Republicans aren’t anti-vaccine. (Yet)

Last night’s G.O.P debate was notable for many reasons, but it was a particular low point for anyone concerned about public science literacy.  It’s becoming increasingly evident that the G.O.P. candidates are being duped by a false narrative of political polarization on the issue of vaccine safety.  And that is alarming.

This  is a better illustration of what vaccination is really about. Courtesy of Microsoft stock images, so it's even free!
What vaccination is really about. Courtesy of Microsoft stock images.

The CNN moderator for the debate last night asked Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, to respond to Donald Trump’s often repeated assertion of a link between vaccines and autism. That link is a lie, but neither Dr. Carson nor Dr. Rand Paul (an ophthalmologist) called it out as such. Dr. Carson vaguely (but correctly) stated “There has — there have been numerous studies, and they have not demonstrated that there is any correlation between vaccinations and autism,” and “Vaccines are very important,” but then he qualified this by saying “Certain ones. The ones that would prevent death or crippling. There are others, there are a multitude of vaccines which probably don’t fit in that category, and there should be some discretion in those cases,” and “You know, a lot of this is — is — is pushed by big government.” Dr. Paul didn’t do much better, saying “I’m all for vaccines, but I’m also for freedom.”

(Source for transcribed quotes)

Let’s be perfectly clear: None of the objections Trump raised to vaccines have the slightest basis in biology, medicine, or reality. None. Not one. Nor does the “too many too soon” argument that Dr. Carson floated. As Tara Haelle put it:

“The problem is, our country doesn’t make or recommend vaccines that aren’t important, that don’t prevent death. So, I have a question for Dr. Carson. Below are the vaccines recommended through age 18. I’d like to know which one of these we should “use discretion” with. Which ones are not important enough to administer?”

You can check out the list and the rest of her article here.

Trump will be Trump, but we deserve more from the two physicians in this race. To be honest, I believe that both of them understand and accept the science on vaccines, but they’re pandering to what they believe Republican voters want to hear. But study after study has shown that vaccines are not a partisan issue–the same proportions of conservatives and liberals both accept that they are safe, sound, and necessary to combat infectious disease. Carson and Paul are completely out of touch with conservatives on this issue, and unfortunately their assumption about what their base wants to hear on this issue may itself change those numbers. Colin McRoberts discussed the potential consequences of turning this into a partisan issue a few months ago:

“Right now, most people support vaccination and reject anti-vaccine talking points. (I know that can seem implausible, given how visible those hoary anti-science stories are online. But vaccination rates don’t lie—the vast majority of parents reject anti-vax scaremongering.) If we start drawing party lines on top of the vaccine debate, people will start to use their party affiliation to define their position on vaccines. They won’t realize they’re doing it. They’ll honestly think they’re making decisions about vaccines based on the facts. But they’ll be judging those facts based on the community they belong to, the way we all do. So we can’t let those communities be defined as anti-vax communities!”

Amy Davidson, writing for The New Yorker, nicely articulated the dangers of having presidential candidates giving legitimacy to dangerously unscientific positions:

“A lot of what Trump says—diplomacy by yelling, for example—would be dangerous if put into practice. But most of it, assuming he doesn’t actually get elected, won’t be put into practice. The refusal to inoculate children, though, is something that his admirers can try at home. No other candidate was willing to anger the ideologues by standing up for something as suspicious as science.”

We have seen the consequences of not vaccinating children earlier this year. Do we really want more outbreaks of preventable disease to threaten our communities?  The use of vaccines to protect the health of our children is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. It’s not a liberal or conservative issue. It’s simply what the best science available overwhelmingly supports. I urge conservatives in the Republican party to make this point to your representatives. Only the base can hold the leadership to account, and this is one issue where we all need to take a united stand.

Open access and pseudoarchaeology: an encouraging update!


Back in July I wrote about a new collection of reviews of pseudoarchaeology books by archaeologists that appeared in the journal American Antiquity. I was delighted about this effort by the authors and editors–I think we need more of this sort of direct engagement–but very disappointed that the reviews were inaccessible to the majority of interested, non-academic readers. I and others called on the SAA to make this collection free for public access.

As it happens, a few weeks ago they did just that! You are now able to access the reviews through this link. (I would have written about this much sooner, but I’ve been swamped with work in my new position). In addition, I want to call your attention to the great perspective piece that Kristina Kilgrove wrote for Forbes, in which she nicely summarized the problem archaeologists have with the pseudoscientific approach to archaeology:

Archaeologists are trained as anthropologists to recognize and celebrate the diversity of humanity, both today and in the past. Eric Cline succinctly explains this in his review, noting “pseudoarchaeologists cannot accept the fact that the mere humans might have come up with great innovations such as the domestication of plants and animals or built great architectural masterpieces such as the Sphinx all on their own; rather, they frequently seek or invoke divine, or even alien, assistance to explain how these came to be.”

