Author: Jo Alabaster

2015 anti-vaccine tour of Australia – the Tenpenny caravan of hurt

Sherri Tenpenny, US anti-vaccination campaigner, is scheduled to tour Australia participating in a series of seminars across the country.

Please read this post from Reasonable Hank and if you are so inclined, consider politely contacting the venues who are scheduled to host her events to ensure that they’re aware that they’ve booked a public health menace. Links to contact the venues are at the bottom of the post.

Thank you.

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Anti-vaccinationists have their own anti-Hippocratic oath: first do harm. First and foremost they must evangelise, like any fundamentalist organisation. First and foremost they must persuade vulnerable parents – those sitting on the fence – that vaccines are dangerous, poisonous, unsafe, untested…you know the drill. Time and again they are shown to be nothing but brazen liars; not by people who merely disagree with them, but, by evidence.

We have just been advised that US anti-vaccine campaigner Sherri Tenpenny is coming to Australia to do a series of seminars with a host of other anti-vaccine campaigners. Among them is Isaac Golden, the homeopath recently torn to shreds in the Federal Court, in the humiliating Homeopathy Plus! case. That’s quality information for you right there.

If you haven’t heard of Tenpenny, she’s one of the leaders of the global anti-vaccine cult. She’s like the duchess, to Barbara Loe Fisher’s queen. She is…

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Chemtrails, Chemtrails, Everywhere!

In day to day conversation, I am utterly guilty of discussing chemtrails without a great deal of seriousness.

I make terrible jokes – blaming them for any transient minor illness, taking photographs of contrails and posting them with faux-alarmist captions, setting up a satirical pro-chemtrail Facebook page. Many of my skeptical friends do this too; we use chemtrails as a punchlines in banter about conspiracy theorists and bizarre beliefs. They are up there with reptilians and the Illuminati.

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The Great Wave off Kanagawa with Chemtrail. Katsushika Hokusai, 1831.

However, today I’m going to take a few moments to approach the subject a little more seriously… what is the conspiracy theory about, what are its ramifications, what is the simple and evidence-based explanation for the white trails across the sky left by aircraft?

Consistent with the bizarro world I’m writing from, last thing first – what are contrails?

Contrails: What Even Are They?

Contrails, a portmanteau of condensation and trail, are the white streaks left behind planes given favourable atmospheric conditions.

Aircraft fuel is composed primarily of hydrocarbons, these give off carbon dioxide and water vapour as their main combustion products. When these hot exhaust gases mix with rarefied cool air, the water in the gas freezes quickly and forms microscopic ice crystals, leaving trails of white haze. This haze is similar in look and chemical composition to cloud.

Dependent on the condensation in the atmosphere, contrails may dissipate quickly, or linger. The atmospheric conditions which support cirrus cloud formation – and the very moist atmosphere that results – can allow contrails to persist for hours.

For a more in-depth explanation of contrail formation and persistence, NASA have an excellent site devoted to the topic, the Contrail Education Project.

Chemtrail Conspiracy Theory, The Basics

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Cover illustration from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Big Book of Victorian Chemtrails.

Contrails have been around for as long as modern aviation has.. but in the mid-1990s, the chemtrail conspiracy theory began to develop and spread.

The chemtrail (chemtrail being a portmanteau of “chemical” and “trail”) conspiracy theory takes many forms, but generally it is a belief that an authority – be it governmental, military, scientific or other (yes, the Illuminati, Zionists, “Elite” and reptilians all get a look in here) are using aircraft (often commercial aviation aircraft for greater concealment, sometimes miliatary aircraft) to conduct spraying of our skies.

The composition of the chemicals varies with different claims – aluminium, barium, strontium and silver feature highly.. occasionally biological agents are said to be involved. The purpose of the spraying varies widely also… the most popular belief seems to be that it is the facilitation of a geoengineering project to alter weather, reflect the sun’s rays or combat climate change. Other theories include spraying to control the population, to cause illness, to control minds, to vaccinate people without their consent. Some believers claim that chemtrail spraying is a form of military weapons testing.

Occasionally, chemtrail conspiracy theorists produce images of commercial passenger aircraft containing large connected barrels in place of seats as evidence that the aviation industry is involved in the spraying of chemicals, claiming that these are an aerosol dispersion system. In fact, they’re full of water – they are used by airlines to simulate the weight of passengers and cargo, to test different centers of gravity while the aircraft is in flight.

