I’m happy to announce that, following last week’s news about the Lancet’s retraction of the 1998 paper that started the modern vaccine-autism scare, I decided to focus my first Point of Inquiry episode on this topic–and secured a guest who’s probably the best in the business for that purpose. I’m referring to Dr. Paul Offit, Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, life-saving inventor of the rotavirus vaccine, and most important for our purposes, the author of the single best book on the whole autism-vaccine fiasco, 2008’s Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure.
I’ve now read Offit’s fantastic book twice, and greatly enjoyed the conversation we had about it for the show. (Minus the gazillion technical hoops I had to jump through to learn how to record the program, which will hopefully get a lot easier.) I won’t tip my hand about the show any further–it airs tomorrow, please listen then–but I’m confident that listeners will enjoy and learn much from it (even though, given that this is my first show as a radio host, utter perfection is hardly to be expected).
I’ll have a post tomorrow as soon as the show is up and available for download.
My latest Science Progress blog post riffs on the news about Andrew Wakefield and the Lancet yesterday. In case you didn’t hear:
The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, has now gone to the extreme of fully retracting a notorious 1998 paper by gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues, purporting to show a shocking new cause of autism—the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine. Wakefield and his team studied digestion in 12 children with various types of behavioral disorders, nine of whom were autistic, and found inflammation in the intestines. The vaccine was blamed for letting toxins loose into the bloodstream, which not only caused the intestinal problems but, it was conjectured, then also affected the children’s brains.
The 1998 paper hit the British public like a thunderclap, triggering a decline in use of the MMR vaccine as well as a resurgence of the measles. It was the opening shot in the vaccine-autism controversy that still rages today (albeit in varied forms, not all of which still focus on the MMR vaccine). But the credibility of Wakefield’s work has since taken a steady stream of hits, culminating in this last devastating blow.
The post then goes on to relate the whole Wakefield story, and to extrapolate: Now that we know this study has been pretty much totally discredited, whence the vaccine-autism controversy, which the study kicked off back in 1998? Shouldn’t it, too, go away?
Sadly, I’m not optimistic about that happening. You can read why here.
[I have not blogged in several weeks. It’s a long story, involving marriage, a honeymoon, and a move. I think you’ll all understand–and more on that later! But for now…]
…in my absence, there was tons of hoopla over this Los Angeles Times interview that I did, which mentioned why so many people are skeptical of vaccines, and singled out one online hub for them in particular–the Age of Autism website. For the whole saga, see Orac, here.
Anyways, I imagine Age of Autism pounced on this because I mentioned the site by name in an interview printed in the Los Angeles Times. So, what will they think if….the Los Angeles Times interview is reprinted in the Chicago Tribune? Because it just was. And there may be more.
Meanwhile, I hope to resume regular posting shortly, though first I must get settled here at MIT….
In this post, we continue our response to PZ Myers’ review of our book, Unscientific America. For those who’ve just arrived, we previously laid out the course our response would take here, and began to respond here. This is the third post, and there will be one more after it.
5. American Anti-Science. Myers claims the book “entirely neglects the anti-scientific forces.” This is false.
First, Chris wrote an entire book dealing with this problem. That book, The Republican War on Science, dealt very extensively with the anti-science forces and put them in their place.
Unscientific America tries not to reinvent the wheel, but rather to go beyond its predecessor–and indeed, we’ve been describing it as the sequel to The Republican War on Science. This time around, we don’t structure the book by scientific topic, so you won’t find chapter-length refutations of the creationists, the global warming deniers, and so on. However, Chris has refuted them all at great length elsewhere, and they get more than adequate licks in the new book as well. (Indeed, we’ve added some smackdowns of the anti-vaccinationists this time around!)
Perhaps Myers would have preferred a book that contained nothing more than entertaining skewerings of anti-science idiocy–but Chris wrote that book already. Unscientific America tries to take the next step and explore the reasons for the disconnects between science and society, because understanding the true nature of anti-science sentiment and its causes is no less important than debunking it. They’re both important.
6. Root Causes. Myers claims the book “demands we avoid addressing the structural roots” of the problem of science in society. That’s false.
A more charitable reading would be that we differ with Myers about what the root causes are, or place different emphases upon them. Clearly, he thinks religion is a much bigger root cause–if not the only root cause–than we do. But why then doesn’t he just say that we differ, instead of mischaracterizing our position?
We too want to address root causes–we just don’t think religion is the root of all our problems. It is one cause of anti-science sentiment, to be sure–a very prominent one. But not the only one. Our book also deals with many others: The nature of the media; the nature of politics; the nature of the scientific community, and so on. It may be easier to simply single out religion, but we’re not convinced it gets us where we need to be.