Kudos to the SAA for making this resource available to everyone, and many thanks to the archaeologists who took the time to write these excellent reviews, with particular credit to Don Holly for organizing them! I hope that more archaeologists and biological anthropologists will follow this example. (In this spirit, I’ve just submitted the final draft of a paper on mitochondrial haplogroup X that addresses many of the common misconceptions about it–see comments on this piece for examples– to an academic journal. I’ll update you guys when it comes out).

Mixed messages during National Immunization Awareness Month

Be a vaccine superhero this month !
Be a vaccine superhero this month !

I haven’t had the chance to write much here about vaccines recently, so I was delighted to participate in MHA@GW’s initiative to highlight vaccination for National Immunization Awareness Month with a series of posts from guest bloggers entitled “Why Immunize?” My post focused on science literacy, and how to communicate with others about this issue:

In all likelihood, parents have already made up their mind as to whether or not they’ll vaccinate themselves and their children. And in all likelihood, that decision was to vaccinate.

These parents are motivated by a shared concern for their children and community. They know that vaccines prevent many childhood diseases, and that by maintaining high vaccination rates in their community, they maintain herd immunity. Perhaps they’ve seen the comparison External link of morbidity rates in the pre- and post-vaccine era and understand the significant impact vaccines have made in preventing the worst childhood diseases. They may have been worried about the outbreak of measles among families who took their children to Disneyland earlier this year, which hit unvaccinated people the hardest External link. Regardless of how they came to this decision, the vast majority of parents understand External link that the risks of vaccines are low relative to their tremendous benefits.

This is good news for the health of our communities. It’s critical that we continue to talk about immunization, because vaccine opponents are relentless — see the comments on my piece External link here for many examples of the bad science and provocative rhetoric they employ.

Speaking up is the most important step, letting parents know that their decision to vaccinate is the safest and most common way people protect their children. The anti-vaccine minority is disproportionately loud, partly because vaccines are so safe, effective and ubiquitous that they become part of the background landscape of parenting. Fortunately, in reaction to harmful pseudoscientific scaremongering and events like the Disneyland outbreak, people are motivated to speak out in favor of vaccines.

You can read the rest of my post here.

But I was dismayed to see that just hours after my piece was posted, a mainstream news site posted an article purporting to give balanced coverage on “the vaccine debate”, but instead propagated the same old mistruths and pseudoscience that have been thoroughly debunked by the scientific community again and again. This article, which features comments from a “Montana mother” given the same weight as those from a trained physician, and concludes by telling parents how to get vaccine exemptions for their children before school starts, is utterly reprehensible journalism. It’s a depressing reminder that we can’t ever let up on our efforts to educate journalists, as well as the general public, on basic scientific and medical issues

So in honor of National Immunization Awareness Month, I’m asking all of you to make a small but meaningful contribution to this effort. Please share at least one example of good news coverage on vaccines with your online and in-person friends. Your voice makes a difference in this conversation.

h/t Tara Haelle for the link to the news article.

Public outreach that’s inaccessible to the public.


Edit 9/3/15: The SAA has opened up this collection for public access! See my post on it here. 

I was delighted to read at Jason Colavito’s excellent blog that the journal American Antiquity has just published a special section in its current issue that’s devoted to debunking popular pseudo-archaeological ideas.   This is a fantastic example of the kind of outreach that I (and many others) would like to see academics and academic institutions engage in.  I want to commend American Antiquity (and its parent organization, the Society for American Archaeology) for this.  But with a caveat: outreach actually needs to, well, reach its intended audience. Right now, that’s not the case.  Continue reading

Encouraging science journalism: The genome of Kennewick Man.

A little over a year ago the complete genome sequence of a Clovis individual, the 12,500 Anzick child, was published. His sequence gave us a fascinating glimpse of ancient Native American genetic diversity, and new insights into the early peopling of the Americas. At the time, however,  I was unhappy about how the media covered it:

“Unfortunately, several press reports chose to find controversy in a decidedly non-controversial story by giving undue weight to problematic “alternative” explanations of Native American origins, including the Solutrean hypothesis, and other “European contributions” to Native American ancestry.”

Last week saw the announcement (also from Eske Willerslev’s lab group: they’re amazingly prolific) of the sequencing of yet another significant ancient American genome: the 8,500 year old skeleton from Washington popularly called “Kennewick Man.”  This time the press did an exemplary job of covering the news.

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A normal person’s review of the Apple Watch

I’ve had the Apple Watch for a few weeks now, and enough people have asked me about what I think of it that I thought it was worth writing a post. Since the majority of reviews I’ve seen are all from tech or fashion people, and I don’t find these particularly helpful, I thought I’d give a bit of a different perspective– one from a completely normal person who just happens to have gotten one early. I have the Sport version with the 38mm case, and the white band.

Let’s be real: I wouldn’t have bought this watch for myself. Despite the fabulous sums of shill money that certain antivaxxers are convinced I’m pulling in, I actually don’t have a spare $350 lying around. (If for some reason you’re burning with curiosity about what I make, go look up NSF biology postdoc salaries for a ballpark figure). The watch was an early wedding gift from my fiancé, who is both in love with being an early adapter of new tech but a staunch enemy of all things Apple. Yeah, I don’t get it either.

