It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Monday, January 19, 2009

Idiocracy marches on

The New York Times reports on a genial, diligent MD who is afraid to go on a book tour:

“I’ll speak at a conference, say, to nurses,” he said. “But I wouldn’t go into a bookstore and sign books. It can get nasty. There are parents who really believe that vaccines hurt their children, and to them, I’m incredibly evil. They hate me.”

Dr. Offit, a pediatrician, is a mild, funny and somewhat rumpled 57-year-old. The chief of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, he is also the co-inventor of a vaccine against rotavirus, a diarrheal disease that kills 600,000 children a year in poor countries.

“When Jonas Salk invented polio vaccine, he was a hero — and I’m a terrorist?” he jokes, referring to a placard denouncing him at a recent demonstration by antivaccine activists outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Of course, he is accused of being in it for the gold.

Should we care? Of course we should. Is this our fight? Of course it is.

Notice this part especially:
“Opponents of vaccines have taken the autism story hostage,” Dr. Offit said. “They don’t speak for all parents of autistic kids, they use fringe scientists and celebrities, they’ve set up cottage industries of false hope, and they’re hurting kids. Parents pay out of their pockets for dangerous treatments, they take out second mortgages to buy hyperbaric oxygen chambers. It’s just unconscionable.”
[Dr. Nancy J. Minshew] blamed journalists for “creating a conspiracy where there was none.” By acting as if there were two legitimate sides to the autism debate, she said, “the media has fed on this — it’s great for ratings.”
Arthur Allen, the author of “Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver” (W. W. Norton, 2007), has publicly debated other journalists who argue that vaccines cause autism. Six years ago, he wrote a seminal article in The New York Times Magazine titled “The Not-So-Crackpot Autism Theory.” He later changed his mind and now “feels bad” about the article, he said, “because it helped get these people into the field who did a lot of damage.”

Dr. Offit’s book “needed to be written,” he said. But he is skeptical that it will end the struggle.

“There are still people who believe fluoride is dangerous, who think jet contrails cause cancer,” he said. “I’m waiting for the debate to get beyond that, but you’re not going to convert some people.”
It's not left vs right; it's fantasy vs. evidence. Science actually resolves questions, but society seems to be losing its capacity to benefit from that. (I think it was actually better at it in the post WWII decades. This seems to be affecting all the English speaking countries; I can't speak for the rest of the world.)

Engineering can provide great products, and people can tell. So we get really good razors and shave creams, for instance. Amazing stuff. But when science offers advice, the body politic can't tell the real thing from the malicious nonsense. Confused people follow charlatans as if they were wise and treat real experts as if they were charlatans. The consequence for the charlatans may be comfortable, but for the rest of us the whole situation can be tragic.

By the way, Idiocracy is a very stupid movie. But is a very smart movie, too.


King of the Road said...

That's very distressing. Have you stumbled across Professor Steven Dutch's web pages regarding "Science, Pseudoscience, and Irrationalism" (

He's a Professor of Geology at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. He is, I believe, politically conservative but a strong proponent of debunking the denialists among many, many other topics under the umbrella of pseudoscience. Readers of your "In It" blog may enjoy many of his posts, I recommend spending a few minutes there.

James Annan said...

"Science actually resolves questions, but society seems to be losing its capacity to benefit from that."

I'm actually not convinced that the UK has gone down this path. We may be more aware of political interference in the interpretation of reality, but I don't think that makes it more prevalent or influential. You also have to be careful not to confuse the "is" and the "ought". And there have always been, and probably always will be, quacks ripping off the gullible.

AdamW said...

The MMR/autism hoax has been huge in the UK, largely (completely?) fuelled by the media and it's rejection of even a false balance - unpublished work in support of a link got trumpeted, while published work showing no link got ignored.

As a consequence MMR usage has dropped, quite heavily in some areas, and the number of measles cases has risen quite sharply. There was a good graph somewhere (I forget where) showing media coverage of MMR and measles cases and it's quite stark.

The Bad Science blog (and associated book) has documents the whole saga very well, as well as many other pseudoscience issues.

I've linked to it before, but here's the URL:

It's based on a column in the Grauniad, so some of the stuff can be read there, too.

There are links to other, similar sites, that tend to focus on specific areas.

Finally, what's also interesting is how some people who read that site, and are fairly vehement about being anti-pseudoscience, will quote things like the "Manhatten Declaration" as evidence that the IPCC is wrong. Different areas of specialism, I suppose, but interesting, nonetheless.

