In which Orac defends Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum…

I realize that I’m possibly stepping into proverbial lion’s den with this one, but a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. As you may recall, former ScienceBlogs bloggers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum (and current Discover Magazine bloggers) recently released a book called Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. As you may also recall, the arguments and assertions that Chris and Sheril made in their book ruffled more than a few feathers around ScienceBlogs, chief among them the big macher of atheism around here, P.Z. Myers, who really, really didn’t like what Chris and Sheril had to say and has spent considerable verbiage trashing them (in particular Chris) wherever they’ve appeared promoting the book and getting in flame wars with Chris, who (foolishly, in my opinion)responded in kind. It became personal. Or maybe it was personal before the book was ever released. Of course, P.Z. wasn’t the only one who really, really didn’t like what Chris and Sheril had to say; almost overnight the science blogosphere in general and ScienceBlogs in particular appeared to divide along the lines of those who agreed with Chris and Sheril’s thesis and those who were really, really hostile to it.

I never really commented much because I learned during the “framing wars” that erupted around ScienceBlogs a couple of years ago that it’s a no-win situation to insert oneself into such a charged issue with both sides deeply entrenched. Since I’m not Jim Kirk and this no-win situation is not the Kobayashi Maru simulation for Star Fleet, unless I’m really passionate about an issue (vaccines, for instance), these days I hesitate more before wading into such a morass. At least, I hesitate more than I used to. Of course, another reason is that I hadn’t read the book. It’s kind of dumb to wade into a huge kerfuffle about what a book says about science communication if you haven’t–oh, you know–actually read the book yet. Still, after a month and a half or so and a vacation last week that allowed me finally to crack Unscientific America, I thought I might chime in to defend Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum.

But not against P.Z. Myers or the other critics of Unscientific America. Rather, Age of Autism has attacked Chris and Sheril, and I can’t allow that to go by uncommented on.


I realize I may have just pissed off a few of my readers. Sorry about that, but I haven’t actually finished the book; so it’s still too early to comment, and, given that the kerfuffle has basically died down I may well have missed the moment where anyone cares what I have to say about Unscientific America by the time I finish it. In any case, better the morass I know very well than the one I’m less familiar with. Besides, it’s always the right time to give an anti-vaccinationist like Ginger Taylor a bit of the ol’ Not-So-Respectful Insolence, especially now that she’s apparently guest blogging for that happy home of wandering anti-vaccine propagandists, Age of Autism. This time around, she’s responding to Chris Mooney in the LAT (also on her own blog). In essence, Chris Mooney was featured several days ago in an interview published in the LA Times under the title Bringing science back into America’s sphere, and he had some things to say about the anti-vaccine movement in the overall context of the them of his book, specifically:

It [the anti-vaccine movement] bubbled up originally for legitimate reasons. The mercury preservative thimerosal probably shouldn’t have been in vaccines. It was taken out for precautionary reasons. Since then, science has come in and we can’t detect the correlation between a rise in autism diagnoses and use of childhood vaccines. And study after study has been done.

So, at some point you have to let go. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, there’s a conspiracy theory and people have appointed themselves as experts on this. And so it starts to take on the cast of kind of a more-left-leaning version of global warming and evolution where — I’m sorry, but your anecdote doesn’t beat the studies’ evidence.

It is really unfortunate. It’s not like people who think the moon landings are a hoax. Vaccine denial really is dangerous. The people who try to avoid vaccination, who believe this, are not stupid. They’re not disadvantaged. They actually tend to be well-to-do, educated. So the distrust of science — this is not something a better high school education would have saved them from.

