Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Brian Hooker's Hooked Hoax: Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) Vaccination and Autism Spectrum Disorder

I always get the best stuff from Google+ to look at, don't I? This post is stemming from my last post on autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which was a response to a prompt by C0nc0rdance on YouTube. If you're interested in this topic, I would recommend reading it just to be familiarized with some of the literature, and then read the post-publish discussion in the comments section and on Google+. It's not necessary for this post, however.

In February of 2004, DeStefano et al. published a study entitled Age at first measles-mumps-rubella vaccination in children with autism and school-matched control subjects: a population-based study in metropolitan atlanta. This was a case-control study collected in Atlanta, comparing age of first MMR vaccination between children with autism (N=624) and the control children (N=1824), collecting data on maternal and birth factors from immunization forms and birth certificates, in order to determine risk of ASD at different age cutoffs of MMR immunization. The findings were that with the exception of vaccination before 36 months being more common in case children than control children (which was attributed to immunization requirements in early intervention programs, and was a modest 2.8% difference), there was no significant association between the age cutoffs and the risk of autism. This is one of many pieces of evidence which show that the MMR vaccine does not confer an increased risk in ASD.

However, 10 years after the initial study was conducted, famous anti-vaccine alarmist Brian Hooker, along with Andrew Wakefield, are talking about a "whistleblower" in the CDC claiming that the original data was fraudulent, and was masking a 336% increased risk in ASD in African American boys receiving the MMR vaccine "on time." Hooker published his own findings in the Journal of Translational Neurodegeneration, titling it Measles-mumps-rubella vaccination timing and autism among young african american boys: a reanalysis of CDC data. He claims that according to the "whistleblower," Dr. William Thompson, the CDC intentionally manipulated the data to bury this increased risk.

Here we go again.
To people who are familiar with the anti-vaccine movement, Hooker and Wakefield are household names. Wakefield has become famous for his scientific fraudulence, and Hooker has recently become the new big name, most likely taking pointers from Wakefield himself; thus making Dr. Hooker's name very apt.

But what exactly is going on here? Was the CDC fraudulent? Did they intentionally manipulate the data to hide this increased risk? Before we get to that, there are a few things we need to make note of.

It's always good to remain skeptical when someone proposes that they have reanalyzed already published data. In my experiences, although limited, this never amounts to anything good, and the arguments are usually pretty weak. On that same note, when someone reanalyzes data, they most likely have a chip on their shoulder. Keep in mind this isn't true for all reanalyses -- in fact, such reanalysis is what called Wakefield out for his fraudulence in the first place -- but I'm speaking from personal experience.

These a priori contentions not withstanding, Hooker's reanalysis just didn't seem right at all when I first looked at it. Let's just quote the conclusions from the abstract for a moment:
"The present study provides new epidemiologic evidence showing that African American males receiving the MMR vaccine prior to 24 months of age or 36 months of age are more likely to receive an autism diagnosis."
And from the results:
"Relative risks for males in general and African American males were 1.69 (p=0.0138) and 3.36 (p=0.0019), respectively."
Hooker went through all this trouble just to show that only African American males are at a higher risk for ASD from the MMR jab? That's certainly not going to do anything for Jenny McCarthy. Color me unimpressed by the so called coverup by the CDC, because it leaves the overwhelming majority of evidence that shows there is no link between the MMR vaccine and ASD untouched. In fact, even if he'd shown the whole study was fraudulent from its conception, he still would've left the overwhelming majority of research to the contrary untouched. Even better, a 3.36 increase in ASD isn't 336%. It's 236%.

Booker accuses DeStefano et al. (2004) of intentionally leaving out African American males in their sample in order to manipulate the results, but that's just not what happened. Subjects that were inappropriate, given age requirements and necessity of medical information, were excluded from the study because they wouldn't be able to control for the important things mentioned earlier: maternal and birth factors, as well as actually comparing something useful in this particular study. DeStefano et al. weren't manipulating the data, they were legitimizing it.

But the burning question here is: did Hooker even manage to show what he claimed he did? Are African American males at a higher risk for ASD from the MMR jab at ages younger than 24 or 36 months? Let's take a look inside the paper to find out.
"The relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism was first hypothesized by Wakefield et al. [7] in 1999 after the observation of a regressive phenotype of autism that appeared in general after the administration of the first MMR vaccine. Although several studies have affirmed such a relationship between the MMR vaccine and neurodevelopmental disorders including autism [8,9], many other studies purport no statistical relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism incidence."
This is only the third paragraph in, mind you, and Hooker cites Wakefield, and then two studies by the Geier duo. Don't make me laugh. Hooker is partaking in a classic "teach the controversy" grasp at straws to make it seem like there's even some doubt that the MMR vaccine isn't linked to ASD. No matter. Let's just skip to the methodology:
"Cohort data were obtained directly as a “restricted access data set” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) via a Data Use Agreement. Data were deidentified by the CDC in accordance with Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prior to receipt by the study authors."
Wait what? Cohort data? But the original study by DeStefano et al. was case-control. Oh, there we see it.

I know I have some readers who aren't too fond of statistical babble, so I'll sum up what the issue is here. The original study by DeStefano et al. used something called a case-control model. In a case-control model, you compare a group of case subjects (subjects with the disease) and control subjects (without the disease) and determine how frequently another variable occurs for either group of subjects while controlling for confounders and effect modifiers. Hooker, on the other hand, used a cohort model, which doesn't quite do the same thing. Regardless, using data that was arranged to be analyzed in a case-control model and then analyzing it in a cohort model is just screaming problems; especially when you chop up the data into multiple subcohorts so that any small effect will be magnified.

The funny thing is, even with the skewed methodology, the results aren't even impressive. Table 2 below from Hooker's paper shows the age group cutoffs and their risk for ASD:

So what's wrong here? Not much, except for the fact that the relative risk only sees a modest increase at the 24 month cutoff. The true increase is seen at 36 months. So why is this important? Because symptoms of autism are most noticeable starting at age 3. This isn't anything new Hooker. That's why DeStefano et al. controlled for age in their original study. Because they're not stupid.

