The good fight is that special argument where you know you’re right, and just can’t imagine how anyone could possibly disagree. But they do, even when the disagreement is about something fundamental and irreconcilable. Did we evolve? Is the climate changing? Are vaccines safe? Do I really have to pay my taxes? The answers matter, but so do the arguments. Let’s try to improve them.
This is Part I in a series about how and why we have those difficult conversations, online and in the real world. We’ll explore ways to make them more persuasive, more fun, and more rewarding. For a practical example of where we’re going with this, see my earlier piece, The Most Important Playground Conversation: How to Persuade a Friend to Vaccinate. Going forward we’ll focus particularly on arguments with people who have irrational ideas, like anti-vaxers or creationists, but some topics apply in every conversation. This is one of them, because in every conversation you have to remember: you are talking to a person. They are as real, as smart, and as decent as you are. You’re having a conversation, not a battle. That’s the hardest thing to remember for all of us some of the time, and for some of us all of the time.
I was going to start this series by writing about goals and strategies, but then I got bogged down in a conversation on global warming that reminded me of that more fundamental rule. It doesn’t matter what your goal is if you let yourself forget that you’re talking to a real person. Personalizing an argument, making it about the people instead of the issues, poisons conversations. Once you start to think of the conversation as just another blunt object to apply to the other person’s head, you’ve already lost. So what happened, and what can we do about it?
Not a friendly conversation.
I’m absolutely delighted to announce that I’ve just accepted a position as Assistant Professor-Molecular Genetics of Human Evolution in the Anthropology department at the University of Kansas. KU has a very long tradition of producing top-notch anthropological geneticists, and I’m honored to be joining the department as a teacher and researcher.
I’m deeply grateful to my mentors, particularly Deborah Bolnick, Geoff Hayes, Dennis O’Rourke, Rika Kaestle and Beth and Rudy Raff, who provided so much guidance to me throughout the whole process. I’m also grateful for the wise perspectives and support from my dear friends Lyn Christian, Lisa Twight, Jeff Rabhan, my fabulous labmates, and my family (especially Colin).
And now that the job season is over for me, I’m looking forward to having more time for writing here–we’ve got lots of science to talk about. Onward!
Several organizations exploit vulnerable parents by claiming that they can “cure” their children’s autism through various approaches.
As Left Brain, Right Brain observes, these “autism cure” movements persist because of the power of storytelling:
“Nothing sells unproven “treatments” like testimonials. For autism it has been true since the days of chelation and even before that. Tell people that your “treatment” cures autism and you have testimonials to show it and you can just about guarantee sales.”
As we all know, anecdotes aren’t scientific evidence, but they do appeal to us on an emotional level. Unfortunately, one woman’s recent experience has starkly illustrated just how untrustworthy such stories actually are.
Camile Saulnier (a pseudonym) was recently given a book by Kerri Rivera called “Healing the Symptoms known as Autism”, which prescribed a “Treatment” for curing autism:
“I began looking into the background of CD/MMS and I was extremely concerned to find that MMS (Sodium Chlorite + Citric Acid = Chlorine Dioxide) aka. ‘CD’ was and is being hailed and marketed as a cure for almost every ailment and disease known to mankind, this includes Cancer, Malaria, Aids and Ebola.
I found the man behind MMS to be one Jim Humble, the Arch-Bishop of a rather cult like church named the “Genesis II Church”. Suffice to say I was very worried indeed, I searched further and found that Kerri Rivera the author of the book “Healing the Symptoms known as Autism” is a Bishop within this church.
I voiced my concerns with my friend who was following the Protocol, but she seemed to be un-phased by my doubts. She directed me to the facebook group CDAutism, where she said I will find proof of the recovery stories and thousands of parents giving testimony to the marvelous gains achieved by using the CD Protocol.”
Saulnier was justifiably concerned and spent some time reading the group’s posts, learning that the linchpin of the group’s claims was the collection of testimonials of parents of “recovered” autistic children. Saulnier was skeptical about the reliability of these testimonials, as they were all posted by Kerri Rivera, and so devised a little test to see how Rivera determined what “recovery” was and whether it was the CD treatment that caused “recovery.”
“I had an idea to see for myself, I needed to be sure 100% that everything I was seeing and reading was real before I could even consider using this protocol. I am afraid my worst fears were not only imagined, they are real.
I made a recovery story for my child, based on so many others which I had read, I felt bad doing it as I do not like to pretend but it was for the sole purpose of finding a greater truth.”
Saulnier’s false testimonial was immediately and enthusiastically posted by Kerri Rivera on the group’s website, and the banner proclaiming the number of children “cured” of autism was promptly updated to reflect this false cure. You can read the details of Saulnier’s correspondance with Rivera here.
Now, I’m not at all comfortable with Saulnier’s approach. I don’t believe that it’s ethical to lie. But having said that, it is a fascinating glimpse into the credulity of this segment of the alt-med community. Can you imagine how this would have played out in the science-based medical community? What level of scrutiny would such a story have been subjected to by physicians and medical researchers before they accepted it as true?
Several readers of this blog are persons on the autism spectrum and have contributed their perspectives in discussions on vaccination and autism. I’d particularly love to hear their thoughts on this issue.
