Inaugural Brisbane Skepticamp is a Roaring Success!

Last Saturday, the 19th of June 2014, I was lucky enough to head along to the very first ever Brisbane Skepticamp. It was held at Hamilton, a handsome river-side suburb in gorgeous Brisbane. Queensland really did turn on the beautiful weather for us too! It was quite the sub-tropical treat for Scotty Harrison and I considering we started our morning in Armidale and a fresh -5C!

If you have never been to a Skepticamp, I would highly recommend you tag along to one. They are generally free events, where just about anyone can put their hand up to speak on any topic they like! Skepticamps have been organised by grass-roots skeptic groups all over the world. A few that have been held close to home include: Sydney, Melbourne, Great Ocean Road and now Brisbane. Due to the dynamic nature of the event, the topics are often widely varied which keeps it very entertaining. Topics in Brisbane ranged from “A Scientific Approach to Swordsmanship” by Scotty harrison, to the “Northern Rivers Vaccination Supports” by Alison Gaylard, and “Weight a minute, That’s Bullshit!” By Chrys Stevenson and so many more! Skepticamp also gives an opportunity for people to present when they mightn’t usually get invited to speak at more formal skeptical conferences. People like me. Most importantly, skepticamp is a chance to touch base with like-minded people and catch-up with facebook friends in the real world!

Brisbane Skepticamp blew everyone out of the water! It was A-maze-ing! From the slick organisation by the newly formed Brisbane skeptics to the high level of the speeches, Brisbane Skepticamp has really raised the bar for skepticamps nation wide.

Scotty and I with the big man himself, Carl Sagan, live in the cardboard.

Scotty and I with the big man himself, Carl Sagan, live in the cardboard.

A few honorable mentions and shout outs go to: Ross Balch of the “Skeptically Challenged” podcast, who put in the hard yards to get this off the ground (and continues to work hard, now putting all our talks up on youtube, complete with transcripts.) Ross and Jake Farr-Wharton, not only MCed the event but also wrote and performed an awesome love ballad dedicated to, of all things, water. Peter Bowditch, of ratbags.com took the opportunity to launch his new book: “things I think about“. Finally to Loretta Moran, who is one of the key figures behind Friends of Science in Medicine, and deserves each of her many accolades. After Loretta’s talk about FSM, my respect and admiration for her have increased even further.

So, I’m going to leave you all now with a link to the introduction, produced by Ross Balch, which opened the event.

Click for the Intro to the Brisbane Skepticamp 2014

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Media’s False Balance Trap

Journalism has an overwhelming fascination with balance. Generally this is a positive attribute for a journalist to to have. Usually, when reporting the news, it is important to research the story from all points of view. It wouldn’t be a good look if a journalist were to report a one-sided story containing only the hearsay of someone who is known to mislead and misrepresent information, and just generally lie without seeking an opposing angle (see, here and here).

The big problem with balance in the media, comes when reporting on matters of science. When reporting on issues such as climate change or vaccination, that overwhelming need for “balance” is often achieved by placing a scientist side-by-side with someone with little to no qualifications in the area. The thing is, that when it comes to science, opinion isn’t news.

I recommend this video from HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” as an example of how to more accurately report on the climate change “debate”.

Climate change deniers and anti-vaccination campaigners love to legitimise themselves in the media by using that word: ‘debate’. There lies the main problem. In the scientific community there isn’t any debate on either of these topics. By providing a “balanced debate” on these issues a reporter is in fact inaccurately representing the truth and providing what is known as false balance.

false.balance

I was recently asked to be a part of a short documentary about vaccination that was being filmed by some uni students. I, and some far more learned friends of mine, spent a good deal of time explaining false balance. Unfortunately I was forced to withdraw from their project because of the strong possibility of appearing along side a vaccine refuser or anti-vaccination campaigner. In email correspondence with the students, I explained my withdrawal:

When anti-vaccination views are portrayed side-by-side with scientifically accurate pro-vaccination views, it gives the anti-vaccs opinions undue credibility in the eyes of the audience. It is, in fact, less damaging to the public’s opinion to allow the anti-vaccs to appear alone.

I haven’t just pulled that statement out of the air. Research has been done on the effect that false balance reporting has on audience’s perceptions of vaccine safety. The study shows that those who viewed falsely balanced articles were more likely to question the safety of vaccinations, despite the proof that the link between vaccination and autism is well and truly debunked. According to this article by Dr Rachel Dunlop (who provides a  lovely lay-person explanation of the false balance research):

Unsurprisingly, the participants who read the article saying vaccines cause autism indicated they would be less likely to have their children vaccinated in the future. But what was surprising was those who read the false balance article were even less confident about the safety of vaccines than the “vaccines-definitely-cause-autism” article.

