So, lately, there has been a story in the news about measles and vaccinations. And those “responsible” for the outbreak (it’s in scare quotes, because we are going to come to the question of responsibility in a moment) have been thoroughly mocked. I have done approximately 62 percent of that mocking myself. How, how can these people simply DENY all of the scientific evidence and persist in a belief for which there is no support? How can they care about no one but themselves? How, in short, can they be not only so selfish, but also so stupid? Because, the underpinnings of this attitude go, the science on this is clear. Any person with an ounce of sense can get to the evidence, and understand the science and know that there is consensus. (1)
In the meanwhile, there have been some background rumblings about GMOs. The set-up is the same: crazy people, often new-agey or weird religious, express their belief that GMOs cause cancer or something in a video that makes them look crazy, and then the scientists come in, and they show that GMOs ARE in fact safe to eat, and the other people are denialists, and we should mock them as we enjoy a bowl of industrially produced cornflakes with roundup ready corn and pus-filled milk. (2)
So for me, the question of whether or not GMOs are safe to eat is a little bit like the question of whether or not SUVs are safe to drive: i.e. not the point, and kind of simple-minded as a question, given the issues at stake. But that’s a rant for another day. The point is, it got me thinking about two things: scientific consensus, and how such consensus (or lack thereof) might be available to the layperson with an internet connection.
The people who deny the specific claim about GMO safety say the same thing: the testing was done by the same corporations that want to sell them, so how can the science be trusted? Anti-vaxxers, you will note, imply something similar when they talk about big pharma. Now I know, or at least I think I know, that vaccine safety is tested independently, and I also know that evidence-based disciplines outside the bench sciences, like history, bear out the claims about vaccines and make anti-vaxxers look like somebody who saw Goody Proctor with the devil. About GMOs, I realize that I don’t know.
So I made a list of claims. Each of these claims is a claim about science proving something.
- Claims in category 1:
This product, which is unregulated by the FDA or any other agency, when applied to your skin, will prevent and erase wrinkles. It’s scientifically proven.
This product, which is unregulated by the FDA or any other agency, when taken internally, will make you lose weight without diet or exercise. It’s scientifically proven.
- Claims in category 2:
While some, perhaps even most scientists, agree that climate change is real, is the result of human actions, and is a serious problem we should be worried about right now, scientists at the Heritage Foundation, which has a vested interest in arguing what they argue, says these claims are exaggerated and that regulations proposed to address them are bad.
Some studies of show a link between sugar and diabetes. Other studies show no link between sugar and diabetes.
As it turns out, all of the latter are funded by the food and beverage industry, and all of the former are described as being “independent”, whatever that means, since they almost certainly had funding. (3)
Studies funded by the tobacco industry show no link between smoking and cancer.
The NRA has successfully lobbied to have all federal funding for research on gun violence pulled. It is effectively illegal to use public money to study gun violence.
With the rise of native advertising, and the decline of journalism in general, average consumers often have no way of distinguishing between an advertisement and a news story, even if news stories were still actually worth watching.
- and then there is category 3:
Studies which show a link or correlation are likely to get published. Studies showing no link or correlation are almost never published. There is a large-scale bias toward publishing studies that claim something over studies that claim a lack of something.
Federal grant money is a huge, huge source of income for both individual researchers and universities and research institutions. It is unclear if agencies like the NIH will continue to fund research projects which do not show expected results, or which show no results.
The only other source of funding for such large-scale studies is inside the R and D departments of large corporations.
Regulatory bodies let the companies developing products do their own testing. There are no barriers preventing people from moving to and from jobs in regulation and jobs in the industries regulated. Such moves are common.
- end of list of problematic claims
So here’s my problem.
I think that I do a good job of navigating all of this. But I am also fairly sure that my confidence in this area comes at least partly from large-scale agreement with other people in my socio-economic group, from my peers’ approval. (Note how the anti-vaxxers are localized in specific communities, whose members support and reinforce each other’s behavior and conclusions.) The fact is, I have no more and no better information about science than anybody else, and in other situations I am the first one in line to doubt the claims of industry about its products. The pharmaceutical industry is, in fact, not trustworthy or ethical, and is prone to do all kinds of immoral and unethical things to make a buck. This industry does not, in fact, have your interests at heart, and it is, in fact, wildly under-regulated. Should I say that it is not in order to answer claims about vaccines? Because that’s not accurate.
I fervently believe that we should all, individually and collectively, be making decisions based on evidence and setting aside any belief for which there is not good evidence. I think that the future of civilization quite literally depends on our collective ability to do this. But that’s the easy part, frankly. Where are we supposed to be getting this evidence, and how are we meant to evaluate claims about it? That’s the rub. Because anti-vaxxers think they have evidence. They think they have a lot of evidence, and they think it’s good evidence.