But that being said, I absolutely love my watch.  I’ve never worn one regularly before, but three weeks of wearing this one has made me an addict. Here are the ways in which I use it, and the ways in which I don’t.  Continue reading

The Genetic Analysis of the Alaskan North Slope

My colleagues and I have just published a paper on the genetic diversity and population history of contemporary Iñupiat peoples (the indigenous inhabitants of the North Slope of Alaska) in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.  It’s open-access for at least a few months, so you can read it in its entirety here, our collaborator Dr. Anne Jensen ‘s thoughts on it here, and Archaeology Magazine’s article on the paper here. I’ve also summarized our findings below.

Here I am working at the Nuvuk site in 2009.
Me, working at the Nuvuk site in 2009.

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New study overturns yet another anti-vaccine talking point

The pseudoscience community has long tried to convince parents that the MMR vaccine (to prevent infection with the diseases measles, mumps, and rubella) causes autism, despite study after study after study after study after study after study after study after study* showing that there is no connection between MMR and autism.

The pseudoscience community’s desperate investment in this myth–and the shaky ground they stand on– is illustrated by how quickly they shift their stories:

“Thimerosol or aluminum, or some kind of ‘toxin’ is the cause!”    Debunked .

“No, I mean, it’s just too many too soon!”    Debunked

“No, but seriously, natural infection is way better because unvaccinated children are healthier than vaccinated children!”   Debunked.

And just yesterday, another study  (Jain et al. 2015 Autism occurrence by MMR vaccination status among US children with older siblings with and without autism) has come out debunking yet another antivaccine myth: that the MMR vaccine somehow “triggers” autism in children who are genetically susceptible to it.

Time reveals the absence of integrity in pseudoscientific constructions.
Time reveals the absence of integrity in pseudoscientific constructions.

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Why the Food Babe is wrong (it’s not just because she’s ignorant)

You knew I had to talk about Food Babe this week.

My not-so-secret goal with this blog is to improve public science literacy and to help people become more critical consumers of information. As a consumer activist and critic with enormous influence, one might hope that Food Babe’s goals are similar to mine.  But I’m afraid I have to give her methods a big red F, and for distressing reasons. Before I get into that, however, I want to give readers who aren’t familiar with Food Babe some background.

Like the decision to vaccinate, the choices we make about food have significant consequences to our health.  It’s easy to find advice on how to structure our diet–there is an overwhelming volume of admonitions to eat more protein!, only organic!, less fat!, more fat!, plant-based!, paleo!, non-GMO!, raw!, Mediterranean!, gluten-free! with dire warnings about what will happen if we fail to follow that plan exactly. (I feel particularly sympathetic to parents of young children, who are already stressed out about the incredible day-to-day challenges of raising them in a difficult economy. Shaming them if they’re buying most of their food in bulk once or twice a month at Costco instead of shopping exclusively for their children at Whole Foods is outrageous.  In fact, the very ability to make choices about what we eat is a privilege not shared by a huge proportion of the planet’s population…but that’s a subject for another post).

For the average person untrained in science, nutrition, or medicine, the challenge of wading through this mountain of advice on how one “should” eat, sorting out the good advice from the bad, can be daunting.  With so many options it’s easy to succumb to decision fatigue–or default to way too many meals at fast food joints.

Diet and health gurus are counting on this. They offer people a simple solution: follow my “movement”, follow my advice and you don’t have to think for yourself about this; follow my simple “tricks” and you’re guaranteed “health”, “thinness” and a sense of belonging to a righteous movement.

Enter “Food Babe” (whose real name is Vani Hari).

Actions undertaken without understanding  are always foolish, and often dangerous.
Acting without understanding is always foolish, and often dangerous.

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New paper deals blow to hypothesis that Native Americans have European ancestry

The idea that Native Americans had at least some ancestry from a trans-Atlantic migration has been around since the earliest days of American anthropology. The earliest proponents of this idea looked at the spectacular burial mounds and art from North America and insisted that they could not have been made by the ancestors of the indigenous (or as they put it, “primitive”) peoples they encountered. Obviously, they reasoned, a “Lost Race” of “Moundbuilders” (identified variously as Atlanteans, Europeans, and Israelites) must have been responsible for the great archaeological sites in North America. But systematic excavation of these sites has thoroughly debunked that idea.**

Nevertheless, an idea that there must be a European origin for at least some Native Americans has persisted in various forms. In its modern iteration, this idea is known as the “Solutrean Hypothesis.” The Solutrean hypothesis claims that the Clovis people, the makers of the earliest known stone tools in the Americas, were the cultural and biological descendants of the Solutrean peoples of southwest coastal Europe.

I have written before about why the genetic diversity present in contemporary and ancient Native Americans does not support this hypothesis (“Problematic science journalism: Native American ancestry and the Solutrean hypothesis”). Here, I want to discuss a new challenge to the Solutrean hypothesis that came out in the archaeological literature just today.  Continue reading