Debunking Done Right: Mick West’s Escaping the Rabbit Hole

When I heard that Mick West was publishing a book on how to help talk people out of conspiracy theories, I said a bad word. I’m writing my own book on a similar subject, and it’s frustrating to see someone else get one out first. But I also preordered it immediately. West stands out as one of the most careful and thoughtful public figures debunking conspiracy theories, and I was eager to see what he had to say on the subject. Then I realized that if I asked for a review copy, I wouldn’t have to pay for it. (Negotiation is my specialty, remember?) Now that I’ve read it, I’m thinking of ordering a hardcopy to lend out–it’s a message that deserves to be spread.

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Book review: What does heredity mean these days?

I don’t do very many book reviews, but I jumped at the opportunity when the New York Times recently asked me to review Carl Zimmer’s new book “She has her mother’s laugh: The powers, perversions, and potential of heredity.”* As I was very familiar with Carl’s science writing, I had high expectations as I began reading, and he definitely exceeded them. This is a delightful monster of a book; 500+ pages that roam through subjects as diverse as Tasmanian devils’ facial tumors, CRISPR’d mosquitoes, and the legal system of property inheritance in ancient Rome. The theme connecting all these stories is our conception of heredity: what does it actually mean in an age of gene editing and surrogacy? (the title suggested for my review by my editor).

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I found this subject personally fascinating, because I was able to connect with it strongly from the perspective of a new mother. Here is an excerpt from my review:

“She Has Her Mother’s Laugh” challenges our conventional wisdom about heredity, especially as we enter the new realms of surrogate pregnancy and gene editing. One of the most astonishing insights is that mothers don’t just pass traits to their children — they receive them as well. I read Zimmer’s book (occasionally out loud) while feeding my baby son. Like Zimmer, I had genetic counseling and my partner and I experienced the same anxieties as he did. But unlike Zimmer, I was able to assuage our fears using a drop of my own blood. That’s because my baby’s DNA, floating freely in my bloodstream, could be tested for hundreds of genetic disorders at an early point in my pregnancy. We took great comfort in the test, without realizing all of its implications. The baby wasn’t just sharing his genetic secrets during the pregnancy. Fetal cells can persist for years after birth; as I sit and write these sentences, I may very well be a chimera: a mixture of some of my son’s cells and my own. This microchimerism may even have eventual effects on my health, although it isn’t fully understood. And he may carry some of my immune cells, too.

I knew a bit about post-pregnancy microchimerism before reading this, but there’s a ton of details that I was unaware of, and now I want to go read the whole literature on the subject. Here’s a quote from the book that just astonished me:

“Fetal cells don’t simply migrate around their mothers’ bodies. They sense the tissue around them and develop into the same type of cells. In 2010, Gerald Udolph, a biologist in Singapore, and his colleagues documented this transformation with a line of engineered mice. they altered the Y chromosomes in the male mice so they glowed with the addition of a chemical. Udolph and his colleagues bred the mice, and then later they dissected the brains of the mothers. They found that the fetal cells from their sons reached into their brains, sprouted branches, and pumped out neurotransmitters. Their sons helped shape their thoughts.”

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Even if that’s not been established as occurring in humans as well, that is really incredible.

Another major focus of the book that’s perhaps even more important from a social perspective was its treatment of the complex topics of heredity, biological race, and eugenics.  In this regard, I think that it’s a much better book than most that I’ve read on the subject, up there with Adam Rutherford’s “A brief history of everyone who ever lived”. It’s accessible without sacrificing accuracy, contextualizing the science with history and nuance.

This book is Zimmer at his best: obliterating misconceptions about science with gentle prose. He brings the reader on his journey of discovery as he visits laboratory after laboratory, peering at mutant mosquitoes and talking to scientists about traces of Neanderthal ancestry within his own genome. Any fan of his previous books or his journalism will appreciate this work. But so, too, will parents wishing to understand the magnitude of the legacy they’re bequeathing to their children, people who want to grasp their history through genetic ancestry testing and those seeking a fuller context for the discussions about race and genetics so prevalent today.

Here’s a link to my full review: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/31/books/review/she-has-her-mothers-laugh-carl-zimmer.html

If you’re looking for some stimulating reading this summer, I highly recommend it!

 

 

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*I’m posting this a bit late because the moment I finished writing the review I had to turn to developing my online summer course. Now I have a bit more breathing room, and time to blog more!

In the wake of Wakefield

Colin and I were just interviewed on BBC Radio 4 for a commemoration of sorts. It’s been 20 years since Andrew Wakefield published his infamous paper, “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in childrenalleging an MMR vaccine/colitis/autism link. This paper was retracted after Brian Deer’s and the Lancet’s investigations revealed:

-severe undisclosed conflicts of interest,

-unethical treatment of the children in the study, and

-fraudulent manipulation of data in the study.