Actually, before I defend Mooney, I have to take him to task for a moment. The anti-vaccine movement didn’t really bubble up so much for “legitimate” reasons, given that there never was really any good science behind it. He also makes it sound as though the thimerosal issue was the be-all and end-all of the movement. I know Chris knows better than that, given that he wrote an excellent article for Discover Magazine published in June entitled Why Does the Vaccine/Autism Controversy Live On? Maybe it was editing or the short form of an interview. But I can forgive him that one little slip because he got a really good zinger in with that moon hoax comment. The reason I like that comment is because it echoes what I’ve been saying all along, namely that the anti-vaccine movement really is like moon hoaxers, the 9/11 Truther movement, the Obama birther movement, homeopaths, reiki practitioners and creationists in that ideology is all and science must either bend to serve and reinforce the core beliefs of the ideology or be discarded or tortured until it can somehow be made to appear to reinforce those beliefs. Hence, no matter how many studies are done that fail to find evidence for a correlation between vaccines and autism, you’ll find Age of Autism and its fellow travelers out there insisting against all evidence that, yes, vaccines cause autism. That’s because, above all, it’s not about autism. Not really. It’s about the vaccines and fear of vaccines.

Naturally, Ginger Taylor and the anti-vaccine zealots at Age of Autism were quite displeased:

I am an autism parent with an MS is Clinical Counseling from Johns Hopkins University and a contributor to Age of Autism. I maintain my own blog at Adventures in Autism.

I saw Lori’s piece today and would like to point out a few things that seem incredibly obvious from where I am sitting, but you genuinely don’t seem to have on your radar (from what I could tell from the article), in regards to why America is not embracing “science” as you think they should. I hope you will be open to hearing from me for a moment, because there is a problem, but the problem may not be the public.

I feel like you may have confused actual hard “Science” with “things that most scientists think”, as there seems to be a denial of the fact that scientific consensus has quite often been (and most assuredly still is in many places) wrong.

First off, let me just point out that Ginger mentions her masters degree pretty much every opportunity she gets (she’s even used it in her signature in an e-mail to me before), as though we’re supposed to be impressed. Here’s a hint: A masters degree in clinical counseling does not qualify her to evaluate the science behind vaccines and autism any more than a masters degree–in science! (Actually, I’d trust Mr. Science more than Ginger to evaluate science.) Ginger likes to think it does, but she’s shown time and time again on her own blog that she is so wedded to the vaccine/autism myth that she can’t objectively look at the evidence. I don’t flaunt my MD or PhD when I’m discussing this subject. In fact, I rarely mention my degrees on this blog (although occasionally, when others are flaunting whatever credentials they have I’ll add mine in, but it’s usually done more to make a point than anything else.) The reason I rarely, if ever, flaunt my credentials on my blog is because I understand that most people truly don’t give a rodent’s posterior about them and that holding them up like a talisman against criticism would be rather pathetic. In the blogosphere, arguments need to stand and fall on their own. (Is that anything like, “In space, no one can hear you scream”?) My desire for my arguments to stand or fall on their own is one reason why, even though a fair number of people, Ginger included, know my real identity, I continue to write under a pseudonym. (The other reason, of course, being that I like the pseudonym and have become attached to it over the years.) It’s also why I make very sure to point out that my logorrheic ramblings do not reflect the views of anyone but myself, and most certainly not the views of my university, cancer center, or bosses, except perhaps only occasionally and then only by coincidence.

More importantly, Ginger is using the ever-famous doggerel of “science has been wrong before.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: That’s one of the lamest rebuttals pseudoscience boosters like to use. It’s very much of the “They thought me mad, but I’ll show them all!” variety of rejoinders. I think that Skeptico and John Jackson explained best why this gambit is bogus (word choice intentional). Basically, science is a process that results in a series of provisional truths, backed by evidence and experimentation, that are amended when new evidence shows that they need to be amended. Over time, science gets closer to an accurate description of how a phenomenon works.

