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 This paper was retracted after Brian Deer’s and the Lancet’s investigations revealed: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



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.

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.


Continue reading

How to flunk out of the University of Google

As I’m putting the (hopefully) final touches on a short textbook that I’m writing entitled “Handbook on Science Literacy”, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to recommend a person go about systematically investigating a scientific issue without having any background in it. Sure, you can learn how to read and understand a scientific article, but let’s be honest—far too many people choose instead to do a quick web search and let that settle the question. This practice works okay in some instances, but in others it produces misleading or wrong answers.

I want to share with you my strategies for flunking out of the University of Google.

This is one instance where flunking is a good thing. A graduate of the University of Google chooses to accept only information that supports his or her position, and ignores or dismisses information in conflict with it. A graduate of the University of Google will not be able to answer the question “What kind of evidence would change your mind on this subject?” It’s insidious, because once their opinions are formed in this way, they tend to identify with other people who share those opinions, and any new information that comes their way will either be accepted or rejected on the basis of which position they’ve already taken (the cultural cognition effect)

None of us want to be that kind of person.

Flunking out requires a decent amount of work, and the willingness to accept that you might be wrong about a subject from time to time. You’ll need to become more aware of your own cognitive biases, and have some strategies for overcoming them.

So as a preliminary step down the road to science literacy, I’ve put my thoughts on this together into a guide to learning about a subject in which you have no background. It’s an exercise; please don’t shortcut the process and go to Wikipedia, or you’ll miss the whole point.

Flunking out
How to flunk out of the University of Google.

Continue reading

Behind the scenes at NASA: The HERA project

Side view of the HERA project facility. The hygiene module, where bathrooms and showers are housed, is in the foreground.


What happens if you put a group of adults together in a confined space and leave them isolated for weeks? Can they get along? Can they work together to productively carry out complex tasks, stay in shape, and conduct scientific research?

This sounds like the premise for a reality show (minus the scientific research part, which sadly doesn’t play well on television). And in a way it is: these adults are filmed every second of the day. But instead of entertainment, this project has one very serious goal: develop strategies for keeping humans healthy, sane, productive, and safe for long duration voyages into space.

The Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) project is a critical component of NASA’s Flight Analogs Project, which carries out research on different aspects of human long-duration spaceflight. I recently visited NASA to give a talk on genetics to ISS scientists, and was able to tour the HERA facility and talk about the project with its former director, Joe Neigut. Because this isn’t the sort of thing that one gets to access on the regular Johnson Space Center tour, I asked the NASA officials if it would be all right for me to write a blog about my experiences to share with readers, and they kindly agreed, stipulating only a few restrictions on what I was allowed to share in the interests of research integrity.  So here’s what I saw and what I learned.  Continue reading

No, We Don’t Actually Know That Modern Humans Killed Off The Hobbits

This article is cross-posted from the Social evolution forum where I occasionally write about issues in human evolution.

A new paper out last week in Nature by Sutikna et al. has generated a great deal of excitement, by reporting a revised date range for the diminutive hominin, H. floresiensis, nicknamed the “hobbit” because of its stature (just 3.5 feet for adults). The previous accepted date range for H. floresiensis (95,000-12,000 YBP) implied that humans and hobbits co-existed on Flores for some considerable period of time, prompting fun analogies to the setting of J.R.R Tolkien’s legendarium, Middle-earth, in which humans, hobbits, dwarves, and other races co-existed and interacted. (I actually love this comparison, because it really resonates with my students and makes teaching human evolution easier.)

The original dates for H. floresiensis were based on the (then reasonable) assumption that the depositional sequence in one part of the cave was representative of other parts of the cave. But caves are very active geological systems, and it often turns out—as in this case—that stratigraphy isn’t uniform. When researchers excavated elsewhere in the Liang Bua cave, they found new stratigraphic details (erosion of older deposits followed by filling in of younger deposits) that prompted them to redate the sequence. These new data gave a range of 100-60,000 YBP for the skeletal remains of H. floresiensis and 190,000-50,000 for floresiensis-associated artifacts. The end of this date range—50,000 YBP—happens to be close to the estimated appearance time of modern H. sapiens on the island, which raises some intriguing questions.  For those of you interested in a detailed analysis of the errors of the original dates, and a discussion of some still-unresolved issues with the paper, I highly recommend John Hawks’ post What the revised Liang Bua chronology leaves unanswered.