However, the damage was done. Vaccination rates dropped not only in the UK, but in the US and worldwide. Outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases resulted. Although Wakefield denies any part of this, his role is undeniable…especially since his advocacy against vaccinations continues to this present day.

Yesterday BBC Radio 4 aired an hour long program that explored “the continuing legacy of the anti-vaccine movement on the anniversary of one of its most notorious episodes, and explore its impact on health, on research and on culture both at home and abroad.”

The indefatigable science journalist Adam Rutherford explored the history of Wakefield’s attempts to promote the link between vaccines and adverse health effects on the program, interspersing clips of Wakefield speaking in the media with interviews by journalist Brian Deer and public health officials. In the last third of the program, he interviewed both Colin and myself about the ongoing consequences of Wakefield’s advocacy here in the United States. We discussed how Wakefield has tapped into the world of conspiracy theories and a larger movement of distrust of expertise and institutions to promote his ideas (it didn’t make the final cut in the program, but as one example Colin wrote extensively about hearing Wakefield speak on the Conspira-Sea Cruise). We talked about communication with vaccine-hesitant parents and how empathy and good scientific information spread through networks of family, friends, and community leaders can overcome fearmongering. We discussed how being new parents affects our experiences as science communicators, particularly in the realm of vaccine issues. We also spoke about our experiences going to see Andrew Wakefield’s documentary Vaxxed, and how the movie (and the anti-vaccine movement in general) spreads false, damaging, and hurtful rhetoric about persons with autism. (To the ASAN members who were protesting at the movie, I hope you get a chance to listen to this! We talked about how shamefully you were treated in response to your excellent outreach efforts).

Many thanks to Adam and Graihagh Jackson for having us on. I think it’s a fitting commemoration of a shameful incident in the history of medicine, and I hope it helps at least a little bit to push back against the harmful and wrong ideas being spread by Wakefield.

Jenny and Colin BBC
selfie from the NPR studio where we recorded.

 

A Vax for Ox

We closed 2017 with some actual good news: the W.H.O. reported that measles deaths in 2016 worldwide fell to an all time low of 89,780.  According to the New York Times, “the decline — a public health triumph, as measles has long been a leading killer of malnourished children — was accomplished by widespread donor-supported vaccination that began in the early 2000s.”

This is fantastic news! But unfortunately the NYT chose to illustrate their article with yet another photo of a terrified child being held down by two adults, one of whom is jamming a needle into his arm.

As many of us repeatedly point out on twitter, these photos provoke fear and mistrust rather than convey a positive message about vaccination.

As new parents ourselves, we are now intimately acquainted with the terror that goes along with suddenly being responsible for a precious new life. We question and second guess every decision we make about play, feeding, clothing, childcare and traveling. It doesn’t matter that we know rationally how adaptable children are—the emotions take over.

One decision we don’t question is our choice to vaccinate our child Ox (not what it says on his birth certificate) on time and according to schedule. We’d actually been looking forward to his two-month pediatrician appointment, because after he received his shots we would feel much better about our upcoming holiday travels.

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Even mighty bears need help fighting off pertussis.

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Updates: writing, radio, and podcasts!

It’s been a little while since I’ve updated this blog! I’ve spent all summer working extremely hard to get some academic writing done before our new baby arrives (he’s doing great, and due on Monday!). But although I’ve been fairly quiet here at Violent Metaphors, I’ve been doing some things elsewhere and I thought I should do a quick end-of-summer roundup of everything in one place.

I’ve been writing once a month or so about genetics and archaeology over at The Guardian’s science blog The Past and the Curious along with a fantastic team of archaeologists (my posts are archived here). If you’re interested in human history/prehistory, do check out our blog! That’s where most of my genetics/arch posts are going to be going in the future, with the science literacy/conspiracy theory/vaccine stuff staying here.

My archaeologist colleague Professor Fred Sellet and I were recently interviewed by Ira Flatow about North American prehistory on a live show of Science Friday. Getting to be on a science program that I’ve listened to for over a decade was one of the highlights of the year for me (although there are some things I wish I’d said differently/more clearly in retrospect. It turns out that it’s incredibly nerve-wracking to do a show in front of a large audience, and I could definitely use more practice!).

Finally, I was delighted to be on Tides of History, an incredibly cool history podcast by Patrick Wyman. Patrick’s not only an incredibly smart historian, he’s also my go-to guy for boxing and MMA analysis. Definitely give him a follow on Twitter if you are interested in either of these subjects!

That’s about it for now…I’m working on a series of posts about vaccinating as a brand-new parent, and the first should be up here in a couple of days, so keep an eye on this space!

