Skeptic » eSkeptic » September 5, 2012

The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Announcing the New Season
of Lectures at Caltech

Please note important policy and pricing changes below. Review them now.

SINCE 1992, the Skeptics Society has sponsored the Skeptics Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech: a monthly lecture series at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA. Most lectures are available for purchase in audio & video formats. Watch several of our lectures for free online. So, mark your calendars!

Dr. Nancy Segal
Born Together-Reared Apart:
The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study

Sunday, September 16, 2012 at 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall

“The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart” startled scientists by demonstrating that twins reared apart are as alike, across a number of personality traits and other measures, as those raised together, suggesting that genetic influence is pervasive. Dr. Nancy Segal, a professor in the Department of Psychology at California State University, Fullerton, and the director of the Twin Studies Center, offers an overview of the study’s scientific contributions and effect on public consciousness. Dr. Segal is an associate editor of Twin Research and Human Genetics, the official journal of the International Society for Twin Studies.

Followed by…

    Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame
    Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 2 pm
    Baxter Lecture Hall
    The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers
    Can Teach Us About Success

    Sunday, October 28, 2012 at 2 pm
    Baxter Lecture Hall
    The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson
    Leads Us to the Edge of a New World

    Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 2 pm
    Baxter Lecture Hall
    Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us
    Sunday, December 2, 2012 at 2 pm
    Baxter Lecture Hall
    The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity
    Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 2 pm
    Baxter Lecture Hall
    The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
    Special date and location:
    Saturday, January 5, 2013 at 2 pm
    Beckman Auditorium
    The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future
    Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 2 pm
    Baxter Lecture Hall



New Admission Policy

Due to security concerns, Baxter Hall will be locked and the audience will be admitted only through the doors on the South side of the building by the lily ponds. If, for medical reasons, you cannot climb the stairs to the hall on the 2nd floor, someone at the main entrance (located in the middle of the West side of the building) will escort you to the elevator. Get directions to the Caltech Campus, Baxter Hall and Beckman Auditorium.

Baxter Hall Ticket and Entrance diagram

Click image to download printable PDF map

New Prices for this Season of Lectures

Due to increasing costs, we are forced to raise our ticket prices to $10 for Skeptics Society members and the JPL/Caltech community, $15 for nonmembers. Tickets for all Baxter Lecture Hall events are sold on a first come, first served basis at the door. Seating is limited. Your admission fee is a donation that pays for our lecture expenses.

Service Charge on Phone/Fax Ticket Orders

For all tickets purchased by phone or fax for Beckman Auditorium lectures (for this season, this only applies to the Jared Diamond lecture on January 5, 2013), Caltech will add an $8 service charge per ticket order (no matter how many tickets are ordered). No service charge will be added to tickets purchased at the door on the day of the event or purchased in person at the Caltech ticket office in advance.

Conspiracy Contradictions

Why do people who believe Princess Di was murdered also tend to believe she’s still alive? In Michael Shermer’s September “Skeptic” column for Scientific American, he explains why people who believe in one conspiracy theory are prone to believing in others. Read the entire article for free on!


Mystery UFO Photo

In this Skepticblog, Michael Shermer shares a letter and some photos of an unidentified flying object that he received from a reader.




The Long Road

Daniel Loxton returns from a family road trip to share a few thoughts about staving off skeptical burnout.



2012 Parsec Award Winner for Best Fact Behind the Fiction Podcast
2012 Parsec Award Winner!
Best “Fact behind the Fiction” Podcast

The Parsec is an award given to support excellence in podcasting. It has been a regular feature of Dragon*Con since 2006. 2012 marked MonsterTalk’s third nomination and first win in the “Fact Behind The Fiction” category. MonsterTalk is honored to have been nominated and delighted to have won.

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Get the MonsterTalk Podcast App (presented by Skeptic Magazine) and enjoy the science show about monsters on your handheld devices! Available for Android, iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. To get the app for iOS devices, download the free Podcast Box App on iTunes and then search for MonsterTalk within the Podcast Box app to listen to Monstertalk on your iPhone, iPad or iPod. For Android devices, simply install the stand-alone app.

Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America

Vaccines are one of science’s greatest achievements. Yet, fears and anxieties about immunization persist. In this week’s eSkeptic, Christian Orlic reviews Mark A. Largent’s new book Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America (2012, John Hopkins University Press, ISBN 978-1421406077).

Christian Orlic is currently pursuing a PhD in Evolutionary Biology at Michigan State University. He holds Bachelor of Science degrees in History of Science and in Zoology.

