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.

Good science communication means never calling them “retard” – even if you’re Nassim Taleb

Communicating science to people who aren’t scientists is very hard to do well. Nassim Taleb should be very good at it, based on his enormous book sales and even more enormous opinion of his own skills. But we all have our demons, and Taleb has succumbed to his. Rather than encouraging a healthy discussion about science, he’s picked a side and declared all-out war on the people who disagree with him. Taleb even admits that his strategy is to prevent conversations from happening by abusing and insulting people who question him, and encouraging his followers to join in. What’s the point of that strategy? It doesn’t help communicate science, resolve legitimate questions about the facts, or even address the supposedly evil motives of his critics. All it really does is feel good. Nassim Taleb has chosen self-gratification over real engagement. Let’s talk about why that’s unproductive and unethical.

Anger Controls Him by Jessica Flavin

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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

Dear parents, let’s talk about measles

Vaccine superhero
Thanks to vaccines, L. is protecting other kids in her community. And by avoiding illnesses, she has more time for important stuff, like being a superhero. Photo by Colin McRoberts

Dear parents,

Livia, with permission of her mother
This is Livia. An unvaccinated child with measles potentially exposed her the disease, so she spent one of her first six months in quarantine. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Simon

You’re probably aware that measles has been in the news a lot lately. We need to talk about it again, even if you feel like it’s old news, because of Livia, Rhett, and Cami.
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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.

Closing my browser tabs 12/15/14

Here are some serious and not-so-serious things to read about science as you drink your eggnog this week.

Vaccines

“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.

Science publishing

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.

Research

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.

Sweet Science

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!

Yes, doctors know what they’re talking about: Refuting a common anti-vaccine argument.

"Hieronymus Bosch 053" by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) - www.rijksmuseum.nl : Home : Info : Pic. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“Hieronymus Bosch 053” by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hieronymus_Bosch_053.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hieronymus_Bosch_053.jpg

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