 

 

Sean David Morton: Please Call A Lawyer

This will be a relatively short post, updating my series about the ConspiraSea Cruise and the people I met there. For those who haven’t read it, the cruise was a week-long conference for conspiracy theorists. One of the speakers was Sean David Morton, who claimed he could teach people to stop paying taxes, win any court case, and make money by creating esoteric financial instruments. Eighteen months later, he’s been convicted of tax fraud and issuing false financial instruments. And on Monday, he skipped his sentencing hearing and became a fugitive.

Sean, if you’re reading this, call a lawyer. Please. You tried your legal theories in court and they failed, just like they’ve always failed every time anyone has ever tested them in court. They haven’t worked. They don’t work. They won’t ever work. I know you don’t want to hear this from a skeptic and a critic, but I think you also know it’s the best thing you can do for yourself and your family. Call a lawyer, and get some expert advice. They’re going to tell you to turn yourself in, and you should. It’s the best way to get ahead of this situation.

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What Napoleon’s army ate

I have a new blog on archaeology out over at The Guardian’s science page, where I’m contributing a piece about once a month on archaeology and biological anthropology. As I write things there, I’ll link to them here for interested readers. Here’s an excerpt:

Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812 was marked by terrible logistical disaster and resulted in profound loss of life within his own army. Although his forces reached Moscow, they found the city abandoned and burning—a deliberate tactic on the part of the Russian army to prevent the French soldiers from finding provisions.

The practice of requiring soldiers to “live off the land” to supplement their rations likely contributed a great deal to this loss of life. This rendered them extremely vulnerable to the Russians’ scorched earth tactics which left them little to forage or steal. But Napoleon’s Grande Armée was ethnically and socially heterogeneous. Were their origins, social status, and access to food during this time of deprivation reflected in their diet? This is one of the questions that Holder et al. set out to address in their new paper, Reconstructing diet in Napoleon’s Grand Army using stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis.

You can read the rest of my discussion of this paper at  The Past and the Curious.

Having a baby doesn’t change the facts on vaccines.

I normally avoid sharing personal details and information about my family publicly on social media. This post is going to be one of the rare exceptions.

When my Dear parents post went viral a few years ago, I heard from a lot of people who opposed vaccines demanding to know whether I had children, and insisting that if/when I did, I would come to understand how evil vaccination was. I found this line of argument irritating because the vast majority of parents understand how beneficial vaccination is for their children and their communities, and appreciate that they are able to save their children from diseases that were once significant threats to their health and safety.

What’s really interesting to me is how much this statement reveals about the way an anti-vaccine or vaccine hesitant (I make a distinction between the two) parent thinks. The overwhelming scientific evidence showing the safety and efficacy of vaccines will not suddenly change just because someone becomes pregnant. Instead, this argument shows that the person making it is not taking that evidence into account at all. He or she is relying on emotional reasoning, selectively listening to “facts”, arguments, and people that support a predetermined decision (to delay vaccination or not to vaccinate at all), and ignoring everything that contradicts that decision. This is a cognitive process known as motivated reasoning, and we are all prone to it. However, the consequences resulting from employing motivated reasoning to buy something we don’t need and to make decisions like whether or not to vaccinate should be obvious. Allowing the voices of anti-vaccine advocates to frighten you into delaying or forgoing vaccinations could potentially cause great harm to your child and your community.

So now I’m having a baby. My partner and I are very excited, happy, and nervous about what will change in our lives. But do you know what has not–or will not–change? My understanding of science, my trust in my doctors’ expert opinions, and my commitment to fully vaccinating my child on schedule.

We shared our news on Facebook, but I forgot to set the privacy of the announcement to “friends only”. (If you friend me on FB, please don’t be offended that I don’t accept your request; I post a mixture of public and private content and I try to keep the latter for family and close friends). Amid the happy congratulations, I began to get some other types of comments.

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This went on for a few days, until I gently pointed out to the person posting that it was a bit rude to spam someone’s pregnancy announcement. To their credit, they apologized and deleted the thread.  It was a jarring, to say the least, and another good reminder that my policy of keeping personal details private is there for a reason.

I’m about to break that policy again when I say (without going into things too much), that for several reasons my pregnancy is classified as “high risk”.  One of the things that I learned very early on as a result is the shocking amount of bad information that exists out there for expectant mothers. For me, this has led to a general policy of simply staying off of internet parenting groups entirely. (Obviously that’s not a solution for many mothers, as they find the support and community valuable). If I do have a question (as I did the other day about whether a city I’m traveling to soon is a Zika risk) I take it straight to my doctor’s office, either in person or on the phone. Tara Haelle and Emily Willingham’s book The Informed Parent: A Science-Based Resource  has also been incredibly helpful. I hope other parents will find it useful too.

