December 23, 2005
A SHABBAT TEST

Who can resist one of these quizzes?

NerdTests.com User Test: The Orthodoxy  Test.

Left Wing Modern Orthodox: 57%
Right Wing Modern Orthodox: 86%
Left Wing Yeshivish/Chareidi: 44%
Right Wing Yeshivish/Chareidi: 10%


This means you're: Modern Orthodox


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

What does it mean?

Congratulations. You're Modern Orthodox all right, but wait! Just when you were ready to live an idyllic happily-labeled life they announce Left Wing and Right Wing Modern Orthodoxy. What the heck is up with that? Maybe you need to rethink and refine some of your positions, and then take the test again so I can put you in a little box.

Not shocked by the result, although I did quibble with a number of the questions. I'l skip the little box, thanks.

Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 02:03 PM | Permalink | Comment (1)




SEND REBBETZINS, PRESENTS & MONEY...THE SEASON HAS HIT THE FAN

Our beloved Renegade Rebbetzin some cogent thoughts about her family's relative position and how they are forced into a persistent status of relative penny-pinching. Her descriptions of her (well-meaning) congregants' clueless comments on the subject deserve to be immortalized in any compilation of "The Thoughtless Things People Say (Volume XLVII)."

A related thought: I think RR is also touching on an explanation for another important phenomenon she's discussed before: why educated, MO-type women of our generation rebel against the "rebbetzin" label and unpaid responsibilities that come with it. While a lot of it has to do with the rebellion against the old European model and the presumed brain-death that comes with it (not that that's necessarily true, but the perception of June Cleaver in the shtetl, with many more children, summs it up), much of it also has to do with the fact that if the rabbi's wife works at a well-paying job, the financial stresses she aptly describes can be somewhat alleviated. (Another factor, of course, is the external validation that comes with "using" those advanced degrees.)

It's hard to be surprised when those who have the ability to avoid those stresses, choose to do so. But it does lead to a communal shortage of "rebbetzins."


A few years ago, during the initial contretemps over female "congregational interns," one of the women involved was quoted as saying something along the lines of (I don't have the exact quote) that her goal for that program wasn't the inauguration of female rabbis, but of women who would be appropriately recognized and compensated for performing the communal duties that rebbetzins have performed in the past. Regardless of one's feelings about that particular experiment, it seems that a shul (even one that doesn't want the kiss-of-death label of "progressive") should recognize the communal benefits of having a rebbetzin, and pay accordingly for those services. Then maybe RR could afford some better Chanuka presents.

On the other hand, most shuls don't have two nickels to rub together for a fire in case of a power outage (for reasons good and bad, also touched on in RR's post). So RR and her cohorts probably shouldn't include it in their budgets anytime soon.

Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 12:13 PM | Permalink | Comment (1)




December 22, 2005
STRIKE TWO

Various must-reads on the (hopefully ending) NYC transit strike:

- Joel Kotkin and Harry Siegel in TNR, detailing how state and city governments (and more importantly, their tax bases) have become little more than funding vehicles for public-sector unions:

...During the past 30 years, public-employee unions have largely won the battle for urban political power by default. Other traditional power centers--neighborhood associations, small business organizations, reform groups--have over time receded from urban politics. Businesses, after all, can always go elsewhere, either to the suburbs or overseas; frustrated individuals often get worn down, electing to move on or give up. Public sector unions, by contrast, have remained powerful, withstanding occasional assaults by reformist mayors of both parties.

Democrats are usually seen as the beneficiaries of this situation, since they often receive cash and organizational backing from unions. But there is a downside to this support, which the current strike illustrates. City councils in New York, Los Angeles, and most other major cities are dominated by Democrats. Most council elections in New York, for example, are determined in the Democratic primary, which consistently sees low voter turnout. (In 2003, turnout in the city council primaries was 11 percent.) This magnifies the power of unions--since a handful of highly organized voters can easily sway an election--and makes Democratic politicians more or less beholden to the wishes of public employees. New York, where several prominent council members have already expressed support for the transit workers' union, may be the most obvious example of this problem; but it is hardly the only city afflicted.


