The entire universe in blog form
Posted Tuesday, June 18, 2013, at 1:30 PM
The show opens with a bit of space history from my friend Amy Shira Teitel, and then I’m on to give a brief history of Bad Astronomy, blogging, exoplanets, Kepler’s reaction wheels, asteroid impacts, and why science is cool. I had fun talking to Ray, and I hope you like it.
After my segment, Ray interviewed another friend, Geoff Notkin from Discovery Channel’s Meteorite Men. Geoff is an expert on meteorites and a very successful meteorite hunter. He talks about meteors and meteorites, Chelyabinsk, and what it takes to go out and find these celestial visitors. The show ends with music by James Olmos—no, not Admiral Adama, but a singer-songwriter.
Ray has talked to lots of great astronomy folks over the course of his series, so check them out!
Posted Tuesday, June 18, 2013, at 11:00 AM
Photo by NASA, modified by Phil Plait
Not too surprisingly, there's been some ongoing tension between Congress and the White House over NASA funding for a while now. For some bizarre reason, the Obama administration wants to curtail NASA’s education efforts pretty severely, which in my opinion is not just a huge mistake but one that borders on insane. NASA outreach is a shiny gold star for the agency.
The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology will be holding hearings on Wednesday about NASA funding. SpaceNews released a summary of the draft congressional bill authorizing funds for NASA, and it has some pretty interesting things in it.
About education, it says:
There’s bipartisan agreement that the Administration’s proposal to re-organize NASA’s STEM education program is questionable. This bill maintains FY 2013 organization and funding level.
“Questionable.” Heh. My opinion on this is clear, and I’m glad to see Congress stating they want education and outreach to be a priority for NASA. You can read more about this situation at the AURA website.
About human spaceflight, it has this very interesting bit:
In the near-term, the primary objectives for NASA human spaceflight include:
[…] Continued commitment to develop the Space Launch System and Orion Crew Vehicle to return to the Moon and beyond, but no funding for an asteroid rendezvous mission.
Emphasis mine. Apparently, the White House’s proposal to snag, bag, and tag an asteroid is not a priority for Congress. That’s not surprising, as it would be expensive, and it’s not clear if some other part of NASA would be hit to pay for it. I like the idea of such a mission, but as I’ve said all along, I’d like to know where the money is coming from, and it better not be from some other worthy NASA project.
Now comes the monkey in the wrench. About planetary exploration, the draft bill says:
Relying on the guidance of National Academy of Sciences Decadal Surveys, this bill restores proper balance to NASA’s science portfolio. NASA Earth Science is reduced to 2008 spending levels to provide better balance of funding for NASA’s planetary science programs. Thirteen different federal agencies fund $2.5 billion annually in climate science research, but only NASA has space exploration as its primary mission. NASA is still involved in climate change research—spending $1.2 billion annually. NASA must remain focused on building weather satellites for NOAA to meet our nation’s urgent weather-monitoring needs, as well as building LANDSAT satellites for the US Geological Survey.
Well now. I have a few things to say about that.
First, I like the idea of restoring planetary exploration. This is another area where I strongly disagree with the Obama administration, which cut $300 million from this extremely successful program. Outside of straight astronomy (like Hubble), the planetary program is the most visible of what NASA does, even more so than the Space Station. And they’ve put the funds to great use, sending probes all over the solar system with far greater accuracy and success than any other space agency on Earth. Curiosity, Cassini, MESSENGER, Dawn … the list is lengthy. Cutting funds now would damage the future of the program for decades; it takes a long time to design, plan, and execute a mission. Congress wants to put that money back into planetary exploration.
Not that it’s a lock. Casey Dreier at the Planetary Society blog reports that a leaked NASA draft about appropriations indicates NASA itself will take any extra money for planetary exploration and redirect it to other projects. That strikes me as more foolishness. Hopefully Congress will disallow this; I have notified my own representative to let him know.
And finally, I have to comment on the bit about the climate change portion of the congressional statement. Reducing Earth observations to pay for planetary exploration is just as bad and just as irrational as what the White House is trying to do. Yes, other agencies study global warming, but NASA has a huge role in this. It partners with these other agencies to give us as complete a view of Earth as we can get. This issue is one of the most important ones we face as a species, and having NASA on our side is a damn good idea.
