A succession of stories in recent weeks involving scientists and open records requests have anguished many who cherish two ideals: academic freedom and transparency.
I imagine that journalists have also been grappling with a tension between those two ideals. (I know I have.) More on that in a minute. First a recap.
Two weeks ago, I reported in Science magazine that an anti-GMO group had filed a flurry of freedom of information requests, “asking administrators to turn over any correspondence between a dozen academic researchers and a handful of agricultural companies, trade groups, and PR firms.”
Several days after that story appeared, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report detailing how open records requests “are increasingly being used to harass and intimidate scientists and other academic researchers, or to disrupt and delay their work.” The timing of the UCS report was coincidental and had been prepared well before my story was published. Nonetheless, biotech researchers, particularly those requested to turn over their emails to an anti-GMO group, felt that the UCS report had reflected their plight. And Gretchen Goldman, a lead analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, seemed to agree:
These requests to the genetic engineering researchers, just like other overly broad open records requests that seek excessive access to scientists’ inboxes, are inappropriate.
So was this a case where the principles of transparency were being (mis)used in a way that threatened academic freedom?
Before you answer, consider: Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Wei-Hock Soon (informally known as Willie), a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, had received industry funding explicitly for published work and congressional testimony that was critical of mainstream climate science. (Soon has long been a popular figure in climate skeptic circles.) The environmental group Greenpeace used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents that revealed the extent and terms of Soon’s corporate funding. As the Times reports:
The documents show that Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.
After the Times story appeared, Aaron Huertas, communications officer for UCS, wrote a blog post headlined, “Willie Soon’s Failure to Disclose Industry Funding for Contrarian Climate Research is Another Reason to Support Transparency.”
Someone else had the same sentiment.
— Gary Ruskin (@garyruskin) February 22, 2015
Ruskin is executive director of U.S. Right to Know, the anti-GMO group that recently sent freedom of information requests to four universities that employ agricultural researchers working in biotechnology. Ruskin suspects there is an unholy nexus between companies like Monsanto and some academic scientists. Thus his interest in any email correspondence between academic scientists and industry. Might such communication reveal unethical relationships similar to that just disclosed between climate contrarian Willie Soon and the energy industry? I’ve talked with many of the agricultural researchers targeted by Ruskin and they say that they have nothing to hide. One of them, Kevin Folta, a biologist at the University of Florida, Gainsville, has spoken out forcefully against what he believes is
nothing more than a hunt for words to smear a few visible public teachers and researchers that engage public dialog in animal and plant biotechnology. The effects are larger, scientists feel a violation of privacy, intimidation, and are less likely to reach out to lay audiences, which is what we should be doing most.
Does it matter if Ruskin’s actions spring from an ideological bias (anti-GMO), as Folta and his colleagues contend? Do intentions even matter? After all, Greenpeace is hardly a neutral bystander. Is anyone in the media or climate science questioning its FOIA motivations? Or does it matter only what the environmental group uncovered with its document request?
If you want to drill down into the vexing issues surrounding this debate, I highly recommend as a starting point Anna Clark’s recent Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) piece. Here’s the thrust of it: Read More
Last month, after the terrorist attacks in Paris, Nature published a Q & A with an anthropologist who studies the murderous motivations of Islamic extremists. He discussed socio-cultural factors and an allure to a radical ideology. That may help explain Islamic attacks against “infidels” in Europe and the United States, but then what’s driving suicide bombers in Somalia, Pakistan, and Iraq where it’s Muslims killing Muslims? Is there a common denominator?
In the current issue of Science, I report that a dozen university academics recently received freedom of information requests from a non-profit group opposed to genetically modified (GM) products. Why were these 12 scientists selected? In my piece, I write:
The group, U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) of Oakland, California, says it has no vendetta. It has targeted only researchers who have written articles posted on GMO Answers, a website backed by food and biotechnology firms, and work in states with laws that require public institutions to share many internal documents on request, says Executive Director Gary Ruskin. USRTK is interested in documenting links between universities and business, he says, and is “especially looking to learn how these faculty members have been appropriated into the PR machine for the chemical-agro industry.”
A statement issued by Ruskin after my piece appeared reiterates what he told me in an interview. The headline of his press release: “US Right to Know FOIAs Profs Who Wrote For GMO PR Website”
But this, I have since learned, is not accurate. It turns out that a number of the professors–including four of the six researchers targeted at the University of California, Davis–have had no connection with the GMO Answers website.
I mentioned this to Ruskin via email today, and he quickly wrote back: “You are correct and I am sorry. My fault.”