- Noah Millman, simultaneously embracing Reaganism and Leninism (while willing to put much of his money where his blog is):

...I wish Mayor Bloomberg would fire every single transit worker and break the union. But (a) I don't think he (nor, I suspect, anyone else) has the clear authority to do so, and (b) he'd never do it if he did have the authority; he's a cautious, centrist, consensus managerial type. That's still a whole lot better than Pataki; Bloomberg has done much less to actually sell out the city's economic interests that Pataki has the state's. But he's no Ronald Reagan.

...I am normally highly resistant to Leninist "the worser the better" logic, but in this case we really do need to highten the contradictions. The sooner NYC and our other major cities and blue states realize that their contracts with public sector unions are absolutely unsustainable, the better for everyone. For that reason, I would say that the Bush Administration tax proposal I most strongly favor is also the proposal that would most hurt New Yorkers, and would cost me personally a great deal of money every year: eliminate the deduction for state and local income taxes.

As an aside, he is right about Pataki: it might be useful to remind those liberals who blame the party affiliation of Pataki and Bloomberg for the strike how Pataki won re-election by signing the state treasury over to Local 1099.

- Ryan Sager on the class war being waged in NYC right now - by the transit union against workers who make less than the average TWU member, who (probably) are more likely to live in the outer boros than in Manhattan or suburbia and thus have the most difficulty bypassing the strike by walking or taking Metro-North or the LIRR:

...[T]here is a class confrontation of a kind going on — but it's not between rich and poor. It's between the working class and what might be called the government-worker class.

The gap between the two groups has been growing for a while.

The private sector has been groaning under rising health and pension costs for years. Retired coal miners have lost company-paid health insurance in bankruptcy proceedings. Companies like General Motors have had to lay off tens of thousands of workers because of crushing pension costs.

Yet the benefits for public-sector workers keep getting fatter and fatter.

The reason is fairly simple. While only 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionized these days, some 40 percent of public-sector workers are unionized. And while the rigors of the free market forced private companies to become more efficient, the government faces no such constraints.

Instead, pliant politicians simply give the unions whatever they want, driving up health and pension costs — and sticking taxpayers (the ones trudging over the Brooklyn Bridge this week) with the bill.

It's no wonder average working New Yorkers are ticked.

Transit workers can retire at 55. Not many private-sector workers can do that.

Transit workers don't pay a single cent toward their health-insurance premiums. Not too many private-sector workers get that deal, either.

As one commenter wrote in to the TWU: "Get with reality . . . 90+% of people in this area will never be able to retire by 55 . . . pensions across America are going to default. Sad state of America, yes, but unfortunately the rest of us are in the same boat."

- This springtime City Journal piece I've linked to before about how to save the NYC subways also has some resonance now:

When today’s TWU leaders fight the MTA, they’re still carrying the banner for a whole anti-capitalist philosophy. Members see any concession not as a necessary compromise but as an unforgivable sellout to a sworn enemy. As the New York Times reported after the 2002 contract settlement, some workers had wanted to strike just to tell their children and grandchildren “that they fought the good fight, as did many transit workers who walked out in 1966 and 1980.” Of course, under New York law, it is illegal for public-service employees to strike. But that doesn’t stop the TWU from periodically forcing Gotham’s taxpayers and private-sector businesses to incur millions of dollars in emergency-planning costs when the TWU threatens to break the law and strike anyway, as it threatened three years ago.

Sound familiar?

Ms. Gelinas also has been promulgating the pro-privatization-and-competition line here (advocating that, in the event of a strike, the city and state take actions far tougher than they actually have), here (advocating privatization of the buses) and here (advocating using other buses to break the strike).

Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 05:07 PM | Permalink | Comment (0)




STRIKE ONE

One recent thought about the NYC transit strike, that came to me while standing on a Metro-North train with several thousand fellow New Yorkers (and we were certainly the lucky ones). Caution: rampant, unverified and uncredentialed speculation ahead:

Don't defined-benefit pension plans and stock options, each as they were formerly ladled out, have something fundamental in common? In each case, companies and/or governments handed them out relatively freely, in part because of various accounting and/or regulatory reasons that enabled the grantor to underestimate the benefit's true cost - stock options weren't required to be expensed until recently, and various regulations make it easy for companies to underfund their pension plans. (True, the cost of pension plans also has been heavily affected by the same demographic forces bankrupting Social Security: increasing life expectancy and the massive slowdown in the increase of workers relative to the Baby Boom generation.)