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Engaging the Anti-vaxxers

a book review by Christian Orlic

On May 14, 1796, Edward Jenner developed and tested the first vaccine. He was able to protect people from smallpox by inoculating them with cowpox. Two centuries later vaccines have eradicated diseases and are often described as one of public health’s greatest achievements. According to the CDC vaccines have been highly successful and by 1996 there was 97.8% decrease in the incidence of rubella, diphtheria, haemophilus influenza type b, measles, mumps, pertussis, polio and tetanus (20).

Nevertheless, American parents appear to be more anxious than ever about vaccinating their children. Currently, American children receive at least 36 vaccinations before their sixth birthday. Some vaccines protect children and people against devastating communicable diseases that if when left unvaccinated would result in epidemics within communities. Nowadays about 40% of American parents chose to delay or refuse vaccinations for their children (15). Most of the children who have received no vaccines have slipped through the cracks: they are poor and have no insurance (20–40% of unvaccinated children). About 11.5% of American parents have “consciously refused” vaccines recommended by pediatricians, and about 23% have delayed some vaccines (32). Currently, all U.S. states allow vaccine exemptions for medical reasons, 48 states also allow children to be exempt for religious reasons, and some have even begun accepting philosophical objections.

Mark A. Largent is a historian of biology and director of Science, Technology, Environment, Public Policy (STEPPS) at Michigan State University. Largent’s previous book, Breeding Contempt, deals with the history of coerced sterilization in the United States. In Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America, Largent couples historical scholarship, keen cultural observations, and personal experiences in order to explore the American debate surrounding vaccination. Largent’s provocative but compelling argument suggests that the debate about the science, safety and efficacy of vaccination is a proxy for a set of unaddressed underlying anxieties regarding vaccines; therefore, science is not enough to resolve it, “no scientific finding and no agreement among physicians and scientists can possibly bring it [the debate] to an end” (173).

The book sets out to explore these anxieties and understand where and how they originated. Largent’s insightful observations provide ways in which the debate can be moved forward by addressing the anxieties parents have directly, rather than bickering about “simplistic stand-ins” (1). The anxieties that motivate the debate are over the number of vaccinations required, the diseases for which we vaccinate, the contents of vaccines, a perception that pharmaceutical companies care more about profits than safety, recent public health emergencies, fears over the long term effects of vaccinations, a belief that natural is better, as well as an overall frustration with the state of medical care. These underlying anxieties, Largent argues, must be addressed in order to continue enjoying high levels of vaccine compliance: “our continuing success in vaccinating children depends on whether the public has confidence in the scientists, doctors, and policy makers (including industry) who shape these programs” (136).

The current debate surrounding vaccinations is bipartisan, and those who oppose vaccines use both liberal and conservative arguments. The anti-vaccine movement was influenced by alternative medicine and recent events. For example, when AIDS was first described, Eva Lee Snead claimed it was linked to the polio vaccine (52). Some concerns about vaccines are and have been legitimate. When polio vaccines were first developed, kidney tissue from chimpanzees was used. In fact, this process was unsafe, and tens of millions of people were unintentionally infected with SV40 (53). The fears expressed by Snead were thus not unwarranted; if one virus could make the cross-species jump, others could too. Since then, however, studies have disproven the link between the polio inoculations and HIV. Likewise, the alleged link between Gulf War Syndrome and vaccines given to soldiers is now debunked. Largent concludes that both of these public health emergencies fed suspicions about the safety of vaccines.

The claim that vaccines were linked to autism emerged at the same time in the U.S. and in the UK. These claims could only emerge because “modern concerns about vaccines were already in place” (67). Largent may come off as too sympathetic to Dr. Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy, “the iconic vaccine-anxious parent” (139); however, I submit, that this is required for both good history and understanding. By at least momentarily embracing the views of those who opposed vaccination, we come to understand why they hold these views and how they developed them. Chapter 3 and 4 of Largent’s book explore how Wakefield and McCarthy came to believe that vaccines cause autism and how they became spokespeople for an already anxious community. Their rapid rise to celebrity within their community supports the assertion that British and American parents were already anxious. Therefore, it should not surprise observers “how easily they adopted an explanation that was critical of the modern vaccine schedule” (73). The alleged link between thimerosal and autism, as well as that of the MMR vaccine with digestive problems resulting in developmental problems, provided “a ready-made venue for discussing their concerns about vaccines within a group of like-minded advocates”(12). While Largent recognizes that there is no evidence to support either Wakefield or McCarthy claims, he thinks that their outright dismissal is detrimental to maintaining high levels of vaccine compliance.