So why would Congress want to cut out climate change funding? Or should I phrase it as, “Why would the Republican-controlled Committee on Science want to cut funding for climate change research?” I did some poking around online, and every single Republican on the Science Committee ranges from being at least wishy-washy about climate change (saying things like the science isn’t conclusive, which is simply untrue) to full-blown global warming denialism (such as Lamar Smith, the committee chairman, who I’ll note is a proponent of space exploration; Paul “Lies from the Pit of Hell” Broun; Dana Rohrabacher; Jim Sensenbrenner; and others).
So I smell partisan science denial in this attempt to defund NASA’s climate change research. I’m all for getting more money to planetary exploration, but not at the cost of studying our own planet.
This draft bill, if it proves accurate and the basis for the congressional appropriations for NASA, is a mixed bag. Agree, disagree? Contact your representative and let him or her know.
Tip o’ the nose cone to my friend and astronomer Heidi Hammel.
Posted Tuesday, June 18, 2013, at 8:00 AM
Photo by Phil Plait
On Monday, there was a foofooraw on the Internet about the Miss USA pageant, when Miss Utah stumbled on a question much to the derision of online critics. As it happens, I was recently thinking about beauty pageants because of a talk I gave in Utah, where, coincidentally, I met the Miss Utah from the Miss America Pageant (to be clear, a different woman than the one in the recent Q-and-A kerfuffle). This seems like as good a time to write about it as any.
In April I was in Salt Lake City to visit the Clark Planetarium on the occasion of its 10th anniversary. I had a lovely time, in no small part due to the care and handling by director Seth Jarvis and public relations guru Lindsie Smith. If you’re ever in Salt Lake City, you should pay Clark a visit.
At the planetarium I gave my “Death from the Skies!” talk—all about asteroid impacts and how to avoid them—to a crowd of more than 300 folks, and they seemed to enjoy it. I also got to briefly meet a lot of them while signing books, which is always fun. I think my favorite parts were when a young boy told me he wanted to be a “Martian geologist,” and a group of young men and women were there who were going to the state science fair in May. There’s nothing like seeing the next generation getting fired up about science. That’s the Bernoulli effect above my wings.
It was while I was at the planetarium that I also met Kara Arnold, the current Miss Utah for the Miss America Pageant, who ran her pageant platform on improving STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and encouraging women and girls to enter STEM career paths. She majored in biochemistry in college and is currently attending medical school (which is on hold for the year she’s Miss Utah). She’s smart and approachable and gave a brief inspiring talk about her work to the audience before I went onstage.
While listening to her talk to the audience about STEM support, I found myself conflicted; I’m not a fan of pageants, given their objectification of women, and I suspect she and I would disagree over other issues as well. On the other hand, Arnold is performing a wonderful service, traveling around Utah and the country promoting science the way she does. For that I’m very grateful. She’s probably doing as much or more good in the name of science than a thousand other people her age.
As she spoke, I was struck by how much I travel to talk about science and how overwhelmingly supportive people are of it. It’s a selection bias, I know: Those folks are coming to hear an astronomy talk, and many are predisposed to looking at reality through the lens of science.
Still, I suspect a substantial fraction of the people who hear me talk would disagree with me strongly on many issues. Not necessarily scientific ones, but things like gay rights, reproductive rights, and so on.
But while I’m there talking to them, those issues aren’t important. Not right then, not at that specific time. What’s important is promoting science and getting more people to think critically. And although I might not be comfortable with the opinions or values some people may hold, or they of mine, the fact of the matter is it’s possible to come together on some issues, despite our differences. And who knows? Maybe some of the lessons on how to analyze a problem, how to think about an issue, will spill over from one area to another.
It’s worth remembering that. I will always fight for science and against anti-science when I have to, but I will always bear in mind that not everyone who disagrees with me on other issues is the enemy. Reality is the ultimate big tent.
Posted Monday, June 17, 2013, at 10:30 AM
You’d think it would be hard to hide a whole exploding star, but the galaxy has managed to do just that for 2,500 years.
Supernova remnant G306.3-0.9 somehow managed to elude discovery until 2011, when it was seen during a survey of the galaxy by the orbiting Swift observatory. Swift detects X-rays and gamma-rays, extremely high-energy forms of light emitted by the most powerful and violent events in the Universe—like exploding stars. X-rays from G306 betrayed its existence to Swift, and when astronomers noticed it, they swung other telescopes around to investigate.
The image at the top of this post is a combination of observations from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, Spitzer Space Telescope (which sees infrared light), and the Australian Telescope Compact Array (which detects radio waves). X-rays are shown in blue, infrared in red and cyan, and radio in purple.