The most important thing, however, is that these provisional truths have evidence supporting them. If you think a conclusion of science is wrong, then you have to provide evidence sufficient to make scientists start to wonder if their understanding is wrong. My usual example is homeopathy, which goes against so many tenets of so many branches of science that for it to be true much of what we consider to be well-established principles about physics, chemistry, and physiology would have to be seriously wrong. To make me think that there might be something to homeopathy would require a quantity of evidence that’s at least in the same order of magnitude in terms of quantity and quality as the evidence that shows that homeopathy cannot work. Yet, if such studies were ever produced in sufficient quality and quantity, I would start to change my mind about homeopathy. Crappy studies showing an effect barely greater than that of a placebo that is probably due to either bias or random chance, however, do not qualify as being sufficient to start that process. In terms of whether vaccines cause autism, the same thing applies, although admittedly, as implausible as it is, given the extreme implausibility of homeopathy, the contention that vaccines cause autism is more plausible than homeopathy and thus less evidence would be required for me to start to question existing science that says that vaccines do not cause autism. This is where the anti-vaccine movement has failed and continues to fail miserably. It can’t provide the evidence. All it can do is whine, as Ginger does, that “science was wrong before,” the implication being that because science has been wrong before it is wrong now and–more importantly–Ginger is right. Well, I have news for you Ginger, just because science was wrong before doesn’t mean it’s wrong now. To show that, you need evidence, and you simply don’t have it.

There’s also the matter that there are multiple ways of being wrong. I think John Jackson put this the best:

What we need to understand is that we can be wrong to varying degrees. Let’s say a man has robbed a shop and police ask witnesses for the robber’s height. They could get answers such as 5′ 10″, 6′ 0″, and 1′ 8″. If the robber was 5’11” they are all technically speaking wrong; but the police chief who doesn’t understand that there are degrees of being wrong will not stand much chance of catching his man if he sends his force out looking for a 20-inch armed-robber.

There are many complex areas of inquiry and finding answers is not easy. Initial ideas and hypotheses may be quite wrong; however, where they are shown to be wrong, they will be amended and retested. In this process, what happens is that an absolutely true answer may not be found, but we get closer to what is true every step of the way by being less wrong than before.

By rejecting theories and hypotheses that can be shown to be false and replacing them with others that stand up to attempts to prove them wrong (Note: not attempts to prove them right. See: confirmation bias fallacy), we can accept them as being provisionally true. Truth, by definition, could never be shown to be wrong. This is why a scientific theory that cannot currently be shown to be wrong is accepted as provisionally true.

To argue that science can’t prove things to be 100% true is fine, but for people to use it as an argument to give validity to completely untenable ideas is fallacious. Both their ideas and science may be wrong; but science is highly likely to be far less wrong than they are.

So, yes, it’s possible (albeit highly unlikely) that science is wrong about vaccines and autism, but it’s far more likely that anti-vaccinationists are wrong, given the state of the evidence. Not that that stops Ginger from dazzling us with her mad skillz with ALL CAPS in making the next part of her argument:

When my son regressed into autism following his 18 month shots and I spent a year trying to reconcile all of the contradictory positions of my own pediatrician, the AAP, the CDC, HHS, the “science” you say exonerates vaccines from autism causation, the whole of the research out there and the facts of my own son’s case, what I found was a ridiculous mess.

What you keep referring to as “science” is making contradictory statements all over the place. It resembles nothing like the thing that “Science” is actually supposed to be, the methodical study of phenomena to figure out what is ACTUALLY, TRULY happening.
Yet the statements that scientists make claiming that all the vaccine/autism questions have been answered, that all the possibilities have been explored and that people should just kill what intellectual curiosity and concern for child safety that they have left and move on? How is that “Science”? How is that not laughable?

The first part of Ginger’s complaint is the classic appeal to other ways of knowing. She is placing her anecdotal evidence above that of science. Yet, as I have explained time and time again, personal experience and anecdotes are inherently misleading. As Richard P. Feynman so famously said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” That’s lesson number one in the scientific method, but those who are not steeped in doing science often find this warning hard to accept, even though the ease with which all humans–you, Ginger, and, yes, I–are fooled is the very reason science is necessary.