Largent argues that by ignoring the underlying anxieties, public health officials and vaccine advocates have misconstrued the reasons parents chose not to vaccinate, or to delay vaccination. Secondly, public health officials prefer to discuss the efficacy and safety of vaccines because this is within their professional realm. Vaccine advocates often claim that ignorance is one of the reasons parents are anxious about vaccinating their children. They claim that this refusal to vaccinate is predicated by an ignorance of the severity of the diseases for which vaccines protect. Whereas, data demonstrates that the more educated parents are the more likely they are to have reservations about the recommended vaccine schedule (34). These parents for the most part are making conscious, non-religious, decisions to refuse or delay vaccinating their children. Further antagonizing them rather than addressing underlying anxieties is likely to reduce vaccine compliance.

One of the most important observations made by Largent is that not all vaccines are the same. Some vaccines protect against devastating diseases (MMR, DPT), others protect against dangerous ones (Hep A, Hep B, Hib, rotavirus, PCV) but the likelihood that an infant may be exposed to these is low, and other vaccinations provide protection against diseases with extremely low mortality rates (chickenpox). The distinction between the diseases each vaccine protects from are often forgotten. For example, Largent argues that some of the diseases we vaccinate newly born babies against may be unnecessary, such as HepB, a disease that an infant could only “contract by having sex with an infected person or by sharing contaminated needles with an infected drug addict” could wait (2). Public health officials should keep in mind that it is preferable for children to be under vaccinated than not vaccinated at all. Unfortunately, the vaccine debate is polarized. Amanda Peet, who supports vaccination, referred to the parents of unvaccinated children as “parasites” (she later apologized). Recognizing that not all vaccines are equal could sooth the rhetoric of the debate and allow for a more fruitful discussion. Otherwise, parents who are anxious about the amount of vaccines or one specific vaccine may be pushed not to vaccinate at all. Failing to recognize the differences between different inoculations results in an all or nothing approach (167). END

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  1. Bob Pease says:

    This seems like more of a civil liberties issue that a skeptical issue

    The government has a right and a duty to vaccinate in clear cases of danger of plague

    It seems to be the point of the article that mad bureaucrats over-vaccinate just because it is better than risking public safety, thereby provoking dangerous decisions by “educated” parents .

  2. Antoine A.H. Wonders says:

    I missed one possible reason for non-vaccination of children: irrational risk assessment. Any vaccination carries a risk in itself, presumably always smaller than the risk of infection without vaccination. However, those children who are victims of complications of the vaccination itself are most probably not the same as those who would have been infected without vaccination. The fear of ending up with a child that was damaged by vaccination and would not have been infected without vaccination may stop parents. Cases like this can never be proven, but it seems to me that the existence of the fear could have been investigasted.

  3. L. Rosenblood says:

    In my experience, many of the anti-vaccination activists are educated, articulate, engaged members of society (in sharp contrast to, say, young-earth creationists). I think Largent’s assessment about anxiety is a good one – there is no shortage of examples of pharmaceutical companies behaving badly, unfortunately.

    One point that is not mentioned is just how much inaccurate and misleading information is out there. After a long and frustrating discussion with a friend about the value of national vaccination programs, he sent me a book called Vaccine Safety Manual. It is written in the style of a scientific summary targeted at the intelligent layperson – but is unfortunately deeply misleading. My review of it may be of interest to readers of this post.

  4. LindaRosaRN says:

    HepB vaccine “unnecessary” in infancy?! One-third of those infected have no risk indicators. And from Joe Albletz, MD on vaccinating newborns: “This strategy addresses the problem of perinatal infection, prevents the acquisition of HBV by people during early childhood when the risk of chronic infection is highest, and since the immunity it induces lasts for decades it covers the entire population during the highest risk times of their lives. Universal vaccination with HepB vaccine at birth, even in regions with a low prevalence of chronic carriers like the US, could reduce mortality by an additional 10-20% compared to early childhood vaccination.”

    The answer is elimination of non-medical exemptions (philosophical and religious). The laws support equal protection of children via vaccination. Parents’ beliefs, irrational fears, or religion should not deny children of the protection vaccines provide.

    Parental anxieties will not be allayed if government continues to allow empty-headed, meaningless exemptions. Vaccines is an issue of science, not philosophy or religion.

  5. DMC says:

    I’ve actually been banned/blocked from ‘alternative health’ sites for engaging them in their paranoia over immunizations on discussion boards. Even the educated left can be just as into ‘hocus pocus’ with healing energy, ‘miracle’ herbs/tonics, ‘natural’ remedies’ etc as the right with prayer and holy water.

    Many seem convinced that traditional western doctors are evil, greedy people who want us to be sick, and the pharm companies are on par with Darth Vader. Yes, there are issues with both, but I’d rather live in a world of imperfect, but research/evidence based medicines, than medieval magic and snake oil salesmen.

