A cult that kills in Oregon

Alayna Wyland is 7 months old, and she is suffering.

The area started swelling, and the fast-growing mass of blood vessels, known as a hemangioma, eventually caused her eye to swell shut and pushed the eyeball down and outward and started eroding the eye socket bone around the eye.

There are pictures at the link. It’s not pretty. I know if my babies had a growth that was almost the size of a tennis ball that was destroying their face, I’d have been camped out at the hospital. But not Alayna’s parents! They have a special treatment plan.

The Wylands and their church reject medical care in favor of faith-healing — anointing with oil, laying on of hands, prayer and fasting. The parents testified at a juvenile court hearing last week that they never considered getting medical attention for Alayna.

According to court documents, Rebecca Wyland anointed Alayna with oil each time she changed the girl’s diaper and wiped away the yellow discharge that seeped daily from the baby’s left eye.

There they go with the magic anointing oil again! Does that stuff do anything? If we can waste time with homeopathy, maybe it’s about time someone did some clinical trials with anointing oil and put that crap to rest (not that it would make a bit of difference…).

The Wylands are rather vile, but at least this is taking place in Oregon, where “it is a crime for parents to intentionally and knowingly withhold necessary and adequate medical attention from their children”. Alayna has been placed in state custody for treatment, and both parents have been charged with first degree criminal mistreatment.

But wait, there’s more! The father was previously married.

Wyland’s first wife, Monique, died of breast cancer in 2006. She had not sought or received medical treatment for the condition, said Dr. Christopher Young, a deputy state medical examiner who signed the death certificate.

She died of untreated breast cancer? That poor woman — that’s a hard death, an agonizing death, and often, an unnecessary death — can that entire wretched cult be indicted for torture-murder? They seem to be leaving quite a pile of dead women and children.

Things that are backwards

Wait, wait, this story makes no sense.

A gay netball coach fired from a Christchurch Christian school has gained compensation and an apology.

The 28-year-old man was employed as a girls’ netball coach at Middleton Grange School in February, but said he was sacked by the board of trustees after members discovered his sexual orientation.

A gay man was fired from his job as coach of a girls’ team? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to fire him if he were heterosexual?

Oh, it’s a religious school. They specialize in stuff that makes no sense.

A lesser controversy at Scienceblogs

The case of the various kinds of blogs hosted on ScienceBlogs has come up on Newsweek, and I get quoted trying to explain how I’m unperturbed by a couple of institutional blogs here.

Not all bloggers feel this way, Myers included. “We’ve known about those [institutional blogs] for some time–they aren’t a problem,” he wrote in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. “Those sites were set up under the same conditions as the blogs of corporate scientist Mark Chu-Carroll, who works at Google, and university scientist PZ Myers, who works at the University of Minnesota. … [The Pepsi blog blurred] the boundary between advertising and content. I agree that the institutional blogs also blur that boundary, just not quite as much. I can’t insist that their blogs be labeled as advertisements, unless I want my blog marked as an ad for the University of Minnesota, or Chu-Carroll’s as an ad for Google. It’s complicated and messy.”

There is some confusion out there, however. I do not claim to represent the University of Minnesota. Mark Chu-Carroll did not claim to speak for Google. My point was that if you take any blogger and look at the chains of affiliations they have (as we all do), we do not try to argue that every possible connection is a direct conflict of interest that demands a prominent disclaimer on the web page.

We ought to reserve the term “ad” for situations where an interest has paid money to be promoted, as PepsiCo did. The Weizmann Institute did not. Google did not pay to have Chu-Carroll peddle the company line, and he didn’t. The University of Minnesota did not pay to have me scare away recruit potential students, although I may have done one or the other, accidentally. Weizmann, SETI, and Brookhaven have that in common with me and Chu-Carroll, and none of us cross the ethical barrier in the same way that PepsiCo did.

I actually think it’s a good idea for institutions to have blogs at places like Scienceblogs. One thing I mentioned (but was not quoted) in my email to Newsweek is that the real challenge for institutional blogs is for them to be interesting. I rather like this quote from Carl Zimmer that summarizes their problem:

I do not, for example, assume that a piece of research is actually important just because a press release says it is. Imagine a press release with the headline, “Minor study published that is really not all it claims to be.” Such things just don’t exist.

It’s not just Scienceblogs

This isn’t exactly schadenfreude, it’s more like merely recognizing the ungainly nature of the beast — but blog networks are always going to struggle a bit. Take a look at these posts from the Nature Network. It’s not doom-and-gloom, it’s just wrestling with the medium, as we’ve experienced here in recent weeks.

I do have a solution for any financial problems, though: we just need to peddle more T&A and celebrity gossip, like Huffpo. Isn’t that a bit illiberal, though, to build your brand on the backs of salacious stories about women? Not to mention the quackery and woo.

Although I guess I am also guilty of building an audience with blatant T&A*, too.

*Only in my case, that stands for “tentacles and arms”.

WikiLeaks does humanity a service

It’s amazing: WikiLeaks has just dumped over 91,000 classified documents from the Afghanistan war on the web. Just like that, we get an actual look at what’s been going on over there, unfiltered by the traditional media, and definitely not given a rosy patina by Fox News. Fox New is, of course, treating this as a serious blow to their worldview — which isn’t surprising, since reality does great damage to Fox. US Government sources also condemn the release, since it exposes the failures of militarism, and militarism is what the government and its profitable contractors have committed themselves to.

I think it’s wonderful. Truth is an essential part of accurately assessing the war.

And the war isn’t going well. There are tales of atrocities on both sides, civilians being murdered by both sides, backhanded deals by Pakistan with both the US and the Afghan insurgents, and an increasing number of attacks — we aren’t winning at all.