We humans are hard-wired to leap to conclusions and confuse correlation with causation. If we weren’t, we might not need science nearly as much as we do to determine what causes what disease and what treatments work for what disease. Harriet Hall explains it well when she observes that “I saw it with my own eyes!” is not enough. We humans confuse correlation with causation all the time. Given the millions of children who receive vaccines around the age range that the first symptoms of autism most frequently manifest themselves, it is to be expected that some children will regress after vaccines by random chance alone. To those parents, it seems for all the world that the vaccines caused the regression. The only way to verify that these anecdotes do represent evidence for causation is science. I’ve tried to explain this to Dr. Jay Gordon time and time again, for example. It’s like talking to a brick wall, because he is so confident that his “thirty years of clinical experience” trumps epidemiology. I expect I’ll have as little success explaining it to Ginger, given that her personal experience trumps that of Dr. Gordon in emotional intensity because it has to do with her child. Indeed, I doubt that even the classic “vaxed versus unvaxed” study that Ginger calls for would persuade her that vaccines were safe even if it were completely negative. Never mind how expensive and difficult it would be to do and how it would be virtually impossible to do a study of sufficient power to convince people like Ginger that vaccines are safe

Oh, wait. I wrote about that very topic on Monday.

Ginger then trots out anti-science canards that pseudoscience boosters love, one after another. First, there’s one of my favorites, the “science is a religion” canard:

There are about a thousand questions on the vaccine/autism connection that neither scientists nor research has ever addressed, and the medical establishment won’t even allow to be asked in their “pulpits” because “science” is the new religion and their dogma cannot be questioned. Scientists are the priests, and those who diverge from the cannon are branded heretics. Vaccines are inherently “good” and cannot be “bad”. The research that points to vaccines causing autism is treated like the evidence that priests were molesting young boys… ignored, buried and those who dared call attention to it are bullied into silence. And yet you have a problem with the suppression of discussion of evolution in churches? Again…. from where I sit, the hypocrisy of your statements are stunning.

I tip my hat to Ginger’s sliming scientists and physicians with the analogy to pedophile priests, but, science is not a religion. It just isn’t, as much as ideologues like Ginger like to say it is. Anti-vaccinationism is far more akin to a religion than science will ever be. Nothing shakes the faith of the denizens of AoA and Generation Rescue. No study, no evidence, no experiment, no epidemiology, nothing will convince them that vaccines don’t cause autism. Remove thimerosal from vaccines so that levels to which children are exposed are lower than they have been in 20 years and autism rates continue to increase? No problem, blame formaldehyde! Blame aluminum! Blame squalene (the latest “toxin” in the “toxin” gambit)! Can’t blame any single ingredient in vaccines? Still no problem! It must be “too many too soon.” These ideas for how vaccines supposedly cause autism (I would hardly dignify them any more with the term “hypothesis”) may have little in common on the surface, but they do share one core belief: That it must be the vaccines. They also follow a progression in that each is more difficult to falsify than the last. The anti-vaccine movement will never make the mistake of coming up with a hypothesis that is so easily falsified, like the mercury hypothesis.

Ginger then goes into an extended rant, complete with even more ALL CAPS and bold type, about, in essence, how science is corrupt and how supposedly scientists don’t ever question vaccines because there is too much money to be made or because they have spent their lives working on them. She brings out the “arrogant” gambit. Of course, my response to the charge of “arrogance” is to ask: Who is more arrogant, the one who recognizes his limitations or someone who thinks that, through Google knowledge, she knows more than scientists who have spent their lives studying and developing vaccines or studying autism? Now that’s real arrogance, and Ginger (and everyone else at AoA) has it in spades. She also trots out the “negativity” (i.e., Why are you guys so mean to us?) gambit, about how those of us who refute the nonsense that people like Ginger lay down do nothing but insult and dismiss, using Chris as a whipping boy for supporting scientists and urging that they learn to communicate with the public better.

It’s around then that Ginger nearly blasted my irony meter into millions of bits:

People see right through condescending BS. People have a tenancy to treat you with the same dismissal with which you have treated them. What you are seeing may not be a “deep-seated streak of anti-intellectualism” but a deep-seated distrust of self-proclaimed “intellectuals” who openly disdain the unwashed masses, then wonder why their scientific pronouncements have no sway with them.