As with explanations of how contrails are formed however, the explanation of the purpose of the ballast barrels are often countered with claims of cover-ups and disinformation by those invested in chemtrail conspiracy theories. This is often a trouble with conspiracy theories; any debunking or rational explanation for phenomena is met by the true believer with distrust and often an expansion of the original theory to account for new information. To demonstrate this, an interesting exercise for skeptics can be to create a theory, then expand it to incorporate further conspiracies as information counter to the theory is encountered.

The “Evidence” for Chemtrails

In order to compile this report, I sat myself down to watch documentaries produced by chemtrail believers, “Why in the World are they Spraying?” and “What in the World are they Spraying?“.

Dear readers, I have made it through documentaries on Deepak Chopra, I’ve heard the stories of 9-11 Truthers, watched anti-vaccination propaganda, I’ve gotten through the entirety of Charlene Werner explaining the her understanding of the physics behind how homeopathy. I’ve sung along to Mike Adams’ raps about GMOs and the flu vaccination. Heck, I’ve watched all of Plan 9 From Outer Space and Vampyros Lesbos – I think that I have a fairly high tolerance for painful viewing.

I’ve attended Paranormal and Spiritual Expos and walked around the Mind Body Wallet Festival – I can generally cope with wacky ideas and claims. But the chemtrail documentaries… they had me beat. I got through perhaps half an hour of gish galloping before I just couldn’t take it anymore… so many claims with such flimsy evidence, where any was provided at all. Both documentaries are available in full on YouTube and if you can make it through even one, I salute you.

One thing that I’ll note – a scene in one of these documentaries showed a man walking about some bushland, pointing out trees which were dead or not thriving, attributing their state to chemtrail spraying. While I’m more familiar with rural Australia than I am the US, their evidence of chemtrails looked very much consistent to me with the effects of country going through drought conditions.

People interviewed on the documentary also attributed weather conditions consistent with what we’ve been experiencing worldwide over the past few years to chemtrail spraying. They claimed that geoengineering was taking place in an effort from the military and government to reflect the sun’s rays and reduce warming. This does make me wonder what the documentary makers’ position on anthropomorphic climate change is.

The Muppet Movie, with cameos from Big Bird and a chemtrail - much easier viewing!

The Muppet Movie, with cameos from Big Bird and a chemtrail – much easier viewing!

So, aside from exposing your faithful reporter to some incredibly difficult viewing – what’s the harm in believing in chemtrail conspiracy theories? Overall, it can seem like a bit of relatively harmless kookiness, all things considered.

What’s the Harm to Society?

Anti-chemtrail activists are surprisingly active and visible – affixing corflute signs to trees and signposts around their neighbourhoods, writing letters to and petitioning MPs (one anti-chemtrail activist actually made it into the South Australian Parliament), holding protests against geoengineering and chemtrail spraying in cities across Australia. While I wholeheartedly support people becoming involved in political activism, in this case, I suspect that the resources MPs and police put toward responding to the chemtrail activists could be put to some better use.

The largest local chemtrail conspiracy group on Facebook, “Australia & New Zealand Against Chemtrails & Geoengineering”, boasts 8,393 members (as of 04/12/2014), which is almost five hundred more likes than anti-vaccination campaigners the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network currently have. Anti-chemtrail activists are visible and spreading their message.

Two years ago, an article ran in The Australian, reporting on threats being made by anti-chemtrail activists to harm pilots and shoot down commercial aircraft, stating that these threats were becoming more overt, prevalent and alarming. Australian Federal Police have monitored anti-chemtrail activists planning to intercept airline pilots at Sydney airport. Again, more police resources… while pilots in particular and aviation companies in general experience concern for their safety.

What’s the Harm to Believers?

Those were a few points demonstrating anti-chemtrail activism’s effect on the general public, but what about believers?

Aaaaaaaaargh!

Aaaaaaaaargh!

I don’t imagine that it feels wonderful to hold the belief that the government and/or the aviation industry and/or the Illuminati are out there, wielding power and spraying the skies, causing harm to the population.

Similar to anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists who believe that the medical establishment and government – and we’re talking doctors, nurses, researchers, pharmaceutical company employees, public health officials, journalists – are all out to harm them, anti-chemtrail activists subscribe to a rather far reaching conspiracy too. How far reaching? Off the top of my head, I’d assume that those in on the conspiracy would include the government, the military, the aviation industry (from CEOs to baggage handlers) aeronautical engineers involved in designing, assembling, maintaining and repairing aircraft, everybody employed by an airport, everybody involved in manufacturing and transporting the chemicals that they allege are being sprayed. Then perhaps emergency services workers – in case a plane went down, surely they’d need to know how to cover up evidence of chemical tanks and spraying.