But why was there an increase in exclusively African American male children? The answer is simple again. Table 4 from the study shows us this:

Hooker reveals that he had to use a 31 month cutoff because he was limited in terms of sample size. This, also, isn't anything new in the realm of statistics, Hooker. Smaller sample sizes are going to potentially yield misleading results because the smaller the sample, the greater its susceptibility to statistical noise. Funny enough, Hooker didn't even provide his sample size. The very lack of transparency in Hooker's paper, after being prompted by accusations of a lack of transparency in the CDC, is absolutely egregious.

This didn't take very long to research and debunk; in fact, I was surprised at how little exposure this study got. Perhaps we're all learning something from these types of studies: they provide nothing informative, and are only reflections of someone's ideologically grinding teeth and hand waving. In doing so, Hooker hooked a hoax: his own.

Thank you all very much for reading.

UPDATE: Translational Neurodegeneration has taken Hooker's article off public domain for concerns about the validity of its findings. You can find it in full here.

(8/28/2014) Yesterday, Dr. Thompson released a statement via his lawyers clearing the air of any doubts: Wakefield is just as disingenuous and manipulative as he's always been.

(10/3/2014) Brian Hooker's paper was retracted from the journal of Translational Neurodegeneration after concerns were expressed of its validity. The PubMed link still works.

*I would also highly recommend looking at this infographic from Healthcare Management Degree.
Sources are at the bottom of the page.*

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DeStefano, F., Bhasin, T., Thompson, W., Yeargin-Allsopp, M., & Boyle, C. (2004). Age at First Measles-Mumps-Rubella Vaccination in Children With Autism and School-Matched Control Subjects: A Population-Based Study in Metropolitan Atlanta. PEDIATRICS, 113 (2), 259-266 DOI: 10.1542/peds.113.2.259

Hooker, B. (2014). Measles-mumps-rubella vaccination timing and autism among young african american boys: a reanalysis of CDC data. Translational Neurodegeneration, 3 (1) DOI: 10.1186/2047-9158-3-16

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Pseudoscience And Ad Hominems: Is Religion a Mental Illness?

Could something so normative be a mental disorder?
I had a polite exchange on Google+ for once, but it quickly turned into something appalling for me, personally. The person who made the comment I was disgusted by has not replied to my rebuttal yet, thus I won't directly link to the thread; however, I can copy/paste their comment here for context:
"Religion is a mental illness (only differences between believers, are the stage on which this mental illness manifests).+(Anon) you should seek professional help, for believing in a non-existent zombie that there is absolutely no proof of it's existence, ever."
I've heard people claim that religion is a mental illness before. I still hate hearing it each time, because it's just ridiculous and unproductive. At the same time, I've never heard any rationale for this belief either, and thus I was just led to believe that it's nothing more than an insult. Apparently though, there are some people who truly believe they have evidence for religion being a mental disorder. Specifically, it seems that the link is between religion and schizophrenia, or is simply consisting of attributing several different symptoms to religious belief and claiming that that qualifies it as a mental disorder. The latter is a grotesque simplification of what diagnosing a mental disorder actually involves, but we'll get to that later. For now, let's address the link between religion and schizophrenia. Just to quantify some claims, let's refer to the Wikipedia page on religion and schizophrenia:
"The relationship between religion and schizophrenia is of particular interest to psychologists because of the similarities between religious experiences and psychotic episodes; religious experiences often involve auditory and/or visual hallucinations, and those with schizophrenia commonly report similar hallucinations, along with a variety of delusions and faulty beliefs. A common report from those with schizophrenia is some type of a religious delusion - that is, they believe they are divine beings, God is talking to them, they are possessed by demons, etc. In a study of patients with schizophrenia that had been previously admitted to a hospital, 24% had religious delusions. This has led some researchers to question whether schizophrenia leads an individual to become more religious, or if intense religiosity leads to schizophrenia."
The prevalence of religious delusions and hallucinations among patients diagnosed with schizophrenia is unequivocal, clearly, but why does this necessitate that religion may be linked causally to schizophrenia, or vice versa? One should expect that in a society where religion has a heavy influence, that hallucinations should involve religion at least some of the time. This doesn't mean that religion is a mental illness; instead, it just means that religion is a common outlet for delusional thoughts and behaviours. The source cited for the 24% figure, Religious delusions in patients admitted to hospital with schizophrenia by Siddle et al. (2002) also states this to be the case, emphasis my own:
"Having a religious belief or having religious delusional belief provides a framework by which people can make sense of negative life experiences. This is said to be helpful to people as it allows them something of a buffer against the depressing effects of uncontrollable life stresses (Park et al. 1990). To summarise, religious beliefs are fairly common and are not pathological. Religious people demonstrate an external attributional bias. A proportion of people will experience psychotic experiences, some of which will involve auditory hallucinations. [...] These religious experiences and delusions may help the person to deal with the negative life events they are faced with."
While Siddle et al. maintains that religious beliefs are not pathological (i.e. not being a result of mental illness or disorder), it's hard to interpret the results of studies suggesting the link between schizophrenia and religious belief because it begs the question: what exactly is a religious delusion? This is a problem because, even as the authors point out, in most studies, the definition of a "religious delusion" is not actually outlined or defined. They do offer an outline of their own, as produced by Sims (1995), which identifies a religious delusion as meeting the following characteristics:

1: Both the observed behaviour and the subjective experience conformed with psychiatric symptoms in that the patient's self-description of the experience was recognisable as having the form of a delusion;

2: There were other recognisable symptoms of mental illness in other areas of the individual's life; other delusions, hallucinations, mood or thought disorder and so on;

3: The lifestyle, behaviour and direction of the personal goals of the individual after the event or after the religious experience were consistent with the natural history of mental disorder rather than with a personally enriching life experience.

Charitably, a religious experience, don't you agree?
This seems to make sense, and I'll refer to it later, but again it begs the question: what is a religious
experience? We could charitably assume that a religious experience is defined as having any reference to God or religious symbolism, but it would only help to suppose what was suggested earlier -- that religious experiences can be said to be a product of one's culture or society, where religion is prevalent. To avoid such a dead end and unconvincing argument, we'll approach the arguments made by the third link I provided at the beginning of this post.