I asked him why he chose those four researchers, if they had nothing to do with the website. He responded with links to two articles (here and here) that show some of the UC Davis academics speaking out and writing on California’s 2012 GMO labeling proposition. (It was defeated.)
Shortly after my story was published, some biotech scientists expressed free speech concerns. At the Biofortified site, Karl Haro von Mogel, a research geneticist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, writes that
these FOIA requests risk violating academic freedom and have a silencing effect on scientist-communicators who fear becoming political targets.
Earlier this week I learned that a dozen public sector scientists working in the field of biotechnology were hit with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from a California-based group opposed to GMO foods. I spoke with many of the targeted scientists and also with the anti-GMO activist who filed the document requests. My story will appear in the next issue of Science, a magazine/journal published weekly on Thursdays.
I have additional reporting on this developing story. So stay tuned. Meanwhile, I’ll post (below) any updates or related media coverage.
UPDATE: Here is a PDF of the freedom of information request sent to Bruce Chassy, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois. (He gave his permission.) It is *nearly* identical to the requests sent to all the other scientists. [*Nearly* was inserted after this sentence was written.]
On Twitter, Andrew Revkin wonders about the similarity to a previous controversial episode that rocked the climate science community:
— Andy Revkin (@Revkin) February 11, 2015
UPDATE: Kevin Folta, one of the scientists who received a Freedom of Information request, has posted a heartfelt response.
Bill Maher, the comedian and host of his own HBO show, is God’s gift to conservatives. Nobody makes liberals look likes asses more than Maher. You think I’m kidding? Try watching Maher’s latest show without banging your head against the wall (if you’re an evidence-based, science-minded-liberal).
As Mark Hoofnagle observes at his Denialist blog, it is “just about the most perfect example I’ve seen yet that maybe reality doesn’t have a liberal bias.” The stuff Maher says about vaccines and immunity, in particular, will take your breath away. (Hoofnagle summarizes all the “incredibly stupid, unscientific beliefs about medicine” uttered by Maher.)
When you watch the clip, you’ll notice that one of the panelists, John McCormack, a senior writer for the Weekly Standard (a conservative magazine), is mostly quiet. I can see why. If the host is making a fool of himself, why get in the way? Still, McCormack has a barely concealed grin, as if he’s thinking, gleefully: I’m watching a left-wing equivalent of Glenn Beck–without the chalkboard.
Maher, towards the end of his opening rant, starts blathering about the dangers of Monsanto and GMOs. Hoofnagle describes what ensued: Read More
A recent article in Slate carried this headline:
If You Don’t accept Climate Change is Real, You’re Not a Sceptic. You’re a Denier.
I’ll return to its claim in a minute. The piece, by Arizona State University professor Lawrence Krauss, ruefully notes that the term “climate skeptic” is frequently used in the media as a shorthand label to identify someone who denies the reality of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming. He writes:
Skepticism is all about critical examination, evidence-based scientific inquiry, and the use of reason in examining controversial claims. Those who flatly deny the results of climate science do not partake in any of the above. They base their conclusions on a priori convictions. Theirs is an ideological conviction—the opposite of skepticism.
This certainly is true to a considerable extent. Anyone who reads the most highly trafficked “climate skeptic” blogs, such as the one run by Anthony Watts, will detect a consistent ideological bias and a skepticism that runs in only one direction–broadly doubtful of mainstream climate science. The criticisms published there are often slanted, marred by conspicuous omissions or a selective use of facts. The overall tone at the site is hostile and conspiratorial. What you mostly see at Watts Up With That is not true skepticism but rather confirmation bias masquerading as skepticism.
Of course, confirmation bias and motivated thinking are part of the human condition–cognitive behaviors that govern us all, to varying degrees. It is thus healthy to periodically question one’s own assumptions that take root in the mind.
Does this happen at “climate skeptic” blogs? Do the hosts there openly reassess governing notions from time to time? Do they apply critical thinking skills to all the research spotlighted on their sites, regardless of a given study’s results? For some sense of this, let’s look at how various “climate skeptic” blogs have dealt with something called “wind turbine syndrome,” an assortment of adverse medical symptoms supposedly triggered by exposure to low frequency noise from rotating wind turbine blades. I thoroughly examined the phenomenon some time ago. As one public health scientist who has studied it noted last year: Read More
The Republican political strategy during the past six years has been simple and consistent: If Obama was for it, we had to be against it.
No cooperation meant no bipartisan photo ops.