The cave at Liang Bua. By Rosino - [1], CC BY-SA 2.0,

Unfortunately, some in the media have gone beyond discussion of those questions and breathlessly reported that these new dates likely mean that our species wiped out the hobbits. While that hypothesis certainly remains a formal–and fascinating– possibility, it’s only one of several. It’s based simply on the observation that under the current chronology, approximately the same time modern humans got to Flores, we stop seeing hobbit tools in the deposits at Liang Bua.

But I want to point out that we have no direct evidence (as yet) showing any interaction between H. sapiens and H. floresiensis, as the authors noted in the closing sentence of their manuscript:

“Parts of southeast Asia may have been inhabited by Denisovans or other hominins during this period, and modern humans had reached Australia by 50 kyr ago. But whether H. floresiensis survived after this time, or encountered modern humans, Denisovans or other hominin species on Flores or elsewhere, remain open questions that future discoveries may help to answer.”

So as of right now, we actually don’t know that humans killed off (either directly or indirectly) hobbits. But this is probably the interpretation that the interested public has walked away with after this week. Call me conservative, but I’m a bit uncomfortable that our speculation might have given people the impression of greater certainty than we actually have.

There are two other aspects of this new finding that interest me. The first is the implication that these older dates have for the debate over whether H. floresiensis was a pathological modern H. sapiens or a separate species with distinctive morphology, likely caused by insular dwarfism. The older date range for these fossils suggests that H. floresiensis was indeed a separate species. Furthermore, as Kristina Kilgrove discusses, these new dates also undermine cryptozoological interpretations of the Indonesian legend of Ebu Gogo as deriving from sustained interactions between humans and H. floresiensis as recently as 12,000 years ago.

The second aspect of these new dates that I find interesting is that although they mean that the hobbits were older than we initially thought, they still fall within the range of time in which it’s possible to obtain ancient DNA from skeletal remains. I have no idea whether there will be further attempts to extract aDNA from the hobbits (previous attempts were unsuccessful), but I continue to be hopeful that someday we will have hobbit DNA. If H. floresiensis is, as some suspect, a descendant of H. erectus, then their genomes could give us a glimpse of that species’ genetic diversity and help us better understand the evolutionary history of ourselves, Neanderthals, and Denisovans.


Sexual harassment in physical anthropology


Astronomy again.

Molecular biology.

Story after story about sexual harassment of students and trainees by professors has been coming out recently. Today Michael Balter has just published an important news piece about the same thing happening much closer to home–in my discipline, physical anthropology. Specifically, in the subfield of paleoanthropology.

The story is very complex, but the gist is that a young research assistant has come forward with allegations that she was sexually assaulted by her supervisor, Brian Richmond, in his hotel room at a European conference.

Outsiders may never know for sure what happened in that Florence hotel room. But the incident ultimately triggered a cascade of other allegations against Richmond and a resolve by some senior paleoanthropologists to do battle against sexual misconduct, hoping to change the climate of their field. The charges and the community’s response also roiled two leading institutions, which struggled with shifting cultural expectations, inadequate reporting and disciplinary tools, and the challenge of treating all parties fairly.

