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 This paper was retracted after Brian Deer’s and the Lancet’s investigations revealed: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.

mighty bear
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.


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.

Debunking pseudogenetics at Skepticon

A few weeks ago I gave a talk at Skepticon 9 about pseudoscience, specifically the use of genetics to promote ideas like genetic astrology, “Nephilim DNA” from the Paracas skulls, and genetic determinism (with a special emphasis on “Rutherford’s law”). The conference organizers filmed it and uploaded it to Youtube, and so I’ve embedded it below if you’d like to see it.

Sorry for the scarce posting over the last few months! I’ve been incredibly busy this semester: adjusting to teaching my full course load (last year I had a release from half my courses), trying to get the first batch of my students trained in the lab, and pulling together some publications and grant proposals. I have a lot of new things to write about as soon as my grades are entered on Monday, so stay tuned!

ETA: Since I didn’t give it in my talk, I want to be sure to link here to the fabulous “Debunking Genetic Astrology” site, which is written and hosted by Mark Thomas (who first coined the term “genetic astrology”,  Debbie Kennett, and Adrian Timpson.

Genetic mythologies: “Nephilim DNA” from the Paracas skulls

As longtime readers here know, I’m endlessly fascinated by the ways in which people attempt to misuse genetics to legitimize pseudoscientific ideas.

Today I’m going to write about one example which I’ve been meaning to address for some time: pseudoscientific claims about the genetic distinctiveness of the Paracas peoples. (Please note that I don’t usually show images of Native American remains on this blog, but there was no other way to illustrate the details of this issue. Under the cut is an embedded video of the unwrapping of a Paracas mummy, as well as a photo with the mummy under its wrappings.)

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Archaeological Fantasies and the genetic history of the Americas

The excellent podcast Archaeological Fantasies recently had me on as a guest for a wide ranging discussion on genetics. We covered everything from the genetic prehistory of the Americas to issues surrounding ancestry testing companies. Here’s a link to the episode (apologies for the fact that I kept cutting in and out–apparently our university wireless connection isn’t very good).

Since so much of our discussion focused on haplogroup X2a and models for ancient American prehistory, I decided to break from the normal tradition here at VM and actually re-publish a post to make it easier for people to get answers to any questions they might have. And if you have specific questions about content from the podcast, please feel free to leave them in the comments on this post.

This post was originally published last year to address some questions that Deborah Bolnick and I were getting about our paper “Does Mitochondrial Haplogroup X Indicate Ancient Trans-Atlantic Migration to the Americas? A Critical Re-Evaluation.”  I’ve edited it slightly to reflect the fact that the paper itself is now open access, and you should be able to download it here or at my page. (I’m actually really shocked at the number of downloads it’s gotten…apparently this is a topic that a lot of people find interesting!).

As soon as my syllabi for the upcoming semester are finished, I will try to write up another post that summarizes recent findings in North American anthropological genetics, and what they mean for our understanding of the initial peopling of the Americas. In the meantime, if you’re interested in ancient DNA I highly recommend you get up to speed on some of the methods by reading this post.


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Guest post by Rosi Sexton: Why ‘why’ matters

A few days ago, I published this post about the pseudoscience I see frequently in MMA communities. For a different perspective, I invited former professional fighter, osteopath, and all around brilliant person Rosi Sexton to share her thoughts with us. While her position is a bit ‘softer’ than mine, I think it’s important to get a diversity of perspectives, particularly from people who are actually treating patients. Enjoy! –Jennifer

Cupping seems to be the new therapy buzzword around these Olympics. I’ve had a few discussions with people asking me what I think about all these athletes sporting cupping marks on their backs and shoulders. My answer? “Well, that depends”.

Let’s get a few things straight before I go any further. In common with most of the skeptics who have already commented on this latest trend, I think it’s very unlikely that cupping has much of a direct physiological effect. There’s no evidence to suggest that it affects the underlying tissues very much at all, never mind in a way that’s likely to be performance enhancing.

