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Skeptical reporter @ 2013-06-07

Skeptical Reporter for June 7th, 2013

The number of New York parents who had their child skip at least one required vaccine due to religious reasons increased over the past decade, according to a new study. What's more, researchers found counties with high religious exemption rates also had more whooping cough cases - even among children that had been fully vaccinated. States set their own requirements on which vaccines a child must have received to enter school. All allow exemptions for medical reasons, and most, including New York, also permit parents with a religious objection to forgo vaccination. "Particularly in New YorkState, I do believe that parents are using religious exemptions for their personal beliefs," said Dr. Jana Shaw, who worked on the study. Studies have shown cases of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, have been on the rise across the U.S. Researchers suspect that's due to the use of a new type of pertussis vaccine - which is safer, but less effective over the long run - and to more children missing or delaying vaccination.

Journalist Tony Ortega has written an article about the Church of Scientology using a natural disaster to spread the faith: “One of our tipsters forwarded to us an e-mail that will be all too depressingly familiar to our longtime readers. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Scientology is leaping on the chance to take advantage of another natural disaster to promote itself. In this case, Texas Scientologists are being urged to head to Oklahoma, the site of several recent deadly tornadoes. Once they get there, the “volunteer ministers” will do what they've done in places like New York after 9/11 and Haiti after its big earthquake: set up yellow tents and pretend to be useful by giving out “touch assists” — running their fingers over people as if it were a form of faith healing — and handing out Scientology booklets”.

In the United States, the FDA is trying to better supervise mobile apps that promise users to help them with various medical conditions. The FDA said it will publish final guidelines for medical apps later this year, potentially sweeping tons of new apps under its jurisdiction. But some app makers and lawyers are worried that the FDA’s approach could be overkill. "If the FDA regulates in a broad brush fashion, that will stifle innovation," said Matthew Kaminer, general counsel for Epocrates, a company that makes a drug-reference app for doctors, which has more than 1 million active users. Part of this issue is that it remains unclear exactly what type of app should be considered "medical," and which of these should be regulated by the government. Medical apps can be grouped into two broad categories: those designed for patients to use on their own, and apps designed for healthcare professionals, including doctors and nurses, to help them treat patients. And there is a larger problem in distinguishing between apps that offer legitimate medical functions, and those that are little more than digital snake oil.

Turkey has a long history as a secular state, for mostly Islamic people. So it comes as no surprise that a TV program is promoting Creationism. But what may be surprising is the women, or at least how they're dressed, spreading that message. Turkey’s Islamic creationist guru Adnan Oktar is a regular fixture on his TV channel A9. Oktar and his cult-like organization have been in the Turkish media space for decades. But only last year did he deploy his new weapon in the battle against Darwinism: A flock of ostensibly attractive, curvy young women. The “kittens,” as he calls them, call him “master” and generally react at the right moments and nod their heads in agreement with whatever he says. Some of the women have their own programs in which they also “debunk” evolution, among other things. The spectacle has attracted attention beyond the creationist community. Turkish artist Pinar Demirdag describes herself as a “visual narrator” of “extreme happenings.” She says she finds herself drawn to Oktar’s kittens, who look eerily as though they were all created in a Turkish Barbie factory. Demirdag calls the spectacle a “sensation overload,” skillfully combining Islam, sexual objectification, demagoguery and Versace.

And now let’s look at some news in science.

Europe has launched its giant robotic freighter towards the International Space Station (ISS). The vehicle, dubbed Albert Einstein, is carrying food, water, equipment and fuel for the orbiting outpost. The space truck left Earth on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana at 18:52 local time on Wednesday. At 20.2 tones, the Albert Einstein freighter is the heaviest spacecraft ever launched by Europe. The vessel will spend the next 10 days performing checks and maneuvers designed to take it to the vicinity of the 415 km-high station. Albert Einstein will stay attached to the ISS until October. Astronauts will gradually remove its 6.6 tones of supplies, replacing them with rubbish that has built up on the platform. When the freighter leaves the platform, it will take this refuse into a destructive dive into the Earth's atmosphere.

A mouse-sized fossil from China has provided remarkable new insights into the origin of primates. At 55 million years old, it represents the earliest known member of this broad group of animals that includes humans. Scientists have called the diminutive creature Archicebus, which roughly translates as "ancient monkey". They believe that its skeleton helps explain the branching that occurred at the very base of the primate evolutionary tree. The team puts Archicebus on the line leading to tarsiers, a collection of small arboreal animals now found exclusively in south-east Asia. But its great age and primitive features mean it sits right at the base of this lineage, and so it has much to say also about the emergence of the tarsiers' sister grouping - the anthropoids, the primates that include monkeys, apes and us. It suggests the first of these anthropoids were, likewise, petite creatures scurrying through the tropical canopies that grew to cover the Earth shortly after the dinosaurs' extinction. "We are all very curious about the ancestors of primates, including those of human beings. From this almost complete skeleton, we can conclude that our ancestors were a kind of very small animal. It was very active and agile; and it lived in the trees and fed on insects", Dr Xijun Ni from the Chinese Academy of Sciences explained.

The UK population must be encouraged to eat less meat "over time" in an effort to make the global food supply more sustainable, MPs have said. The International Development Committee said increased growing of grain to feed cattle was reducing the resources for nourishing people. And food production companies that wasted too much should face "clear sanctions". The committee's report comes ahead of World Environment Day, which focused on the issue of global hunger. Prime Minister David Cameron will be hosting a G8 "hunger summit" in London. The global demand for meat is growing, with China more than doubling its consumption per person since 1985. The amount of meat eaten by people in the UK stood at 85.8 kg each in 2007, according to official figures. The UK Food Group suggests that the production of meat causes an annual "calorie loss" around the world equivalent to the need of 3.5 billion people.

Japan has built a new generation of trains that will travel at speeds of 500 km/h. The nation has successfully tested its new generation of "L0" trains that use magnetic levitation, or "maglev" technology, to achieve record-breaking speeds. The L0 trains — the fastest in the world — are on schedule to be ready for passengers in 2027 on the line connecting Tokyo with Nagoya, a trip of about 351 kilometers that will take just 40 minutes instead of the usual 90 minutes. Japan inaugurated the era of high-speed bullet trains almost 50 years ago. Maglev trains use powerful magnets to levitate and propel the train's cars, which rely on the principles of magnetic attraction and repulsion to hover above their track without using wheels.

And, now, in local news from Romania, we learn that

The cleanest hospital in Europe might be in Braşov. A private medical unit in Romania is fighting for the prized title with three other hospitals from Germany, Luxembourg and Ireland. Representatives of the World Health Organization have arrived in Braşov and declared the medical unit has the highest chances of winning. "We use high grade disinfectants in turn according to regulations. The hospital areas are cleaned according to a closely kept schedule. And we have monthly checks to verify the microscopic state of cleanliness”, Andreea Moldovan, a specialist in infectious diseases has declared.


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