Actually, it is a deep-seated streak of anti-intellectualism. I can produce many examples, but I’ll pick one that’s particularly illustrative. Not surprisingly, it’s from Age of Autism itself. Let’s go back and quote, for example, J.B. Handley, who demonstrates anti-intellectualism and resentment of us pointy-headed scientists who don’t accept them as scientific equals in responding to Steve Novella. Steve Novella is a friend of mine. He is also not Orac. He is far more polite and far less snarky than Orac. He is never anything less than a class act, even with those who propagate nonsense. Yet, after Dr. Novella criticized Generation Rescue’s latest anti-vaccine propaganda project, this is how J.B. Handley responded:

I’m not intellectually intimidated by any of these jokers. Their degrees mean zippo to me, because I knew plenty of knuckleheads in college who went on to be doctors, and they’re still knuckleheads (I also knew plenty of great, smart guys who went on to be doctors and they’re still great, smart guys).

I chose a different path and went into the business world. In the business world, having a degree from a great college or business school gets you your first job, and not much else. There are plenty of Harvard Business School grads who have bankrupted companies and gone to jail, and plenty of high school drop-outs who are multi-millionaires. Brains and street-smarts win, not degrees, arrogance, or entitlement.

If that isn’t an anti-intellectual attitude displayed about as plainly as it can be displayed, I don’t know what is. In other words, J.B. thinks that the scientific community’s rejection of the claim that vaccines cause autism is all about “elitism,” not science, and Ginger seems to be reflecting a similar attitude. Indeed, J.B. honestly seems to believe that the reason the scientific community doesn’t accept his wild beliefs that vaccines cause autism is because of elitism and groupthink, not because the scientific evidence doesn’t support that belief. Again, that’s anti-intellectual and anti-science to the core. Unlike the case for scientists, who must always–always–consider the possibility that they might be wrong about their conclusions, it seems that it never once occurs to J.B. (or Ginger) that he might be wrong or that the reason he is correctly viewed with such disdain among scientists is because, well, he is wrong. But not just wrong, spectacularly and arrogantly wrong about the science. As both Steve and I have pointed out, it is the arrogance of ignorance. Moreover, J.B. certainly launched the first shot. Steve made an evidence-based criticism of the anti-vaccine movement’s latest propaganda effort. Did J.B. respond with a polite, reason-based critique? Of course not. He went into full bull-in-a-china-shop attack mode.

Why should we treat someone like J.B. Handley as a scientific equal?

Ginger also takes yours truly to task for supposedly being so mean and dismissive of parents, as though I’m mean and dismissive of all parents with autistic children. It’s what I like to call the “Why do you hate mothers?” gambit. Of course, regular readers of this blog know that it is only a small subset of parents who become the target of my not-so-Respectful Insolence. Parents who peddle pseudoscience with the confident arrogance of ignorance of Jenny McCarthy, who is willing to see the return of infectious diseases as a result of her cause, and thereby endanger public health. Parents who scare other parents into not vaccinating based on pseudoscience. Parents who organize marches on Washington to promote fear and loathing of vaccines. Parents who misrepresent science and place their personal anecdotal experience above epidemiology and science, while peddling conspiracy theories, logical fallacies, and misunderstanding of the nature of science. Other parents I have nothing but the utmost respect for. Some of them may be confused, but they are confused through no fault of their own but rather through the fault of a vocal, pseudoscientific fringe group that spreads misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines. Over the years, I’ve become acquainted with some of them and come, as close as I can come, to understanding some of the difficulties of raising an autistic child.

In fact, I have enormous respect for parents who can handle the difficult task of raising special needs children like autistic children (yes, I respect even Ginger for raising an autistic child, although I do not respect her understanding of science). It is doubtful that I could do as good a job as many of these parents do, including many of the anti-vaccine parents. However, my respect for a parent’s ability to handle an autistic child and her love for her children is a completely separate matter from whether or not her understanding of science is worthy of respect by scientists. Ginger, however, tries to conflate dismissal of the anti-vaccine message with contempt with parents of autistic children in general:

Your ‘skeptic’ community’s message to the public and parents like me? “You are an idiot and we have nothing but contempt for you. Now think what I tell you to think and do what I want you to do, even if it doesn’t make sense”.

Treat your audience like crap, and they will leave. Claim to be a scientist and spout completely unscientific and illogical statements (mean ones at that), and no one will care what you say.