The circular shape of the object is a big hint to its origin as an exploding star, but the presence of X-rays is the clincher. When a star explodes, it blasts out a brain-crushing amount of matter and energy. The expanding debris can outmass the Sun by a factor of 10 or more, screaming outward at a substantial fraction of the speed of light. The energy emitted in a supernova in just a few weeks is the equivalent of the Sun’s output over its entire lifetime of 10 billion years.
The violence of a supernova is almost too much to comprehend.
This is belied by the beauty and apparent serenity of the image, isn’t it? We see it frozen in time, its vast power diminished by distance. It’s only through our understanding of physics and mathematics that we can even begin to understand the forces at work here.
The star exploded about 2,500 years ago (ignoring the time it took for the light to reach us), and the debris has expanded to about 25 light-years in diameter. That means the material was blasted outward to at least 1 percent the speed of light—and probably more, given it slows down over time as it rams through the thin material between the stars. As it slams into that gas, shock waves form in a similar way that sonic booms are created from supersonic aircraft. These shocks bounces around in the material, compressing it, and playing havoc with the magnetic fields inside. This accelerates subatomic particles to fantastic speeds, just under that of light itself, and it’s the interaction of the particles with those magnetic fields that generates the X-rays seen by Chandra and Swift.
Stars explode in our galaxy every century or so on average. We know of roughly 300 supernova remnants in our own galaxy, and G306 is one of the youngest. Some are tens of thousands of years old, and a handful older yet. Many of them are when a massive star explodes after a very short life, so they are still embedded in the gas and dust clouds from which they were born. That absorbs the fierce light, obscuring them from our view. That in turn means there are probably hundreds more supernova remnants in the Milky Way, many as young or younger than G306, that remain undiscovered.
It’s incredible that one of the singular violent events possible in the Universe can be relatively nearby yet be completely invisible. But we’re getting better at this. Our telescopes improve all the time, and we keep a sharp eye on the sky. I expect that over time, many more of these hidden cataclysms will come to light.
Posted Monday, June 17, 2013, at 8:00 AM
Fire image courtesy peasap's Flickr photostream; Earth image from NASA; composite by Phil Plait.
Oh, that Heartland Institute. This fossil-fuel-funded climate change denial “think tank” has made its name making outrageous statements that generally aren’t even within a glancing blow of reality. Like the way they hugely exaggerated the importance of “Climategate”—what I like to call a manufactroversy—or their horrific billboard campaign comparing climate scientists to the Unabomber and Charles Manson. That was where they actually had the temerity to say:
The people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society. This is why the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.
Nice, huh? No wonder they hemorrhaged sponsors so rapidly after that boondoggle.
So when I heard that one of their global-warming denial screeds had been translated into Chinese and that Heartland was claiming the Chinese government was becoming more “skeptical” about climate change, well, I myself was hugely skeptical.
Turns out, I was right.
Heartland made this claim:
The trend toward skepticism and away from alarmism is now unmistakable… Publication of a Chinese translation of Climate Change Reconsidered by the Chinese Academy of Sciences indicates the country's leaders believe their [failure to sign a global climate treaty] is justified by science and not just economics.
Note: That quotation is from an article at the Guardian about this; Heartland took down the page with their original press release. Now, why would they do that?
Because it was egregiously false. It was so fallacious, in fact, that the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) issued a very stern statement (emphasis mine):
The claim of the Heartland Institute about CAS’ endorsement of its report is completely false. To clarify the fact, we formally issue the following statements:
(1) The translation and publication of the Chinese version of the NIPCC report, and the related workshop, are purely non-official academic activities the group of translators. They do not represent, nor they have ever claimed to represent, CAS or any of CAS institutes. They translated the report and organized the workshop just for the purpose of academic discussion of different views.
(2) The above fact was made very clear in the Translators’ Note in the book, and was known to the NIPCC report authors and the Heartland Institute before the translation started. The false claim by the Heartland Institute was made public without any knowledge of the translator group.
(3) Since there is absolutely no ground for the so called CAS endorsement of the report, and the actions by the Heartland Institute went way beyond acceptable academic integrity, we have requested by email to the president of the Heartland Institute that the false news on its website to be removed. We also requested that the Institute issue a public apology to CAS for the misleading statement on the CAS endorsement.
(4) If the Heartland Institute does not withdraw its false news or refuse to apologize, all the consequences and liabilities should be borne by the Heartland Institute. We reserve the right for further actions to protect the rights of CAS and the translators group.