And as we're finding out with respect to pensions, reflecting the true cost of the benefit make it that much less likely that any such benefits will be offered in the future, absent massive changes in the costs - something that understandably does not make workers happy. It is too soon to gauge the impact of the new rules requiring the expensing of stock options, but it will probably (and justifiably so) make it that much harder for companies to hand options out like candy, as opposed to the practice in the 90s.

Anyone else have any thoughts or actual knowledge of those issues, as opposed to the above random speculation?

Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 02:11 PM | Permalink | Comment (0)




????

Do you really want to know about the latest hiatus?

I didn't think so.

There has been some good news on the personal front. I hope that within a few months (lawyers' natural caution, sorry) I'll be able to describe it pretty fully.

Anyway, onto other things.

Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 01:42 PM | Permalink | Comment (1)




August 12, 2005
GOOD REACTIONS

In other disengagement posts, please read OOSJ for the best summary of the real stakes - far more important than who holds Gaza at any given time.

And I think Prof. Jeffrey Woolf has the best ideas for how to properly commemorate the exiting residents of Gaza.

(I can't let one thing pass, though. The first commenter to Prof. Wolff's post linked above argues that the proper response to the disengagement "should be a fight to the finish and not a total surrender." In the same comment, he then argues that the Religious Zionist community should, in the face of seemingly implacable opposition from an enemy (the larger secular society), voluntarily dismantle all yeshivot hesder and completely disengage from the army like the charedim. I'm not sure if the commenter sees the irony in those two arguments.)

Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 12:55 AM | Permalink | Comment (2)




PEOPLE CAN'T GET THROUGH THE DAY WITHOUT IT, BUT...

Yes, I'm overdue to post on the hitnakut (disengagement) from Gaza, and we're all running out of time. (Can there be a more productive way to spend Tisha B'Av afternoon?). In lieu of a substantive post, I want to throw this question out to Ben, Prof. Wolff, OOSJ and all other interested parties.

Much of the anti-disengagement rage is directed at the defective nature of the plan's adoption. At one extreme, you have the argument that it would have been much more unifying for the country to have assented in a referendum (I strongly agree). At the other extreme, you have arguments that Israel has completely repudiated democracy by adopting the plan. Much of the criticism that I've seen has leaned more towards the latter extreme. But there's another way to look at things. Currently, the anti-disengagement forces can use the lack of a referendum to rationalize that the broader public may actually support their position. That may provide solace in the immediate crises, but is likely to have long-term costs.

Let's assume for a minute that Sharon had submitted the plan to a referendum, and invested some effort in campaigning for it & explaining why he thought it'd be best for the country. And let's assume further that the referendum would have passed by a comfortable margin, which is a pretty reasonable assumption. (Yes, I have seen arguments that the majority of the country does not, in fact, support the disengagement, and would not back it in a referendum. To be blunt, I think that people who believe that are deluding themselves.)

Would a referendum defeat have made it easier for the current disengagement opponents side to accept the plan? Or would it lead to even greater alienation from the larger society? If the editors of the New York Post were temporarily transplanted to Israel, Ma'ariv's headlines might describe a convincing referendum defeat as "ISRAEL TO YESHA: DROP DEAD." Would Rav Medan take some solace in the voting public's assent to the plan, or would his sense of betrayal at the hands of the secular elites be extended to the general public? I don't know what Rav Medan himself would do (though I know people who could ask him), but I suspect that many of his allies, admirers and followers would face the same dilemma. I suspect that the latter may be true. And that is pretty frightening, because those public sentiments will eventually be expressed in a way too unequivocal to be ignored or rationalized away.

I believe that Religious Zionism, its ideals and followers are resilient enough to withstand the crisis of disengagement. (I think that many of those who argue otherwise are predisposed to doubt Religious Zionsim's legitimacy, whether from the secular left or from the charedi right.)
But the procedural flaws in the Israeli government's adoption of the plan - and there were many - shouldn't be used as a rationalization to assume broader support for the Religious Zionist agenda than actually exists. That will only hurt efforts to influence society along Religious Zionist lines.

Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 12:28 AM | Permalink | Comment (4)




August 11, 2005
A MUSICAL INTERLUDE

Happy Anniversary to us...
Happy Anniversary to us...
Happy Anniversary to u-us...
Happy Anniversary to us.

("Us," in this case, means both myself and Mrs. Manhattan, and my brother and sister-in-law. 9 and 3 years, respectively.)

Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 11:51 PM | Permalink | Comment (0)




June 27, 2005
STRANGE BEDFELLOWS (WHO DON'T KNOW IT YET)

Here's an interesting post from an interesting blogger, arguing that the choice of a chancellor on the part of the Jewish Theological Seminary (the flagship institution of the Conservative movement) is very important...for Orthodoxy.

Without trying to narrow the very wide theological and Halakhic gaps between CM and MO/RZ Judaism, it is clear that a more self-confident leadership of both groups, even if it moves them further apart, is needed if contemporary world Jewry is to come to terms with some of the major issues that we will face over the next 50 or so years.

These issues include those that modern biology has presented and will continue to present. These discoveries have already forced us to reconsider our Halakhic and theological definitions of the origins of life, of the meaning of personhood, of the nature of the soul. Modern biology, technology and a changing sociology have also forced the issue of the place of women in society in general and in religious society in particular, in the forefront of our Halakhic and theological lives.

The future of JTS is important because if both the CM and MO/RZ worlds do not approach these issues with the seriousness they deserve (and they need not do them together, they need not agree on them, but they both must work on them) then Judaism will wake up in 50 years to the fact that the world has, for the first time in its long history, passed it by.

And our children and grandchildren will suffer the consequences.

I'm not sure I buy it, but it's worth thinking about.

Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 09:02 PM | Permalink | Comment (1)




MORE GOOD NEWS

In case you weren't depressed enough today, check out this cheerful profile in the Telegraph about a Palestinian female would-be suicide bomber.

Wafa had been sent on her mission by the Abu Rish Brigade, the small militant faction with links to Fatah. She did not, she said later, regret it, though she stressed that her decision had had nothing to do with her scarring. "My dream was to be a martyr. I believe in death," she said. "Today I wanted to blow myself up in a hospital, maybe even in the one in which I was treated. But since lots of Arabs come to be treated there, I decided I would go to another, maybe the Tel Hashomer, near Tel Aviv. I wanted to kill 20, 50 Jews …''

Asked whether she had considered the consequences of her planned attack, that it might have now precluded access to Israel for Palestinian patients who meant no harm and needed special medical treatment that could be achieved only here, she answered: "So what?" With a flat look in her eyes, she said: "They pay you the cost of the treatment, don't they?"

And what about babies? Would you have killed babies and children? she was asked. "Yes, even babies and children. You, too, kill our babies. Do you remember the Doura child?"

A fellow female prisoner, convicted of aiding a suicide attack, was also featured:

Her fellow prisoner, Kahira Saadi, from Jenin, is one of the jail celebrities. A mother of four, aged 27, she was held responsible for an attack in which three people died and 80 were injured. Zipi Shemesh, five months' pregnant, and her husband, Gad, were among the dead. They had gone to an ultrasound appointment and had left their two daughters, Shoval, seven, and Shahar, three, with a babysitter. They never came back.

Kahira was given three life sentences and another 80 years. She looked pale, sad, anguished. I asked her if the dead tormented her during the night. "No," she said. "Anyway, the actual attacker would have blown himself up even without me. I didn't kill anyone myself, physically."

...What did you do? "I helped the attacker to get into Jerusalem. I gave him some flowers to hold in his hands."

When? "I don't remember the exact date, only that it was Mother's Day. That's why I prepared him some flowers."

Keep reading for the punchline.

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 08:59 PM | Permalink | Comment (0)




MORE THIMEROSAL/KIRBY/RFK COMMENTARY

Check out the latest post from Orac for more well-done fillet of RFK, Jr. Follow the links to some devastating reviews of David Kirby's book, especially this one. (Click here for a response by Kirby to some of the criticisms.)

UPDATE: Flattery will get you everywhere, Derek Lowe (except for getting your experiments to work better - you need to appeal to a higher authority for that).

