Five years

Has it really been that long?

It was a dismally overcast Saturday five years ago when, on a whim after having read a TIME Magazine article about how 2004 was supposedly the Year of the Blogger, I sat down in front of my computer, found Blogspot, and the first incarnation of Respectful Insolence was born. If anyone is curious, this was my first test post, and this was my first substantive post (well, sort of). Every year (at least the ones where I remember my blogiversary, I find it particularly interesting to go back to the beginning and see how true to my original vision for this blog I’ve been. Looking back over the last five years and comparing how this blog has evolved to my original vision, I’m surprised to conclude that I have been pretty darned true to it. Yes, I rarely write about science fiction any more. Ditto movies and music. I prefer to think that it’s just because I figured out that I’m a lousy movie and music critic. Well, maybe not lousy, but being an arts critic is clearly not my strength.

Of course, it’s not as though shooting my mouth off, metaphorically speaking, on the Internet was anything new for me. I had been doing it on and off since the mid-1990s on that great untamed, tangled mass of discussion forums known as Usenet; you know, the ones that hardly anyone uses anymore and that a lot of ISPs don’t even give much in the way of access to now that Google has put a web interface on Usenet. The Orac ‘nym was forged in the heat of Internet battle with all the varieties of Flame Warriors on Usenet in the Holocaust denial forum alt.revisionism and the alt-med forum misc.health.alternative. Indeed, in the latter newsgroup, certain highly obsessed denizens, such as Jan Drew and Tim Bolen, are still talking about me, years after I regularly posted there and many months since I last took a look. Such is the power of Orac.

So the blog evolves over time. Ideas come, and ideas go. Literary (if you can use that word to describe them) conceits like Eneman and the Hitler Zombie, such frequent visitors early in the history of the blog, are rarities now, not because I don’t like them anymore but because, in the case of EneMan, I pretty much ran out of ideas. If I get a good idea of what to do with our blog mascot, you can be sure he’ll be resurrected someday. As for the Hitler Zombie, I’d love to do more posts, but a strange thing happened over the last five years. Idiotic Hitler analogies that I’d consider fodder for everyone’s favorite undead Führer four years ago now no longer elicit a shrug, so nutty has politics become, with specious and comparisons of President Obama to Hitler flying fast, furious, and so dumb that even I have a hard time believing that sentient beings can think there’s any validity to them. They’ve gotten so common and so ridiculous that I could write a Hitler Zombie post nearly every day. I still hope for a great example that I can set the undead Führer loose on, but I fear I hope in vain. Politics has far surpassed anything I can think of. Lastly, regular readers may have noticed that I write far less frequently about religion than I used to. It’s basically because I’m done with my flirtation of PZ-style polemics. I don’t shy away from criticizing religion when it undermines science (as in creationism, for example) or medicine (the Daniel Hauser case, for example, or the Madeline Neumann case), but when it comes to religion I’ve mellowed for sure compared to two or three years ago. If religion is not directly interfering with science and medicine, I’ve become a “live and let live” sort of skeptic.

Through it all, there are topics that have remained constants, that I come back to again and again. Obviously, one of them is the anti-vaccine movement. If there is one form of pseudoscience that is the most immediately dangerous to public health, risking the resurgence of deadly diseases, it’s the anti-vaccine movement, and I keep coming back to it again and again. Back in the early days, I was dismayed at how little attention the skeptical movement in general paid attention to the anti-vaccine movement. Fortunately, over the last year Phil Plait, as president of JREF, started to “get it” and began to make the countering of the anti-vaccine movement and quackery a major focus in the promotion of skepticism by JREF. Indeed, I worry about whether D. J. Grothe, who is going to be taking over for Phil Plait when he steps down as president at the end of the year, will let that new focus wither. As much as he’s done for the skeptical movement over at the Center for Inquiry, I worry about this because there is nothing in Grothe’s history that I am aware of or an find to suggest that he has a significant understanding of the issues involved in quackery and the anti-vaccine movement, and looking at his podcast schedule over the last three years I see a real paucity of interviews about issues of science-based medicine versus quackery. This is one area where I really hope I’m being too pessimistic, and I would certainly be happy to help the JREF in any way to promote science and reason in medical practice. Indeed, I vew this as a natural part of skepticism, and, since it’s my area of expertise, that’s one area where I can make a contribution. The promotion of science-based medicine must remain a major pillar of skepticism, every bit as much as evolution or the paranormal.

