Friday Free-for-All #78: Curse, bar, insect, correlation

Friday Free for All

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

How often do you curse?

All the fucking time.

What would your perfect bar look like?

It would be a little bit Magic Castle piano room, where Irma the ghost hangs out, and a bunch of connected theme rooms, probably representing different decades from the 1940s through now. The drinks here would be served for the mind via the visuals and atmosphere of the place.

The piano room might be the prologue to everything else, covering everything from the 1890s to the 1930s, and the layout would be somewhat of a labyrinth, creating a kind of internal pub crawl.

Oh… and there’d be no alcohol, but you could get any kind of smoothie, shake, juice, or other beverage you could think of — iced, frozen, warm, or hot.

Toss some celebrity comic impersonators in the appropriate decade rooms, or some acoustic tribute bands in others. and there would definitely be a rooftop patio with a 360 degree view of the city, and no loud music so that people could actually talk, although maybe there would be rooms with themed entertainment.

A lot of you are probably still boggling at the idea of a bar with no alcohol but it did say to describe my perfect bar, after all.

What animal or insect do you wish humans could eradicate?

Without question, the one that has killed the most humans: The mosquito. They carry a number of diseases, many of them fatal, they’re particularly hard to spot even as they’re biting you, and they like to go after certain people more than others in particular.

Note, though, that this doesn’t apply to all mosquitoes. Most of them leave humans alone. It’s just the females from 6% of species that drink our blood to nourish their eggs, and only half of those that carry the diseases that kill us.

The only purposes mosquitoes serve is as food for other animals, primarily fish, as well as pollinators, so we can’t get rid of all mosquitoes. But, as noted above, we don’t have to, and science has already figured out how to genetically modify one dangerous species, Aedes aegypti, so that female offspring do not survive to adulthood, so do not reproduce.

The altered genes in question are initially produced in laboratory-raised eggs, which are then released into the wild. After they hatch, the females die out, but the males go on to mate with available females, who bear female offspring with the self-limiting gene that also kills them before they can mature and reproduce.

It’s a brilliant strategy that does not kill off innocuous species, leaves plenty of fish-food and pollinators around, and cuts down on the ability of certain mosquitoes to infect and kill humans. Win-win.

What’s your best example of correlation not equaling causation?

This one is a no-brainer: All of the “vaccines cause autism” nonsense. The idea was created, pure and simple, by the now proven to be fraudulent “findings” of Andrew Wakefield, who faked his data, lied to people, and created a generation of scientifically illiterate parents who fell for exactly the fallacy mentioned above.

The “correlation equals causation” fallacy boils down to this. A person did Thing A. Not long after, Thing B happened. Therefore, Thing A caused Thing B.

It can be really tempting to think things like, “My daughter got her MMR vaccinations on Tuesday, and a week later, her doctor said she was on the spectrum,” or “They gave my grandmother a flu shot, and two days later she had a stroke and died.”

The problem here is that, to the uninformed, it can absolutely look like the former caused the latter. But let’s look at a couple more examples.

“Tuesday night, my husband forgot to take out the trash. On his way home from work on Thursday, a garbage truck hit his car, killing him.”

“My father decided that the fire insurance rider on his homeowner’s policy wasn’t worth it for the extra cost versus benefits, so he cancelled on Monday. The house burned down on Thursday.”

While there are plausible connections between the events in all cases — medical procedure, then medical problem; garbage fail, garbage truck; fire insurance, housefire — it should be obvious from the last two that what’s really at work here is coincidence and selective attention.

In the case of “vaccines cause autism,” though, there’s a lot more going on, and a big part of it is due to how we have changed the concept and diagnosis of autism and being on the spectrum over the years.

Statistics weren’t even tracked until 2000, and the definitions of autism have also changed since that time. Prior to the 21st century, only children at the most severe end of the spectrum were classified as autistic, although kids were getting vaccinated just as much, especially from the 1960s onward.

So what changed? Nothing about the vaccinations, really. It was everything about how autistic children were classified and, indeed, the creation of the idea of “on the spectrum,” which greatly expanded the number of kids who could be considered to fall into the criteria.

But, all of a sudden, it looked like every other kid was being diagnosed, and the diagnoses always happened right after the time they finished their first round of childhood vaccines. But the former was simply an artifact of statistical processes.

If you don’t diagnose condition A until after Thing B has happened, then it’s very easy to create this fake correlation equals causation idea in people’s minds, and that’s exactly what happened here.

“My kid just had their last round of vaccines, and now they tell me she’s on the spectrum. Of course they’re connected!”

Or not.

But this kind of scientific ignorance and total stupidity has led the dangerous anti-vax mindset we have now, and it’s going to do way more harm than good.

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