    • Bob Pease says:

      It is sad that the “educated left” have ganged up om the side of” MAGICK”

      There is a belief in “liberal circles” that a person is “Intolerant” if they demand evidence other than
      “seems neat” and “who says “Science is God’ ”

      We’re slipping into goofy syncretism, folks.
      I suggest that political despotism is not the only alternative to “New”Age flapdoodle

      Bob Pease

  6. NewAmericaNow says:

    There is a strong correlation between quality and accountability in the world. If Vaccines are safe then why protect vaccine makers from litigation based on illness and death caused by vaccines. Giving the vaccine makers “immunity” from consequences only makes them less careful. What prevents people from yelling fire in a crowded theater, consequences. I would have more trust if they could be held accountable.

    • GG says:

      The review seems very pro-vax to me, certainly not neutral. I, for one, would LOVE to see a non-biased (REAL placebo-based not using a vaccine FOR the “placebo” AND not done by pharma) study on real human beings. Unfortunately, they aren’t willing to do this it seems. I’m not completely anti-vax but I’ll tell you now, my concerns are very much able to be abated by science. There just isn’t the kind of science I want to see (or if there is I have yet to hear about it).

      • eric the bold says:

        I would suggest you actually read the first paragraph, or read it again and pay attention.

  7. David Gorski says:

    I’m deeply disappointed to have read such a credulous and poorly-informed review on e-Skeptic, particularly the part about highly educated parents being more prone to vaccine denialism. Hasn’t Orlic ever heard of motivated reasoning? It’s the “smart idiot” effect, in which people with higher levels of education are better at defending pseudoscientific beliefs and finding evidence to support them. It’s also known as the arrogance of ignorance, in which highly educated people often fall prey to a tendency not to realize just how little they know about a topic and to a belief that they can pick up virtually any topic on their own by a taking a brief course at the University of Google. I won’t even go into the ignorance behind the “not all vaccines are equal” argument that Orlic has apparently credulously accepted, as others have already addressed it. E-Skeptic’s definitely slipping here.

    As for the left/right thing, actually there’s a lot of right wing antivaccinationism associated with libertarian and “health freedom” movements. I could list a long litany of such groups and people who are in no way crunchy liberals. Dan Burton comes to mind as an initial example.

    • Charlotte says:

      What is your last paragraph responding to?

      “The current debate surrounding vaccinations is bipartisan, and those who oppose vaccines use both liberal and conservative arguments.”

      You act as if the article claims it is only “crunchy liberals” who oppose vaccination. Did you actually read what you’re responding to?

  8. Maggie says:

    This book review does nothing to advance the vaccine debate or to answer important questions about the CDC recommended vaccine schedule. Here’s one: Why is polio on that schedule? No American child has contracted polio since 1973. My child therefore has a ZERO risk of getting polio. My father says, Oh, but it was such a terrible disease when I was a child. Yes, in the 1940s it was. But not now. Now, in 2013, my child has NO CHANCE of contracting polio. So why is the polio vaccine still on the CDC schedule?? It is not on the schedule of recommended vaccines in the UK. This alone has caused me, and I think should cause everyone, to view with skepticism the entire CDC list of recommended vaccines.

    • Ben says:

      That’s the point Maggie. Polio is a “ZERO risk” disease because it was/is routinely vaccinated against. Since the “anti-vax” position has become more common, the world (yes, even the US and Canada) has seen a rise of these less common diseases – mumps, measles, whopping cough. If you and others stop vaccinating for Polio in masses your child’s children will most certainly have to worry about contracting it again. No disease is every truly GONE. Continued vaccination is the only way to ensure we are all safe.

      • Anna says:

        Ben- You don’t actually think that vaccinating our children is the only way to ensure safety for our children, do you? really? because last I checked, 1 out of 3 americans will have cancer at some point in their life. sure, if there is an epidemic or pandemic or huge outbreak of disease, or even a small outbreak of a certain disease, whatever – sure vaccinate all you want. But don’t tell me I don’t have a choice to say no to a vaccine for a disease that my kids have 0% chance of catching.

        And another thing, as parent of 3, we try to Google educate ourselves b/c the doctor’s don’t help us learn anything. They don’t give us detailed info on ingredient lists, they don’t entertain ideas of limiting vaccinations to one at a time, they blow off our concerns about safety or side effects, they actually get offended. The pharmaceutical companies are so biased, because guess what…they are trying to meet a profit margin and appease their boards, so don’t pretend like they really care. I believe that they use to but today it is all about money. So now suddenly, over-vaccinating is accepted, my 3rd kid has 10 more vaccines on the schedule than my first kid did, and that was only 8 years ago!!! And we should not even question that?

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