Of course, dealing with the anti-vaccine movement is just a subset of medical skepticism and the promotion science-based medicine and the scientific analysis of quackery. This involves both looking at the science behind current medical practice and, when I deem it appropriate, applying my special not-so-Respectfully Insolent brand of slapdown to quackery. Apparently, I’ve been so successful that Hulda Clark‘s attack Chihuahua Tim Bolen seems to think that I’m going to be the successor to Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch. (No, I’m not going to link to him.) Would I could do that much, but my efforts to promote skepticism, be it medical or general, are really rather minimal compared to those of, for example, Steve Novella. We all do what we can.

Time and time again, I’m asked: Why do you do it? The pseudoscientists, the anti-vaccinationists, the quacks and their apologists, they never change. They never get the message. They’re never going to change. Sadly, that’s almost always true. However, almost as if sensing that a significant blogging anniversary is coming up, a few e-mails have been arriving that remind me why I do it.

For example here’s one from someone whom I’ll call M.:

I just found your blog this evening and have been having a great time perusing it. I grew up basically being indoctrinated against vaccines and the other “evils” of Western medicine. I could write a book about the litany of ridiculous “doctors” I’ve seen and “treatments” I’ve been through. I also went to a small school, where evolution was skipped over and treated as pseudoscience.

Anyway, I’m now grown up and interested in learning REAL biology and science. I want to know all the things I’ve missed–particularly how to sort out the real voices in science from the loons. Education has to be the way. If people had better education in the scientific method, I doubt they would fall prey to as many outlandish ideas as they do. I’m sick of hysteria and conspiracy theories. I think your blog is going to be pretty helpful in educating me, so thanks!

Sincerely,
M.

P.S. Quick story on the need for education: I have epilepsy. Earlier this year, a fairly intelligent friend told me (in all seriousness, and trying for tact) that he truly believed epilepsy was caused by demons, because “there isn’t even a test to see that seizures are happening in the brain, right?” I gave him a quick rundown of the EEG…

What more could one ask for? People ask why I do it. I do it because I enjoy it so, and sometimes, occasionally, I can reach people like M. True, they have to be ready to be reached, but when they are, it’s wonderful.

Then there are the occasional e-mails that also warm the cockles of my heart–I mean circuits. These are the ones where I’ve done my small part to help maintain a skeptic’s sanity. For instance, here’s an excerpt from someone whom I’ll call S.:

I’ve been following your blog on and off for about a year now, and enjoying it very much, but recently it’s become a lifesaver for me. I’m a 4th year pharmacy student, doing my first rotation at a compounding pharmacy in my city. Unfortunately, they promote and sell a LOT of alternative medicine/herbs/supplements in this pharmacy. They even have a doctor who has an office in the back, sees patients once a week, and diagnoses things like heavy metal toxicity or yeast syndrome. It’s driving me crazy, because when they ask me to research all these supplements, I mostly find that there’s no evidence that they work (sometimes there’s even evidence that they don’t work), but when I say that, it gets ignored or explained away. Apparently, there’s no good evidence for alternative medicine because “the only people doing the research are the supplement companies [who then don’t publish their research].”

Anyway, my reason for emailing you is twofold. First, I just want to say thank you, because your blog has been my source of sanity over the past week (and will be, I’m sure, for the next three weeks). When I’m close to going crazy over the illogical and completely non-evidence-based treatment of the day, I come and read an entry from Respectful Insolence, and I get my dose of sanity and logic for the day.

Fellow skeptics, use me and abuse me for tactical air support whenever you need me. I live for this shit, as they say.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve developed a bit more of a profile, “coming out of my shell” more when it comes to skepticism. Many readers know of my “friend” at another blog, you know, the guy who isn’t a box of blinking lights but sounds mysteriously like me. Thanks to that, I’ve spoken at TAM7 and have actually been interviewed on the radio and for newspapers. Shocking, but true. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be ready for TV, given that, as they say, I have a face perfect for radio and a voice that’s even better for blogging. But, who knows? At least there are now other outlets for Insolence to cover the world; that is, if I can keep it up for another five years, which is never any guarantee. Many are the bloggers whose life circumstances have changed or interest has waned.

