Friday, September 17, 2010

The Hated Preschool Hunt

We've decided to take the plunge and join the world of preschool. Beyond the social and motor skills E will be learning, the truth is it will give mommy a chance to grocery shop without getting home and finding someone has added Muselix to my shopping cart without my knowledge or the screaming chorus from the back seat while running errands of "All done car!!!!!!!!!!" and "I push the cart!!!!"

Through searching, we narrowed down to two schools we wanted to see. We went for the interview and immediately liked one way above the other. We knew then and there we'd send her to this school. I was ecstatic to start until I called to confirm and said "oh by the way I forgot to ask, do you require vaccinations?".

Now, let me back up for one second. I understand that (yay!) California requires immunizations, but (boo/hiss!) allows people to opt out. I get it, doesn't mean I have to like it. When I asked what their policy was I wanted to hear of course everyone is vaccinated. What I got was oh well of course we require vaccines, but you're able to opt out if you want. Like she was giving me some hidden gem of a secret. I swear in her next breath she was going to explain how I could go about opting out if I wanted to. She'd give me the key to getting out of "poisoning" my child.

This is a huge problem for us. As a couple of parents that believe that people are putting our society in danger by not immunizing their children it was a complete deal breaker. It makes me so sad considering she would be starting there this Tuesday. (Guess it's take out for one more week.) We really liked the school outside of this major faux pas.

She went on to add insult to injury by telling me that they have never had a problem despite the fact that they have children who are not immunized. I had to explain to her that in the interest of my daughter's safety we would not be attending her school. Then she basically told me in a not so nice tone of voice, good luck finding a school that would be different. Let's see where your smug superiority is when you have a whooping cough epidemic, not that I would gloat. Poor kids...

This got me thinking...I'm frustrated with the amount of woo I encounter in my day to day life. Especially as a parent. I cringe every time I hear, of course I vaccinate, but I space them out or our house is completely gluten free. I want a pediatrician that also attended TAM, I want my kid's teacher to be a member of the JREF. Is that too much to ask? Yeah my plumber doesn't really need to be a skeptic, but it'd be nice.

How do I find these people? I can't really add to my list of interview questions for prospective schools/dentists/car mechanics, please tell me what the word woo means to you and do you believe acupuncture is a valid form of medicine?

I'd love if there was a directory out there, a resource guide to local skeptics. A yellow pages for my fellow woo fighters.

I think I need to start working on a survey...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Score one for Nevada

We recently went on vacation and were able to sneak away to see a movie. Now I won't reveal what movie we chose for our rare evening out without Miss E since it is too embarrassing, but while there I came across a sign that made me smile and of course document the occasion to share here.

Next to the theater was an indoor playground and in front was this sign posted:

Just in case it's hard to read because it's not winning any photography awards, it basically says that kids can't play without proper immunizations! Go Nevada!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Web of Woo

I have become very interested in where otherwise (presumably) rational people end up holding some specific irrational beliefs. I want to test the theory that they start on some source that represents their worldview in some way (religious, political, medical), which leads them to other sources in a sort of "six degrees of woo". 

A specific, an easy, example would be the Huffington Post. Liberally minded people would naturally tend to read it for the political ideas there. However, the Huffington Post is actually a very large group blog and one of their bloggers is Joe Mercola. While Joe Mercola is technically a doctor, who holds very very very unscientific beliefs and blogs about them there, frequently linking to his site, So it seems reasonable that a person reading on Huffington Post might end up on Joe Mercola's site and believe what is there. 

But I really don't think it starts or even stops with Huffington Post, and I certainly don't think it is only "the left" which is prone to these things. So I want to attempt to approach it vaguely scientifically using document and link analysis to create a graph where you can easily see how a person can go from Rational Site A to Irrational Site C. 

It may turn out that the Huffington Post is actually just a special case and there is, in general, no easy way to explain how someone gains these beliefs purely from link and documents alone. For example, one of my friends mentioned the site "Zero Hedge" for his information. This site is very focused on finances, and barely seems to link out. And the bloggers are anonymous, so you really couldn't even just search for other stuff they have written. The only real thing I saw was an ad (which I saw on some other Libertarian sites) about how President Obama was working to destroy the 401(k) system. I could see this leading to other conspiracy type theories, but who knows. 

In the process there will also be the generation of who are the "hubs" of the various non-scientific beliefs. Any how, will be cool to see how it works out.

I would be interested to know if this has already bee done or if anyone has any tips. Currently I am looking at some tools like Bixo and Bingo! to perform crawling and document classification. 

