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.

Deep (Conspira)Sea Fishing: A Fundraising Drive

A large, diverse conference of people with very unusual beliefs is coming up. I want to attend as research for my book and blog posts on Violent Metaphors. Tickets are expensive, so we’re trying to keep costs down with a little crowdfunding. Please visit to donate if you can. If you can’t donate, just sharing the link is incredibly helpful. Pitch in, and let’s lay the groundwork for a deep discussion of far-out ideas next year! The following post is our original crowdfunding appeal.

Do you believe in acupuncture, alien abductions, ancient aliens, chi, crop circles, entity possession, “forbidden archaeology” or “forbidden religion,” homeopathy, near-death experiences, occult Nazi super-weapons, Planet X, poisoned vaccines, spiritual channeling, the new world order, or illegal immigrants from Zeta Reticuli? Do you go to bed worrying about the New World Order, the Vatican, the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, NASA, the WHO, the CDC, the UN, space aliens and/or demons conspiring against you and all right-thinking people? And are you convinced that the world is ruled from the Bohemian Grove, a secret bunker under the Denver airport, Bilderberg meetings, the Council on Foreign Relations, Buckingham Palace, alien worlds or other dimensions?

Probably not, or at least probably not all of it. But thousands of people do believe those things, and other things stranger than you can imagine. This January, dozens of experts these fields will gather together on a cruise ship called the Ruby Princess. It’s called, honestly and cleverly enough, the Conspira-Sea Cruise. They’ll spend seven days explaining, discussing, and even demonstrating their beliefs. Some of them are fairly famous, like Andy Wakefield and Sherri Tenpenny, who will be sharing their theories on vaccines. Others are relatively obscure, like Laura Magdalene Eisenhower, great-granddaughter of the former president, who claims to have been recruited for a secret Mars colonization effort and that stargates began opening around the Earth in 2012. For a full week, conspiracy theorists, dreamers, and snake-oil salesmen of every stripe will be preaching and peddling their wares.
I want to be there. You can help make that happen by visiting our Go Fund Me site We’re nearly halfway there!

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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

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

Mike Adams of Natural News: As Fine a Lawyer as He Is a Scientist


UPDATE: Looks like Natural News intercepted the “DoNotLink” link and redirected to an old article bragging about their supposed scientific prowess. I’ve replaced it with a direct link to the article.

Mike Adams, who calls himself the “Health Ranger,” has an ugly reputation for incompetence when it comes to scientific questions. That shouldn’t be a surprise. He’s a relentless self-promoter and a talented salesman who has discovered that wearing a lab coat and using four-dollar words moves product. He hawks supplements, housewares, CDs and DVDs, tinctures, powders, lotions and potions that will cure what ails you! People are more likely to buy his wares if they don’t trust their doctor, and if they’re full of fear for their own health. So it’s probably no coincidence that Adams’s Natural News site also pushes frightful misinformation about how awful, terrible, and corrupt those scheming doctors and scientists are.

It’s a very savvy marketing strategy, because people who feel like mainstream doctors and scientists are out to get them will probably identify more strongly with Adams’s Natural News community as a way to feel like they’re fighting back. That would make them more likely to trust him, and more likely to fork over $40 for ten ounces of freeze-dried apples (a little over $25 on Amazon).

If Adams is a world-class salesman, he’s strictly an amateur when it comes to science and, it appears, the law. A few days ago Adams posted an article screaming, “MMR measles vaccine clinical trial results FAKED by Big Pharma – shocking U.S. court documents reveal all”. Meh. The article is beyond misleading. Anyone reading just that, and not digging further, would walk away with a profound misunderstanding of what’s going on in the case. It could be just rank incompetence, but nothing about the article give me the impression that Adams gives a damn whether the contents are true or not, as long as the audience gets good and angry at those evil government scientists and corporate doctors. (And if his description of the case gets you angry enough, you can fight back! Just click on the “Store” button conveniently located right above the article and buy yourself an herbal medicine kit, or some essential oils, or an immunity-boosting candle, or all-natural salt, or even a $100 pack of iodine. Just the sort of thing they don’t want you to buy!)

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The Good Fight Part 1: The Fine Art of Talking to People Who Are Wrong

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 pieceThe 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?

"Alu finds a friend"

Not a friendly conversation.

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Storytelling vs. science

Things are not always what they seem.
Things are not always what they seem.

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.