Reading about Lowe's struggles with drug development reminded me of another point that needs to be made with respect to this thimerosal/autism theme. The RFK/David Kirby crowd assumes that the vaccine industry is synonymous with "Big Pharma," possessing limitless power to bend scientists and government regulators to its heartless, rapacious will. But the truth is a little more complicated. Big pharmaceutical companies certainly are part of the vaccine industry, but as we found out in last winter's flu-vaccine debacle, there isn't enough money in the U.S. vaccine industry for "Big Pharma" to produce adequate stocks of many vaccines. In that respect, the problem isn't too much involvement on the part of "Big Pharma" or the vaccine industry being a big-money enterprise - in each case, there's too little of the supposed evil. (Dare I say that the assumption of the pro-thimerosal-link crowd is analogous to a trial lawyer's point of view, in looking for a "deep pocket" that may only have been tangentially involved in the supposed harm?)

Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 08:53 PM | Permalink | Comment (3)




REPORT FROM THE FRONT LINES

I have a number of friends who are pediatricians, who have to deal with questions regarding vaccinations, thimerosal, autism etc. on a regular basis.

When trhis topic was in the news in late 2002, one of my pediatrician friends told me that he had numerous parents ask him about the supposed vaccination-autism link, being very skeptical of the evidence against such a link.

And very often, those parents would immediately ask him about whether they could get a smallpox vaccine for their children (the debate over which was also in the news at the time).

Of course - as was well publicized at the time - the documented proof of adverse reactions from the smallpox vaccine far exceeded any proof as to the adverse effects generally of regularly administered vaccines, or of any thimerosal-autism link.

Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 02:18 AM | Permalink | Comment (4)




COMING FULL CIRCLE

One last thing before knocking off for the evening.

My original interest in the subject matter was related to the waiver passed as a late-night rider to the Homeland Security bill in late 2002 (and repealed in early 2003 due to the outcry over the sleazy circumstances related to its passage) shielding vaccine makers (most notably Eli Lilly) from thimerosal-related lawsuits (i.e., such claims would have to go through the no-fault Vaccine Industry Compensation Program).

As set forth in the recent NYT front-page story, the lawsuit-fueling furor over the "link" isn't going away, regardless of the lack of sceintific evidence for it.

In my opinion, the enduring disconnect between the scientific evidence and popular belief (to be expressedin lawsuits) make this case an ideal one for legislative action along the lines of what was proposed in 2002 (though not what was passed, as the haste led to all kinds of foul-ups). If you're going to have such legislatively-created alternatives to the tort system, you may as well have them where there is a clear disconnect between the scientific evidence and the mass of claims being pressed in court.

Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 02:11 AM | Permalink | Comment (0)




MY TWO CENTS

Please click here for my disclosure statements relating to the subject matter of this post.

I am not a scientist, so I'm open to one telling me that the following question is bunk for some reason. But I've got the following question about the supposed thimerosal-autism link anyway:

A common refrain among the exponents of a potential thimerosal-autism link is that, in the words of David Kirby, thimerosal may "trigger adverse reactions in a subset of children with a genetic predisposition to mercury sensitivity." This assertion is often used as a response as to why the large-scale epidemeological studies do not pick up on the thimerosal-autism link (i.e., that susceptible subset may be underepresented in the population studied). But as I understand it, those large-scale studies do in fact pick up on the increase itself of autism diagnoses; it's just the connection between such increases and thimerosal that fails to stand up.

If all those are true, then in order to be the, or a, major cause of the increase in autism diagnoses, thimerosal must "trigger adverse reactions in a subset of children with a genetic predisposition to mercury sensitivity:" with such subset simultaneously being

a) small enough to evade detection in the large-scale studies that have been conducted so far (i.e., without being fleshed out as a group disproportionally susceptible to autism by virtue of thimerosal exposure); and

b) big enough to account for the increase in estimated incidence from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 166 or thereabouts.


How can both of those things be true? If a particular subset of children is particularly susceptible to mercury exposure, large enough to account for the increases in diagnoses and not being picked up in the studies previously conducted, then those studies also shouldn't reflect an increase in autism cases generally - but they do, as far as I know. And if the subset is big enough to at least be a main factor in accounting for the increase, shouldn't it be detectable in the large-scale studies that have been conducted? And if it isn't big enough...then the point has been conceded; even if there is a small subset of children particularly susceptible to mercury exposure, we must look elsewhere to find the main cause of increased diagnoses.