The authors suggested the reasons for this may be that false balance elicits a stronger perception that experts are divided, or that experts truly are uncertain whether vaccines cause autism …

The thing is, at the the end of the day, false balance isn’t even rewarded by your peers.

This year’s National Press Club award for health reporting and award for ‘Best Documentary or Documentary Series – Health, Health Sciences or Innovation in the field of Health and Health Sciences’ went to journalists who had focused on the issue of vaccination. Both “A pox on both your parents” and “Jabbed: Love, Fear and Vaccines” avoided false balance.

My final words to the media: there is no debate. By presenting anti-vaccination views beside an expert on vaccination, you are legitimatising their unqualified “reckons“. I’d go as far as to say that you are endangering a vital health initiative, and thereby partly responsible for the spread of potentially fatal vaccine preventable diseases.

HCCC sends out a warning against the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network

It has been a long time coming, but today I was informed of a new Health Care Complaints Commission  (HCCC) public warning issued against the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network (AVsN) formally the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN).

A media release from the HCCC yesterday stated that an investigation into the AVsN found that the:

…AVN does not provide reliable information in relation to certain vaccines and vaccination more generally. The Commission considers that AVN’s dissemination of misleading, misrepresented and incorrect information about vaccination engenders fear and alarm and is likely to detrimentally affect the clinical management or care of its readers.

This is amazing news. Meryl Dorey, public officer and former president of AVsN, has for years been spreading misinformation to the public under the guise of “informed choice”, “vaccine safety advocacy” and “health freedoms”. She feels that her 20 years of so-called research give the same level of expertise as a doctor despite the fact that her only qualification is that she “has a brain“.

This latest warning from the HCCC is another win for those who advocate for evidence based medicine in Australia. Well done to Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN), the HCCC and everyone else involved!

CAUTION

Know, check, protect: says who?

“Know, Check, Protect” is the catch-cry for the 2014 World Immunisation Week. World Immunisation Week is a campaign spear-headed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and runs in the final week of April every year. As the week comes to a close I thought I’d jump on my little soap box and blog about something close to my heart: Vaccinations.

One of the main messages of the campaign this year is just how important it is to be up-to-date with your boosters. Why do we need boosters? The simple answer is that immunity to certain diseases fades with time. This means that although adults may have received all of their childhood vaccinations, they could become vulnerable to some Vaccine Preventable Diseases (VPDs) later on in life.

In Australia one the most worrying VPDs that we have seen a resurgence in is Whooping cough. Check out this graph from NSW health that shows thousands of reported cases at the peak of the epidemic from late 2010- early 2012.

Whooping cough is one of these diseases that requires a booster. Without a top-up vaccination every few years adults leave themselves open to contracting this disease. Follow this link to read the experiences of a lady who caught whooping cough in her 30’s. I’m sure after reading that you’ll agree that this illness is a nasty piece of work.

While whooping cough is awful no matter what age you are, it has the potential to be fatal in babies. Babies are also at a higher risk of contracting the disease until they have received all their scheduled vaccination.

This is where herd immunity is important. When adults aren’t up-to-date with their boosters they form potential pathways for disease to reach our communities’ most vulnerable. If the population maintains a high level of herd immunity then these diseases have less chance to spread. So boosters aren’t only important for adults to protect themselves, but they are an integral part of creating a safe and health community.

I want to finish off this blog by introducing my readers to an awesome group called the Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters Group (NRVS). These guys are taking their community responsibility to a whole new level. Not only are they looking after their own boosters and getting their own families vaccinated on schedule, they have come to together to spread the word about vaccination in their local area.

In their own words:

We are a group of local people who have got together with a shared interest in increasing the immunisation rates in our community.

Our motivation is simple.

We want to try to reduce the risk of epidemics of contagious disease, prevent the pain and suffering that vaccine preventable disease can cause, and protect the vulnerable who are unable to be vaccinated because of age or illness.

The Northern Rivers region in New South Wales has the lowest immunisation rates in Australia. In one town, Mullumbimby, less than 50% of children aged 2-5 have had their routine childhood vaccinations. This means that we are at very real risk of epidemics, and already our community suffers higher than the national average rates of preventable disease.

NRVS will be celebrating their 1st birthday tomorrow! Happy Birthday guys!

If you, dear reader, wish to send them a birthday present then please head on over to the NRVS website to get some information so you KNOW more about vaccinations and the diseases they protect against. Book an appointment with your GP to CHECK your boosters are up-to-date. And help PROTECT your community through herd immunity.

Happy Immunisation week, everyone.