Saturday, July 24, 2010


I was poking around the Interwebs and stumbled on some anti-aspartame blog entries where commenters wondered what motivation another commenter had for arguing against the anti-aspartame diatribe. There was an assumption that only somebody with financial interest would argue against anti-aspartame "science". There was additionally the "why do you care? what's the harm?" question.

This fascinates me. To me it is self-evident why you would argue against incorrect information: it's incorrect. Bad information should be corrected. Why is that confusing? It is truly amazing to me that it is common for people to not see any harm in spreading misinformation, or at least, no reason to correct misinformation.

In addition to that is, for me, the fear that once a person does not trust common products approved by the FDA, they turn to those items outside of the purview of the FDA (or whatever regulatory body). This frightens me. It is this path that leads to homeopathy. It is this path that leads to chelation therapy. It is this path that leads to chiropractric. "What's the harm?" you ask. The harm is that if somebody is spending their hard earned money on untested, quack treatments they may not have any left for treatments backed by science that actually work. The harm is that if they are so far over that they no longer trust "Western" medicine, they refuse to get real treatment and can become even more ill. The harm, the most terrible of all, is that they don't provide their children with proper medical treatment.

You may think, "sure, but all we're saying is that aspartame is bad." Perhaps... but it's just one brick in the wall. If it's the only brick, so be it. And more power to you if you're only drinking water, and not artificially sweetened soft drinks. Probably healthier any how.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


I was sending out a link to my other blog and was trying to find some of my favorite articles (not that I've done many). It turns out that the previous design was an utter eye sore. It was nearly impossible to even see the divide between articles (they tend to be long) and navigation was painful.

I've chosen a new one that I believe presents the information in a much more clean manner, and also makes it easier to find other posts.

I've taken a break from researching schools to revisit my organic food research. Even there, it is difficult to find a focus due the complexity of the "organic" claims and ideas. You'd be hard pressed to find two people who agree on exactly what "organic" is, or what they think it can do. So I have decided to focus the next article on a single claim (and will do others later). So the first one will be on whether or not organic produce (and possibly livestock) has more nutrients than it's "conventional" brother.

Later topics planned for this:
  • What's the prevalence of "factory" organic, or does organic usually mean locally-grown?
  • Do organic foods use less/no/safer pesticides?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Writing research papers for fun?

One thing I have found a lust for since realizing I was a Skeptic is researching. It was like a light bulb turned on above my head and woo was suddenly filling my brain. If acupuncture is bunk, than what else is? I suddenly understood that my husband wasn't a naysayer or a cynic, he simply wanted to know the truth and see the evidence for what it was.

I've since decided I want to know the truth, too. Before when I would read an article it was simply, "hmm interesting article". Now, however, one sentence will give me reason to say "wait a minute?" If this one thing is bogus, than the rest of the article must come under question as well.

I eased into it, adding new blogs to my reader, listening to a few podcasts. Gradually I stepped up into blogging a bit on my own. Now I'm writing research papers for fun. Anytime I hear a person comment on something that could be woo I get excited to look into it. I want to debunk it all! Wrong attitude? I know.

Though the thrill of discovering that something is false is undeniable we need to be objective. Like James Randi said at TAM, we need to go into things investigating, not specifically to debunk. Who knows it could be true, and that is awesome too! So I am going full force into research. Writing papers for fun that I dreaded in school. It's hard though when you get too technical. The research you find is all hidden behind the abstract. I thirst for full text!

I did something I would never have done before, I emailed a specialist. I need to have things explained so that I don't go out there and debunk something I can't understand. Here's hoping they're able to help me.

I'm unbelievably excited to hear back from a doctor about biology. What happened to me? :) I don't know, but it's fun!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Schools research

I have picked up again on some research I was doing on performance of charter, magnet and private schools. Unlike most of my other articles, I am not really looking at "debunking" anything, but am genuinely curious: do they work? Do students perform better?

So far it seems like the results are... not really. But what's interesting is how sensitive the answer can depend on what study you choose and what data it is based on. I am trying to focus on the ones which control for the student demographics. This seems to me to be the best way to see if, for an individual student, they will do better at another school.

The difficult part of endeavors of this sort is to really find what is the reasonable "consensus" of the current science. An idea that was brought up at TAM8 is that, not being a scientist, my job is not to attempt to a "analyze" the science that is out there, but simply present it. But a small amount of meta-analysis does have to occur in trying to determine what the most up to date and accepted research is. It may be that I am starting my research during a "tipping point" in the consensus. How am I to know? It's both frustrating and rewarding to attempt to find and distill research down to present to others.

There is a wide range of research on this topic, so I need to be very careful in my choices and, as always, fully back up any of my findings.