7. Science in the Entertainment Industry. Chris spent a month out in LA meeting with experts on the entertainment industry or talking with them by phone, trying to work out why science often gets such a bad shake in film and on television. The result was a report on how the entertainment industry works, and why scientists are often unhappy with the result–and what can be done to change this. (Some of this content is now reiterated in our Salon.com adaptation from the book.)
From this chapter, Myers finds a single sentence about Richard Dawkins to quote [his emphasis]:
Dawkins and some other scientists fail to grasp that in Hollywood, the story is paramount—that narrative, drama, and character development will trump mere factual accuracy every time, and by a very long shot.
This Myers dubs “exasperating nonsense, in which Mooney and Kirshenbaum are discussing how to get science into the popular media.”
Myers is quoting out of context in order to criticize us. Here’s what he (and all of his readers who have not read our book) are missing.
Dawkins was quoted in the New York Times saying that the film Jurassic Park didn’t even need to have human characters in it, because the dinosaurs were so stunning. His words were: “The natural world is fascinating in its own right. It really doesn’t need human drama to be fascinating.” We provide this quotation, and the accompanying context, in the book. Myers does not.
Assuming Dawkins was quoted accurately, these words shows how little he understands about mass entertainment. A film with just dinosaurs running around would never have been so successful (and would never have been made). That was our point. Dawkins’ statement about Hollywood and Jurassic Park epitomizes the type of mindset that has kept scientists from having more productive encounters with the entertainment industry.
Now look at how Myers strives to defend Dawkins against us:
What Mooney and Kirshenbaum fail to grasp is that to a scientist, factual accuracy must be paramount; it is not a matter on which we can compromise. Further, what they fail to recognize, and what they excuse for Hollywood, as that accuracy does not have to compromise narrative, drama, and character! They berate Dawkins as if he has no awareness of the basics of what makes a good story, which makes me wonder if they’ve read any of his books at all — do they think he simply drily recites a body of abstract thoughts at the reader? Perhaps they should take a look at The Ancestor’s Tale(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) to discover that he actually has addressed this imaginary deficit.
But of course, in context, it is absurd to think that factual accuracy would be paramount in a movie like Jurassic Park.
And for that matter, what can Myers possibly be saying about Dawkins’ admittedly very good writing? That The Ancestor’s Tale could be made into just as successful a movie as Jurassic Park, which grossed nearly $ 1 billion worldwide? Again, that’s pretty hard to believe.
8. Solutions. Myers claims the book “offers no new solutions.” That’s false–the book is brimming with solutions. Chad Orzel even found one we couldn’t fit into the main text–the idea of forming a Science PAC to get more scientists elected to Congress–buried in an endnote, and built an entire discussion around it.
There are solutions in each chapter of the main body of the book, broken down by sector–politics, media, entertainment, religion. And then there is the grand solution in Chapter 10–which emerged from our collaboration, and which we don’t think either of us would have come up with on our own. So far as we know, it really is new in its particular way of analyzing the academic pipeline and finding, in it, a solution to our problems at the science-society interface.
Again, we would ask that readers consult the book, rather than Myers’ review, to determine whether it really offers “no new solutions.” And we’d also direct them over to the review at RealClimate, where a productive discussion about solutions has, indeed, been sparked by the book.
This difference in perceptions in these reviews is certainly remarkable. It’s clear that those who are invested in the “New Atheism” have a strong negative reaction to the book–but is that surprising, in that the book strongly criticizes the “New Atheism”?
But for those who do not have such a strong investment, yet care about the promotion and communication of science–like Michael Mann of Real Climate, Darksyde of Daily Kos, and many others–the book has prompted much valuable thought, response, and commentary. We’re very honored to see that it is having this effect.
In our final post, tomorrow, we will conclude our responses to the claims in PZ’s review.
Here it is, and I think it may be the best diavlog we’ve done yet:
These are the different segments of the conversation, and we actually had some significant disagreements about the role of education in solving our problem, and other matters. I think it was a great talk:
Science Saturday: The War on Ignorance
Chris’s new book, “Unscientific America” (02:23)
Carl vs. Chris on how to fight scientific illiteracy (16:03)
A brief history of science’s image problem (09:10)
Do we need another Carl Sagan? (04:46)
If bloggers can’t make science cool again, who can? (09:17)
The culture gap between Hollywood and the scientific community (08:38)
Carl is also going to be introducing me when I give a book talk in New Haven, CT, on July 21. Details here.