That’s a heck of a lot of people who’d need to be working at keeping a substantially large secret, don’t you think? Therefore, that’s a heck of a lot of people who are willing to sacrifice the health of the general population in order to carry out some grand master plan.

This is a point that really gets me when it comes to those who subscribe to conspiracy theories such as these… the huge number of people that believers are willing to consider to be either malicious or stupid. It seems such a bleak view to hold of your fellow humans.

There’s also the general worry that I assume chemtrail believers experience to varying degrees. Imagine, if you will, watching the skies in fear and genuinely worrying for your health. While we might find the belief in a chemtrail conspiracy theory irrational, people do genuinely believe it nonetheless – and the concern, agitation and nocebo effect generated by this belief can be real.

Occasionally this fear regarding harm to health leads people to wear masks or scarves over their faces or spend time spraying vinegar in the air around them, which allegedly dissipates or neutralises chemtrail chemicals. Others turn to buying products specifically designed to provide protection – orgonite devices and solutions to be ingested (homeopathic or otherwise). In extreme cases, people relocate to so called “safe zones”, where aircraft are said not to be spraying.

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Seurat’s “Un dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte, avec Chemtrail”

Finally, there’s the tendency of people who believe in one conspiracy theory to be open to others… and there are others which cause more direct and measurable harm to individuals and society, such as anti-vax conspiracies. It’s difficult to make decisions which will lead to positive social, health and well being outcomes for yourself and your loved ones if you have a strong distrust in scientific consensus and all authority.

Yes, I did mention social outcomes. While I do my utmost not to ridicule individuals – in fact, I have some sympathy for people living with the fear of what is in our skies – I do still think that chemtrails are one of the wackier and more far fetched conspiracy theories out there. Frankly, I can’t see the satire letting up any time soon.

This post an expansion of an Evidence, Please report featured on Episode #314 of The Skeptic Zone Podcast. It was featured in The Skeptic Magazine Vol 35 no 1, March 2015. 

The UK Advertising Standards Authority Rules: Wireless Armour Are Pants – Podcast Report

On The Skeptic Zone Podcast #306 {Permalink}, Evidence, Please provides an update on Wireless Armour.

Below are supplemental links and a transcript of the report, which you should really listen to rather than read, as I said the words “nonpendulous scrotum”. Conversely, you may wish to listen to it in spite of my enunciation of the above words. It is a fine podcast indeed – as is Science on Top, who were kind enough to invite me on to their panel as a guest last week!

sexy-Flexible-Smart-pants-underwear-Silicone-soft-phone-case-universal-home-button-protective-Cover-for-iphone

..!

Previous Evidence, Please report on Wireless Armour: Skeptic Zone, episode #290.

Previous Evidence, Please Blog Post: Wireless Armour: A Pseudoscientific Bunch of Pants

 

ASA Adjudication on Wireless Armour Ltd

Wireless Armour blog entry: Banned Advert

 

The Guardian; Hi-tech underwear advert banned

The Independent; Adverts for Richard Branson-backed ‘radiation-repelling’ underpants banned by ASA

London Loves Business; Branson-backed radiation-repelling underpants hit bum-note

The Drum; ASA bans ad that claims new underwear shields men’s balls from cellphone radiation

 

Report transcript behind the jump.

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“Contains Phenylalanine” – Advisory and Warning Statements on Australian Food – Podcast Report

Those warnings in bold capital letters on food labels beneath lists of ingredients – “CONTAINS PHENYLALANINE”, “CONTAINS QUININE”, “UNPASTEURISED”. Why are they there, who are they directed at and what are the health ramifications of these ingredients?

Contains Caffeine, Contains Phenylalanine

Earlier this month, I gave a report on advisory and warning statements on Australian food labels on The Skeptic Zone Podcast,  you can listen to it on episode #298 {Permalink}, and I have included the transcript below.

I would like to apologise for writing so infrequently here of late – I now have a regular segment on The Skeptic Zone (also titled Evidence, Please) and have been off learning the podcasting ropes. I do have several topics that I’d like to cover over here though – between planned posts (augmented perhaps with a few transcripts), more regular content should be appearing again soon.

 

Please note: Transcripts are published as-is, please excuse the lack of referencing.