Please read the entire story, carefully reported by Balter here. Continue reading

Troubled Waters: ConspiraSea Cruise Day 4(ish)

Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the fourth day’s report. You can read Day 1 here, Day 2 here , Day 3 here, day 5 (part 1) here, day 5 (part 2) here , and an explanation for what he is doing here.  If you would like to give him questions or advice, please comment on this post–I’ll make sure he sees it. –Jennifer

When I started this project, many (many many) people warned me to be careful and that I might be in danger. I didn’t take that possibility seriously then, and I don’t take it seriously now—I personally have never felt unsafe at this conference. But I am not the only writer here. And the others, who unlike me are professional journalists, will tell their stories eventually. Until then I’d like to share the events of the last couple of days. This is a story about a long series events taking place at a confusing and busy event; it’s going to be long and busy and confusing at times. Sorry.  (Note: Colin emailed me two days’ worth of material in a single batch, and I split them up by day to make this post more manageable. You can read part 2 here.–Jennifer). You want clear and concise and comprehensible stories, read about a conference that doesn’t feature an antivaccine guru, a pistol-packing presidential candidate, a self-employed and self-declared “international judge” and an alchemist all on the same boat. What I’ve got is what they gave me. Continue reading

Nothing to fear: ConspiraSea cruise day 3

Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the third day’s report. You can find the first day’s report here, the second day’s report here, the fourth day’s report here, the fifth day’s report (part 1) here, day 5 (part 2) here , and an explanation for what he is doing here. If you would like to give him questions or advice, please comment on this post–I’ll make sure he sees it. –Jennifer

Today’s post will be relatively short, for a few reasons. Primarily it’s because even though I’m on a cruise ship, this is exhausting! Everything starts around 8 am and ends around 10 pm. The ship is full of amenities—bars, restaurants, minigolf, swimming pools, hot tubs, saunas, a library, coffee shops, massages, shopping, comedy shows, movie theaters, and god know what else. I don’t, because I haven’t used any of those things except a couple of restaurants, a coffee shop, and the treadmill. I’m not complaining, though, because the important stuff is here. I’m meeting fascinating people, and that’s not a euphemism. For the most part, the people here are pleasant and engaging and well worth getting to know. Continue reading

Reverse the Constitutional Polarity of the Baryonic Trustee Matrix: Legal Gibberish on the ConspiraSea Cruise (Day 2)

Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the second day’s report. You can find the first day’s report here, day 3 here, day 4 here, day 5 (part 1) here, day 5 (part 2) here and an explanation for what he is doing here. If you would like to give him questions or advice, please comment on this post–I’ll make sure he sees it. –Jennifer

This is Jennifer’s blog, and Jennifer is a scientist. So most of the posts here are about science in one way or another. And I love that, because I love science—the idea of it, the practice of it, and the success of it. So when we talk about irrationality and pseudoscience, it’s only natural that we’re mostly focused on pseudoarchaeology, pseudogenetics, anti-vaccine and anti-GMO irrationality. There’s plenty of that on this boat and I’m going to write about it, but so far it’s nothing new.

This post isn’t about pseudoscience. Not about anti-vaxers or GMO fearmongering. Lots of our readers come here for those topics, but don’t turn away just yet. I want to talk about something most of you have barely thought about, but something that may be more important than anti-vaccine pseudoscience—at least for its victims.

As much as I love science, I’m not a scientist. I’m a lawyer. I graduated from Harvard Law School, served as a staff clerk for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and clerked for a very respected federal judge in Texas. Before I left the practice I spent years litigating cases for an international law firm, doing things like suing a hedge fund for committing fraud in the securitization of esoteric financial instruments. I don’t say any of this stuff to put on airs. It never once got me a date when I was single. I just want to establish that while I’m not a famous legal scholar or law school professor or distinguished expert, I know more than a little something about how courts and laws work. That’s why this post isn’t about pseudoscience but pseudolaw.

And it matters. Pseudolaw isn’t harmless. It ruins lives. It sends people to prison. People die behind this, as you’ve seen happen in Oregon. The pseudolaw that’s happening on the boat is tame by comparison, but still has the potential to wreck the lives of well-meaning people. It’s important to take a break from pseudoscience to see how this slow-motion disaster is happening in front of our eyes, and then we’ll take a look at how it’s affecting the anti-vaccine movement.

This is a harsher post than I expected to write, and much harsher than I’ll be writing about the rest of the cruise. If you’re on the cruise with me and reading this, please do it with an open mind. This is what it means to seek the truth, which is what the cruise is supposed to be helping us all do. Continue reading