Category Archives: Pseudoscience

Real Guys Immunize

guyzimmunize logo.jpgLast week I went to Philadelphia to a very interesting meeting – a Social Media Summit on Immunization. Sponsored by Immunization Action Coalition, this was a second annual meeting for health-care non-profits, organized (amazingly well, with great attention to detail) by Lisa Randall (and, I am sure, a small army of helpers).
Over a day and a half of the meeting there were two simultaneous sessions at each time slot, but I did not have much opportunity to ponder my choices as I was at the front of the room at three sessions, and participated actively in several others. The style was very ‘unconference-y’, with barely any PowerPoint – we talked and showed stuff on the Web as needed.
We discussed pros and cons of using various online platforms for spreading the message about vaccinations (which also means pushing back against anti-vaccination propaganda), making sure that all of the representatives of the non-profits understand they don’t have to use all (or any) of them unless this can be useful for the work they want to do and the goal they want to achieve. But if they do feel it is necessary, we were there to explain and demonstrate how to do it: static pages, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., the best practices and strategies for using each of these platforms, the metrics for measuring the spread of their message, etc. This was a LOT of stuff, and we covered a lot of ground, but I hope we were useful.
On the second day, we had a very interesting discussion following the presentation by Anna Kata, anthropologist from McMaster University, whose recent paper, A postmodern Pandora’s box: anti-vaccination misinformation on the Internet, analyzed the arguments by the anti-vaccination groups use in their online discussions. What is most interesting is that every single one of these arguments is nothing new – each has been used from the very beginning of vaccination, in 1796, from personal attacks on Edward Jenner, to arguments about “playing God”, to fear of putting animal material into bodies, to suspecting a conspiracy by government, industry and medical profession, to arguments for personal freedom, to proposing alternative theories of health (and disease and treatments). It never really stopped, it just has some very prominent spokesemen right now, visible in the media.
What is important is that people who reject vaccination are not the uneducated and the poor. The poor tend to trust the authority of physicians and will gladly vaccinate – if they can afford it. It is the upper-middle-class, at least nominally well educated, that refuses to vaccinate their kids. Trying to change their minds by presenting them the information does not work – they do not treat that information as valid. They live in a post-modern world in which everyone is entitled to their own facts. Their notions of body, health, and disease are very holistic, very New-Agey, so medical information does not mean anything to them. But they (not the activists, but parents seeking information) can be swayed by peer pressure. And nothing works better than for them to hear, from their friends, family, neighbors, colleagues and physicians, over and over again “I vaccinated my kids, trust me, I know what I’m doing, you should vaccinate yours, too.” If people they trust vaccinate, they will start wavering in their beliefs and may end up vaccinating themselves in the end. It is that social pressure, and need to socially conform, that is much more powerful than all the medical information in the world.
As a demonstration of the way, and ease of the way, for putting together a social media strategy, a group of ‘Social Media Ninjas’, about 5-6 of them who have never met or worked together before, took over one of the rooms and all of its computers during the meeting. They had 24 hours from start to finish. They started by crowdsourcing ideas, then picking one and running with it. The one they picked was focused on explaining ‘herd immunity’ and the target audience was men.
Almost all of the activity in persuading people to vaccinate their kids targets women, as it is supposed that mothers are the only ones making decisions about their children. This leaves out half of the population. And that half of the population can really help. In some families, still in the 21st century I know, the father has the last word. In other families, mother may resist vaccines out of fear and insecurity and her husband’s support can make all the difference – they can study the issue together, discuss it and make the decision together.
So the Social Media Ninja team, in that 24-hour period, came up with the name – “Real Guys Immunize” – drew a logo, and built a static web page, which explains what this is all about, provides brief FAQs and links to external resources. It also provides an easy way for readers to post personal stories.
They started a Twitter account (and the #guysimmunize hashtag), a YouTube channel and a Facebook page. They designed an e-card for Father’s Day. They had a couple of participants write blog posts (see here and here). And they put together a cool slideshow:

They decided against making a video (24 hours was too short, and nobody in the room was a real video-maven) though this can be done later, and made other changes to the original plan as the 24 hours passed. At the very end, they presented all of that to the gathering, including the first metrics of their reach (whatever one can measure after such a short time):

The site (and everything else associated with it on social media) is not really owned by anyone – it was just an experiment done to show how such a thing is made. So, if anyone is interesting in taking over this initiative and moving it forward into the future, there is a contact e-mail there, just click.