Thinking Science: do it early, do it often

Science is cool and critical thinking is such a valuable life skill. I’m disappointed it took me so long to discover them. That’s why teaching Miss 5 “how” to think has become a vital part of my parenting philosophy.

I have a little story to share. It all starts with the recent Easter holidays when my family jumped into the car to take a road-trip. Like many people in Australia, there are some vast stretches of road that separate us from our extended relatives, and Miss 5 has become quite use to piling the car high with bags and hitting the open road.

On this particular holiday we drove along the Newell Highway. This was exciting for me. Firstly because the Newell spans a portion of this country that I had never visited before, and secondly because the Parkes Radio Telescope is located within that chunk of country.

NERD-TASTIC!

NERD-TASTIC!

The Parkes Radio Telescope, or the “Dish” as it is fondly referred to, is simply brilliant. In 1969 NASA commissioned the Dish as a prime receiving station for the Apollo 11 mission, didn’t you know? It is still operational today and the CSIRO has set-up a very cool and very interactive science center. If you haven’t been to Parkes, you should. Miss 5 loved it so much that, instead of our initial plan to go home via a different route, we visited again on the return journey. How could we deny her a second stop in when she told us she “wasn’t finished doing ALL the science”?

Here’s the thing that got me thinking as we drove the long, straight, wind-mill dotted highway home; we are all born with such inquiring minds. Miss 5 is so keen to investigate her world, eager to learn how things work and explore nature.

We are all born scientists.

Unfortunately, for so many people, somewhere along the way that scientist gets lost. We see the evidence of anti-scientific thinking in vaccination refusers, in climate change deniers, and in creationists. I see it in own experiences with woo and alternative medicine. How I wish I’d had the thinking skills to save me from being lead down the garden path to unproven and sometimes dangerous beliefs and superstitions. I can’t help but feel that it was my lack of scientific literacy that let me down. I used to have no appreciation for the scientific method, and no concept of peer-review. I was quiet happy to naively believe people’s anecdotes, because they seemed so tangible. I gave the experiences of my friend and family more weight than blinded tests or articles in medical journals. Without science it was so easy to fall into a culture of woo.

Critical thinking and reason are skills which need to be practiced. Logic needs to be exercised. The scientific method is the greatest tool we humans have for understanding the world around us, and it needs to be taught. Children are far more ready to learn about (seemingly complex) scientific concepts than we might imagine. A school in Perth has shown us that 11-year-olds are quite prepared to learn the basics of spacetime. I think this is just marvellous!

It makes me proud when Miss 5 wants to grow vegetables from seeds, or says to Ryanoxide “Dad I’m bored, can we to some maths?”, or she makes us drive home the same way we came just so she can do more science. I’m proud because she is developing her inquisitive mind. As she grows up and forms her own opinions, which will no doubt differ from mine, I’m confident that she will have the skills to produce the evidence that proves just how wrong I am.

Health, Wellness and Fitness expo

Today I took my family to the local Health, Wellness and Fitness expo. I’m always looking for easy, cheap, outdoor activities to entertain Miss 5 on the weekends. This excursion had the dual purpose of enticing my skeptical mind by using the word “Wellness” in the title of the event.

I was most pleased with the number of local sporting clubs that were set up with display tents and demonstrations. I picked up some flyers on dance classes at the local community center, while Miss 5 and Ryanoxide played putt putt golf and talked to the guys at the Cricket Australia tent. Ambulance Victoria had some representatives there doing some community outreach, which I think is immensely important. Even the city council band was playing in the background. All round it was a great exhibition of local health and fitness groups and organisations.

And then there was the wellness.

As a skeptic, the term “wellness” usually sets off little alarm bells for me. It is a word that gets hijacked by alternative medicine a fair bit. It usually refers to a balanced and healthy lifestyle, and being generally happy within yourself. It has become a real buzz word, because its definition is so broad.

Reflexology tent. If only it didn't cost a dollar a minute to put my feet up! Ahhhhh

Reflexology tent. If only it didn’t cost a dollar a minute to put my feet up! Ahhhhh

I walked by the reflexology tents, full of relaxed looking ladies getting a five minute foot massage. Then I saw the chiropractic tents. There were two today and I approached them both. I am an ex-chiropractic assistant(C.A.). After seeing the light of scientific reason I have become a keen skeptic and realise just how little scientific support some aspects of chiropractic appear to have. Knowing full well what was probably in store for me, I agreed to a ‘Free Spinal Check’ at the first stall. Always the quiet reminder in the back of my consciousness told me that as a skeptic it is vital to keep your mind open to the possibility of new evidence. After-all, I’d believed in it all once and had changed my world-view when I discovered how wrong I was.
“Who knows?” I thought to myself, “This could be the guy who brings me back on side.”