I think I’ll conclude, though, by something to keep this from getting to be too nauseating, something to keep me humble.

I don’t always succeed.

I know, I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. In fact, when it comes to those deep in woo, I fail far more often than I succeed in getting through to them. I don’t necessarily expect that I can persuade everyone, and, given how much a lot of quackery is either based in or shares many traits with cult religious beliefs, it would be foolish to expect to be able to persuade all of them. Still, there are some losses that are particularly sad.

One of my biggest disappointments was a fairly regular commenter named Craig Willoughby. A couple of years ago, maybe longer, he showed up in the comments of posts about vaccines. I don’t remember exactly when he first showed up; it may even have been at the old blog. However, I do remember that, among those drinking of the Kool Aid of the “vaccines cause autism” movement at least then he seemed among the most reasonable, even though he didn’t like what I had to say. In others, like J.B. Handley, I saw no hope of ever reaching them, but I had thought that maybe Craig was reachable. Sadly, either I was wrong that he is reachable or I botched trying to do it. Of late, Craig has drifted ever further from reason, into the anti-vaccine biomed cult (see his comments cited here for an example). These days, apparently Craig’s decided that he detests me so much that he’s taken to launching nasty, poorly-written, poorly thought-out, profanity-laden, spittle-flecked attacks against me that confuse insolence with pure bile and demonstrate a total misunderstanding of science.

As much as I realize that one blogger isn’t likely to make the difference, I know Craig reads my blog regularly, which is why I will simply say two things. First, vaccines didn’t cause your child’s autism and other problems. They just didn’t; science is clear on that. Your anger, as understandable as it is, given your stressful situation, is misdirected and misguided. I know you won’t like hearing that; it may even provoke another tirade against me. So be it. Know this also: I am not your enemy. Neither is Paul Offit. Neither is Steve Novella. Know this also: J.B. Handley, Generation Rescue, and the rest of the biomeddling anti-vaccine movement are not your friends, either.

Finally, Craig’s quite wrong when he says that I’m only interested in being right. What I’m really interested in is science and how to apply the best science to medicine. What I’m really interested in is science and reason. I won’t lie and say it doesn’t bother me when evidence shows me to be wrong, but I do change. In fact, one excellent example is the whole mammography kerfuffle that I’ve been blogging about. As recently as two years ago, I was about as staunch a defender of mammography as anyone. However, over the last couple of years, as I paid more attention to the evidence (aided by blogging the studies that came out on this issue, actually), I’ve come to change my mind and accept that we perhaps do screen too much, that mammography doesn’t save as many lives as I used to think, and that there is a price. The post I wrote about the USPSTF guidelines last month could never have been written by me as I thought in 2006. It never would have happened. It took the weight of evidence to cause my thoughts to evolve. Even the anti-vaccine movement could persuade me–if it could only produce the evidence.

The anti-vaccine movement, like all of “alternative” medicine, stands in stark opposition to both science and reason. It is not based on science; it is not based on evidence; it is based on anecdotes and pseudoscience. However, as I have said time and time again since the very beginning–five years ago now!–I would change my mind about whether vaccines cause autism, whether various “alt-med” woo–even homeopathy!–works if you show me the evidence in sufficient quality and quantity to suggest that maybe our current scientific understanding is in error. That’s the difference between sketpicism and science compared to belief.

But enough. Five years have come and gone. Countless words have flowed from my keyboard to your computer screens. There have been high points, posts that I’m very proud of, and posts that I’d rather forget (none of which I’ve deleted, by the way). During my next five years, I clearly have my work cut out for me. In the meantime, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate–if you can call it that–five years in the blogosphere than to open up this comment thread. Lurkers! Delurk! (It’s been at least a years since I last invited this!) Lay the comments and, yes, criticism on me.

Put me under pressure.

Yeah, that was a transparent excuse to insert a video of one of my all time favorite songs.

Just delurk and comment, already! Or, if you’re not a lurker, just comment already!