Michael Tobis said...

Many thanks, Adam.

Adam's link tends to refute James about the state of public understanding of science in the UK.

Regarding anthropogenic climate change, this particular discussion on is especially interesting.

I agree there have always been quacks. I think there was once a more vigorous presence of responsible journalism and responsible leadership.

To some extent it was my own generation's radicalism in the late 60s and early 70s which threw out the baby with the bathwater. This really is something I think you can blame on the hippies. We got everybody to "question authority", but everybody forgot to listen to the answers.

AdamW said...

There may not be a huge contradiction. It wouldn't surprise me if a lot of the people turning to homeopathy instead of MMR, were also generally agreeing with the consensus about anthropogenic climate change. Understanding, though, being a different matter and both could be politically influenced decisions, with science playing small part.

I think it's quite possible to exhibit quite poor understanding in some fields or subjects, and quite good in others (hence the above example). How poor *general* scientific understanding is, I don't know, and wouldn't like to guess.

Michael Tobis said...

The issue isn't who gets what right, it's why.

If leftwingers think there is global warming and nuclear energy is bad while rightwingers thing there is no global warming but nuclear energy is OK, we have found a proxy for the left/right distinction but we haven't found a way to think about evidence.

Stipulate for the purposes of argument (as I believe, as does James Hansen, as do many of us) that the risks of climate change outweigh the risks of nuclear power and we should therefore proceed with it faster than the marketplace would indicate without incentives.

This position has no natural allies on the left or the right. It is nevertheless supported by the evidence (per hypothesis). How is this to be implemented if people get some things right and some wrong based on their politics and not on the substance?

AdamW said...

My MMR/AGW point was a little poorly made. Firstly it was to say that sometimes the same people will get the write answer for the right reason in one area, and the wrong answer for the wrong reason in another, but then I wanted to temper that by admitting that there could easily be a political element to it, in many cases. Sorry.

However the later example I meant, but didn't refer to properly, was the one of the people who understand evidence-based medicine, but don't seem to understand evidence-based climatology.

I nearly wrote in length about that, but it's all speculation. I guess the question is, is that just political, or down to something else?

I don't know.

Marion Delgado said...

michael you saw my other comment. nuff said.


oh, one thing to add. we have the stats. turn them into anecdotes.

James Annan said...

AdamW talks about the media hype over MMR, but IMO society as a whole isn't doing too badly over that. Putting it callously, in the end it is only a few children who will suffer. Note that the official policy remains strongly in line with mainstream science. There was a big own-goal over the BSE thing (where politics certainly did interfere with science) which has caused some increased scepticism.

"Stipulate for the purposes of argument (as I believe, as does James Hansen, as do many of us) that the risks of climate change outweigh the risks of nuclear power"

That is certainly not a purely scientific question, until you have clarified *precisely* how you equate different types of risk to different people in different places and times. Which of course covers the whole range of global development and discount rate issues, which covers pretty much all the contentious issues in climate change.

Michael Tobis said...

James, fair enough; it (nuclear) isn't a slam dunk.

I was asking that it be stipulated for the purpose of argument. The point of that argument was to say that while some people who get vaccines wrong get greenhouse gases right, that is small consolation if they do it for reasons dominated by prejudice.

But you raise an interesting question. What metric should we use to compare the options? I presume we agree that even if we are left with little more than intuition, our intuitions are attempting to create something like a formal model of what to do.

James Annan said...

I don't much like the word "intuition" here, actually. It implies (to me) that there is a reality out there (on this matter) that we are hoping to vaguely, well, intuit. While that is a reasonable model for much of science, how we should compare risks (or even certain losses) to the grandchildren of today's Bangladeshis versus costs to the British alive today (for example) is not a matter of fact amenable to scientific research. It is essentially a choice that we (eg the current British, inter alia) have to make! For good measure, we should also consider the risks that today's Bangladeshis face, along with all the other stake-holders. There is certainly room for scientific investigation as to what these risks are, but that doesn't really tell us how much we should care.

Of course there are some fairly generic economic approaches to this problem, which I gather you are not entirely convinced by :-) but I'm not sure you have any alternative...

Michael Tobis said...

I'm sure I don't have any better answer. The first step, though, is to formulate a better question.

skanky said...

This seems on topic to the earlier part of this conversation:

Michael Tobis said...

Nice! I recommend skanky's link to Monbiot.