To those parents who are trying to sort through the contradictory information thrown at them, you have my complete sympathy. But I encourage you to recognize the value of expertise over emotion in making important decisions (this book is next on my reading list). Understand that while most parents who are vaccine hesitant are simply frightened and misled, many of the loudest voices arguing against mainstream scientific consensus are making money by deceiving you.


If you are looking for resources to help you talk to your vaccine hesitant friends or family, here’s a guide that Colin (an expert in negotiation) wrote.

Is Donald Trump Really a Great Negotiator?

This isn’t Violent Metaphor’s usual content, but it’s not as far away as you might think. We all want to have stronger skills for detecting pseudoscience and holding legitimate science to the highest standards. One of the most important skills for doing that is discriminating between hype and fact.

When it comes to science, I can’t do that. I’m not a scientist. What I am is a negotiator. I have spent years helping clients with their negotiations through training and consulting, and I have a new company doing exactly that.

Once Donald Trump became a serious contender for president people began asking me whether he’s really as great a negotiator as he claims to be. The answer is that based on the information we have, it’s very doubtful. Just as in science, the evidence matters more than the claims.

This is relevant to science and scientists in another way, too. There are strong indications that the administration and its Congressional allies will try to limit funding for scientific research. Those cuts will probably be resolved through political negotiations. Of course Trump won’t be the only negotiator at the table, or even the only negotiator on his side of the table. Nevertheless his style of negotiation is going to heavily influence the results. He’s likely to push hard to negotiate from a position of strength, which can distort the negotiations in harmful ways. This is a short and simple analysis of how that works.

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You’re not entitled to your own facts (or to hang the people who prove you wrong).

“There is evidence for being able to hang these [public officials]. I am so tired of ‘em. I’m just sick of it. I’ve had it, the Second Amendment is there for a reason.” Corey Eib, Agenda 31.

white-male-1871394_1280You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts–that’s the simplest, most basic credo of skepticism. Want to hold the opinion that extraterrestrial life exists out there? Great, me too. Want to insist that it built the pyramids? Now we’re talking pseudoscience.

I’ve been following a budding pseudolegal guru who’s become very frustrated and angry that his nonsense theories about citizenship and jurisdiction have yet to make him immune to the laws of the United States, where he lives. His case highlights an interesting difference between pseudoscience and pseudolaw.

Both turn on theories that don’t really fit the available facts, whether those facts relate to the building of the pyramids, the origin of species, or the text of the Fourteenth Amendment. When the theory doesn’t fit the facts, pseudoscientists and pseudolawyers both build walled gardens to protect their theories–that’s one of the crucial differences between a “pseudo” scientist or lawyer and the real thing. Those walls might be a community that doesn’t ask critical questions or conspiracy theories that provide a mechanism for disqualifying and ignoring such questions. A creationist, for example, can pretend that carbon dating proves the Earth is just 6,000 years old. And they’ll never have to emerge from their walled garden to compare that theory to the facts available to actual scientists. They can just keep reading creationist blogs and books and avoid the awkward mismatch between their beliefs and the outside world.

A pseudolawyer is in a different boat. Legal theories usually get decided in court, sooner or later. It forces a comparison between the irrational belief and reality, and exposes its flaws. That can happen with scientific and medical theories, such as when a miracle cancer cure fails to cure any cancer, but it’s less common for any individual believer to experience that. In the legal world, if you decide you’re allowed to drive without a driver’s license because you’re a special kind of super-citizen, sooner or later the system is going to force you to test that belief. And the theory is going to fail, because it’s wrong.

When those cherished, irrational beliefs fail, it’s at the end of a long and difficult process. The tribulations of trials encourage pseudolegal gurus to double down on their beliefs–they have to be truly committed to spend months litigating their beliefs, much less risk jail for them. And when the process that’s welded them more tightly to their ideology then exposes that ideology as false, the result is often going to be immense frustration and anger.

This is an exploration of one pseudolawyer’s mistaken ideas about the US Constitution, how they failed that empirical test, and how he’s responded with frustration, anger, and paranoia rather than reconsidering his own beliefs. It’s also about why just losing in court again and again and again isn’t enough to dissuade a budding guru. I’m not trying to do that with this piece, either. I don’t think it’s possible to talk such a person out of their beliefs.

But because this guru’s recent rhetoric has become extremely frantic and even he’s even suggested violence, it’s important to engage with the theories he preaches in case that helps dissuade people from falling for them. I don’t think this particular pseudolawyer is actually going to become violent, but the communities that form around such ideas can become unpredictable. (Just ask the Malheur occupiers.) So in addition to discussing those theories as a case study, at the end of this piece I’m going to outline some of the simplest and most obvious flaws with them. Engaging irrational beliefs that hurt people is, after all, the Good Fight.

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