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.
Colin here, taking over the job Jennifer’s graciously been doing by editing and posting my own writing. I’m no longer on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. Now I’m home (briefly) and writing up my experiences. This is a fuller explanation of what happened on the fifth day. You can read Day 1 here, Day 2 here , Day 3 here, Day 4 here, Day 5 Part 1 here, and an explanation for what I was doing here.
I have just one more full day to go, then a very personal post about the very last morning of the cruise. I want to move forward quickly because we aren’t done after that. In the future I’ll write in more detail about individual presentations and my thoughts about what the conference has to teach us about irrational ideologies and the debates around those beliefs.
In the last post, I explained how I wound up as the primary audience of a long, angry lecture by Andy Wakefield. Here’s a much more detailed explanation of what happened, and some thoughts on why it happened and why it matters.
And I apologize in advance for the fishing puns. Honestly, I tried to stop.
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.
We Americans sometimes seem to have only two settings when it comes to public health issues; “unconcern” and “panic”. (I think the media deserve a great deal of blame for this, but that’s another blog post). The last few weeks have seen the switch flipped to near panic about Ebola, after the recent infection of two Texas Health Presbyterian nurses who were treating infected patient Thomas Eric Duncan, and possible exposure of additional people after one of the nurses took a commercial flight. The fact that forty three individuals who had direct contact with Mr. Duncan have now passed the 21 day incubation period for the disease without signs of infection, that Senegal has been declared free from Ebola (no new infections have occurred there for 42 days), that Nigeria is close to the same milestone, and that the two nurses who treated Mr. Duncan, Amber Vinson and Nina Pham, are doing much better, don’t seem to make much of a dent in the fearmongering I’ve seen in recent weeks.
And now with the report that a physician with Doctors Without Borders, who recently returned to his home in New York City from West Africa, has tested positive without Ebola, the “Ebola panic” is just going to get worse.
So given the fact that I live so close to the “Ebola hospital” (just two hours!) I thought I’d share with my readers what precautions I’m taking to protect my family’s health. Continue reading →
Given ongoing interest in this post: https://violentmetaphors.com/2013/08/14/the-truth-about-vaccinations-your-physician-knows-more-than-the-university-of-google/, and based on several people’s suggestions to me, I’m going to put together a FAQ on the subject of vaccine myths/misconceptions. I will be pulling questions from the comment section of the University of Google post (and other places), but I would like to ask for your participation. What questions do you or your friends have about vaccines? What are some vaccine myths have you heard that you’d like to have addressed? What kinds of information would you find helpful for sharing with family members when talking about vaccine issues? Parents, I’m *especially* interested in questions that come up repeatedly on parenting forums and messageboards.
Please leave me any questions/suggestions/links in the comments below, or email me privately at jenniferraff (at) utexas (dot) edu
Thanks, as always, to everyone for reading, commenting, and sharing.
“A cousin of my mom’s survived Polio and lived the rest of his life with its effects. He was not expected to live past his teens but made it to his 40s. I am grateful that modern science can protect us from Polio and other diseases and I choose to take advantage of modern science to give my kid better odds of not dying from a preventable disease. I had heard a lot of noise from people claiming vaccines caused Autism, but never saw any clear evidence. It just seemed to me like people really wanted to point to something as the cause and they latched onto vaccines.”–Jennifer
“(I got my children vaccinated) because the science supports it and I don’t want my kids to die. And civic reasons. It’s so straightforward.”–Britta
Whatever the reason, this week I’ve been in many conversations with individuals staunchly against vaccinations, parents who are very upset at the idea of unvaccinated children putting their own kids at risk, and parents who are confused and worried and want to know how to make the best decision possible for their children’s safety. I’m writing this for the third group of parents. Continue reading →
I abhor the exploitative practices of Monsanto and companies like it. But truth is more important than politics, and I am always going to speak out when I see false information being touted as “science” to further an agenda.
I wanted to make this clear because I seem be writing a lot about the misrepresentation of GMOs as being harmful to your health. This article (“GMO feed turns pig stomachs to mush”) is by Natural News, which is emphatically NOT a scientific publication. It’s a site with a definite bias, and implies that people who disagree (I guess that means me?) are “paid online trolls, on-the-take ‘scientists.'”*
My friends are extraordinary people. The people I’m attracted to are very driven and highly intelligent (and perhaps more than a little neurotic). The majority of them are also passionate about exercise.
“Exercise” is maybe too mild a term for this group: they are athletes devoted to a sport (either professionally or as committed amateurs), or they are coaches who are as relentless about training themselves as they are their students. To a person, they freely admit that this activity is essential for their mental well-being.
And while I believe that their lives are very stressful, they handle stress remarkably well. They seem to be very resilient when bad stuff happens to them. This is an anecdotal observation on my part, but it interested me enough to go read about the effects of exercise on the brain. Here’s what I found: Continue reading →
“8 Foods We Eat In The US That Are Banned In Other Countries”, written by Ashley Perez summarizes some claims made in “Rich Food, Poor Food”, a book by Dr. Jayson Calton and Mira Calton. It’s intended to give us the ‘real truth’ about the horrible chemicals that we’re ingesting on a daily basis. The problem? It’s complete nonsense to anyone who knows even a little bit about chemistry. Continue reading →
The good news is that thanks to excellent public health outreach in England, vaccination rates are improving significantly. But I worry that many people still don’t understand the issues. Let me summarize them for you: Continue reading →