This afternoon Ms. Couric’s show “Katie” featured the “HPV Vaccine Controversy” as part of its “Big Conversation”. The segment focused mainly on the vaccine Gardasil, which is administered to girls and boys around the age of 11, in an effort to immunize them against HPV before they become sexually active and likely to contract the virus.
Although Couric herself claims that she is personally “not anti-vaccine”, her show was extremely biased against the scientific consensus. She kept referring to the vaccine as “controversial” when there are no legitimate scientific studies showing it to be dangerous. I’m used to getting upset at journalists who give false equivalency between the scientific consensus on an issue on the one hand and a fringe belief on the other. But this was beyond the pale; Couric’s program didn’t even aspire to that “balance”.
I had a “driveway moment” last night listening to Alex Jones rant about science topics on his radio program. He was obsessed with the hypothesis that humans are the descendents of a primate-pig hybridization. I had heard of it as it first made the rounds back in July, but I assumed that no one would take it seriously and ignored it. But the Daily Mail recently has not only reported it uncritically, it also called Dr. Eugene McCarthy’s evidence for this hypothesis “compelling”. I guess I shouldn’t find that surprising, because the Daily Mail routinely presents quackery as mainstream scientific findings.
What really drew my interest in the subject was the way Alex Jones discussed the news article.
Orac is reporting that a planned Congressional hearing into the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program has been canceled. This is unambiguously good news; the hearing was probably a political favor being done for anti-vaccine cranks who despise the NVICP. Their hatred for the Program can be confusing, given how much better it is for their position than the alternative.
Maanasa Raghavan and colleagues published the complete sequence of the oldest (thus far) modern human genome in Nature today (“Upper Palaeolithic Siberian genome reveals dual ancestry of Native Americans”).
When Andy Hurley performed with Fall Out Boy for the 2013 Victoria’s Secret fashion show on November 13th, he was given a costume to wear that included a shirt with the Rising Sun on it.
The Rising Sun symbol, used by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, has come to represent horrors of wartime aggression (such as the Nanking Massacre) to many, particularly South Koreans and Chinese people.
The Rising Sun symbol is horribly offensive to descendants of people affected by these events, much like the Nazi Hakenkreuzflagge or the Confederate flag. Yet unlike those symbols, it continues to be used widely.
Many people simply don’t understand the connotations of this symbol. But after he was made aware of it, Andy and I felt that this incident would provide a good opportunity to heighten awareness of its cultural context. Here are his thoughts.
Today I took care of myself and my community by getting a flu vaccine.
I get one every year. I do it not just to protect myself (although that’s an important consideration–I don’t have time to get sick!), but also to protect my community from a serious health hazard. Continue reading
“You’re going against 40,000 years of evolution”
“This innate toughness that men have is crucial to our survival.”
These points, and many others along the same lines, were made by Mr. Gavin McInnes, author of “How To Be a Man” in a recent discussion of masculinity on the Huffington Post. His argument is based on a suite of assumptions common in our culture. It often forms the basis of misogynist arguments against feminism. Basically:
1. Evolution has made men naturally more “aggressive and tough”, and women naturally more “compassionate and domestic”.
2. Therefore in the modern world, as in past societies, men are the natural breadwinners, and women the natural caretakers of the home/children.
3. Going against these gender norms, as feminism has done in the last few decades, is going against nature, and disrespectful of the importance of childcare!
According to Mr. McInnes, women who work outside the home are “forced to pretend to be men. They’re feigning this toughness. They’re miserable.” You’ll hear a lot of people agreeing with this line of reasoning. But is it scientifically based? Continue reading
You may wonder why there aren’t more women in science.
But when women in some countries have to fight tooth and nail for the right to a basic education…
When male undergraduate students are more likely than equally qualified female counterparts to be offered mentoring and research opportunities…
When scientific articles with female lead authors are reviewed more poorly than those headed by male authors…
When there are no structures in place in many universities that allow women to start a family and continue on an academic path…
When universities are more likely to hire a man than a woman (despite equal qualifications) for a faculty position….
