Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Jill Stanek disproves her own argument

Jill Stanek is the conservative columnist that has been arguing against the HPV vaccine because it will encourage promiscuity in young women. Debbie Halvorson, the Majority Leader in the Illinois State Senate, recently spoke out about her own HPV infection, precancerous cells, and hysterectomy and is speaking out in support of the HPV vaccine. Jill Stanek then likened her to a porn star in a column.

In a recent post on her website, Stanek now is proposing that male circumcision be mandated for boys if the HPV vaccine becomes mandated for girls. Her justification is a recent Lancet study in Africa that shows a significant reduction in HIV infection rates in men due to circumcision. The reduction was so significant that the study had to be terminated prematurely because to continue with it would have been unethical.

I'm not writing this because I want to discuss circumcision and HIV prevention. (Though the fact that a simple procedure could save many lives is nothing but good news.) I want to point out the fact that Stanek has now disproved her own argument.

The whole premise that girls will become promiscuous if the get the HPV vaccine is fairly ludicrous on its face, but it's the standard argument conservatives put forward for anything that helps prevent STD infection (other than celibacy). Now that we have determined that circumcision protects against HIV infection, will we see an explosion in promiscuity in circumcised men? Of course not. Looking at the same Lancet study, the rate at which the men had sex was basically the same for the circumcised and uncircumcised men.

So, what I don't get is, if giving girls a vaccine to protect them against HPV makes girls slutty, why is Stanek calling for the circumcision of boys to protect them from HIV?

UPDATE: Stanek appears in the comments and writes:

You clearly don't understand sarcasm.

Oh, don't be silly. Of course I understand sarcasm. I was trying to point out in this post that if circumcision protects against HIV, then -- by Stanek's very own argument -- circumcised men and boys should be more promiscuous the uncircumcised men and boys. As such, Stanek should be arguing against the circumcision of young boys. After all, if a girl views getting the HPV vaccine as license to have sex, then it is reasonable to conclude that a boy protected against HIV will do the same. Yet there is no anti-circumcision campaign among conservatives.

The conservative argument against the vaccine says the girls who have been vaccinated will be more likely to be promiscuous. One could also make an argument that girls who have had the HPV vaccine are more likely to be aware of the dangers, prevalence, and infectiousness of HPV, and may actually avoid sexual contact. Conservatives have produce no actual evidence that their argument is correct. As far as I know, they haven't even attempted any studies. Data collected by rhetorical argument is not valid data.

For the record, I'm very much pro-vaccine. I think its existence is a great thing and I hope it saves many lives. I'm also mildly anti-mandate.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Forget the Chief and hit the books

After the Daily Illini's recent redesign, readers can now post comments on articles and editorials. Basically, they've enabled blog comments in the online version of the newspaper. This isn't exclusive to the DI; Salon has done the same thing. Frankly, I don't think it's a good idea, for reasons I'm not going to go into here.

Today, the DI had an editorial about the board's decision to get rid of Chief Illiniwek. There were a handful of comments. A commenter named "lyn" left this:

how about we do that and then we do something more than just symbolic. Why not a lasuit agaisnt the NCAA funded by the money from fans, alumsm students and faculty who intend to withhold said money from the U in protest of the CHief decision. There are to start with 12,400 signaturs on the web petition pledging to so scuh.

We can go afterafter the NCAA for capricious implementation of subjective policy that exceeded their (Ncaa"s) authority and resulted in the violation of first amendment rights. The damages to the reputation and image of the UICU as well depriving 10s of thousands of a meaningful tradition could be a beginning. Dan Maloney was deprived of his 1st amendment rights also...

It goes on. She posts two more times. The third time was in ALL CAPS BECAUSE SHE HAS SOMETHING IMPORTANT TO SAY.

Seriously, this is just embarrassing. I hope to God that lyn is not a UIUC student. In the above quote, I was going to point out each misspelling, grammatical mistake, and other error that a moment's proofreading would have caught, but realized that would be every single word. Parts of it are so incoherent I actually can't figure out what she's trying to say.

The ineptness of the writing aside, she seems to be claiming that there's some First Amendment issue with the Chief. I'm sorry, but that's just bunk. The NCAA is a private organization. UIUC was welcome to keep the Chief, but the NCAA didn't want to associate with us if it did. End of story. They were well within their rights to do so.

Getting back to lyn's comments, if this is the quality of writing our undergraduates display, we need to attract a better caliber of student. I don't care if you're studying nuclear physics, political science, or freaking physical education, decent communication skills are imperative. UIUC is ranked as the 25th best university in the world, for crying out loud. Our students should be able to throw together half a dozen coherent sentences, even on the spur of the moment.

Then again, I should probably just look on the bright side. Maybe she was just drunk.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Now death is the only certain thing

I have a feeling most people don't know about this, so I thought I'd bring it up. As of mid-2006, after a series of losses in federal court, the Treasury Department decided to stop collecting a federal excise tax on long distance telephone calls. A tax that was instituted in 1898. To pay for the Spanish-American War. Seriously.

The good news is that all the taxes collected to pay for the Spanish-American War since 2003 will be refunded to you this year. Basically, if you had a long-distance carrier since then, there will be a line on your tax return giving you back $30 (for single people, more for people with more exemptions). The IRS has more information.

I'd just like to point out that this isn't a new deduction or even a credit. This is a refund of tax you have already paid. It sounds like anyone with a long distance phone bill is eligible.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Handing sandwiches to drunks

Fig has put up a post about a day in her life as an ER doctor. Go read Pictures, pinesol, pregnancy, progeny - a night in the ED. It's fascinating. One thing that struck me today is just how much of what goes on isn't just medical but human. The bit about the mother that was antsy until she was made to feel "part of the process," especially.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Other days, I'm ashamed to be a Texan

A couple of weeks ago, I saw this Houston Chronicle article about the state of education in Texas. (The article is in their archives by now; you'll have to register.) It's rather frightening:

...between one-fourth and one-third of Texas students leave school before graduating. Texans must be grateful the rate is not higher.