The other shocking bit about this revelation is that it wasn’t done by any of the established media organizations — it took a stateless, independent organization to actually break the barriers to information that other media companies respect. Now, of course, Spiegel, the Guardian, and the NY Times are doing a fine job of analyzing the deluge of information…but once upon a time, we might have expected investigative journalists to do that work. I guess it’s cheaper to hire a Judith Miller to massage government propaganda than to actually dig into the facts.

This sad fact about the news disappointed me.

Ask yourself: Why didn’t Wikileaks just publish the Afghanistan war logs and let journalists ’round the world have at them? Why hand them over to The New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel first? Because as Julien Assange, founder of Wikileaks, explained last October, if a big story is available to everyone equally, journalists will pass on it.

“It’s counterintuitive,” he said then. “You’d think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that’s absolutely not true. It’s about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero.”

I have a very low opinion of most journalists — it’s a career in disrepute, given the sad state of media affairs, especially with the pathetic state of television news. I glanced at some of the programming going on now, and most of what I saw were mannequins arguing over whether it was right to release these documents, rather than any substantive discussion of the horrors contained within them.

But I will say this: Julien Assange is a hero who is doing a great service to both rescue and revolutionize honest journalism.

Christopher Hitchens not being a dick

There is a site called Christopher Hitchens Watch which, I believe, began with a good cause: it’s been around for about 5 years, and initially focused on Hitchens’ support of the war in Iraq. That was a good idea: I disagree with him on that colossal waste of lives and money, and his views are fair game. But these kinds of sites that focus on single individuals can fall victim to obsession, too, and demonize everything about their target, and that’s unfortunate. It undermines the legitimate complaints when they fuss over the petty, and even worse, when even a little generosity gets characterized as a crime.

The watch site doesn’t like this comment from a Hitchens interview, but I think he’s actually responding in an entirely appropriate way. He’s got cancer; people are wasting their time praying for him. What does Hitchens think of that?

I think that prayer and holy water, and things like that are all fine. They don’t do any good, but they don’t necessarily do any harm. It’s touching to be thought of in that way. It makes up for those who tell me that I’ve got my just desserts … I wish it was more consoling. But I have to say there’s some extremely nice people, including people known to you, have said that I’m in their prayers, and I can only say that I’m touched by the thought.

Prayer does absolutely nothing, but most of the people doing it mean well and are seriously hoping for the best for him. Strangers who have no part in his treatment aren’t doing less because they’re on their knees babbling to the sky (although they are promoting such useless nonsense as acceptable), so it neither picks his pocket nor breaks his leg for someone else to believe. It’s when belief infiltrates professional practice or public policy that it becomes an evil to be uncompromisingly opposed.

It’s a tough line to draw. One doesn’t want to be an enabler of stupid expressions of faith, but at the same time, one shouldn’t discourage kind intent. Hitchens is in a situation where he’s going to have to walk that line a lot.

The special case rule

This is true, but cruel:


It made me think…there would be a lot more vegans in the world if they could each declare one special exemption. I think “I’m a vegan, except when it comes to bacon” would be a very common phrase, just like “I’m a skeptic, except when it comes to religion.”

Mmmm, bacon.

Because even the moderate, liberal Christians think God is more important than a dog

There are now a few more details on the story of the dog given a communion wafer: the dog’s name is Trapper, the majority of the congregation was happy to see him get a cracker, it’s just one person who complained, and now dogs have been officially excommunicated from the church. And this is exactly why I despise the so-called “moderate” Christians.

Peggy Needham, the deputy people’s warden at the church, said that no further action would be taken.

“The backlash is from just one person,” she said.

“Something happened that won’t happen again. Something our interim priest did spontaneously.

“This person went to the top and emailed our bishop to make a fuss and change things. But he misjudged our congregation.”

No, he didn’t. He got exactly what he wanted. Notice that for most people in that church the incident with the dog was heartwarming — it fit well with their charitable vision of Christianity as a welcoming, friendly institution. One person complained, one bitter, dogmatic little man, and you know exactly what arguments he used: it was disrespectful to his imaginary god, it was a departure from church-sanctioned ritual, it gave worth to a mere animal that was reserved for good Anglicans. And the church bought it.

Hundreds of people value the humane, community-centered aspect of their church, and all that gets thrown out for one little pissant who truly believes in the petty, bogus disciplines of his poisonous faith.

I’ll believe he misjudged that congregation when at the next communion, every one of them brings up a loved pet to the rail, and the priest serves every one of them. It won’t happen, though, because the fear of god now compels them to obey.

“Tom Johnson” fini

As some of you know, there was a long-running contretemps at Chris Mooney’s Intersocktion blog — Mooney took a comment by someone named “Tom Johnson” as evidence that the New Atheists were inciting all kinds of destructive fury and ran with it, promoting it as a solid strike against the same targets he took on in his sad little book, Unscientific America. Then it turned out that much of the conversation on this topic at the Intersocktion was driven by this same fellow, who was posting under multiple pseudonyms. And finally it turned out that a noisy little blog titled “You’re Not Helping”, which castigated New Atheists for “not helping”, was authored by this same little weasel, and that the conversations that went on there were also between sock puppets.

It’s been quite the embarrassment for the gullible Mr Mooney, and of course “Tom Johnson” has really demolished his own reputation.

“Johnson” has apparently sent out apologies to a few of the people he dishonestly slandered (I’m not among them; I guess he doesn’t like me at all). Now Jerry Coyne has dug up details on the background, including having a conversation with “Johnson’s” grad school advisor.

I wash my hands completely of the ugly little anti-atheist muckraker and will not be discussing him further in any context — he’s dead to me. The only good thing to come out of the whole sordid mess was a tarnishing of the reputation of that other anti-New Atheist crusader, Mooney. And now the “Johnson” affair is over.