Before we even examine such claims, we have to ask ourselves "what is a mental illness?" Generally, the clinically appropriate term is a "disorder," but illness is still sometimes used. In a broad sense, a mental disorder can be defined as "a mental or behavioral pattern or anomaly that causes either suffering or an impaired ability to function in ordinary life (disability), and which is not developmentally or socially normative." This is according to Wikipedia; however, the DSM-V gives us a different definition of a mental disorder:
"A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual's cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress in social, occupational, or other important activities. An expectable or culturally approved response to a common stressor or loss, such as the death of a loved one, is not a mental disorder. Socially deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) and conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are not mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict results from a dysfunction in the individual, as described above."
It's very clear that by the first definition, religion does not qualify as a mental disorder, as it is a subscription of social norms; however, does religion fit under the DSM-V definition? Let's examine the seven reasons given for why religion is a mental disorder by that group linked to earlier:

1: Hallucinations - the person has invisible friends who (s)he insists are real, and to whom (s)he speaks daily, even though nobody can actually see or hear these friends.

2: Delusions - the patient believes that the invisible friends have magical powers to make them rich, cure cancer, bring about world peace, and will do so eventually if asked.

3: Denial/Inability to learn - though the requests for world peace remain unanswered, even after hundreds of years, the patients persist with the praying behaviour, each time expecting different results.

4: Inability to distinguish fantasy from reality - the beliefs are contingent upon ancient mythology being accepted as historical fact.

5: Paranoia - the belief that anyone who does not share their supernatural concept of reality is "evil," "the devil," "an agent of Satan".

6: Emotional abuse - ­ religious concepts such as sin, hell, cause feelings of guilt, shame, fear, and other types of emotional "baggage" which can scar the psyche for life.

7: Violence - many patients insist that others should share in their delusions, even to the extent of using violence.

As much as I hate him, he's not (very) dysfunctional
It cannot be argued that some, if not all of these symptoms (although crudely characterized) cannot be applied to certain people, both religious and nonreligious; however, the diagnosis of a mental disorder is often reliant on symptomatic clusters. That is, symptoms are grouped together, and the mental disorder is diagnosed if the patient exhibits several or all of the symptoms in the cluster. That being said, it can hardly be suggested that all, or even most religious people experience all or most of the above symptoms. What of the ones that do, however? If someone were just devoutly religious and experienced all or most of the above symptoms, could we classify them as having a mental disorder? Well, it depends on what we're looking at. Let's take the example of "delusions" -- could we take a person's religious delusions and use them as evidence that they show symptoms of a mental disorder? It's informative, now, to look at the previous characteristics of a religious delusion, specifically the last one:

3: The lifestyle, behaviour and direction of the personal goals of the individual after the event or after the religious experience were consistent with the natural history of mental disorder rather than with a personally enriching life experience.

This is consistent with the segment of the DSM-V definition of a mental disorder:

"A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual's cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning."

Just because someone exhibits certain symptoms does not warrant their condition being labelled as a mental disorder; it is only warranted if their symptoms cause disturbance in their lives and prevents them from being autonomously functioning members of society. It cannot be said that the majority, or even a substantial portion of religious people are incapable of functioning in society. If this were the case, we would not have a society to live in; because it is reasonable that if one cannot function in society, they cannot also create a functioning society. Whether we admit to it or not, many cultures and civilizations around the world were created by people who had strong religious convictions. The vast majority of the world is made up of people with religious beliefs. If they were all suffering from a mental disorder, what functionality would the world hold? The answer would be virtually none.

A mental disorder is defined and classified based on whether or not it prevents a person from functioning properly in society, and their behaviour does not exhibit something typical of the society's norms. We cannot work backwards and say that religion is a mental disorder simply for the symptoms that some of its members hold. First, there has to be an overwhelming majority of them that exhibit these symptoms. Then, we have to show that these people cannot function properly in society, or are damaging to themselves and others. Then, we have to show that this lack of functionality is a result of psychological, biological, or developmental dysfunction.

None of the above has been shown for people of religious conviction; therefore, it is simply unfounded to assert that religious people have a mental disorder.

It's important to keep this in mind as we progress towards the future. Surely, some people don't honestly believe that religion can be clinically diagnosable as a mental disorder; some people just use it as an insult. That being said, having a mental disorder is not grounds as an insult. That's just not how it works. At the same time, skeptics, rationalists and atheists need to understand that ad hominem attacks like this are absolutely toxic and detrimental to legitimate discussion over theology and philosophy -- they only obfuscate the issue, and have no productive value. What reason do we have to be so hostile or adamant about something like this? Not only is the claim insulting to people who have mental disorders, but also to professionals who are familiar with how to diagnose such disorders, and last but not least, insulting to the people you're blatantly insulting (obviously).

To people who use this argument from a "clinical" perspective: you're subscribing to pseudoscience, which is much, much worse than simply having religious views, because your views are actually detrimental to honest discourse, and to knowledge.

To people who use this argument from a casual perspective: it's a baseless ad hominem attack and does nothing for anybody.

To both, just stop. It's disgusting.

And to everyone else, thank you very much for reading.

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Siddle, R., Haddock, G., Tarrier, N., & Faragher, E. (2014). Religious delusions in patients admitted to hospital with schizophrenia. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 37 (3), 130-138 DOI: 10.1007/s001270200005

Sims ACP (1995). Symptoms in the mind: an introduction to descriptive psychopathology (3rd ed.). W.B. Saunders, London

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Global Warming Denial: Common Arguments and Misconceptions

A while back, I had a very long discussion with several people over anthropogenic climate change. It took place on a video of Marc Morano and Bill Nye debating over the topic, thus I was bound to encounter quite a few people who are simply ill informed on the subject. Fate took hold and the bastions of idiocy and pseudoscience were brought before me, and I was placed in a position where I felt it was my obligation to clear the air of misconceptions and bad arguments that were being made by the global warming denialists. There was a lot of information passed around, so I wanted to take the time to place some of the arguments here and address them. Many of you will encounter these arguments at some point, so I want to be sure that my readers are well equipped with the knowledge to counter the folly.

If you want to read the full discussion, the thread can be found here. Quick note: denialist questions will be in bold, while my responses will not be. Beyond that, let's get started.