(If only all pharmaceutical targeted interventions worked as well as thimerosal is argued to do, then perhaps Big Pharma would deserve the dark, satanic power ascribed to it by the thimerosal-link activists.)

I welcome comments from people who have greater knowledge of scientific study methods, statistics or the subject matter generally.

Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 12:36 AM | Permalink | Comment (7)




WHAT DOES WATERGATE HAVE TO DO WITH AUTISM COVERAGE?

Please click here for my disclosure statements relating to the subject matter of this post.

More than you think.

I have not yet read David Kirby's book Evidence of Harm. But his presentation of the case for the thimerosal-autism link, based on what I've seen from his website, press appearances and other writings seems to be a perfect encapsulation of some of the worst features of contemporary mainstream journalism:

1) "How William Goldman Ruined Journalism" - This hasn't gotten enough attention in light of the Deep Throat revelation, but William Goldman's line "Follow the money," uttered by Hal Holbrook in the movie (it didn't come from the book itself) has led to almost 30 years of lazy Marxist journalism that follows the exact same script:

A) Policymaker does something objectionable doesn't do something virtuous (fill in your own blank);

B) Policymaker received moeny (a campaign contribution for a politician, some other connection for a non-elected official) from eeeeevil entity with an interest in the matter (pharmaceutical industry, Halliburton, etc.)

C) Ergo, policymaker is a wholly bought tool of Satan, and no other explanation for action/inaction is necessary. QED.

This pattern is especially egregious when it "follows the money" on one side only, ignoring equally interesting financial ties on the favored side. For example: assuming the pervasive links between the pharmaceutical/vaccine industry and the medical establishment who have dismissed the link means it is safe to discredit their views, while somehow not drawing similar conclusions regarding the equally pervasive conflicts affecting many of the players on the pro-link side. (I don't think Kirby actually ignores those conflicts in his book, like the RFK piece does, but doesn't it go without saying that the vaccine industry is part of the evil conspiracy that got us into war in Iraq (sorry, was that Halliburton or the Likud party? I can't keep my conspiracies straight), while trial lawyers are the good guys and thus there's no conflict of interest?)

If you only focus on the financial conflicts of one side and ignore those of the other, you're not "following the money," merely your own preconceptions.


2) The reliance on standard templates for telling stories, and shoehorning messy facts into those predetermined templates:

"Plucky parents of horribly ill children taking on unfeeling, big-money establishment" is one story to tell, and that's the one Kirby tells. Another story that could be told is "Anti-vaccine activists and trial lawyers prey on the desperation of parents of autistic children, and help bring about outbreaks of previously eradicated diseases leading to many preventable severe illnesses and deaths, based on 'junk science' and outright distortions." That story is at least as accurate, and probably more so, than the Kirby template. But it doesn't sound as good, for a variety of reasons. I have faith that it will be told, eventually.

3) Focusing on the buzz around a topic, rather than the topic itself. Kirby has a few posts at the "Huffington Post" cheerleading the attention paid to the RFK article and related activism as a good in and of itself. Sorry, but the fact that Don Imus won't shut up about the topic on his radio show does not make the underlying science any better.

4) Disingenuousness as to the author's beliefs and biases, which is worse than actually having them. ("It's not the crime, it's the cover-up.") I've spoken to Kirby and he seems like a really nice guy, and he is clearly motivated by sympathy for the activist parents of autistic children who are his protagonists. Hard to object to that sentiment. But when I've spoken to him and in much of his supporting commentary to the book, he strikes a really disingenuous tone: professing agnosticism as to the thimerosal-autism link on the one hand (which makes a handy defense against scientifically-based critiques) while his presentation buys into the pro-link side (as well as the poor-parents-versus-Goliath/Satan template; see #2 above) in every respect. Read this post and see if Kirby really is undecided about the matter:

Of course, it’s possible that this army of congressional investigators will determine that injecting organic mercury directly into newborn babies was a perfectly harmless thing to do, and did not trigger adverse reactions in a subset of children with a genetic predisposition to mercury sensitivity. They may declare that the synchronization of the autism epidemic and rising thimerosal exposures in the 1990s was merely an uncanny coincidence. They may find that a thorough review of a federal vaccine database, currently under lock-and-key, reveals zero evidence of an association. They may discover that removing mercury from autistic children yields absolutely no clinical benefits whatsoever. And, contrary to Mr. Kennedy’s assertions, they may conclude that everyone in the government and drug industry acted with nothing but the utmost forthrightness, untainted by malfeasance and conflicts of interest, openly sharing all that they knew about thimerosal’s toxicity with the American public.