On the new book website, there’s the most extensive write-up yet of our argument and scope. I’ll repaste it here, as it explains precisely why we’re concerned about the gap between science and mainstream culture, and what we must do about it:
In his famous 1959 Rede lecture at Cambridge University, the scientifically-trained novelist C.P. Snow described science and the humanities as “two cultures,” separated by a “gulf of mutual incomprehension.” And the humanists had all the cultural power—the low prestige of science, Snow argued, left Western leaders too little educated in scientific subjects that were increasingly central to world problems: the elementary physics behind nuclear weapons, for instance, or the basics of plant science needed to feed the world’s growing population.
Now, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, a journalist-scientist team, offer an updated “two cultures” polemic for America in the 21st century. Just as in Snow’s time, some of our gravest challenges—climate change, the energy crisis, national economic competitiveness—and gravest threats–global pandemics, nuclear proliferation—have fundamentally scientific underpinnings. Yet we still live in a culture that rarely takes science seriously or has it on the radar.
For every five hours of cable news, less than a minute is devoted to science; 46 percent of Americans reject evolution and think the Earth is less than 10,000 years old; the number of newspapers with weekly science sections has shrunken by two-thirds over the past several decades. The public is polarized over climate change—an issue where political party affiliation determines one’s view of reality—and in dangerous retreat from childhood vaccinations. Meanwhile, only 18 percent of Americans have even met a scientist to begin with; more than half can’t name a living scientist role model.
For this dismaying situation, Mooney and Kirshenbaum don’t let anyone off the hook. They highlight the anti-intellectual tendencies of the American public (and particularly the politicians and journalists who are supposed to serve it), but also challenge the scientists themselves, who despite the best of intentions have often failed to communicate about their work effectively to a broad public—and so have ceded their critical place in the public sphere to religious and commercial propagandists.
A plea for enhanced scientific literacy, Unscientific America urges those who care about the place of science in our society to take unprecedented action. We must begin to train a small army of ambassadors who can translate science’s message and make it relevant to the media, to politicians, and to the public in the broadest sense. An impassioned call to arms worthy of Snow’s original manifesto, this book lays the groundwork for reintegrating science into the public discourse–before it’s too late.
Once again, you can check out the new book website here.
According to Amazon, a lot of people who buy Unscientific America are also buying another book that’s coming out soon, entitled Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, by Charles Pierce.
On their face, these books may sound similar. And in fact, we probably agree substantively with Pierce in most of what he says about things like creationism (judging from the book’s description). I would go so far as to suggest that many readers of this blog would likely enjoy Pierce’s book, just as they would (I hope) enjoy our own.
Yet while it definitely gets people fired up, I would argue that it ultimately does little or no good to denigrate the intelligence of one’s intellectual opponents, whoever they may be–to call them “stupid,” “idiots,” and so on. Moreover, it’s rarely an accurate description on a factual level. As I’ve noted about vaccine refusal, for instance, high levels of education don’t seem to be any protection against this particular kind of “idiocy.”
We definitely have serious culture wars, we definitely have serious attacks on science, and we definitely have “scientific illiteracy” (which needs to be carefully defined). But I’m far from convinced that the root problems here have much to do with intelligence; rather, they turn on knottier matters like politics, culture, and religion. What’s more, if you really wanted to change someone’s mind, denigration of his/her intellect is the last thing you would ever do, for obvious reasons.
There’s much more to be said, but, well…that’s why we wrote a whole book about it!
There’s an important paper in the New England Journal of Medicine this week about vaccine refusal, providing some alarming statistics on this growing phenomenon.
Let’s begin with the basics: In the U.S., “vaccine refusal” is more or less tantamount to obtaining a state level exemption from childhood vaccinations for non-medical reasons. Such exemptions are on the rise: According to the paper, “Between 1991 and 2004, the mean state-level rate of nonmedical exemptions increased from 0.98 to 1.48%.” That may not sound like much, but vaccine refusal is concentrated in certain areas, or clusters, where the incidence is much higher, and accordingly much more dangerous. States like Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Michigan in particular are known for having such clusters. Read More
In the latest issue of Discover, I have a major feature story exploring this question. Over a decade ago, activists began to raise doubts about the safety of the MMR vaccine, and all vaccines that containing the (now removed) mercury-based preservative thimerosal. Accordingly, scientists duly set out to examine whether these claims–centering on allegations that such vaccines were causing a tragic “epidemic” of autism–had anything to them.
Now, ten years later, the weight of evidence is overwhelming that vaccines are not guilty as charged. As I put it in the piece, summarizing the development of the science: Read More