Further Reading: Warning and Advisory Statements – Food Authority New South Wales

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Queensland to Provide Whooping Cough Vaccines for Pregnant Women – Campaign for all Australian States To Follow

On July the 9th, Queensland Premier Campbell Newman and Health Minister Lawrence Springborg made a long hoped for announcement – Queensland will be providing free Whooping Cough (Pertussis) vaccinations for women in their third trimester of pregnancy, following dedicated campaigning by doctors, parent groups and concerned citizens.

Read more: Free whooping cough vaccine for all pregnant women in Queensland Courier Mail, 10th July 2014.

Premier Campbell Newman and Health Minister Lawrence Springborg announce free whooping cough vaccinations for pregnant women in Queensland.

Premier Campbell Newman and Health Minister Lawrence Springborg announce free whooping cough vaccinations for pregnant women in Queensland.

 

This is wonderful news for newborns and their families in Queensland. Maternal immunisation during the third trimester of pregnancy and the resulting passive antibody transfer to the infant has been shown to provide substantial protection to newborns during the first two months of life, before they are able to begin receiving whooping cough vaccinations (a three dose schedule, which is completed at six months). Maternal immunisation can also prevent the mother from contracting whooping cough herself, risking passing it on to her vulnerable infant.

Hopefully Queensland’s new policy will pave the way for other Australian states and territories to institute similar schemes, allowing families better access to a measure which can protect newborns from illness, disability and death.

If you are so inclined, please consider writing to and/or tweeting your state or territory leaders, health ministers and shadow health ministers to let them know that there is high community support for the provision of free whooping cough vaccines for pregnant women. I have listed contact details and Twitter accounts for them at the end of this post, and have been tweeting myself, using the hashtag #freewhoopingcoughvax.

 

 

I would like to share with you this letter written to the Premier of New South Wales, Mike Baird, and the New South Wales Minister for Health, Jillian Skinner. It was composed by Heidi Robertson and Alison Gaylard on behalf of the Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters, a community group of concerned citizens who support vaccination and live in an area of New South Wales with alarmingly low vaccination rates.

 

Wednesday, 9th July, 2014

Dear Premier Baird and Ms. Skinner,

We write with regards the initiative announced by Queensland Premier Campbell Newman this morning (9th July 2014). Premier Newman revealed that Queensland Health will be funding a free Pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine for women in their 3rd trimester of pregnancy.

We sincerely hope that NSW will follow suit with this initiative. It is of course based on the latest research and evidence which states that the Pertussis vaccine given in the third trimester is very effective at protecting the newborn baby during those crucial first two months before they can receive their first Pertussis vaccine. Mothers-to-be are also protected from Pertussis with this initiative which of course reduces the chances of transmission to the baby. Mothers, often being the primary caregiver of the baby, are in close physical proximity on a 24- hour basis and are often inadvertently responsible for passing this potentially deadly infection on to their babies.

Losing a baby to Pertussis, a Vaccine Preventable Disease, is of course devastating; the economic cost to government will also be greatly reduced if less infants need to be hospitalised in Paediatric Intensive Care Units (over 9 out of 10 babies under three months of age need to be hospitalised as a result of contracting pertussis).

Please consider following Queensland in this important endeavour.

Regards,

Heidi Robertson and Alison Gaylard – acting on behalf of Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters.

 

Again, if this issue is important to you, please consider writing or tweeting to your state or territory health MPs. Thank you.

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A Letter to the Editor of the Sunshine Coast Daily

Accuracy, Clarification and Accreditation

Dear Sunshine Coast Daily,

I am writing to you regarding a piece which was published on the 5th of June online (initially titled, “Viral anti-vaccination meme shocks professionals“, later updated to “Druggie meme set up to enflame vaccination rage”), which appeared in print as, “Anti-jab meme was done in humour”.

The original online version of the article was written without the knowledge that the meme graphic was a parody of anti-vaccination posters – which could have easily enough been discovered by performing a reverse Google Image Search or checking the Something Awful watermark on the original uncropped picture. I left a comment on your website to let you know the origin of the image, with a link to a blog post that I had written explaining the location and context from whence it came.

I checked the online version of the article again when I received email confirmation that you had received my comment and discovered that the article had been updated to include an explanation as to the origin of the image.

The re-write of the first paragraph began,

UPDATE: MEMBERS of the online community have claimed responsibility for an internet meme linking vaccination to drug abuse.”