There is no consensus on global warming.

Of course, I've already addressed this before. Feel free to read into that as well as this post. I've heard some people counter by claiming that appealing to a scientific consensus is an appeal to popularity. Fortunately, no it isn't. Appeal to popularity refers to an uninformed public, or "just because a lot of people agree means that it's true." Appeal to scientific consensus is where we appeal to qualified experts in the relevant fields of research and ask for their views. If the overwhelming majority decide that global warming is real, and it's caused by humans, then it's our responsibility as laypeople to take their decision as fact. We have scientists for a reason, and that is so that the uninformed public has a panel or community of experts to go to on issues that they are unqualified in. If we start ignoring that community, we abandon rationality.

Temperatures during the Medieval Warm Period were hotter than today.

Locally, temperatures in some regions of Europe were hotter than they are today; however, this is not representative of the entire population. In Global Signatures and Dynamical Origins of the Little Ice Age and Medieval Climate Anomaly by Mann et al. (2009), researchers used a global climate proxy network of more than 1,000 tree ring, ice core, coral, sediment and other assorted proxy records spanning both hemispheres over the past 1500 years. They concluded that while in some regions, temperatures matched today's temperatures or may have been hotter, they do not meet global averages today. The trend is clear: global average temperatures have been rising at intimidating levels, and are hotter than ever before. For this point, the NOAA and the IPCC are great resources as well.

Global temperatures haven't risen in 16 years and counting.

This is just a fabrication. IPCC data clearly displays that global mean temperatures have been rising all the way up to the point of 2006. The year 1998 only ranks as the third hottest year on record, being bested by 2005 and then 2010. Even if it weren't a fabrication, it doesn't matter. We can take any period of time and say "there was no global warming from here to here" and pretend it disproves the overall trend; however, it just doesn't.

Weather reports are unreliable, so how do you expect to predict global climates?

I don't think I really need to hammer in the difference between climate and weather, but that's what it comes down to. Regardless of what variance there is in a particular region from day to day, we can still calculate global means based on the data available to us. If these averages show us that temperatures are rising at extraordinary rates, then we have reason to be cautious.

Aside from that, for what they're worth, weather reports aren't even that unreliable. They're just a lot more sporadic than climate models.

Global CO2 levels are not increasing.

Global CO2 levels are increasing. Some global warming denialists don't actually argue this point, but instead argue that rising CO2 levels don't matter. I'll look at a few of those arguments now.

CO2 is basically plant food.

I hear this one a lot, and it's not so much an issue of data as it is an issue of misconceptions. CO2 can be plant food, but not always. It depends on the plant, first of all, and even at that it only confidently works in a controlled environment (which, just for the record, the earth's atmosphere is not). Still, even if CO2 were basically plant food, that isn't a good thing. Growing plants means growing consumption of water and nutrients as well. Such a rise in consumption would result in the expansion of deserts, causing eco-zones to move towards the poles in search of a more suitable environment, and would eventually lead to the decline of those eco-zones. Ever hear of the phrase, "too much of a good thing is a bad thing?"

Global temperatures have only increased by one degree.

Yes, and one degree of global temperature changes can have a massive impact on ice sheets, sea levels, and many other things. All it took in the past to plunge us into the Little Ice Age was a 1-2 degree drop in temperature. People who use this argument are evidently superficial and unfamiliar with the scientific data.

And that's all she wrote.

I'd highly encourage global warming denialists to come here and make their arguments so that I can either expand the list or just refute the claims in the comment section. Come on, don't be shy!

And of course, thank you all very much for reading.

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Mann, M., Zhang, Z., Rutherford, S., Bradley, R., Hughes, M., Shindell, D., Ammann, C., Faluvegi, G., & Ni, F. (2009). Global Signatures and Dynamical Origins of the Little Ice Age and Medieval Climate Anomaly. Science, 326 (5957), 1256-1260 DOI: 10.1126/science.1177303

Monday, August 11, 2014

How to Remove a Hornets' Nest: The Tale of a Patriot

On August 7th, 2014, something happened that would change the lives of every citizen in my neighborhood forever.


Alright so a few days ago, I wake up and I go outside to get in my car because I was hungry and I like chicken. As I'm getting in my car, I hear an irritable buzzing above my head, so I instinctively duck out of the way and dive over the roof of my car, taking cover behind it. This isn't unusual: I'm parked within a 2 foot vicinity of a tree that my neighbor's planted back when the house next door was still occupied. It grows a lot of flowers and berries, so it's commonplace for bees to hover around the tree to harvest. This time was different, though. I peered over the hood of my car like a neurotic prairie dog, and I get a glimpse of this mother fucker:

I know right? This thing was about the size of a basketball and highly active. It's about 7 feet above the ground, and lord knows I ain't cutting the branch on that thing. One of my biggest fears is of wasps, and this was just a giant bald faced hornet nest, so my "shit myself" levels were off the scale. Lately in New Jersey, at least as far as I've seen, our bees/wasps/hornets have been getting bigger and bigger each year. It's probably something in the water, since (as Lex put it) the Jersey shore  is particularly disgusting (as is the show), and it probably causes autism too (as does the show).

Anyway, so this isn't my first time dealing with wasp/hornet nests before. About a month ago my shed was plagued with three of them, although none were this big. Two were the size of golf balls and one was the size of a water bottle. I did the common sense thing to do: I went to Lowe's and bought a value pack of hornet killer. I sprayed both cans in the pack at the nests, and then inside the shed, and voila: the next day, everything was dead. Actually, at the time, I didn't even know the water-bottle sized nest was in the shed. It was blocked by one of my bikes and so I didn't see it, but I ended up killing them out anyway just from my spraying of the other two nests. Talk about luck, right? I was totally satisfied when I learned that I had another colony of confirmed kills.

This one is different, though. It's so big, and so batshit crazy, there was no way I was going to run the risk of spraying at it and pissing off its inhabitants. We called the township and asked them to take care of it, since it's not on our property and hangs over a public sidewalk, and they said they wouldn't because they only covered stray cats and dogs. My thoughts were this: fork over the money and hire an exterminator. The hive isn't on our property, it's on the property of an abandoned house that's seldom taken care of. Another person on the block called in and complained, sending them a picture of the nest, and they said they'd call the mortgage company of the house next door and have them take care of it, which would take up to ten days.