The one guy who bucked that was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when the Governor praised President Obama for his “outstanding” and “wonderful” response in the storm’s aftermath. As the Washington Post reported at the time:
He [Christie] even told Fox News the president had done a “great job for New Jersey” while staying above the fray about politics: “I’ve got a job to do here in New Jersey that’s much bigger than presidential politics, and I could care less about any of that stuff. I have a job to do. I’ve got 2.4 million people out of power. I’ve got devastation on the Shore. I’ve got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me.”
Fast forward to the present, as Christie mulls a potential run in next year’s presidential election. Over the weekend, President Obama weighed in on the recent measles outbreak making news, which the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warns may grow wider. On Sunday, Obama said in an interview: Read More
Last year, the late night talk show host and comedian Jimmy Kimmel added some levity to the contentious GMO debate. He went to a Los Angeles farmers market and asked passerby to define GMO. The responses were hilarious and perhaps revealing.
Of course, this was a comedy skit, so make what you will of the ignorance on display. Did the producers cherry pick the most most ridiculous sounding answers? Surely. Were there as many folks who answered correctly that got conveniently edited out? Who knows?
Still, the random responses elicited by Kimmel seem to be in line with recent research. A 2013 paper on American attitudes towards GMOs reported these survey results:
American consumers’ knowledge and awareness of GMO foods are low. More than half (54%) say they know very little or nothing at all about genetically modified foods, and one in four (25%) say they have never heard of them.
Now let’s jump to a new Pew poll that is getting widespread media coverage. Here’s one finding.
— Pew Research Center (@pewresearch) January 29, 2015
Well, that’s interesting. According to Pew, 2/3 of Americans doubt that scientists have enough information to judge the safety of GMOs. And yet previous (aforementioned) research suggests that more than half of Americans know zilch about genetically modified foods and a quarter never even heard of them. How is that so many people are clueless about genetically modified foods and yet–according to the Pew Survey–67% percent of Americans question whether scientists know enough about their health effects?
Indeed, as this article in Nature reports, the Pew poll
seems to reveal large gaps between scientists and the public when it comes to their opinions on a range of hotly debated scientific issues, such as climate change, evolution and the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods.
The gap is widest on the GMO issue. [UPDATE: Read Dan Kahan’s take on this and the whole Pew report]
The Nature piece by Erika Check Hayden includes excellent context on the Pew poll, as does this Atlantic article by Julie Beck and this one at FiveThirtyEight by Christie Aschwanden. Read these before you take the Pew results at face value. Dan Vergano at National Geographic also provides some larger perspective: Read More
In the late 2000s, I spent a year in Boulder, Colorado with my family. At the time, my two sons were four and two years old. The older one was in a pre-school and the younger one attended a day care for the last six months of our stay. My wife and I were pleased with both facilities.
We had kept both boys up to date with their immunizations, but I confess that we didn’t give much thought to whether other parents were doing the same. I’m not sure why, but it should have been on our radar. (I think I was more worried about mountain lions.) Anyway, Boulder may be a beautiful place to live, but it is a bubble of health-obssessed and woo-inclined people, a sizable number who are vaccine-averse. As one writer notes, “an estimated seven percent of parents in the Boulder Valley School District opted out of having their children vaccinated in 2011.” Colorado happens to be one of those states with a high number of vaccine-refusers.
Several years ago, a local Boulder newspaper reported:
A state study of immunization rates found that parents opted out of the measles, mumps and rubella and varicella (chickenpox) vaccines most often.
The recent Disneyland-centered measles outbreak got me thinking again of my time in Boulder and how my kids were potentially exposed to preventable diseases. I’m fairly certain my older son had gotten both of his MMR shots already, since at the time he was 4 years old, but the younger boy may have just received the first one (with the second coming later). Thinking back to that time makes me shudder now. As Virginia Hughes reminds us at Buzzfeed, this is what measles looks like.
Many (especially public health care providers) are justifiably concerned about a highly contagious disease like measles gaining a foothold in communities where parents opposed to childhood vaccines have clustered. So other than tightening personal exemption laws, what are some of the means that can be used to persuade the small percentage of anti-vaccine parents to immunize their kids? Unfortunately, giving them–and I’m talking about those who most strongly object to vaccines–more information (with scary images of sickened children) seems to backfire, as a recent study led by Brendan Nyhan showed.
So if science communication isn’t working, what about legal consequences?
This argument for holding vaccine resisters legally accountable for harm was made in a 2013 paper, whose lead author is a prominent bioethicist. A post this week at Forbes by Dan Diamonds is in favor. His headline: Read More
I suppose you have heard about the recent Disneyland measles outbreak. The story is receiving wide coverage in the media, triggering a fresh wave of angst over the increasing reoccurrence of preventable diseases in the United States–and outrage over the small percentage of parents who do not vaccinate their children.