So case closed? Cupping is nonsense, as with so many other ‘trendy’ interventions.

Not so fast. In the absence of claims made for specific physical outcomes, cupping is just a physical activity. It makes no more sense to say that “cupping is nonsense”, any more than it makes sense to say that Morris dancing is nonsense: both activities seem a little odd to me, but if there are people who enjoy them for their own sake, then I’m not about to argue with their experience. Although I’ve never had a cupping treatment, several friends tell me they find it nice and relaxing.

“But where’s the evidence for that?” the skeptics ask; and here’s where I think the problem lies. Sometimes we fail to distinguish adequately between objective claims about fact (“this treatment will make your muscles stronger”) and subjective claims about personal experience (“I had this treatment, and it made me feel really good”). When we start to imply that people’s individual experience is invalid, or wrong, because they don’t have scientific evidence to support it – that’s when sportspeople start to complain that the scientists are arrogant, out of touch curmudgeonly killjoys.

Imagine that someone has conducted a large survey about leisure activities. Suppose the results come back, and it turns out that on average people find quiet country walks and loud, alcohol fuelled parties equally enjoyable. Does this mean that you that your introverted great aunt Agatha will be persuaded to forgo her gentle Sunday afternoon stroll in favour of accompanying you to a nightclub? Unlikely. Telling her there’s evidence that the two activities are equally enjoyable probably wouldn’t be persuasive – because enjoyment is subjective, and Aunt Agatha knows what she likes. The fact that things like pain, discomfort, pleasure and happiness are all subjective and difficult to measure isn’t a reason not to research them – but it does raise difficulties that should be taken into account. I have misgivings about measuring something as complicated as pain on a 1-10 scale, for example; but we have to start somewhere. It also means that we should be very clear about what the research does, and doesn’t, say when we apply it to individuals.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. Perhaps that athlete finds the treatment pleasant and relaxing because he’s been told it’ll have beneficial effects on his performance, when in fact this is highly questionable. The ethics of using placebo effects in top level sport – where winning and losing can be measured in milliseconds – is a subject that needs a whole separate post, but that’s not what I’m advocating here. I think it’s possible to be clear and honest about what’s known about a treatment, and to allow for a person’s individual subjective experience at the same time.

Talking openly with the athlete about why they are using a particular treatment, and being very clear about what they expect it to achieve is an important part of that process. If an athlete I’m treating tells me that she wants to use a treatment like cupping, then my first question is to ask why she’s doing it. I want her to think about what she’s likely to get out of it, and to ensure that it’s not being used instead of evidence based treatment to address any underlying problems. If it’s only giving some temporary relief, could the time and money might be better spent elsewhere? What are the risks of adverse effects, and are the benefits worth it?

As a clinician, I find that framing the conversation in this way to be a more effective way of communicating with my athletes. By taking a hard line against misleading claims but not against the practice itself (except where it’s likely to be actually harmful), it encourages the athlete to apply their own critical thinking. We talk about how athletes can monitor their own experience more methodically, to see whether particular changes to their plan have a consistent (subjective) effect or not.

Learning how to sensibly navigate the large gaps between our small islands of knowledge is something that those in high level sport constantly struggle with. No athlete can afford to use only methods that have been proven rigorously by science – despite the best efforts of sports science there is simply too little evidence out there. At the same time, it’s easy to get suckered in by the latest trendy therapy or product; when winning and losing come down to tiny margins, many athletes feel that they can’t afford to take the risk of not using something just in case it does make a difference. Applying a sceptical thought process while at the same time allowing for personal experience and individual circumstances gives a framework for evaluating these unknowns, whether it’s a “wacky” therapy like cupping, a new training method or a cortisone injection.

Two questions you should never be afraid to ask:

“What, exactly, is this supposed to achieve?”

“What reason do I have to think it can do that?”

I’ve never experienced cupping, but I did have a hot stone massage once. It was lovely. It didn’t cure my neck pain, of course (nor was I expecting it to) – but it was a very pleasant distraction from it for an hour or so. Your mileage may vary.