(To take one of about 25 possible examples from the above paragraph, of course there are financial ties between the vaccine industry and the government agencies that could give rise to conflicts of interest. But it doesn't pass any test of rationality to say those ties necessarily discredit everything they've said against the thimerosal-autism link, while simultaneously asserting the Geiers' extensive work as expert witnesses arguing for such a link is no conflict at all.)

Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 12:17 AM | Permalink | Comment (0)




June 26, 2005
NYT STANDS UP FOR SCIENCE

Please click here for my disclosure statements relating to the subject matter of this post.

Prompted by the RFK article and Kirby book, the NYT has entered the thimerosal-autism fray with an article titled "On Autism's Cause, It's Parents vs. Research." Some highlights:

But scientists and public health officials say they are alarmed by the surge of attention to an idea without scientific merit. The anti-thimerosal campaign, they say, is causing some parents to stay away from vaccines, placing their children at risk for illnesses like measles and polio.

"It's really terrifying, the scientific illiteracy that supports these suspicions," said Dr. Marie McCormick, chairwoman of an Institute of Medicine panel that examined the controversy in February 2004.

...In recent months, the fight over thimerosal has become even more bitter. In response to a barrage of threatening letters and phone calls, the centers for disease control has increased security and instructed employees on safety issues, including how to respond if pies are thrown in their faces. One vaccine expert at the centers wrote in an internal e-mail message that she felt safer working at a malaria field station in Kenya than she did at the agency's offices in Atlanta.

The article's authors have put themselves firmly against the side espousing the thimerosal-autism link. While I agree with that judgment, I must admit that the article could be taught as a primary text in the Columbia School of Journalism, if the school has a class in "How to Get Your Viewpoint Across When You Can't Just Come Out and Say It." If the above excerpts weren't enough, check out the descriptions of the favored "experts" of the thimerosal-autism link exponents, the Geiers. The authors introduce the father-son team (with only the former being a doctor) as witnesses in hearings called by Rep. Dan Burton (previously famous for his lurid conspiracy theories, espoused on the House floor, about the death of Vince Foster) which also featured the following cast of characters:

In a series of House hearings held from 2000 through 2004, Mr. Burton called the leading experts who assert that vaccines cause autism to testify. They included a chemistry professor at the University of Kentucky who says that dental fillings cause or exacerbate autism and other diseases and a doctor from Baton Rouge, La., who says that God spoke to her through an 87-year-old priest and told her that vaccines caused autism.

Describing the Geiers' working conditions:

He and his son live and work in a two-story house in suburban Maryland. Past the kitchen and down the stairs is a room with cast-off, unplugged laboratory equipment, wall-to-wall carpeting and faux wood paneling that Dr. Geier calls "a world-class lab - every bit as good as anything at N.I.H."

(The article does not comment on what N.I.H. labs look like, but one can assume they do not feature "cast-off, unplugged laboratory equipment." I hope.)

Dr. Geier's credentials:

He has also testified in more than 90 vaccine cases, he said, although a judge in a vaccine case in 2003 ruled that Dr. Geier was "a professional witness in areas for which he has no training, expertise and experience."

In other cases, judges have called Dr. Geier's testimony "intellectually dishonest," "not reliable" and "wholly unqualified."

Any questions about what we're supposed to think of the Geiers?

Mind you, I think the description is wholly justified. But isn't there some degree of disingenuousness in laying it on that thick, without the writer having to put his/her own name behind an explicit judgment?

Actually, it's probably only fitting, given the phony agnosticism that pervades much of the favorable press coverage given to the pro-link forces. More on that in the next post.

For now, the NYT has earned an amnesty from my complaints. A temporary one, at least.


Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 11:23 PM | Permalink | Comment (2)




RFK ROUNDUP

Please click here for my disclosure statements relating to the subject matter of this post.