Wow. The number of times they use the word false makes their feelings pretty clear (as does another CAS notice). Also, note the part where they say Heartland knew what they were claiming was false, too.
And false it was. As the Guardian article points out, China has been stepping forward about climate change, testing out political and engineering ideas to try to curb carbon emissions. China has also officially endorsed the International Panel on Climate Change’s statement that the world is warming and it’s due to human influence.
So, after this withering blast from CAS, what does Heartland do? Issue a notpology:
Some people interpreted our news release and a blog post describing this event as implying that the Chinese Academy of Sciences endorses the views contained in the original books. This is not the case, and we apologize to those who may have been confused by these news reports.
Seriously, Heartland? “Some people”? I think you misspelled “everybody,” including the very China Academy of Sciences you were touting, because that’s precisely what you were saying.
This kind of wishy-washy phrasing is nothing more than yet another attempt at distraction, as well as blame-shifting from their own huge and embarrassing error to “those who may have been confused.” Sorry Heartland, but your position is clear. You can’t even deny your own denial.
Groups such as the Heartland Institute and so many others are sowing confusion at a time when we need more clarity, not less. We need to make real steps toward curbing global warming, and as recent reports have shown, it’s already hard enough. President Obama is making a lot of promises toward that goal, but making actual movement is a different issue. This is why I continue to write about this issue; the more people who get the real facts, and see who is trying to obfuscate them, the better.
Posted Sunday, June 16, 2013, at 8:00 AM
A few years back, a pair of House Finches built a nest under the eave of our roof. After the chicks hatched and flew away (which we missed) a second pair (or maybe the original) nested there again—clever, saving them the need to rebuild from scratch.
Over the next two years the nest was abandoned, though, until last year when a robin took up residence. That proved unfruitful; a few days after I took the picture in that link I saw the broken egg shells on the ground. I never did find out what happened, but given nature, red in tooth and claw, I suspect another bird came along and ate the egg contents.
But never fret! This year, amazingly, a pair of handsome House Finches have once again taken up residence.
That’s the mama bird, who seconds later snuggled in (literally; her tail feathers waving back and forth primly as she hunkered down into the nest) for a nice brood. She wasn’t thrilled with my being less than ten meters away snapping pictures, but hey! It’s my house too.
Actually, she was in the nest when I first walked outside to take the picture, but flew off to a nearby tree when she saw me. Turns out her hubby was there too:
Adorable. And loud; they sing a lot. But it’s sweet sounding, and I like it.
What I don’t like, though is what I saw tucked into the eave under which I was standing:
I thought at first it was a Yellow Jacket, but given the shape of the nest I now suspect it’s a Polistes dominula, a European paper wasp, an invasive species in the United States. Either species is aggressive and mean, and they frankly terrify me. I got stung by one on the fingertip a few years ago—like the damn thing knew where the densest cluster of nerve endings are in the human body—and there are no words for the intensity of the pain I felt. I’m pretty sure for a moment I shifted into another dimension.
So these are not as welcome a visitor as the finches. The wasps come every year and nest under our eaves, and every year I have to clean them out. But in one sense I hate to do it; they are a marvel of evolutionary engineering, and their nests are a wonder.
But that stinger evolved too, and so it’s either us or them. I vote us.
In the meantime, I’ll keep my eye on the birdies. If the eggs hatch, I bet I’ll have some cute pictures soon. It’s happened before.
Posted Saturday, June 15, 2013, at 8:00 AM
It’s no surprise that funding cuts are hitting everyone in science. From research to outreach, there’s less money coming from the top down, and that means less science at all levels.
We need science. We need more research, more people involved, more interest generated, and more of the public knowing about it.
Cosmoquest is a group run by my friend Dr. Pamela Gay that gets the public involved with science (full disclosure: I am an advisor to CQ). They run hands-on demos, do interviews online, create and run citizen science projects, and generally just get out there and evangelize science.
Cosmoquest gets funding from several sources, but NASA grants are a big one, and those are being cut back severely. Faced with this sudden loss, Cosmoquest is holding a massive 32 hour live telethon on June 15 – 16 starting at 16:00 UTC (12:00 noon EDT) to help raise needed funds to keep the organization going. It will be held on Google+ in the form of a Hangout, a live video program, hosted by Pamela and Dr. Nicole Gugliucci (aka Noisy Astronomer) with lots of special guests.
