best of circumstances. A story with the headline, “Mom Faults Flue Shot in Teen Son’s Death,” is certainly no exception. Remember that WND (in general) is very conservative, anti-government, pro-corporations (but anti-“Big Pharma”), and very distrustful of science because it tends to conflict with their Bïble. So, when a story such as that is posted, you already know what the comments are going to be like: Predominantly anecdotes (argument from personal experience / argumentum ad populum) of either “I never took a vaccine and never got sick!” or “I became deathly ill but managed to survive from one jab and never took a vaccine again and have been 100% healthy!”

In this story, I don’t want to go through quoting the various anecdotes. Rather, I think it’s important to counter it with a little bit of skepticism. First, Sharon Hill over at Doubtful News has a good introductory post about it. She links to a post by Orac over at ScienceBlogs, and Orac points out that this is a tragic death, but it’s unexplained. As in, the mother insists it was the influenza inoculation, but that is not consistent with the medical care her son was receiving, is EXCEEDINGLY rare, and the mother refused to let an autopsy be done to determine the real cause of death because she “knows” what the cause is.

There’s also another science blog that points out that the mother is very much playing the part of a martyr rather than seeming to really want to know what caused her son’s death. This is evidenced not by her letting the doctors do an autopsy, but rather going on the television show, “Fox and Friends”:

On Fox and Friends (a show with a previous record of advancing the anti-vaccine agenda),

Webb said there’s “no doubt” in her mind that if they had focused on the flu vaccine from the start that her son would still be alive….

“He was so healthy. He was pure. He should have been able to fight the flu. I wish he would have gotten the flu rather than this vaccination,” said Webb.

It’s very difficult not to let emotional responses govern how we feel about something, especially when a personal tragedy is involved. It might be hard to fault the mother due to what she’s going through. Then again, what she is doing because of her personal tragedy is being exploited by anti-vaccine people who have zero evidence that this caused her son’s death (remember that correlation ≠ causation) but want to hype up the fear and the personal tragedy. It would be nice if the mother realized that she was being used. Or, if she is fully knowledgable of what she is doing, does one really think that her son would want his legacy exploited in this way?