Here's the thing: last time I heard something like that is when we called the mortgage company and asked them to take care of the siding that was breaking off the house and at risk of flying into our windows. It's been months now, and we've had no response. So this "ten days" thing not only sounds like bullshit, but probably is. So, we decided we'd take matters into our own hands, although we probably shouldn't, since it's not our problem.

My dad suggested cutting the branch and leaving a trash can underneath it, but I was thinking of all the possible ways the trajectory of the slice in the branch could cause it to fall outside of the trash can and make our lives miserable. I wasn't about to let that happen. After a bit of musing over potential ideas, I got one:

Just to be clear, what I did was this: I cracked my window open a bit, covered the outside in plastic wrap, cut a hole in it, parked next to the hive, and then launched two cans of hornet killer at it from the hole. It was the best way to ensure that I didn't get stung, and that I could get the most accurate shot possible. I soaked it pretty well, as you can tell if you can hear the soaked pummeling of hornet killer flowing down from the hive. The instructions said wait 24 hours, and thus I did. I went back the next day.

The hive was still active.

Literally, it was maybe even more active than before. Aside from a few dead ones that were lying on the ground, it seemed like the spray had no effect. That scared me, but not to worry. I decided to buy another few cans of the spray, and over the course of the next few days, I kept soaking it up in hornet killer. By yesterday, it seemed that it was finally starting to work, but still, the hive was active.

I was at a loss. I didn't have any other ideas on how to kill a hornets' nest without getting stung, and I figured if a chemical that was specifically engineered to kill wasps/hornets/bees and their nests couldn't do the job, what was left besides to bash it with a baseball bat and knock it into the street, then run over it with a car repeatedly and wait for the swarm to calm down before coming anywhere near our block? Again, the idea of cutting the nest down occurred, but something just told me that these hornets were waiting for something. They were waiting in their hive for something genuinely dangerous to happen, and at that moment, they would strike. Having their nest cut down would very easily give them all access points to leave the hive and come attack us. I know that's what they were planning, but I wasn't about to give them that satisfaction. I texted my girlfriend with the following message:

"This damn nest has cost me $20 in spray and 4 hours of time. Only a dozen have died and the fortress still stands. Do you know what I call that?"

When she asked what, I responded again, but with a very telling picture of the supplies I would be using for my next attack:


That night (so they'd all be a little bit more sleepy), I sprayed the hive with two more cans of the spray, and then came back today to check up on my progress. There were maybe four or five of the little bastards still actively flying around the hive, and so I readied my weapons. That's right guys, I did what any patriot would do. This is America, dammit, there are thousands of men and women willing to die for this country, so hell if I'm gonna let a few buzzing bugs get the best of me. This is how we take care of a fucking hornets' nest in America.

Oh, and because it isn't visible in the video, the tips of the arrows had American flags hanging from them. No joke. Here is what the hive looks like now (flags slightly visible):

So what did that do? Hell if I know! There's a gaping hole in the side of the nest now, and that's good enough for me. I'm gonna end up buying more spray and making use of that gaping hole to get them more directly, but other than that, I think they got the message. Don't fuck with America. We know how to handle 'em.

Thank you to everyone for reading, and I'll see you all next time!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

S.E. Cupp: Some Atheists Are Better Than Others

Hi everyone, I'm just here for a quickie. This shouldn't take very long, nor do I want it to.

S.E. Cupp
A little over a week ago, CNN uploaded a video on YouTube featuring American conservative political commentator/writer Sarah Elizabeth (S.E.) Cupp, entitled "Our atheists are better than yours." The video, despite spanning only one and a half minutes in length, has such a high frequency of bullshit, that something really needs to be said on it. Plenty of people from the atheist community have called out S.E. Cupp on the things she said in the video, but I think there's room for at least one more.

The reason I'm addressing this, before I continue, is because the extent of the move S.E. Cupp takes in the making of this video is so toxic and so dishonest that it could actually do harm to the atheist movement if people took it seriously. Luckily, however, it seems very few are. By now, people should be familiar enough with the atheist movement that they can recognize when something just doesn't make sense when said under the banner of atheism; but I fear that, especially in America, there is still a danger that the invocation of Poe's law can find its way under the public's nose, and people will point to people like S.E. Cupp and make them the linchpin of their argument. To start off with a joke: for that reason, I'll say it, some atheists are better than others. Albeit, I don't think S.E. Cupp is even an atheist, but I'll get to that at the end.

If you want to see the video in its full length, click here. If not, that's fine; I really wouldn't recommend it, and I'll be quoting the video in its entirety here. Other than that, let's get right into it.

The video starts off with S.E. Cupp stating the following:

"I don't know, I don't believe in God, but I'm not mad at him."

That's great, Mrs. Cupp. Fortunately for you, this is the most consistent statement with atheism that you're going to make in this video. No atheist is "mad at God," because they don't believe in him. I, personally, think the characterization of God in the Bible makes him look like a jerk, but that doesn't extend to my hating God. I don't believe he exists. That's just how it is.

"I became an atheist because I'm not a joiner. I didn't want to be part of a club or a group."

Then I expect you to resign from your alignment with the Republican Party.

Other than that, I was under the impression that the reason people became atheists was because... they didn't... believe in God? It has nothing to do with group membership. If you didn't want to become a part of a group, why did you declare yourself an atheist? It's actually quite impossible to avoid being part of a group, because that's the way life is. Groupings happen. Bottom line is, however, that not wanting to be "part of a club or a group" is not the reason to become an atheist. Rationality and evidence is.

"It seems like there's this idea perpetuated by atheists are somehow disenfranchised or left out of the political process; and I just, I don't find that to be the case."

Seven states have constitutions requiring religious tests to serve public office. Previous President George H.W. Bush was quoted saying, "No, I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God." Religiosity can be used as a decision for whether or not to grant custody to parents, effectively discriminating against atheists. Not a single atheist currently serves in the American Congress. Atheists aren't even allowed to join the Boy Scouts of America for crying out loud. Just because you don't think they're disenfranchised doesn't mean it's so, jackass.