Including me! I’ll be on at 22:15 UTC (6:15 p.m. EDT) Saturday, today, June 15, talking about all sorts of things, including my time working to create educational materials based on real NASA astronomical satellite data. Other guests include Surly Amy, Scott Sigler & A Kovacs, Dr. Seth Shostak, Dr. Kiki Sanford & Jennifer Ouellette, and many more.
Posted Friday, June 14, 2013, at 11:32 AM
Video screenshot courtesy of Mike Olbinski
Stop whatever you are doing, make this full screen, and prepare to be awed: This time-lapse video of a supercell storm cloud rotating over Texas is far and away the most amazing thing you’ll see today.
Yes, that’s real.
A supercell is a rotating thundercloud; the spinning vortex in the middle is called a mesocyclone. Conditions need to be just so to create one. First you need a wind shear, where wind blows faster in one spot than another, so a blanket of air is flowing over another one. This sets up a rolling vortex, a horizontally rotating mass of air like the way a wave breaks when it gets to a beach. An updraft then lifts that vortex, which then spins vertically.
The warmer air in the vortex rises; this is called convection. If there’s a boundary layer of air above it, called a capping layer, it acts like a lid, preventing the vortex air from rising. It builds up power and can suddenly and explosively grow to a huge size. Wikipedia has a good description and diagrams of how this works.
Supercells generally form where there’s a lot of flat land to get that good horizontal flow first. Texas has that in abundance, which is why photographer Mike Olbinski went there in hopes of getting footage like this. (Read his description of his adventure on the Vimeo page for the video; it’s quite good.) Texas, it so happens, is roomy, so it took him four years to be at the right spot at the right time—in this case, June 3. Persistence paid off for him, and because he shared this terrifying beauty, it paid off for all of us. Olbinski has several other incredible storm-chasing photos on his website.
I’m fascinated by weather phenomena, and supercells like this are something I’d love a chance to see from close by … but not too close by. They can create havoc locally, with torrential downpours (that look like alien spaceworms blasting the Earth), severe lightning, and tornadoes. Given that, maybe video like this is satisfying enough for now.
Tip o’ the tornado cellar door to BABloggee Jeremy Huggins.
Posted Friday, June 14, 2013, at 7:30 AM
Sometime in the early afternoon on Tuesday, a fire started northeast of Colorado Springs, Colo., in Black Forest. It grew rapidly, and as I write this, it has consumed well over 15,000 acres of forest—that’s more than 60 square kilometers or 20 square miles. Two people are confirmed dead, and the fire has destroyed 360 homes, making it the most destructive in Colorado history. (Last year’s devastating Waldo Canyon fire destroyed 347 homes.) About 38,000 people, an immense number, have been evacuated from 13,000 homes.
And the worst part is the phrase you never want to hear: There is 0 percent containment. The fire is raging out of control, with high temperatures, no rain, and strong winds expected for the next few days. Parts of Colorado Springs are under mandatory evacuation orders, and it’s not at all clear how big this fire will grow. Not far away, a second fire at Royal Gorge is burning as well. As I write this, it’s at about 4,000 acres burned.
The image above, taken by NASA’s Terra satellite, shows the gray smoke from Black Forest fire blowing east. The red outline shows actively burning areas as determined by a thermal infrared detector on Terra. This was taken on Wednesday, and the fire is much larger now.
Last summer, conditions in my home state of Colorado were awful: hot, dry, and windy, after a winter with very low amounts of snow. We got more snow earlier this spring but very little since, and we’ve already had record heat. Fires are inevitable under these conditions.
I can’t see this wildfire (or the other two currently burning in Colorado) from my home, but I remember well seeing the plume from the Boulder wildfire last year going over my house (and the terrifying smoke from a fire north of me as well). I wasn’t in any danger, but a lot of folks closer to town certainly were. It looks like we’re on this trajectory again.
You may guess what I’m thinking about this: global warming. These conditions are precisely what is expected from a warming planet; changing and more extreme weather patterns bringing droughts to some areas and torrential rain and flooding to others. Yes, even more snow in some places in the winter, because even though we’re warming up, the temperatures in winter still get below freezing, just not as much below freezing. That means more water in the air and more precipitation.
But not everywhere. In Colorado we’re very dry. Worse, I can look out my window and see smallish dark clouds blowing by. Those can commonly produce lightning without rain, so we get increased fire risk without the benefit of the rain. It’s a double whammy.
I don’t like this at all, but I fear very much this is the new normal. As temperatures creep up, we’ll see more fires in this country; a Department of Agriculture report estimates that they will double by 2050, approaching 20 million acres lost every year. That’s an area nearly 300 kilometers (180 miles) on a side. It’s incomprehensible.