After the Institute of Medicine published a comprehensive report rejecting the suggestions of a link between thimerosal and autism, one might have thought that the question had been put to rest. But the combination of parents of autistic children desparately seeking answers and trial lawyers sensing a potential jackpot has kept the question alive as a discussion topic, if not a scientific inquiry. The publication of David Kirby's book Evidence of Harm has given new life to the old story, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. recently entered the fray with a sensationalistic piece in Salon and Rolling Stone (which you can read for free here), arguing that "government health agencies colluded with Big Pharma to hide the risks of thimerosal from the public."

Writing in the "Huffington Post," David Kirby wrote a post titled "Bring it On" that RFK Jr.'s allegations "cry out for a response."

Consider it brought, courtesy of the blogosphere.

Anyone interested in such a response may consult, among others: Lindsay Beyerstein here ("As far as I can tell, the thimerosal/autism connection is totally unsupported by evidence."), here ("The 286-page transcript [ED: click here for the entire thing] doesn't come close to vindicating Kennedy's grandiose claims") and especially here ("Nothing said at Simpsonwood suggests an attempt to whitewash or cover up anything.") Or, you can consult the academic surgeon "Orac," who took the arguments on here , here, here and here. Also see Skeptico (hereand here) and "Autism Diva," who points out an area where RFK, Jr. and one of his chief sources really need to coordinate their talking points. More pointed commentary on the link, or lack thereof, can be found here. Finally, if you feel like watching an ad, you can access Salon itself and see some letter exchanges between readers and RFK, Jr. (for some key examples, click here and here) as well as the numerous corrections Salon has made since the article's publication.

Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 10:47 PM | Permalink | Comment (0)




AUTISM, DAVID KIRBY AND MOI

In December of 2002, I wrote a number of posts expressing skepticism about a link between thimerosal and autism and supporting the concept of a bill madating that any such claims be pursued through the Vaccine Industry Compensation Program. Those posts can be found here, here and here.

In June of 2003, David Kirby briefly interviewed me for what became his recently published book Evidence of Harm. I understand that I am not mentioned or quoted in the book. (No offense taken - I didn't say anything particularly original or worthwhile.)

In the fall and winter of 2003, around the time of my son's second birthday, we became aware of certain regressions and developmental delays. Our son was subsequently diagnosed with autism. We were not aware of our son manifesting any symptoms at the time I wrote the posts linked above.

As of this writing, I have not yet read Evidence of Harm, though I have followed closely the coverage of the issues raised therein and am familiar with the book's general arguments.

Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 09:37 PM | Permalink | Comment (3)




May 05, 2005
QUOTE OF THE DAY

Comes from John Derbyshire, about the role of the judiciary (though it could be applied to any number of questions):

Do I want big decisions about the shape of society made by a bunch of self-important lefty law-school grads, their brains all addled with 1960s-ish flapdoodle about rights and penumbras? Or would I prefer to have it done by a crew of not-very-successful, not-very-bright small-town lawyers whose pockets are stuffed with cash from teachers’ unions, chicken-processing magnates, Saudi princes, and Mexican drug lords?

A tough question indeed.


Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 12:24 AM | Permalink | Comment (3)




April 13, 2005
KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL

Check out this moving story about a high school star baseball player, a teammate of A-Rod and Doug Mientkiewicz, who never made it:

Butler was Westminster Christian's best player that year. A left-handed pitcher and first baseman, he went 13-0 in 1992, his junior year. He was named the Dade County player of the year, edging Mientkiewicz and easily beating Rodriguez. He was also named an all-American.

"If you would have said anybody on that team would have gone on to the pros besides Alex, I would have thought Steve Butler," said Steve Owens, a reserve player in 1992 who now works as a financial analyst. "He had a great arm and more talent than anyone. I don't know what happened to him."

Anyone who follows baseball seriously can think of other such examples (Gerry Priddy's failure to keep pace with Phil Rizzuto is the one I can think of most readily). For every successful career we watch on the major league baseball fields, there are many others who do not see, but might have. Whether due to injury, personality quirks or a simple inability to grasp an opportunity, the careers that never were haunt the games we see.


Posted by Dr. Manhattan at 12:22 AM | Permalink | Comment (3)





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