"I think in fact atheists have grown more vocal over the past decade or two than ever before. In fact, in many ways, atheists act like a religious body unto themselves."

Try that argument during the Civil Rights Movement. Atheists need to be vocal so they won't be disenfranchised. This is something that political analysts say quite frequently: individuals with similar views need to consolidate their interests and get louder megaphones. Atheists becoming more vocal doesn't mean they're any less discriminated against -- in fact, it only substantiates the opposite claim. As for atheists acting "like a religious body," the nature of that claim is subjective. I can't approach it because what seems like religious congregation to one person may just seem like regular political participation to another.

"There's another myth that conservatism is somehow hostile to atheism. I also don't find that to be the case."

Well we know, given your track record, how valuable your anecdotes are, so let's see how you do this time! The American Trends Panel conducted a poll of public opinions and found that while, on a scale of 1-100 on a "feelings thermometer," Republicans averaged rating atheists at 34, Democrats averaged rating atheists at 46. Both seem pretty negative, but we can see that it seems to be the case that Republicans are more hostile towards atheists. So once again, just because you don't find it to be the case, doesn't mean that it is the case.

"I'm a conservative atheist-"

No, you're not, but as said, we'll get to that later.

"-I've felt very welcomed by this party. In fact, I'd go so far as to say conservatism is far more intellectually honest and respectful of atheism than liberalism has been. For conservatives, atheism is something that is tolerated, respected, we appreciate an intellectual diversity. Most conservatives atheists I know, including myself, have a really healthy respect for the role of religion in society and in this country in particular. And in contrast on the left, it seems as though there's this knee-jerk embrace of what is more like a militant hostility -- a reaction against intellectual diversity."

Well we know that conservatives are much less accepting of atheists than liberals are, now, at least in America, but what I find interesting is that the argument being made here starts off as "conservatives are more open to atheists," and then turns into "conservative atheists are more open to religion than liberals are."

"It's exclusionary. Bill Maher thinks 95% of the world has a neurological disorder. I don't think you'd find that on the right, and for that reason, I'll say it: I think our atheists are better than yours."

The best way to convince someone that you're not exclusionary? Say that you're better than them!

The best way to convince someone you don't want to be part of a club or a group? Say that "your X" is better than "their X."

I don't know what the source is for the claim on Bill Maher, and I don't care. He's a comedian, and he's not the representative of atheism. I'm more interested in getting rid of the ridiculous idea that S.E. Cupp is a "conservative atheist." Conservative? Yes. Atheist? No. I don't know what atheist would ever say something like:

"I really aspire to be a person of faith one day."

That's really all it takes. I'm sorry, S.E. Cupp, but you're not an atheist. You're an agnostic theist wearing the badge of atheism to garner attention so that people listen to your otherwise ridiculous arguments and contradictory statements. Please stop self-identifying as atheist, if you're as intellectually honest and respectful as you say. It's offensive, shameless, and pathetic from the perspective of someone who actually is an atheist and has put a lot of time and effort into learning atheistic philosophy. You can keep your Judeo-Christian moral values -- just stop saying you're doing so under the banner of atheism.

Thank you all for reading.

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Gamestop, Punch Out, and "Hot Deals"

I would've gotten to writing this sooner, but these past few days have been really hectic, including but not limited to getting sent to other dimensions, getting a car and going to IHOP. There was plenty of insanity beyond this, but if I had to chalk up the top 3 craziest things that happened in the past week, those would be my picks, in ascending order.

So about a week ago my brother and I are trailing around the middle of Scenic Nowhere, New Jersey (my home town) on a gaming raid. This happens every now and again, with great success: we do a drive by of every game store in a 10 mile radius of our house in an effort to find things we would really like to buy just so we can complain about how poor we are and how we can't afford them. It's actually one of the most productive parts of my monthly escapades because it reminds me to renew the superglue in the mouth of my wallet, since the flames of summer-after-semester-season remove it in less time than it takes to lick the glue off a postage stamp; a challenge, mind you, that I have been timing and testing for a longitudinal study of my own mental handicaps, which I have submitted to the Journal of Bumfuckology. Hopefully my paper will be published by September.

Back to the story, we're on this adventure because a few days before, my brother told me that there was a used copy of Punch-Out!! for $12 or $14 (he couldn't remember which) in the "HOT DEALS!" bin. This is big because usually they're $20 online, not including shipping, and my brother is a big fan of punching - that is, he's a fan of Punch-Out!! and boxing, making him a punching aficionado. At the same time, we were looking into splitting the cost of a $25 gift card for our cousin's birthday, so he asked if while I was out, I could pick up the copy if it were under $13, and then he would pay for the gift card on his own some other time. Fair trade. I get there, however, and see that it's $14, and so I didn't get it.

But that evening he decided he wanted to go get it anyway, and so we drove to Gamestop to pick it up. The game is still there, and it's $14, and so my brother takes out his wallet in preparation to go to the counter. I'm looking over at the Wii U games because I'm waiting for the day Nintendo 'gets good.' I'm inspecting the back of the case for ZombiU as I hear the faint voice of an inevitably pissed off grown-ass man who's probably already wrapping his knuckles and slipping the gloves on: "Wait a minute."

I walk over to see that he's pointing at another tag on the case, which says that the game is $30 used. His finger then trails to the sticker that had $14 on it and to its edge, where the wording is cut off halfway, but we can both very clearly read what it was supposed to say:

Bandit Video

Bandit Video is a mom and pop shop that buys/sells/trades video games and movies. They're located literally right down the street from this Gamestop: probably a 5 minute walk away. It was clear, then, that somebody had bought a copy of Punch-Out!! from Bandit for $14, then sold it back to Gamestop for the $0.30 that Gamestop tickles your belly button with for used games, and then Gamestop put it back on the shelf without taking the sticker off. But it was still listed for $14, right? And it was even in the "HOT DEALS!" case, so we figured it would behoove us to ask the employee there how much it was being sold for.