Don’t get me wrong, I think doctors that promulgate this bullshit should lose their licenses and face sanctions. I think that parents who don’t vaccinate should, at a MINIMUM, lose the right to put their kids in public school, and possibly we should look at them losing custody of their kids. It’s just that my own confidence in my simple belief in science as a method for understanding and approaching the world is somewhat eroded lately, and I think solutions to this problem go far beyond sanctions and public schools.
Because until the measles happened, no one even considered yanking these doctors’ licenses. Are they not also responsible for the outbreak?
What about a press that couldn’t find its ass with both hands and a mirror when it comes to reporting on science? Are they not also responsible for the outbreak?
What about public people who lack scientific training and yet “advocate” for political goals in which they fervently believe? (It’s my deeply held belief, man, you can’t question it!) Are they not also responsible for the outbreak?
The FDA? The lack of regulation more generally? The complete ineffectiveness of labeling and consumer protections? The idiocy of consumers who ask for fewer regulations? Big pharma for being such whores in general that they can’t be trusted now on this either?
And ask yourself this: do I actually, in point of fact, have good evidence that I have checked myself for all of my beliefs about the world, including the scientific ones that I hold up as so dear? Because you don’t. You couldn’t. No one is genuinely equipped to check that stuff, and we all go with consensus because you have to. And our consensus, currently, is corrupted and polluted by the desire to make money. So then follow up with this: is there something I currently believe that could one day blow up in my face as the next measles outbreak? And if it does, am I sure that I won’t react with flat out denial?
Because I’m not sure. I would like to be, I feel deeply unsafe, and I hope that this feeling will pass, but I’m right this instant not at all sure.
Finally, let me just say this. When people talk about the arrogance of scientists and professors, I have long been inclined to dismiss it. However, I am coming off a long period of american university professors telling me, effectively, to sit down and shut up, that they know better, including about things in which the professor is not an expert. Including issues were, in fact, I am better equipped to know than the professor in question. And I have a PhD. If I feel this way — like a small child told to go and sit in the corner for daring to ask a question of the teacher — I cannot image how people with less formal education must feel. So I guess a special fuck you to go out to everybody from the UofC right now, because you guys are just the worst. Yes. Fuck you. (4)
I hope to be back on my game in the next couple days. I don’t want common ground with anti-vaxxers, and I’m a lot happier making fun than I am feeling empathy.
UPDATE: My excellent husband has, using nothing but reason and logic, talked me down from this precipice. It’s all the stuff you already know: when you actually need to make decisions, you have or you get the information, a bigger claim (conspiracy) can’t be used to back up a smaller one, despite its problems, the scientific method is still the best we’ve got, and lots of scientists are independent, and you can often trace the money when they’re not. Things are not so bad. At least, not outside the humanities.
And the biggest one of all: when confronted with counter-evidence, I’m willing to change my position. As long as I have that, I might as well be a separate species from the antivaxxers. Join us.
1. There has also been no little joy on my part that I live in a country that doesn’t allow people to decide not to follow its laws based on a “personal belief exemption” which basically states that anyone can do anything they want so long as they claim to believe it, and the less evidence there is for their belief, the stronger their claim. For me, this story exists on a continuum with other american myths about freedom, the pilgrims and their religion, the founding fathers and their religion, and america as the land where people are free to worship as they choose, as if this could actually be the highest good for any thinking, progressive person. I don’t think I’m wrong about this overlayer of smugness, though I am perhaps wrong to smug about it instead of something more properly humble like grateful or concerned.
2. I cannot vouch for the quality of the claims about pus in milk. Google it and you’ll see why. You should actually google this, because this is, in fact, my whole point.
3. I only know this because of yet ANOTHER study, which established the correlation between funding and results. No word on where its money came from. Also, I saw this third and final study cited on a comedy and satire show which does a better job of in-depth investigative reporting than most shows that call themselves news. Despite all of this, I believe the study, and I believe the not-news source from which it came. I have not verified any of these claims about sugar, beverages, diabetes and the science of them in any way shape or form.
4. I just unfriended another one yesterday. The thought that unfriending someone is pretty much the only weapon in my arsenal makes me feel so depressed that I see no point in ever getting out the bed again, except that maybe I might need to pee. Go post that on your own wall, Nicole, she said. I’m trying to make a different point here, she said. My role, apparently, is to like and admire, not to discuss or pose questions. Soon, I will have no friends left, and I will be super brave about posting what I think to an audience of zero. If a person stands in a deserted street screaming that we should be reasonable and compassionate in our dealings with one another, using evidence as our benchmark, is that person still crazy? Is she more or less crazy than a person who tells a street full of people that he is actually Napoleon? How about that lady in the store who tells you to have a blessed day?