New Study Further Debunks Anti-Vaccine Claims

A few weeks ago, as my Composition II Honors classmates and I were discussing ideas for an upcoming research paper, the alleged link between vaccinations and autism was brought up.  Over the next ten minutes or so, as I tried to shed a skeptical light on the issue, I was subjected to a slew of skewed information and anecdotal evidence by the three other members of the class, and even the instructor, who all supported this ridiculous notion that childhood vaccinations and cases of autism have a direct correlation.

The anti-vaccination movement found its beginnings when Andrew Wakefield published a report, claiming there to be a link between the MMR vaccine and the development of neurological disorders, specifically autism.  Despite this study being thoroughly debunked long ago, the idea still persists, with its adherents launching campaign after campaign against childhood vaccinations.  Now, a new study has come out, which sheds even more light on the supposed link between childhood vaccinations and autism.

A large new government study should reassure parents who are afraid that kids are getting autism because they receive too many vaccines too early in life.

The study, by researchers at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, found no connection between the number of vaccines a child received and his or her risk of autism spectrum disorder. It also found that even though kids are getting more vaccines these days, those vaccines contain many fewer of the substances that provoke an immune response.

This study deals a heavy blow to one of the latest claims to come out of the anti-vax movement: that getting large numbers of vaccines in the same day, or in the first years of life, has a causal connection with autism.

To find out if that was happening, DeStefano led a team that compared the vaccine histories of about 250 children who had autism spectrum disorder with those of 750 typical kids. Specifically, the researchers looked at what scientists call antigens. An antigen is a substance in a vaccine that causes the body to produce antibodies, proteins that help fight off infections.

“The amount of antigens from vaccines received on one day of vaccination or in total during the first two years of life is not related to the development of autism spectrum disorder in children,” DeStefano says.

Aside from the most obvious harm to individual children, vaccine denial carries some serious potential consequences.  for example, in the last few years, we have seen a strong resurgence of diseases like measles and pertussis (whooping cough), which could be linked to a loss of herd immunity.  On top of this, Ellen Wright Clayton, a Vanderbilt University Professor, points out that the focus on researching and debunking the link between vaccinations and neural disorders has hindered research on disease prevention.

“The sad part is, by focusing on the question of whether vaccines cause autism spectrum disorders, they’re missing the opportunity to look at what the real causes are,” she says.

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Breaking News: North Korean Tensions a Result of Supreme Court Hearings on Same Sex Marriage. God is Pissed!

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Rick Wiles, the Trunews broadcaster who has called President Obama “a devil from hell,” conducted an interview with Southern Baptist Convention President, Fred Luter, on Wednesday.  In it, Wiles and Luter suggested that recent tensions with North Korea are a result of god’s anger over the Supreme Court hearings on same sex marriage.  Not only that, but they even went so far as to say that the United States is likely to be destroyed, just like the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, should the Supreme Court rule in favor of it.  Let’s take a look at some excerpts.  (Along with a bit of commentary from yours truly, of course.)

Wiles: You know at precisely the same time the Supreme Court is hearing these arguments on same-sex marriage in Asia a crazy man in possession of nuclear weapons, Kim Jong-un, is openly saying: I have ordered our military to position our rockets on US targets in Hawaii, Japan, Guam and the mainland of the United States.  He has gone into a full state of war this week.  I don’t know, Pastor Luter, I don’t know if anybody is — I know they’re not — they’re just not putting this together.  You got this happening over here and you got this happening over here: could the two be connected? Could our slide into immorality be what is unleashing this mad man over here in Asia to punish us?

Luter: It could be a possibility, I’m not that strong in prophecy but I would not be surprised that there’s not a connection there simply because of the fact we’ve seen it happen in scripture before. I would not be surprised that at the time when we are debating same-sex marriage, at a time when we are debating whether or not we should have gays leading the Boy Scout movement, I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that we have a mad man in Asia who is saying some of the things that he’s saying.

This is the same old load of disgusting garbage that we hear spewing from the mouths of evangelicals, every time that there is a major disaster, or threat of one.  “We made God angry, so he’s punishing us.”  Aside from the offensiveness of the idea that affording equal rights to all people is a punishable offense, you would think that, after thousands of years of accumulating knowledge on what ACTUALLY causes natural phenomena and human behavior, we could move past this ridiculous, primitive notion that everything bad that happens is the result of some fictional, cosmic bully’s displeasure.

Wiles: I have to admit I’m at a loss to understand the complacency and apathy of tens of millions of American Christians who are standing by, twiddling their thumbs while their nation is transformed into a socialist, homosexual, anti-God, anti-biblical morality cesspool.