"Oh, no, it's $30. That must have already been there. Some people like to print off stickers for yard sales and stuff and I guess whoever was handling the games forgot to take it off." Okay, so obviously this employee wasn't prepared to read the name on the sticker, so we did it for him. Hey, maybe he'd realize he's being an ass and sell it to us for the price it's listed for.

"Well no, it says Bandit Video on the sticker."

"Oh, well I guess that's what they were selling it for."

Not another word.

So this Gamestop decides they're not going to check their game cases for competitors' stickers before putting them on the shelf, and then they're going to mislead you by throwing the game in the "HOT DEALS!" case when, in fact, it's no more of a "HOT DEAL!" than if they put it in the regular used game pile. Not only that, but when a customer points out that the price is listed for cheaper than what they intended, Gamestop just ignores it. Not only that, but when we point out that it's their competitor's sticker, they just say "oh, well I guess that's what they were selling it for. Not us, though. We're charging double for it, despite having listed it differently (middle finger)."

Seriously? I'm unsure of how ballsy an employee has to be to not say to themselves "oh, this person saw an item in a discount bin for a discount price, but somebody forgot to take the discount sticker off and charge them the regular used game price. Maybe that was a bit misleading, and maybe it's on us to own up to that and give them that game for the listed price, then do a check of our other games."

I'm talking about two principles here. The first is that when an item is listed for a certain price, it seems like bullshit (at least to me) that the employee at the register can just say "oh, ignore that discount sticker. This is the actual price." The other is that the price they were actually selling it for wasn't a discount price, when it was labelled as though it should've been. It was the used price. Why was it in the "HOT DEALS!" bin, then, in the first place? If by "hot deal" they mean "I'm ramming a rip-off up your ass until your rectum turns hot, deal?" then I can understand that. On that note, I should repeat that it sells online for $20 used. So, yeah, quite the "hot deal," if they're talking about the scorching hole in your wallet.

Sure, sure, they're not obligated to sell the game for the misleading, false price, but it takes some pretty large cojones to sit there and flat out tell your customer: "we're selling it for $30. Our competitor sells it for half of that. Take it or leave it." It also takes some weird logic to sell an item labelled as a discount when it's... not discounted? What else could "HOT DEAL!" mean, besides this, or the aforementioned ass-ramming?
An anal-targeting fireball of "fuck you!"

I've only ever encountered this situation twice before. One was at an Old Navy, where there was an outfit on the 75% off shelf, but it wasn't supposed to be there. The cashier, however, sold it for that discounted price because it was misleading for it to have been there in the first place, aside from the fact that it was an accident on the part of one of their employees (the employee even readily owned up to it, then went through the shelf to make sure they didn't do it for any other items as well).

The other situation was at a Walmart, where the employee accused my mother of intentionally putting a discount sticker on a non-discounted item and then lying about it. That was a battle to be put on video, but maybe that's a story for another day. Point being, even in this situation, it ended up being sold for the discount price.

We thought about saying something, and we ended up not doing so, but we definitely regretted it after. It was fine, though: I got back at them in another way the next day. I'll save that for mystery, though. After the ordeal, we went to Bandit, and my brother found another used boxing game for $14, and so he bought it.

So what's the take away here? Simple: Gamestop's filled with sleazy penny pinchers who aren't afraid to flat out tell you they're marking their price up 100% compared to their competitor right down the block, and aren't willing to own up to their mistakes in a way that might actually feel like you're not getting flipped off. That's really all there is to it.

Well, at least, that Gamestop is. But please, have you ever heard of Gamestop not being this way? If you have, please share. I'll move to your state.

On that note, if any of you reading this are in the area I'm talking about, I think you should go check out Bandit Video. They sell games for the NES, SNES, N64, PS1, etc. too, which is pretty awesome, and they give you some really good prices for the games/movies you want to sell to them. I've been going there for years now, and I can attest to their high quality and the friendly atmosphere. Here's their website:


And if you aren't in the area, consider looking into their selection on Amazon.

Thanks for reading, and I'll see you all next time!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Parental Age and the Rise of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Increase in ASD diagnosis.
I recently participated in a brief discussion on YouTube about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The question at hand was, to quote from the original commenter I was replying to, "why the increase?" I suggested that one of the primary causes of the increase in ASD was the change in it is defined. In the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the disorder was defined as "Autistic Disorder," and was not to be confused with other behavioural disorders such as Asperger or Rett Syndrome; however in the fifth edition (DSM-V), "Autistic Disorder" was changed to "Autism Spectrum Disorder," and several syndromes and other behavioural/personality disorders that were once distinct from each other are now categorized as different Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDDs) under the autism spectrum. This change in definition could easily explain an increase in diagnoses of autism, because you're incorporating a large portion of the population under a new moniker (or rather, a new definition thereof).

The other explanation I gave, which is what resulted in the prompt for this post, was that physicians and psychologists are becoming more familiarized with how to diagnose ASD, and thus are starting to accurately identify individuals who do have the disorders; individuals who, before, would have been diagnosed as something else (possibly mental retardation), or simply told that there's nothing wrong with them. This happens quite often for people who have high-functioning autism (HFA), such as myself. So with a combination of these two factors -- broader definition and increase in training -- it's easy to suggest the cause of a large part in the increase in ASD. However, therein lies the issue: it's only a fraction. As one of the commenters pointed out, there is still a portion of the increase that has not been fully explained. So while we can provide somewhat of an answer for "why the increase," there is a degree of uncertainty.

The video this discussion took place on was one by C0nc0rdance, entitled "What Causes Autism?" After a few more exchanges, C0nc0rdance made a comment on the thread suggesting what he thinks to be a strong contributor to the increase in ASD, pertaining to the unexplained portion: parental age conferring higher risk for ASD, and an increase in parental age in the United States; using data from the CDC to support his case. I'll be honest, I shrilled a bit in excitement at a response from C0nc0rdance. I know, it sounds cheesy, and comments from the publisher of the video aren't exactly a rare occurrence, but his videos have done a lot for me over the years. The first time I watched one of his videos on YouTube was at the beginning of my sophomore year of high school in 2009. It was a time where I was conflicting with my upbringing as a Protestant, and trying to learn more about science, specifically evolution. His videos helped me come out of a pretty rough time in my life, and pushed me to my eventual position of agnostic atheism, as did many other YouTubers and popular scientists; and so I have to owe him my current state of being.