When an accomplished science writer who refuses to work for free is called an “urban whore”…
When representations of scientists in the popular media are largely limited to men…with women usually relegated to supporting roles,and required to be physically attractive to be present at all…
When even our interpretations of data can be strongly gender biased…
…you may still be wondering. But I’m not. I’m living it. Continue reading
This article by Natural News was brought to my attention a few weeks ago. The author (and founder of NN), Mike Adams claims:
“…the group that organizes so-called “TED talks” has been thoroughly hijacked by corporate junk science and now openly rejects any talks about GMOs, food as medicine, or even the subject of how food can help prevent behavioral disorders in children. All these areas of discussion are now red-flagged from being presented on any TED stage. This is openly admitted by TEDx itself in a little-known letter publicly published on December 7, 2012.”
Let’s go through a few of Mr. Adams’ allegations and compare with what the letter actually says. Continue reading
Casey Luskin, a blogger for the Discovery Institute, recently took issue with my proposal that when reading a scientific paper, one should check the institutional affiliation and credentials of its authors. I believe the part that he particularly objected to was my statement that one might not wish to use the Discovery Institute as a “scientific authority on evolutionary theory.”
“In other words, study a paper carefully, but if the authors work with Discovery Institute, disregard everything they are saying from the outset. That’s the ground rule that comes before any other tips. It’s a great way to keep yourself carefully in the dark about things you know nothing about. And she calls us “agenda-driven”?
Imagine how journal editors would behave if they followed Raff’s advice. Or better yet, imagine what would happen if Raff herself were a journal editor. Someone affiliated with Discovery Institute (or any group friendly to ID) submits a paper, and you immediately toss it in the trash without even taking it seriously. More than a few such editors probably share her philosophy. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the peer-review system, even though of course there are already plenty of reasons to lack such confidence.”
It’s a very telling reaction on his part. Continue reading
I’ve written before about the ongoing battle to maintain decent science standards in Texas schools, and why this is not just a regional issue, but important for science education in the United States as a whole.
Today I went before the Texas State Board of Education to testify in support of the science textbooks currently under review. They’re all quite good on the subject of evolution, but there’s a chance that the board may require the textbook companies to modify them based on the testimony of their so-called experts (whose anti-evolution opinions can be read here). The outcome is very much in doubt right now.
I came expecting this to be a largely symbolic (though important) gesture, but I was completely wrong. The pro-creationism/Intelligent Design crowd was present in force, and even though they were vastly outnumbered by the science advocates, they were given extra time and friendly questions by some SBOE members, which amplified their voices.
“I understand the National Academy of Science’s [sic] strong support of the theory of evolution,” one reviewer wrote. “At the same time, this is a theory. As an educator, parent, and grandparent, I feel very firmly that ‘creation science’ based on Biblical principles should be incorporated into every Biology book that is up for adoption.”
“While I understand the theory of evolution and its wide acceptance, there should be inclusion of the ‘creation model’ based on the Biblical view of history.”
“Text neglects to tell students that no transitional fossils have been discovered. The fossil record can be interpreted in other ways than evolutionary with equal justification. Text should ask students to analyze and compare alternative theories.”
These statements were made by so-called “experts” whose opinions on science textbooks were solicited by the Texas Board of Education as part of their textbook adoption process. You can read more about this here, here , and here.
I may be testifying in favor of the adoption of the proposed science K-12 textbooks (which are all quite good) at the Texas Board of Education public hearing next Tuesday, and I will certainly be attending the
Texas Freedom Network’s “Stand up for science” rally.
I’ll be posting a transcript of my testimony (if it happens) and a report on hearing next week. In the meantime, if you’re a science-loving Texan, I encourage you to come participate. For everyone else, please spread awareness of this issue, and feel free to share your thoughts and what YOU would like to say to the Board of Education in the comments below!
I want to expand upon my guide on how to read a scientific paper by working through an example. You may not have the time or ability to read a paper in as much depth as I outline below. But my goal with this series of posts is to help people feel less intimidated by research papers by giving them a framework for reading them. I want to make these tools available, should you wish to use them.
I decided to choose as my first example a paper that would also be useful for people grappling with the question of vaccine safety, so that they can become familiar with how these studies are conducted and better understand some of the terminology.