Well, what can I say, Rick?  Witch burning, heretic torturing, crusade waging Christians are just getting harder and harder to come by, these days.  About your comment that the U.S. is becoming an “anti-biblical morality cesspool,” though, I think I’m pretty ok with that.  That’s probably because I am ABSOLUTELY anti-biblical morality, just as any reasonable person who has ever actually read the bible would be.  Because, anyone who has knows that “biblical morality” includes murdering children who disrespect their parents, as well as women who aren’t virgins on their wedding nights, forcing rape victims to marry their rapists, endorsing slavery, genocide and infanticide, and a whole slew of other unsavory things.  With all of that put into perspective, I think that it’ safe to say that anyone who has actually read the bible, and still supports the idea of “biblical morality,” is either engaging in some astonishing cognitive dissonance, or is completely insane.

Wiles: If the Supreme Court rules that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right, what are the ramifications for this nation?

You mean, other than gay people being able to get married, and our nation taking a long overdue step towards affording equal rights to all people?  Hmmm…I’m having trouble thinking of any, at the moment.

Luter: Oh man I would hate to think of it. You talked about Sodom and Gomorrah in your introduction and I can just see that happening man, it would be like America is pointing its finger at God and saying: ‘I know what your word says God, I know what the scripture says but we want to be our own king, we want to do things our own way.’ The last time a nation did that they were destroyed, Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed. I just see things getting consistently worse in America because of our decisions that we’ve made to just get farther and farther away from God and God’s word.

“The last time a nation did that they were destroyed, Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed.”  Actually, there are plenty of more recent instances of citizens actively deciding that the bible doesn’t dictate their moral laws, many of which took place right here, in the U.S.  For a few examples, see: abolition of slavery, legalization of interracial marriage, affording of equal rights to women, criminalization of marital rape, oh, and not to forget the establishment clause, and that first line in the Treaty of Tripoli, which begins: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…” Of course, these are only a few out of numerous examples.  So far, I haven’t seen this mass destruction of our nation that you claim inevitably results from things like this, Fred.  Is your god just taking it easy on us?  That seems a bit out of character for him, all things considered.

Wiles also urged Christians to stop going to work, as a form of protest against the United States’ immoral ways.

Wiles: The country, the economic system would be on the verge of collapse if ten million productive Christians… simply said ‘we’re going to sit things out until this craziness stops,’ I think it would be over in a couple days.

Ahhhh, I see your reasoning, here, Rick.  Obviously, the best way to stop a nation from descending into a pit of chaos would be to cripple its economic system.  Genius!

Luter: That would be powerful, that would be a phenomenal statement to America and I think also to the world. The challenge would be getting those ten million Christians together to make it happen.

Wiles: Apparently they don’t believe the Gospel enough.

So, you’re saying that people value their livelihoods and ways of life more than a ridiculous, immoral code of ethics that was thought up by primitive men, in the bronze age?  Oh, the tragedy of it all.

Luter: I agree, we need about ten million Rick Wileses in the world, it would be radical.

Wiles: That would be a scary thought.

On that, Rick, we most certainly agree.

-J.C.

New Reality Show Aims to Exploit Children, Family Members of Deceased Loved Ones

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If my daughter suddenly came up to me one day, claiming to be the reincarnation of Cleopatra, I would assume that she had been watching a bit too much television, and sit down to have a talk about reality vs. fantasy.  After all, every parent knows that sometimes, children’s imaginations can get a bit carried away, and that it would be unhealthy to encourage such delusions.  Right???

Well, maybe not quite every parent, and a new reality television show aims to capitalize on that fact.

In the tradition of shows like Toddlers and Tiaras, Ghost Inside my Child, a new show by producers Joke Fincioen (not taking this one, too easy), and Biagio Messina, will rely on parents who place potential profit over the mental well-being of their children, in order to fill their casting calls.

A Los Angeles production company is currently holding a nationwide casting call for children who claim to have, or have had, past life memories for a new reality series, “Ghost Inside My Child,” scheduled to air on the Bio Channel later this year.

What’s even more disturbing is that not only will the show be encouraging these fantasies in children, it will attempt to pull the family members of those deceased folks who they claim them to be reincarnated from into the delusion along with them.

As part of the show, Fincioen and Messina arranged a meeting between Leininger [one of the children featured in the pilot episode], and a member of Huston’s [the man who the show claims Leininger to be a reincarnation of], family, a woman now in her 90s.