Last year, per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there was a spike in measles cases in the United States, stemming, it seems, from unvaccinated travelers who brought the disease back with them from the Philippines, where a large outbreak has been occurring since 2013. A general media narrative taking shape now with the Disney outbreak story is informed by this CDC graphic from last year.
So what’s the latest news on the Disney-centered outbreak? Via the Associated Press (AP):
In a rash of cases that public health officials are rushing to contain, at least 70 people in six states and Mexico have fallen ill since mid-December, most of them from California. The vast majority of those who got sick had not gotten the measles-mumps-rubella, or MMR, vaccine.
Some of the media coverage has focused on “pockets” of unvaccinated children in certain California communities where vaccine-averse parents have clustered.
As the CDC notes of the three largest measles outbreaks of 2014, “transmission occurred after introduction of measles into communities with pockets of persons who were unvaccinated because of philosophical or religious beliefs.”
A new study (PDF) on these geographic clusters has just been published in the journal Pediatrics. A high concentration of unvaccinated children make these communities much more susceptible to outbreaks.
The Los Angeles Times, advancing a theme echoed in many media stories, writes that the Disneyland outbreak “has generated increased concern about the rise in the number of parents who do not immunize their children.” Similarly, the Washington Post wonk blog, referring to a 2014 survey, says that “only 51 percent of Americans were confident that vaccines are safe and effective, which is similar to the proportion who believe that houses can be haunted by ghosts.”
The two impressions you get from such articles is that more parents are not vaccinating their children and that many Americans are not confident in the safety of vaccines–and both these impressions would be dead wrong. Dan Kahan, a Yale researcher who studies science communication and risk perception, was dubious about the findings in that survey cited by the Wonk blog. In an email exchange with me, he said:
I don’t know what the survey item was, but I do know that if one constructs valid measures, one can easily show that there is overwhelming confidence in vaccine safety. Items that ask whether people are “concerned” about vaccine “side effects” are not a valid predictor of vaccine hesitancy among parents; even parents who make sure their children get every vaccine will say “yes” to that question — it’s simply not a valid indicator of vaccine hesitancy.
Indeed, no public opinion survey of the general public can give anyone useful information on vaccine risk concerns. The only valid evidence of that generally is the National Immunization Survey, which uses actual vaccine behavior to determine vaccination rates. It shows that there has been no drop off in vaccination rates in more than 10 yrs — & no measurable increase in people exempting from vaccination (that figure is below 1%).
Nonetheless, the recent spike in measles cases in the United States is the background context for the Disney/measles outbreak story. So, as the New York Times reports:
The latest outbreak has renewed a heated debate about an anti-vaccination movement championed largely by parents who believe discredited research linking vaccines to autism, or who believe that the risks of some vaccines, including the measles inoculations, outweigh any potential benefit.
This kind of narrative framing taps into the frustration of medical professionals on the frontlines of pediatric health, who lash out at vaccine-hesitant parents. Examples below.
From the AP:
“Some people are just incredibly selfish” by skipping shots, said Dr. James Cherry, a pediatric disease expert at the University of California, Los Angeles.
From the NYT:
Dr. James Cherry, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the outbreak was “100 percent connected” to the anti-immunization campaign. “It wouldn’t have happened otherwise — it wouldn’t have gone anywhere,” he said. “There are some pretty dumb people out there.”
This soundbite was picked up by other journalists on Twitter:
On anti-vaxxers, UCLA prof says: “There are some pretty dumb people out there.” http://t.co/EPZt0Xv5pC
— Charles Ornstein (@charlesornstein) January 22, 2015
@charlesornstein seriously unhelpful approach to talking about this issue
— Brendan Nyhan (@BrendanNyhan) January 22, 2015
On the quotes in the AP and NYT highlighted above, I asked Nyhan via email to elaborate:
I’m concerned that some vaccine advocates and doctors have been labeling people who aren’t vaccinated as “selfish” or “dumb” during coverage of the Disneyland outbreak. We need to maintain and strengthen the consensus around vaccination, but the most effective way to do so isn’t by polarizing and dividing people. The vast majority of parents who don’t vaccinate are intelligent and well-meaning people who are trying to do what’s best for their children. We need to help them make better choices, not ridicule them.
There are communication studies from experts that point to more constructive approaches, some of which I wrote about last year. Meanwhile, it’s worth asking if the media, in its Disneyland/measles outbreak coverage, is 1) overstating the importance of the anti-vaccine movement, and 2) eliciting the kinds of reactions from public health professionals that are more likely to unnecessarily demonize and alienate vaccine-hesitant parents?