Preaching to the choir

I got this video from Orac’s blog where an interesting comment thread is developing. This also goes against those who lament the “echo chambers” but those tend to be the same people who write HeSaidSheSaid articles every day – they live in a binary world where only “who wins the two-horse horserace” matters and anything more sophisticated than that is ‘elitist’ and to be ignored as ‘outside of mainstream’ which – the mainstream – they, the savvy Villagers with nice hairdos on TV, get to define.

Michael Specter: The danger of science denial

Michael Specter, author of Denialism, the Keynote Speaker at ScienceOnline2010, spoke at TED conference a couple of months ago. The video of his TED talk is now up, and Michael wrote an editorial to go with it:

All Science vs. Religion Conflicts are Essentially and Primarily Political Conflicts

In a recent post, my SciBling Jason Rosenhouse with whom I usually agree on these matters, voices a strong disagreement with this quote (from Thomas Dixon’s book Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press in 2008):

Historians have shown that the Galileo affair, remembered by some as a clash between science and religion, was primarily about the enduring political question of who was authorized to produce and disseminate knowledge.

Jason counters that Galileo affair, as well as the more modern Creationist wars, are primarily and perhaps entirely science vs. religion wars, not political. He writes:

Afficionados of science/religion disputes will recognize in this a standard gambit of the genre. Specifically, the attempt to recast situations that are obviously conflicts between science and religion into conflicts about something else.

Another SciBling, Mike Dunford, disagrees with Jason on the Creationism wars:

The conflict arises when creationists attempt to force their religious views onto the children of other people, who do not necessarily share those views. That’s not a dispute over what the most authoritative source of knowledge is; that’s a dispute over the exercise of secular authority. In other words, it’s a political conflict.

The commenters on both posts then lose the sight of forest for the trees and get bogged down in the historical minutiae about the Gallileo affair. Not very constructive. Let me cut through all that and come out strongly on the Thomas Dixon side. Step by step. This way:
1) Every conflict is about power. Ergo, every conflict is essentially a political conflict. Who gets to be the boss. Who gets the money. Who gets first dibs at the pretty peasant girls from the village that feeds the nobles in the castle. Who gets to kill whom. Who gets to invade whom. Who gets the territory.
2) Conflicts require troops. Better the troops are motivated, more likely the positive outcome will be for the power-hungry leader. In many conflicts, the leaders motivate the troops by recasting the conflict in terms of “You are wrong, we are right, thus you die”. Those are conflicts over facts: who has the better facts. If those facts relate to the way the world works, then those facts are amenable to empirical testing.
3) Throughout history, including today, the conflicts over facts have been conflicts over religious facts. While the core reason for the conflict is power for the ruling class, religion serves wonderfully to unite the troops around a common idea, common symbols, a shared destiny. Religion probably evolved to aid group cohesion in early human societies and can be wonderfully used to aid group cohesion when a battle needs to be waged, even today.
4) Most of these fact-based conflicts pit one set of religious “facts” with another set of religious “facts”. We call these conflicts “religious wars” despite religion being just an excuse for a power-grab or invasion or civil war. Both sides’ facts fail the empirical tests, but the “You are wrong, we are right, thus you die” is still the battle cry for both sides.
5) In some, more recent conflicts, facts of one side actually pass the empirical test. These are wars between reason and superstition. We like to call them wars between Science and Religion. Often they are not waged with real weapons, but with other political means: battles over control of the classrooms, the goverment, the military, etc. Clearly, religion is a troup-motivator for one side, but the goal is obviously political power. In the USA, the two sides have over the past three decades or so clearly aligned with the two major political parties. Democrats are generally realistic and ignore the pseudoscientific extremists from the far left who have zero influence on policy. Republicans are anti-scientific and anti-reality at the core – that is what defines their party, their platform and their conservative ideology – the most extreme anti-science forces from the far right ARE the party leaders, their members in Congress, and their most visible representatives in the public eye. It is them who write the policy, while the realistic conservatives are marginalized or kicked out of the party.
6) Creationism is just one of many weapons in a unified anti-reality political platform of the Right. Some Creationists are just indoctrinated, scared folks who provide ground troops in this conflict. Other Creationists are part of the power-hungry elite of the party who use Creationism as a motivator for a particular segments of their ground-troops (other populations are motivated in other ways, with other tools, e.g., greed, or fear of terrorists, etc.). The Science vs. Religion aspect of the conflict is just window-dressing – the essence of the conflict is political: it is all about Power.
To summarize:
Every conflict is a political conflict.
Some conflicts are also superficially about facts about the world.
Some of these conflicts happen to pit correct facts against incorrect facts.
Creationist wars, just like all Science vs. Religious wars, are thus a subset of a subset of a subset of all conflicts. And they are all essentially and profoundly political conflicts. Which is why I wrote this dissertation-long post the other day – read it.