The woman felt a connection with this young kid and, now, they hope to do similar bits of “closure” with the new crop of past life preteens…

Fortunately, some prominent members of the skeptical community are already speaking up about the dubious premise of the show, as well as its potential harmfulness.  D.J. Grothe, president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, voiced some of these concerns to the Huffington Post.

“Unfortunately, people use anecdote and stories as proof of these supernatural claims, and this is not dissimilar to ghost stories, or accounts of supposedly accurate psychic readings people will tell,” he told HuffPost by email.

He also has problems with the idea of going to family members of deceased people and telling them that a kid just might be a dearly departed loved one.

“The people who lost a loved one have to re-experience the loss, are told outlandish claims about their loved one being alive again and stuck in the body of a child somewhere,” he said. “I think this is a crassest manipulation of belief and of the fear of death merely for the sake of reality TV ratings.”

As for my two cents, the producers of this show, as well as any parents who would encourage their child to maintain fantasy as reality by submitting them for casting, are placing that child’s future development and mental health at risk, for profit.  In my view, this makes them some of the worst kinds of charlatans, and if there were an afterlife, I like to think that there would be a special place of unpleasantness reserved just for them.

-J.C.

‘Psychic’ Twice Arrested for Fraud Completely Avoids Legal Punishment by Paying off Her Victims in Both Cases

At the beginning of this month, the Orlando Sentinel reported on a woman named Peaches Stevens, who had been arrested for fraud, back in November of 2011.  Apparently, Peaches, who also goes by the name of “Miss Starr,” makes her money as a self proclaimed psychic and fortuneteller.  Her basic M.O. is to convince her victims that they and their loved ones have a terrible curse upon them, and then extort large sums of money from them, with promises to remove the curse:

Overwhelmed by problems, Priti Mahalanobis consulted a fortuneteller who told her there was a curse on her family.  After spending nearly $136,000 in cash, gift cards and jewelry to have Windermere psychic “Miss Starr” remove the hex, Mahalanobis came to the conclusion that she had been swindled.

This time, her fraudulent ways came back to bite her, and now she must repay every cent that she took from Mahalanobis and her husband. Now, I’m usually a huge fan of exposing and punishing frauds and charlatans, especially when they are forced to pay restitution to those poor, desperate and gullible people who they have victimized, but I have some major problems with the way that this case was handled.  For example:

All charges were dropped in September [2012] after Stevens agreed to give Mahalanobis and her husband a full refund of $135,898.60.

So, there will be no further repercussions for her actions, no record of charges or convictions, and she gets to go on scamming people out of their hard earned cash.  To me, this feels like a justification for ‘psychics’ like this woman defrauding people, based on their gullibility.

“Whoops, you caught me, this time. Since you were clever enough to figure me out, I’ll just give you your money back, and we’ll call it even. Next customer, please!”

On the other hand, I do believe in giving second chances, so I’ll try to be optimistic, and assume that the prosecutors in the case were hoping that the whole thing would convince her to switch to a more honest line of work.  If only we lived in a perfect world.

On Thursday [March 7, 2013], a similar settlement was negotiated and the Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office agreed not to prosecute Peaches Stevens, 30, or her aunt Sharon Stevens, 45, also a psychic.

Sharon Stevens, professionally known as Sarah Stevens, was arrested last week at her home in Hallandale Beach on charges of scheming to defraud and grand theft. A warrant for the arrest of Peaches Stevens was recalled Thursday.

Sharon and Peaches Stevens will reimburse a 67-year-old woman in full: $50,702.94 in cash, gift cards and unspecified merchandise paid to have evil spirits vanquished, the State Attorney’s Office said. Neither psychic admitted civil or criminal liability.

So, we have the same psychic, this time with the addition of her aunt as an accomplice, arrested for pulling the same scams as before, and then being allowed to wriggle out of legal punishment in exactly the same way.  Once again, there is no deterrent or legal accountability.  Once again, she is allowed to continue operating her business under the fraudulent claim of psychic ability, and running her same old scams.  This woman should have been held to the same prosecutory standards as any other common con artist to begin with.  To allow her off a second time shows just how ridiculously tolerant of this kind of behavior our society is.

So, let me be clear on where I stand, here: charlatanry is NOT a victimless crime, and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, with monetary restitution being only a portion of perpetrators’ total legal punishment.  Frauds like this woman prey remorselessly on the aggrieved and desperate, and the emotional and psychological damage that they often do to their victims goes far beyond monetary loss.  So should the consequences.

-J.C.