Think hard. Go deeper into the paper.
My friend Alexander Nakhnikian has been thinking and writing a lot about American politics and science. He kindly agreed to share his thoughts here on the impact of the sequester on American research. –Jennifer
Science is important. Really, really important. Most Americans agree about this. Unfortunately, we don’t always act as though scientific progress is a high priority. That’s partly because of the American love/hate relationship with science as a way of viewing the world, which is most evident in the fights over creationism, climate change, and vaccination. But there’s another factor in play that often gets overlooked because it seems so mundane: Money. We need it. Lots of it. And these days, we don’t have it.
Last week’s post (The truth about vaccinations: Your physician knows more than the University of Google) sparked a very lively discussion, with comments from several people trying to persuade me (and the other readers) that their paper disproved everything that I’d been saying. While I encourage you to go read the comments and contribute your own, here I want to focus on the much larger issue that this debate raised: what constitutes scientific authority?
“A cousin of my mom’s survived Polio and lived the rest of his life with its effects. He was not expected to live past his teens but made it to his 40s. I am grateful that modern science can protect us from Polio and other diseases and I choose to take advantage of modern science to give my kid better odds of not dying from a preventable disease. I had heard a lot of noise from people claiming vaccines caused Autism, but never saw any clear evidence. It just seemed to me like people really wanted to point to something as the cause and they latched onto vaccines.”–Jennifer
I have been getting into a lot of discussions about whether vaccines are safe in the last few days. I’m not sure if it’s because of a post going viral about a (terrible) Italian court ruling last year (In contrast, American courts side with doctors and scientists on vaccine safety) or Jenny McCarthy’s recent hiring as co-host on “The View”, or simply (as a friend suggested to me today) the fact that a new school year is starting soon and parents are having to provide vaccination records to schools.
“(I got my children vaccinated) because the science supports it and I don’t want my kids to die. And civic reasons. It’s so straightforward.”–Britta
Whatever the reason, this week I’ve been in many conversations with individuals staunchly against vaccinations, parents who are very upset at the idea of unvaccinated children putting their own kids at risk, and parents who are confused and worried and want to know how to make the best decision possible for their children’s safety. I’m writing this for the third group of parents.
I abhor the exploitative practices of Monsanto and companies like it. But truth is more important than politics, and I am always going to speak out when I see false information being touted as “science” to further an agenda.
I wanted to make this clear because I seem be writing a lot about the misrepresentation of GMOs as being harmful to your health. This article (“GMO feed turns pig stomachs to mush”) is by Natural News, which is emphatically NOT a scientific publication. It’s a site with a definite bias, and implies that people who disagree (I guess that means me?) are “paid online trolls, on-the-take ‘scientists.’”*
Natural News is a complete goofball pseudoscience website, but could the study they cite (Carman et al. 2013: “A long-term toxicology study on pigs fed a combined genetically modified (GM) soy and GM maize diet.”) be the first legitimate evidence that GMOs are harmful to health?
My friends are extraordinary people. The people I’m attracted to are very driven and highly intelligent (and perhaps more than a little neurotic). The majority of them are also passionate about exercise.
“Exercise” is maybe too mild a term for this group: they are athletes devoted to a sport (either professionally or as committed amateurs), or they are coaches who are as relentless about training themselves as they are their students. To a person, they freely admit that this activity is essential for their mental well-being.
My own cognitive therapy. Photo taken by gymjones.com
And while I believe that their lives are very stressful, they handle stress remarkably well. They seem to be very resilient when bad stuff happens to them. This is an anecdotal observation on my part, but it interested me enough to go read about the effects of exercise on the brain. Here’s what I found:
I want to acknowledge a magnificent takedown of a terrible pseudo-scientific article.
Have you seen this BuzzFeed post on your Facebook timeline recently?
“8 Foods We Eat In The US That Are Banned In Other Countries”, written by Ashley Perez summarizes some claims made in “Rich Food, Poor Food”, a book by Dr. Jayson Calton and Mira Calton. It’s intended to give us the ‘real truth’ about the horrible chemicals that we’re ingesting on a daily basis. The problem? It’s complete nonsense to anyone who knows even a little bit about chemistry.
Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent report that the MMR vaccine causes autism has resulted in a generation of children (~age 10-16) who have a historically low vaccination rate (below 50% in some places). As a result, the rate of measles infection has skyrocketed in Britain:
There have also been outbreaks in the United States, with significant infections so far this year in many places, including Brooklyn and New Jersey.
The good news is that thanks to excellent public health outreach in England, vaccination rates are improving significantly. But I worry that many people still don’t understand the issues. Let me summarize them for you:
Have you seen this photo on Facebook?
Proof that squirrels can detect the bad chemicals in GM corn?
I’m usually more interested in the cat memes, but after the Senate failed to pass a bill requiring genetically modified food to be labeled as such, this issue began to interest me more.
From my visit to the Very Large Array at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (http://www.vla.nrao.edu/) last year. One of the most amazing places I’ve ever been.
I was reading an insipid article this morning, and became curious as to how many people actually find astrology meaningful. The easiest metric at 7 am on a Saturday morning is (naturally) Twitter, so I checked out the account of an astrology author, Terry Nazon: 73,266 followers.
Ms. Nazon seems to be trying to emphasize the importance of astrology in our culture through the most recent tweet of hers:
“There are about 10,000 professional astrologers in America & only 3,000 professional astronomers”
I don’t know if that’s true or not (Ms. Nazon didn’t cite her source, so I’m skeptical), but her popularity and that of astrology in general is something that ought to make me depressed. But it doesn’t at all, and I’ll explain why at the end of the post.
Science is a systematic method of acquiring information. It depends on the idea that the natural world works according to certain principles, and that we can discover those principles through observation and experimentation. Science isn’t the the only way of knowing about the world, but we give it special respect because it works so well. (I talked more about that in my previous post).
Sometimes unscientific belief systems masquerade as science in order to claim the benefit of that special respect. In many cases (magic, ghosts, the Loch Ness monster), it’s fairly easy to tell them apart. But what about homeopathy? Intelligent design? Energy healing? Schools don’t do a very good job teaching students to recognize and understand good scientific research. Fortunately it’s really not that difficult, but it DOES take one or two more steps beyond just accepting what you read.
Thanks to @The_Episiarch, we now have…Creationist Puppy!
Despite strenuous efforts from creationists like former State Board of Education member Don McLeroy, and the accomodationism of Board Chairwoman Barbara Cargill (who packed the textbook review committee
with anti-evolutionists, and gave the creationists disproportionate time to testify during the textbook hearings), textbook publishers are standing firm.
There will be no anti-evolution edits to the textbooks currently under consideration for adoption by the SBOE. From the Texas Freedom Network:
“From what I can see so far, publishers are resisting pressure to do things that would leave high school graduates in Texas ill-prepared to succeed in a college science classroom,” De Lozanne said. “If we want Texas kids to be competitive nationally, we have to ensure that what they learn in their high school classrooms is based on facts, not ideology. Having said that, it’s remarkable and distressing that some folks are still arguing over what really is established, mainstream science.”
The board will be voting on whether to adopt these textbooks next month, so the battle isn’t over. But as long as Texans continue to stand firm on their demand for quality science education for students, the enemies of evolution are fighting a war they cannot win.
Given ongoing interest in this post: http://violentmetaphors.com/2013/08/14/the-truth-about-vaccinations-your-physician-knows-more-than-the-university-of-google/, and based on several people’s suggestions to me, I’m going to put together a FAQ on the subject of vaccine myths/misconceptions. I will be pulling questions from the comment section of the University of Google post (and other places), but I would like to ask for your participation. What questions do you or your friends have about vaccines? What are some vaccine myths have you heard that you’d like to have addressed? What kinds of information would you find helpful for sharing with family members when talking about vaccine issues? Parents, I’m *especially* interested in questions that come up repeatedly on parenting forums and messageboards.
Please leave me any questions/suggestions/links in the comments below, or email me privately at jenniferraff (at) utexas (dot) edu
Thanks, as always, to everyone for reading, commenting, and sharing.