What does it mean that a nation is ‘Unscientific’?

If a publisher offered me a contract to write a book under a title that would be something like “Unscientific America”, how would I go about it?
I would definitely be SUCH a scientist! But, being such a scientist does not mean indulging in Sesquipedalian Obscurantism. Being such a scientist means being dilligent, thorough and systematic in one’s reasearch. And then being excited about presenting the findings, while being honest about the degree of confidence one can have in each piece of information.
I was not offered a book contract, and I do not have the resources and nine or twelve months to write such a book. But in the next couple of hours days I will write a blog post (this one, I am just starting) thinking through the methodology I would use for such a project, musing about difficulties, jotting down notes and – this being a blog – asking readers for links to information that can either reinforce or challenge my hypotheses. So please follow me under the fold…..

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Introducing the Skeptical Blog Anthology 2009 – the best of skeptical blogging

This is exciting! From Young Australian Skeptics: Skeptical Blog Anthology 2009:

Inspired by the annual The Open Laboratory, the Skeptical Blog Anthology is a printed anthology of blog posts voted the very best of 2009, managed by the Young Australian Skeptics in conjunction with the Critical Teaching Education Group (CTEG). The anthology is an attempt to bring a greater awareness of the skeptical content on blog sites and showcase some of the range and diversity in the blogosphere.
With an aim to provide text-based resources to classes and readers who may be interested or intrigued by what skepticism has to offer, entries from January 1st to December 1st 2009 are eligible for submission. Both a print and Portable Document Format (pdf) will be made available for purchase via, with estimated printing early in 2010.
Entries can be self-nominated or proposed by readers of skeptical blog sites. The guidelines proposed by the popular Skeptics’ Circle are a fine indicator of the kind of content suitable for the anthology, including urban legends, the paranormal, quackery, pseudoscience, intelligent design, historical revisionism, critical thinking, skeptical parenting/​educating skeptically, superstitions, etc.
Please use the following form to submit entries, which will continue up to the closing date.

Why the anti-vaccine movement even exists? And how it got started?

An article that is likely to make the rounds of the science/medical blogosphere (and get the anti-vaccer trolls out of the woodwork):

Researchers long ago rejected the theory that vaccines cause autism, yet many parents don’t believe them. Can scientists bridge the gap between evidence and doubt?

Writes Liza Gross in the latest Feature article in PLoS Biology: A Broken Trust: Lessons from the Vaccine-Autism Wars:

Until the summer of 2005, Sharon Kaufman had never paid much attention to the shifting theories blaming vaccines for a surge in reported cases of autism. Kaufman, a medical anthropologist at the University of California, San Francisco, knew that the leading health institutions in the United States had reviewed the body of evidence, and that they found no reason to think vaccines had anything to do with autism. But when she read that scientists and public officials who commented on the studies routinely endured malevolent emails, abusive phone calls, and even death threats, she took notice.
“Hecklers were issuing death threats to spokespeople,” Kaufman exclaims, “people who simply related the scientists’ findings.” To a researcher with a keen eye for detecting major cultural shifts, these unsettling events signaled a deeper trend. “What happens when the facts of bioscience are relayed to the public and there is disbelief, lack of trust?” Kaufman wondered. “Where does that lead us?”
Struck by how the idea of a vaccine-autism link continued to gain cultural currency even as science dismissed it, Kaufman took a 26-month hiatus from her life’s work on aging and longevity to investigate the forces fueling this growing divide between scientists and citizens (see Figure 1). She wanted to understand how parents thought about risk and experts, how these attitudes shaped parents’ decisions about vaccination, and what the vaccine wars might teach us about the long-term erosion of public trust in science….

Read the whole thing