That being said, I don't agree with him in this case. I was originally going to post my own analysis of what I think the undocumented cause(s) of the increase in ASD diagnoses is/are, but now I have a prompt, and so I'll shift gears and simply address the more narrow topic. Here was C0nc0rdance's full comment, just to frame the question properly:

So now I shall contribute my answer to that question: does the increase in parental age in the United States account for the unexplained portion of ASD diagnoses? I'm unsure of whether C0nc0rdance was proposing this to be his defining proposal, or just an idea of many, but my short answer is no, I don't think it explains that unaccounted portion of increase in ASD. I think it is something that needs more research, but either there are a large number of other variables working here, or there are a smaller number of variables with much large effect sizes. Of course, I wouldn't be justified in taking this position without explaining my case, first.

I'll begin by explaining the association between parental age and ASD. A study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in January by Idring et al. looked into the correlation between both maternal and paternal age of parents, and the risk for a child developing ASD. The study reviewed a sample of 417,303 Swedish children born from 1984 to 2003, where 4,746 of them were diagnosed with ASD. It was found that while maternal age has a non-linear association with ASD, conferring higher risk after about the age of 30, paternal age is linear, suggesting that a consistent variable related to the father's age is causing this association, while the mother's is more complex. Furthermore, as one of the study's authors suggested, this linear association between paternal age and ASD would support a genetic hypothesis, such as an increase in genomic alterations over the father's lifespan with age; further supported by the fact that the strongest association with paternal age occurs when the father is over the age of 40, but the mother is 25-35 or younger. But does a genetic explanation hold up? We'll get to that in a moment.

Have you ever seen this before?
The non-linear association between maternal age and ASD, on the other hand, would lean more towards an environmental hypothesis; something changes in the mother's environment after the age of around 30 in order to confer a higher risk for the disorder. As the authors of the previous study note, maternal age has not been as extensively researched as paternal age. That being said, depending on the nature of the association, I can posit a few explanations for the increase in ASD conferred by maternal age, such as a higher rates of smoking or more frequent birth complications with increasing age, but let me get back to the genetic explanation for paternal age before I address that.

What is the chance that the association between paternal age and ASD is a result of the father's genes, or the interaction between the genes produced by a father of age 40+ and a mother of age ≤ 35? I'm going to say this is probably not the case. Remember that the increase in ASD is being observed in the United States. The CDC produced their own report on the prevalence of autism in March of this year, showing that while it's true that there has been a substantial increase in the diagnosis of ASD -- from 6.7 per 1,000 in 2002 to 14.71 per 1,000 in 2010 -- the rates vary from state to state. For example, while the highest rate was in New Jersey (lucky me) at 21.9 per 1,000, the rate in Colorado was between 9 and 10 per 1,000, and the rate in Alabama was 5.7 per 1,000. It'd be obscure to suggest that there is such high variance in reverse-cougars from state to state in order to support the genetic explanation, and that these rates have been increasing somewhere in the United States for the past few years. I'm not saying it's unlikely, I'm just suggesting by way of Occam's razor that this explanation should be put aside for less assuming explanations.

The greenish-brown hue looks slightly diseased... Maybe.
So what about an environmental explanation? Should mothers be careful of environmental influences that are increasing in the United States? Is there something in the water in New Jersey that's putting them at greater risk of ASD? If you've ever been to the Jersey shore, you might think so, but as the CDC declares as well, this probably isn't the case. It is much more likely to be a result of the aforementioned change in definition, an increased willingness to label certain behaviours under the disorder, better familiarization of doctors to diagnose the disorder, and to explain the state-to-state variance, differing access to medical care that would allow these diagnoses to be made.

So, it seems that a genetic explanation is unlikely, and the CDC tells us there's nothing to be too alarmed about concerning potential environmental risks. But what about the increase in parental age? Parental age confers a higher risk for ASD, and parental age has been increasing; however, it simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny. A study from February of 2010 by Shelton, Tancredi and Hertz-Picciotto found that while parental age is associated with this higher risk, it explains only about 4.6% of the increase in ASD diagnoses in California. Of course, this is only one state, but the researchers made no controls for their calculation, so things like socioeconomic status and availability of medical care could be skewing the results to be even higher than what they actually are. With the other information we have available, it seems that mothers shouldn't be too concerned about their age during pregnancy, or something else floating around in the air suddenly. To summarize:

- Paternal age has a linear association with an increase in ASD after the age of 40.
- Paternal age has the strongest association when the mother is 35 or younger.
- Maternal age has a non-linear association with an increase in ASD after the age of 30-35.
- There has been a great increase in the rate of ASD diagnoses in the United States, but this trend seems to be exclusive to the United States.
- Parental age has also been increasing in the United States.
- Rates of ASD greatly vary from state to state, suggesting something environmental as opposed to genetic.
- Only 4.6% of the increase in ASD in California can be explained by parental age; this could be direct, indirect, or statistical noise due to data limitations.
- The available data suggests that while parental age is a possible explanation, the much more likely explanation to replace it would be diagnostic factors and ones relating to medical access.

This topic has personal importance to me, for obvious reasons. I've been researching it since I was diagnosed with ASD, and so I like to participate in discussions relating to it, and I like to look into the cause of ASD. I've always been relatively unconcerned with the increase in diagnoses; but when one of my favourite YouTubers proposes an explanation for an unknown portion of the increase, I'm almost forced to examine it. This was fun for me to do, and so I thank C0nc0rdance and the other individuals involved in the exchange for bringing this topic up for discussion.

Thank you all very much for reading.  

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Shelton, J., Tancredi, D., & Hertz-Picciotto, I. (2010). Independent and dependent contributions of advanced maternal and paternal ages to autism risk. Autism Research. DOI: 10.1002/aur.116

Idring, S., Magnusson, C., Lundberg, M., Ek, M., Rai, D., Svensson, A., Dalman, C., Karlsson, H., & Lee, B. (2014). Parental age and the risk of autism spectrum disorders: findings from a Swedish population-based cohort. International Journal of Epidemiology, 43 (1), 107-115 DOI: 10.1093/ije/dyt262