This is not to downplay the real consequences of misguided decisions made by vaccine resisters. Clearly, they are endangering their fellow citizens. But we should be careful about drawing the wrong conclusions from these episodes.
As Kahan also remarked to me:
I’m sure it’s true that outbreaks are more likely to occur in areas with undervaccination enclaves. But that’s been true forever; it’s not new. The claim that outbreaks are tied to declines in vaccination rates or growing parental resistance, etc., is not true.
The media narrative here is comparable to the one on whooping cough [in 2013], where media kept insisting that the outbreaks were caused by lower vaccination rates. Vaccination rates hadn’t dropped. It turned out the new booster shot–made with dead rather than live pertussis — was not as effective. Reporters ignored this for quite some time, but eventually the word got out.
Kahan thus cautions against jumping to the wrong conclusions again with the latest measles outbreak:
The low-vaccination enclaves *are* a public health problem. But attributing them to general anxiety over vaccine risks in public is not useful — and in fact is itself dangerous.
Misdirected concern also ends up confusing private funders, who are more likely to be suckered by advertising consultants into a “social marketing campaign” when what they ought to be doing is supporting the research of a guy like Doug Opel at the University of Washington, who has developed a very decent screening instrument to help pediatricians identify parents who are likely, out of fear or confusion (they aren’t marching around like Jenny McCarthy et al; they’d be easy to spot then!), to have their kids skip shots. With an instrument like that, doctors can focus attention strategically on parents who might well respond to counseling. Of course, one can use empirical methods to develop good counseling protocols too — if you can identify who the likely nonvaccinators are in an effective way.
That’s where the real public health attention should be: on supporting valid studies to designed targeted identification and counseling.
As this latest measles outbreak runs its course, perhaps some of my colleagues in the media will take a look at the emerging research that aims to foster more constructive engagement on vaccine issues.
UPDATE: Julie Leask, a social scientist at the University of Sydney, Australia is an essential source for anyone seeking insight into risk communication and vaccine-related issues. I queried Leask as I was writing this post. Below is her response, which, due to our different time zones, came in after my post went up. Please take a minute to read her perspective:
The extent of the Disneyland outbreak is a big concern because measles can be a very serious disease, causing pneumonia, convulsions, croup, inflammation of the brain (encephalitis), which could result in hospitalisation and even death. But the way the problem is being explained in the media right now generally is unhelpful.
To be committed to the science of immunisation ideally comes with a commitment to the science of immunisation behaviour. Media often present this problem as refusal to vaccinate. But the evidence is clear and it’s more complex: under-vaccination is broadly about a lack of acceptance and a lack of opportunity to vaccinate fully or on-time. It’s not just the haves, but the have-nots who don’t fully vaccinate.
A typical measles outbreak will reveal this. There will be children whose parents refused vaccination; children whose parents were unwittingly not up to date for lack of access; affordability or awareness; adults and travellers who didn’t get a needed booster; and babies who are too young to be vaccinated.
Some of the solutions to under-vaccination are at our fingertips. For vaccines to reach people you need to have ‘well oiled’ systems, which include free and accessible vaccines, national registers, reminders, incentives and reasonable sanctions. Ensuring services are culturally respectful is important so people are not put off attending. If we keep focusing only on the active refusers alone, governments get off too lightly.
Having said that, active refusal of vaccines remains a real and persistent problem. The evidence base is very limited but there are some promising strategies. At a state level, exemptions that require the signature of a physician minimise the active non-vaccinators. In the physicians office, making a positive recommendation, spending time with hesitant parents (and less with entrenched decliners), building trust and rapport and even if they delay or don’t vaccinate, keeping the door open. We also need try out community based approaches first by better understanding the social norms and group commitments that lead parents to not vaccinate.
It’s a difficult one because it’s much harder to change motivation than to change the practical barriers. But there are researchers around the world committed to doing this.
To end, it’s probably appropriate to quote from our recent article here:
Vaccine programs are underpinned by a rigorous science determining their efficacy and safety in populations. There needs to be a similar level of commitment to identifying and testing the interventions designed to increase uptake of vaccines among vaccine-hesitant parents.
Dan Kahan: “Want to know what empirically *informed” vaccine communication looks like?”
Dan Kahan: “A risky science communication environment for vaccines.”
Brendan Nyhan: “Vaccine opponents can be immune to education.”
Julie Leask et al: “Communicating with parents about vaccination: A framework for health professionals.”
Julie Leask: “Parents’ decisions about vaccination and the gentle art of persuasion.”