No, Ginger. My message, at least, is that parents like you, who actively promote anti-vaccine beliefs, are dangerously wrong and need to be countered vigorously with reason and science. The only reason you don’t accept what science tells you is not because it doesn’t make sense but because it challenges and attacks your unshakeable faith that vaccines must cause autism. Believe it or not, bring me strong scientific evidence rather than confusing correlation with causation or making unjustified extrapolations from shaky basic science, and I may well change my mind–yes, even if that evidence comes from you. It may force me to eat a lot of crow and experience profound embarrassment, but I would do it. Moreover, my sarcasm is reserved mainly for the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement: people like Jenny McCarthy, J.B. Handley, and the pseudoscientists and quacks who feed their beliefs. If you consider the use of the words “pseudoscientists” and “quacks” to be insulting, contemptuous, or otherwise just plain mean, tough. They’re an accurate description, in my opinion, of the targets of my sarcasm.

Ginger finishes up lecturing Chris thusly:

It is clear from this article that those you target, you do not consider your equals.

“Smart” is not the only virtue, and it may not even one of the most important virtues. Look back at the people who have done the most damage to humanity through out history. You will be hard pressed to find a dummy among them.

Love the veiled allusions to people like Hitler and Stalin without actually mentioning them. Very nice. I’m impressed.

In any case, Ginger appears to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what “equals” means. We should consider each other equals as far as being human beings, but it’s a fallacy to insist on being treated as equals in terms of abilities in specific areas of expertise. For example, would Ginger consider me an “equal” when it comes to counseling? Of course not! I don’t have a masters’ degree in it. Would J.B. Handley consider me an “equal” in business? Of course not! Nor should he. I’m a crappy businessman. Heck, I don’t even consider myself an equal to my colleagues in surgical oncology who specialize in forms of surgery that I no longer do. Yet somehow, Ginger thinks that scientists should somehow treat her and parents with no advanced training in science and who clearly do not understand vaccine and autism science as an equal in the understanding of science. Sorry, but I don’t think so. That doesn’t mean that communication and mutual respect aren’t still possible, but not as scientific equals.

Quite frankly, I’m not interested in reaching someone like Ginger. She’s too far gone. Her belief is so entrenched that nothing I can say and no evidence I can present will ever change it. She’s made that abundantly clear time and time again. I’m far more interested in reaching people who can still be reached, namely the public who sees the sort of misinformation spread by people like Ginger and Age of Autism and wonder whether there might be something to it. So is Chris. We merely differ in our degree of–shall we say?–vociferousness in how we approach the problem.

Finally, I can’t help but note in closing that the call for “playing nice” from Ginger and other anti-vaccine zealots is always one-sided. They demand respect, but they give none at all to scientists who don’t buy into their beliefs, whom they think nothing of labeling as completely corrupt, arrogant, blinded by the “religion” of science, likening to the Roman Catholic hierarchy that covered up accusations of pedophilia among its priests, and, it sometimes seems, implying (or out and out saying) that they are actively and evilly plotting to make all their children autistic by vaccinating them. Ginger thinks nothing of, in essence, sliming us by labeling my entire profession dishonest, corrupt, and incompetent, and she thinks we should just smile and patiently try to assure her that this is not so. It’s a no-win situation for the scientist or science communicator, as the only “communication” that the anti-vaccine movement doesn’t consider a direct attack on it is agreement and acquiescence, and any criticism that isn’t milquetoast is viewed as a full frontal assault worthy of massive retaliation. Indeed, don’t be too surprised if AoA launches yet another personal attack on me after this piece to go with the two or three others it’s posted. I’ve strongly criticized two of their posts in the course of a week; that’s often enough to provoke another “outing,” especially since it’s been several months since the last one. Anti-vaccinationists are predictable that way.

I may not agree with Chris on a lot of things, and maybe I’ll even do an analysis after I finally get around to reading his book (that it, if it’s not hopelessly out of date by the time I do), but I do know one thing: He didn’t deserve Ginger’s attack, nor does he deserve the nastiness heaped upon him in the comments section devoted to his interview.