I would like for it to be clarified that no members of the ‘online community’ have claimed responsibility for the image; it has been on Something Awful’s website for all to see since July 2013. The wording of your article can be read as implying that I may be claiming responsibility – I wish to stress that I have no affiliation with Something Awful, nor the creator of the image. I was made aware of Something Awful’s Photoshop Phriday when it went online, as I am a strong advocate for vaccination and monitor the activity of anti-vaccination groups. Furthermore, I would like to make it clear that I do not endorse the creation, nor sharing of this image.

I was also somewhat surprised when I read the updated article to find that my blog post that I’d given you a link to in the comments had been quoted rather extensively in the article – seven paragraphs, no less. While I am more than happy that you updated your article to improve its accuracy, I would have greatly appreciated being credited for my research and writing. The online copy had an inline link to my blog, which read “A post explaining the meme said:”, while the paper copy merely had this text with no attribution at all. My name, blog name and contact details appear prominently on the blog post from which you took my writing and I would have been pleased to have been quoted for your article, had there been reasonable attribution provided alongside my work.

Also, in the print version, there is a typo. In my post, I wrote “It has been said that some of the most effective satire is nearly impossible to distinguish from the truth.” – the print article has replaced “effective” with “active”. While I agree that this meme was rather active at the time of publishing, this is not what I wrote!

Finally, I would like to note that “Druggie” is a pejorative label for people with substance addictions and that perhaps a different term may have been more appropriate to use in your publication.

Best Regards,
Jo Alabaster
Blogger, evidenceplease.net

UPDATE 12th June 2014, 1:45pm: I have just received an email from the acting editor of the Sunshine Coast Daily newspaper, letting me know that they’ll be publishing my letter (edited for length).

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PSA: The “Vaccinations Lead To Heroin Use” Graphic Is A Parody

It has been said that some of the most effective satire is nearly impossible to distinguish from the truth. As such, occasionally a graphic or quote which has been created as a parody is shared on social media, creating confusion, fear and outrage among a wide range of people… particularly those not familiar with the source and their particular brand of humour.

One such example is currently doing the rounds; a graphic which appears to be an anti-vaccination claim, which seems to suggest that childhood vaccination leads to heroin use, due to needles being regarded as something positive.

Image

Parody image by Something Awful forum user Bog Chef, using a photograph sourced from Flickr user e_monk.

I’d like to reassure anybody concerned that this has not been created by an anti-vaccinationist (though, being familiar with the wide range of bizarre claims made by anti-vaccination campaigners, I can understand why it could be read as real). Furthermore, in case I need to clarify this, there is no known causal link between vaccination and intravenous drug use later in life.

This graphic was created as a part of Something Awful’s Photoshop Phriday in 2013, in which SA forum participants tried to create over the top parodies of anti-vaccination posters. After showing some examples of actual anti-vaccination memes, the SA admins issued a challenge: “If they can take anti-vaccination posters to this level of absurdity, imagine what we can do!”

Unfortunately, this one has escaped its context and repeatedly gone viral – on its current round, it has managed to spread far enough to grab the attention of the media, with the Sunshine Coast Daily reporting, “Viral anti-vaccination meme shocks professionals“.

“The image, which depicts a drug addict slumped in a corner with the text “their first injection was a vaccination: protect your children from vaccinations”, has gone viral on social media and has recently found its way to Coast news feeds.”

The version of the image which has been received by the Sunshine Coast Daily has been cropped of the Something Awful watermark and as such, is not identifiable by doing a reverse Google Image Search. Generally though, reverse image searching is an excellent way to check the source of an image – and if there is a watermark present, do check the nature of the website it came from before sharing.

If you see this image on social media, my recommendation is not to share it, but to let others know that it is both factually incorrect and was created as a parody by the Something Awful forum participants.

UPDATE 05/06/2014 11:41am: The Sunshine Coast Daily have updated their article, with information from this post.

UPDATE 05/06/2014 10:30pm: Ten News Brisbane have also reported on the meme, acknowledging that it is a parody image. Video report: Confronting Parody

UPDATE 11/06/2014 5:40pm: I have written a letter to the editor of the Sunshine Coast Daily newspaper regarding their use of the above post in an article.

UPDATE 21/03/2015 11:11am: It’s very much doing the rounds again! Please keep in mind that this image was created as a joke and is currently being shared by certain trollesque Facebook pages in order to provoke outrage. Before sharing it on social media, I ask that you consider whether you really want to give trolls oxygen. While the spike in blog traffic over here is kind of nice, I’d rather see this silly graphic out of circulation.

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