He wasn’t.

There I was, standing feet shoulder width apart and rolling my head all the way forward, all the way back, and finally to “what I felt was normal”. A posture examination I had done with patients multiple times daily as a C.A. and had been a part of my own postural examination while in chiropractic care. While I was performing this routine, the incredibly enthusiastic chiropractor asked what I did for a living. I mentioned my online studies. It did not surprise me to hear that I had ’rounded in shoulders’ and ‘a forward head posture’. Of course, chiropractic could help with that and could even assist me with my studies because better posture leads to better exam results. He even claimed that stress was not caused by adrenaline, but by nerve and brain impulses to the adrenal glands becoming muddled up by blockages in the spine. Although he didn’t use the word “subluxation”, I know that this is the unproven ailment created by a misalignment of our vertebrata. According to good chiropractic wellness marketing, we all have them. Including babies.

Cute and happy baby. Who doesn't want a baby like this? And holding a toy spine, could you get any more delicious?

Cute and happy baby. Who doesn’t want a baby like this? And holding a toy spine, could you get any more delicious?

“whoa! hold on there. Babies?” you say. Yes, babies. This practice sees plenty of them. As did mine when I was a patient and C.A.
“But isn’t that a little risky?” you ask. Yes, it is. Last September huge news broke when a baby suffered a broken neck after a chiropractic visit.. More about that here, here and here.

But this doesn’t stop chiropractors from sneaking into wards to adjust neonates and other patients. After-all, chiropractors feel that the work they do is so vital to people’s overall wellness, that they should be primary healthcare providers.

But I digress. My discussion about chiropractic practice with this lovely gentleman did not reach the point of serious infant harm, or sneaking in to hospitals. My concerns about risk were brushed off with the usual ‘it’s gentle and safer than taking an aspirin’ line.

None of this was news to me. I had heard it all escape from my very own lips.

At the second chiropractic tent I got to speak to the C.A. and wife of the chiropractor. Their center was focused on families. It was located in a multi-modality wellness center owned by their daughter, a second daughter also worked as a C.A. The kind and caring C.A. proudly told me that her grandchildren were first adjusted at only 5hrs old and 1hr old. This is the only way to ensure optimal health. The sooner they caught them the better.
I did not get a free check from these guys. But they did point out that I carry my bag on one shoulder, so my shoulders are likely to be tilted. They also asked me about how much time I spent at a computer, then suggested that my forward head posture (which hadn’t been checked by these guys, just assumed) was probably causing me head aches. I was honest and said I don’t really suffer from headaches very much at all. I was told that I would definitely suffer in the future unless I got my spine under control.

Even the son-in-law is involved in this family practice. He plays for Melbourne Victory, I'm told, and gets regular adjustments to maintain his prime soccer playing abilities.

Even the son-in-law is involved in this family practice. He plays for Melbourne Victory, I’m told, and gets regular adjustments to maintain his prime soccer playing abilities.

What I take away from this experience:

*Nothing has changed since I was a believer. Subluxation theory and wellness practice are in full swing.
*I was thrilled not to come across any anti-vaccination material.
*I was thrilled there were no testimonial, as these breach the AHPA advertising codes.
* I was concerned by the pressure put upon me so quickly to get Miss 5 into care, and by their excitement to have so many infants in care. (Just as we did in the practice I worked at. First year of life was free, for our patients).
* Miss 5 and Ryanoxide are taking up golf.

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention by Reasonable Hank that Chiropractor number one from my adventure yesterday works for an anti-vaccination practice. When I wrote this post yesterday I was careful not to name names, because as far as I could see from their advertising and demonstrations they were not doing anything that was in breach of AHPA codes.

However, the spread of anti-vaccination material is something I take very seriously. So I have decided it is important to share my new findings. Anti-vaccination and Anti-medicine sentiment runs strong through Chiropractic culture. Unfortunately many of the beliefs of vaccine refusers and anti-vaccination advocates simply don’t stand up when tested scientifically.

Vaccinations save lives. Anti-vaxers put the health of themselves, their children and their community at risk.

But enough of that for now, this is about the chiropractors I met yeterday. Now, I want to be very clear. This blog from Reasonable Hank showing an anti-vaccine chiropractor at Point Cook Chiropractic is a co-worker of the enthusiastic gentleman who performed my posture examination yesterday. That being said, the blog linked above contains some worrying screen-shots from the facebook page of the Point Cook Chiropractic Health and Wellness center which he was a representative of yesterday at the expo.

Concerning indeed.