But by then, perhaps, it will be all too obvious. That’s what “new normal” means. Not happier plants or easier ship passage through Arctic waters. Instead, get used to reports of more Arctic ice melting, more fires, more flooding, and just more plain old bad news.
If you want to keep up with the latest news on the fires, the Denver Post has a live blog covering it.
Posted Thursday, June 13, 2013, at 1:05 PM
Photo by s_bukley / Shutterstock.com
Last week, I wrote an article strongly condemning Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s stance on vaccines. In a nutshell, he believes in an elaborate and ridiculous conspiracy theory that scientists all over the world, but especially at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have been lying about the safety of vaccines. He claims that thimerosal, a preservative now used only in one specific kind of flu vaccine, is destroying the brains of our children.
He believes this despite a vast amount of evidence that he’s grossly wrong. Despite test after test, a link from thimerosal to autism has never been shown. But Kennedy chooses to ignore the huge number of researchers who say this and instead focuses on a cherry-picked few, including some with somewhat, ah, shaky credentials.
While I’ve written about Kennedy once or twice before, the fact that he was the keynote speaker at an anti-vaccination (and generally anti-science alternative medicine) convention was what prompted me to write what I did. That, plus my editor, Laura Helmuth, asked me to. She had seen Keith Kloor’s article about Kennedy over at Discover and knew this was up my alley. I thought it was a good idea, and there you go.
Not long after my post went up, the emails came in … from Kennedy’s office. They contacted Helmuth asking if I would speak with Kennedy to correct some errors in my post. Helmuth relayed the request to me. I laughed and told her no thanks; I’ve dealt with conspiracy theorists like him before and knew what a brain-melty experience that phone call would be (as, unfortunately, Kloor found out first-hand). Instead, I told her, have his office write down where they think I was wrong with corrections, and I’d look them over to issue corrections as needed. This is what I did in the case of an article dissecting the selling out of science by the Canadian government a few weeks ago. (As I expected, the Ministry of Science and Technology sent me nitpicks, with the substance of my claims left unchallenged.)
What happened next in this saga still has me chuckling wryly and shaking my head. Kennedy’s office declined to write and enumerate any of my supposed errors but wanted to call instead. Helmuth agreed to this and decided to take Kennedy’s call herself. What unfolded was eerily as I predicted. Kennedy ranted at her for the better part of an hour. At one point he claimed more than one scientist supports him. Interestingly, when Helmuth contacted one of these scientists, he said Kennedy “completely misrepresented” him. Another scientist she contacted said much the same thing.
Shocker. I knew that would be the case. Listening to Kennedy’s radio show and reading his articles leads to an all-too-clear conclusion: When it comes to vaccines, he has all the signs of a crackpot. He ignores (or dismisses) evidence that contradicts him, he clings to cherry-picked (or quote-mined) evidence and clearly wrong evidence that supports him, he imagines vast conspiracies, he says scientists at the CDC are criminals, ad nauseum. His history is full of him saying such things.
As Helmuth notes at the end of her article, Kennedy was only able to make one even marginally tenable claim about my article being wrong: He said he wasn’t anti-vax but acknowledged vaccines had saved millions of lives and was actually “pro-vaccine.” But I disagree. Saying in one breath that vaccines have done good but then in another attacking them and increasing fears of them based on nonsense puts him squarely in the anti-vax camp. It’s like saying that most UFO cases are just misidentified normal things, but the ones we haven’t identified are definitely alien spaceships that come here to stick probes in our various orifices. Acknowledging one aspect of reality and then claiming absurdities does not make you pro-science.
When it comes to medicine and health, this kind of thinking is dangerous. There’s a measles outbreak in Wales, and it’s been tied to baseless vaccine fears. In Auckland, New Zealand, a child nearly died from tetanus recently. His parents didn’t vaccinate him because they had read online that vaccines might cause autism. They’re horrified at their mistake and want to warn other parents: "There are a number of myths out there, and it's really easy to get sucked in.” In 2010 in California there was a terrible pertussis outbreak, and 10 infants died from it.*
People are getting sick, and some are dying due to preventable diseases. It’s awful, and the only way to stop it is to get the real information out to people and speak out against those who misinform them.
Correction, June 13, 2013 at 18:15 UTC: The California pertussis epidemic in 2010 was originally stated as occurring in 2013. My apologies for this oversight. A synopsis of the epidemic is available at the NCBI website, and pertussis is still a scourge around the world today.