Here are some serious and not-so-serious things to read about science as you drink your eggnog this week.
“Vaccines work. Here are the facts” is an awesome cartoon by Maki Naro, refuting the antivaccine arguments and giving a great and accessible overview of why vaccination is important. This deserves to go viral, so please share it with your friends! And while you’re on the treadmill or walking your dog this week, take a listen to “The Most Important Playground Conversation”, a discussion hosted by Voices for Vaccines in which VM writer Colin discusses strategies for discussing vaccination science with other parents.
Retraction Watch just received a $400,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation to develop a database of retracted papers. This database would mean that scientists could check that the literature they rely upon in writing grants and papers haven’t been retracted. And they’re hiring an editor and database developer! This is outstanding news for those of us concerned about improving the quality of scientific publications.
Women in Science
Women have played a meaningful, but largely unrecognized, role in the history of amateur radio. The Mary Sue has a great article honoring female ham radio operators, which I particularly enjoyed because I’m one of their number! To my fellow YLs, 33 from KF5ZMF!! To everyone else, check it out and consider studying for your ham license! It’s not incredibly difficult, and it’s tremendous fun.
Science literacy and skepticism
I really like “Ask for Evidence”, a guide to evaluating the legitimacy of scientific and medical claims. It’s a simple, straightforward and clear explanation, and a good potential teaching tool. Explore the site–there are a bunch of posts by specific topic as well! You might, for example, use these approaches when evaluating claims made by the “Food Babe” who recently revealed some serious shortcomings in her understanding of chemistry.
Did you know that the human milk microbiome has been characterized? That the flora present within human milk differs between mothers who gave birth vaginally and by caesarian? This post gives a really great explanation of this fascinating research.
Tommy Toehold is hands-down my favorite combat sports cartoon journalist. (If you’re an MMA fan, then you’re probably nodding your head right now). I’m mentioning him in this post because he recently did an awesome video about the women’s MMA show that my sister is the matchmaker for, “How Invicta Took Over The World”. I’m a bit biased, but the latest Invicta show in Houston last week was pretty incredible, and he really gives a great introduction to the show. However, I still think that Tommy’s funniest video of all time is this one of Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg commentating on the EA UFC game’s glitches. (Warning: language in these videos is safe for neither work nor children.)
Finally, just a reminder that if you want daily links to science stories I find interesting (some of which I included above), “like” the VM page on Facebook!
I usually don’t respond to many comments on my blog, preferring instead to encourage conversation between readers. I also don’t typically close comments on any of my pieces, so conversations and reactions continue for a long time. Sometimes that takes the discussion in an interesting direction. I think that a few recent comments on my “Dear parents…” piece are worth highlighting, as they provide an excellent window into an ongoing discussion of a very common anti-vaccine argument. Continue reading
A professor I know was recently sent a manuscript to review from PLOS ONE. Nothing unusual in that…except that it was his own paper. After briefly debating how to respond, he accepted the invitation to review the paper, and submitted the following review:
We Americans sometimes seem to have only two settings when it comes to public health issues; “unconcern” and “panic”. (I think the media deserve a great deal of blame for this, but that’s another blog post). The last few weeks have seen the switch flipped to near panic about Ebola, after the recent infection of two Texas Health Presbyterian nurses who were treating infected patient Thomas Eric Duncan, and possible exposure of additional people after one of the nurses took a commercial flight. The fact that forty three individuals who had direct contact with Mr. Duncan have now passed the 21 day incubation period for the disease without signs of infection, that Senegal has been declared free from Ebola (no new infections have occurred there for 42 days), that Nigeria is close to the same milestone, and that the two nurses who treated Mr. Duncan, Amber Vinson and Nina Pham, are doing much better, don’t seem to make much of a dent in the fearmongering I’ve seen in recent weeks.
And now with the report that a physician with Doctors Without Borders, who recently returned to his home in New York City from West Africa, has tested positive without Ebola, the “Ebola panic” is just going to get worse.
So given the fact that I live so close to the “Ebola hospital” (just two hours!) I thought I’d share with my readers what precautions I’m taking to protect my family’s health. Continue reading
I haven’t written here about the CDC “whistleblower” issue, because I was in Shanghai when the story broke with both limited internet access and limited desire to take time away from adventures to write. Orac did an excellent job of staying on top of the story, and I refer the interested reader to his series of posts on the subject, as well as this excellent summary by Todd W. at Harpocrates Speaks, and this one by Retraction Watch.
However, as many people who read Violent Metaphors have a specific interest in vaccine/anti-vaccine issues, I thought it would be worth talking about the most recent development in the story; specifically, the retraction of Brian Hooker’s journal article purporting to show an increased risk of autism among African American boys who receive the MMR vaccine.
You may have seen the news about a Texas court throwing out Andrew Wakefield‘s lawsuit against Brian Deer, the investigative journalist who did so much to uncover Wakefield’s fraudulent anti-vaccine study. You can read the court’s opinion for yourself, but I’ve already seen some inaccurate commentary on it. Here’s a little background on the case, and a quick explanation of what happened last week for non-lawyers.