In urban areas such as Houston, the dropout rate climbs to 50 percent. For black, Hispanic and low-income students of any race or ethnicity, according to Eileen Coppola, a researcher with Rice University's Center for Education, the rate climbs to 60 percent.

I had no idea the problem was that bad. That means that a majority of the poor don't even get a high-school education. It's hard enough getting by with just a HS degree, and these kids won't even have that.

Now, I don't actually know this for a fact, but it wouldn't surprise me one bit that a big factor of whether a kid finishes his education is whether his parents did. That means that this low dropout rate will echo into future generations, possibly creating a semi-permanent underclass.

One of the big things that President Bush did while in office is get the No Child Left Behind Act passed. I believe that is at least partly based on the changes he made in the Texas educational system while he was governor. Just something to think about.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Some days I'm proud to be a Texan

Every year, Texas Monthly publishes their Bum Steer Awards, where they point out all the stupid things politicians, celebrities, and random other people have done. This year was no exception. I think this is my favorite magazine cover ever:

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A cute overload

It's Sunday. I don't feel like being particularly insightful.

I'm a sucker for pictures of cute animals doing cute things. I Can Has Cheeseburger? takes it to an almost dangerous level of cute.

This geeky picture is my favorite. Honorable mentions go to this one, this one, this one, and this one.

(Via the Detonating Armadillo. Or something.)

Friday, February 09, 2007

Is it just because she had really big tits?

Anna Nicole Smith died yesterday. I can't say much for the other networks, but this has basically been running on CNN constantly for two days now. It's overshadowed every other piece of news. It's sad, of course, but why does anyone care? She was a two-bit celebrity that really never did anything of substance.

I'm so glad the press is covering this story non-stop rather than bothering with boring stuff like the fact that the Pentagon distorted pre-war intelligence to make the case to go to war in Iraq.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Abstinence education is unsafe

A good engineering design is fault tolerant. A designer must realize that components are not always reliable and design accordingly. A suspension bridge shouldn't fail because a single cable breaks.

A good software design fails gracefully. In other words, when faced with unexpected or intelligible input, the program reacts in a predictable manner. The case of the USS Yorktown going dead in the water when a sailor left an unexpected zero in a database field is a great example of software that was not well-designed.

When it might be possible for a piece of equipment to be put in a state where injury or death could occur to the user, an engineer must take this into account. As a simple example, my coffee grinder can't be run with the lid off. There's an interlock that prevents it from turning on when it is possible for my hands to be near the blades.

Lastly, a good designer must take into the possibility of human error. Any potentially lethal piece of equipment, even any policy which could lead to damaging consequences, that does not take this into account is a poor one. This is why we mandate that truck drivers work at most eight hour shifts -- we acknowledge that a tired human being at the wheel is unreliable.

I guess this is why abstinence-only sex education pisses me off: it fails all these criteria. It is not fault tolerant, nor does it fail gracefully. If a kid screws up and has sex before being really ready for it, then it's more likely that he or she will wind up with an STD or a bun in the oven while still in high school (or earlier).

Abstinence education also doesn't acknowledge the possibility of human error. In my last blog post, I quoted the rather repugnant Jill Stanek where she said in a recent column decrying the HPV vaccine that she can't understand why a "virtuous young woman" would want to marry a man who wasn't a virgin. Really? She honestly can't fathom why? One can't help but wonder what Stanek's reasons for getting married actually are.

Abstinence educators are always quick to quote condom failure rates (they almost always use misleading and inaccurate information, when it's not outright falsehoods, but that's a blog post for a different day). What you never hear them cite is the failure rate for a vow of celibacy. Abstinence-only programs do not protect kids from STDs.

Not only do the religious conservatives that push abstinence-only education completely ignore the existence of gay kids, but they're pushing an unsafe agenda. There is no other activity in our society where we consider deliberate ignorance a safety strategy.

All of this is because these religiously-based programs aren't intended to stop STDs and unwanted pregnancy. They're intended to prevent sex. They're intended to prevent sin.

I her book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, Michelle Goldberg tells of a speech given by celibacy advocate Pam Stenzel. Stenzel was appointed by President Bush to an abstinence task force at the Department of Health and Human Services. This is how Goldberg describes Stenzel's speech at the 2003 Reclaiming America for Christ conference:

Stenzel told her audience about a conversation she’d had with a skeptical businessman on an airplane. The man had asked about abstinence education’s success rate—a question she regarded as risible. "What he’s asking," she said, "is does it work. You know what? Doesn’t matter. Cause guess what. My job is not to keep teenagers from having sex. The public schools’ job should not be to keep teens from having sex." Then her voice rose and turned angry as she shouted, "Our job should be to tell kids the truth!"

"People of God," she cried, "can I beg you, to commit yourself to truth, not what works! To truth! I don’t care if it works, because at the end of the day I’m not answering to you, I'm answering to God!"

Later in the same talk, she explained further why what "works" isn’t what’s important—and gave some insight into what she means by "truth." "Let me tell you something, people of God, that is radical, and I can only say it here," she said. "AIDS is not the enemy. HPV and a hysterectomy at twenty is not the enemy. An unplanned pregnancy is not the enemy. My child believing that they can shake their fist in the face of a holy God and sin without consequence, and my child spending eternity separated from God, is the enemy. I will not teach my child that they can sin safely."

These are the sorts of people Republicans want to turn our country over to. People who aren't interested in the actual effects of their policies, so long as they are consistent with their supernatural beliefs.