Archive for the 'discourse' Category

CDC video targets vaccine fears

June 1, 2009

In wondering how the pro-vaccination camp might effectively communicate with parents, I’ve been imagining some kind of sit-down between parent groups and medical experts but I wasn’t clear how the word would get out. I forgot about this old internet thing. As it happens, the CDC has a new video out. (Thanks, Bad Astronomy.)

After talking with parents across the country, CDC put together this short video to help answer the tough questions that real moms had about childhood immunizations. Understanding the importance of vaccines is crucial for you to protect your children’s health.

This thing is so calm I completely tuned it out, so you’ll have to tell me if it’s any good. I have a hard time seeing it go viral. What do you think? Good first step? Too little, too late?

Better strategy?: We could spam Oprah with show requests.


I’ll take my pseudoscience with drugs, please

May 28, 2009

I’ve been looking for an excuse to trash 2012, the New Age Y2K. Now that journalist Ron Rosenbaum has done my work for me in Slate, I am free to take the broader view.

On Dec. 21, 2012, the Mayan “Long Count” calendar is supposed to turn over after a 5,139-year “Grand Cycle,” and the 2012 meme holds that the date will mark a passage to a new, more globally spiritual era. Drug culture superstar Daniel Pinchbeck has helped fuel the whole thing with his book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. (I’m waiting on my copy from the library.)

Rosenbaum links to a nice debunking of the astrological significance of Dec. 21, 2012. Of course, to anyone who believes in 2012 astrology, “debunking” is jerk-speak for “proof.” Which is why Rosenbaum’s trashing is so much preaching to the choir:

The best cultural explanation I found for this flowering of idiocy said that New Age fads like the Hopi prophecy and 2012 are a kind of cultural colonialism in which white people endow the minorities they have wiped out or repressed with mystical powers made more mysterious by their virtual vanishing.


Maybe those obsessed with making the world conform to rigid rationalities are the most vulnerable to the shambolic visions of mystics who can “explain” the anomalies and mysteries that elude their “Science of Detection.”

I agree whole-heartedly with the second statement. But if Rosenbaum thinks colonialism is a bad thing, why isn’t he sensitive enough to realize that an impulse toward spirituality, self-integration, connectedness — whatever you want to call it — is a very human thing, and that even if 2012 is a “silly scam,” maybe it’s being abetted by a dominant culture that doesn’t accept spirituality in nonsecular secular [oops] forms? Our culture does seem to have a hard time publicly affirming the value of subjective experience, hence Marianne Williamson’s goofy quantum advice and George Bush’s unwavering convictions. I mean, as much as I disagree with Jenny McCarthy, all she wants is validation of her feelings.

The tension, as always, is between subjectivity and objectivity. First, 2012ers need to accept that modernism isn’t going anywhere. And second, the Rosenbaums of the world should get on board with the judicious, therapeutic use of illicit psychoactive drugs. And then let’s everybody hold hands and be all Kumbaya and shit, ok?

Stem cells: let the disappointment begin

May 28, 2009

The problem with turning a scientific issue into a political football is that the passionate rough-and-tumble of the game can leave the science itself rather scuffed. When opponents of ESC [embryonic stem cell] research likened it to genocide and Nazi concentration camp experiments, its proponents countered by emphasizing how irreplaceable ESCs were and how miraculous the cures arising from them could be. Whether or not those claims wandered into rhetorical excess, at least a few false hopes and misimpressions have probably been left behind.

That’s Sci Am on the inevitable disappointments of stem cells.

All you ever wanted to know about the vaccine-autism wars

May 26, 2009

Great, great (loooong) article in PLoS Biology about the vaccine-autism wars, which ironically points to a hidden pitfall in applications of the precautionary principle. I love the science studies (STS) savviness:

[Medical anthropologist Sharon] Kaufman sees the enduring belief in the vaccine–autism theory as an example of what Ludwik Fleck, a clinical microbiologist with a passion for epistemology, called “an event in the history of thought”—a critical step in the way the perception of a scientific fact changes. In the US, that first step came in the form of a simple legislative action that produced new information about what was in vaccines—and quickly fed speculative theories linking them to autism.

Ok, I have got to do graduate study in STS. Otherwise I’m never going to read the copy of Fleck’s Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact that’s been on my bookshelf for like three years.

In the US, fears centered around the ethylmercury-containing preservative thimerosal after a 1999 government report revealed that three childhood vaccines—diphtheria, tetanus, acellular pertussis (DTaP); Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib); and hepatitis B—might expose infants to more mercury than anyone had realized.

The ill-fated precaution…:

Given the uncertainty about ethylmercury’s toxicity, Neal Halsey, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins University, urged vaccine policymakers at the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to remove thimerosal from vaccines as a precautionary measure and to maintain public confidence in their safety. The agencies agreed, and vaccine manufacturers responded quickly; by March 2001, no children’s vaccines contained thimerosal.

Anticipating the FDA’s release of its findings, the AAP issued a statement explaining its decision as an effort to minimize children’s exposure to mercury, asserting that “current levels of thimerosal will not hurt children, but reducing those levels will make safe vaccines even safer”. Unfortunately, Kaufman says, “rather than reassuring parents, the statement fueled public fears and prompted all sorts of questions.”

… fueled the highly speculative speculation:

Several months later, Medical Hypotheses—an unconventional journal that welcomes “even probably untrue papers”—received and later published a purely speculative article called “Autism: a novel form of mercury poisoning”. Two of the authors, Sallie Bernard, a marketing consultant, and Lyn Redwood, a nurse, had just launched the parents’ advocacy group SafeMinds to promote their thimerosal hypothesis. Although their now debunked theory appeared in a journal that openly eschews peer review and evidence-based observations, several parent advocacy groups still cite it as evidence that mercury in vaccines causes autism.

And the rest is history.

If you are at all interested in the subject, read the full piece, by writer Liza Gross. Tons of information in there. Like this bit:

Sadly, studies suggest that the burden of lowered immunization rates will likely fall disproportionately on poor people living in crowded conditions, hotbeds of disease transmission, and exacerbate existing health disparities among minority populations—where kids go unvaccinated not by choice but because of limited access to health services.

Did somebody say, “‘Yes we can’ vaccinate our kids”?

Oh yeah: I wonder if Medical Hypotheses takes literary theory.

Steven Pinker no longer pisses me off

May 26, 2009

As long as I’m eating crow, let it be in an area in which I supposedly have some expertise. I finished reading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate (The Modern Denial of Human Nature), and I have to say he’s made a pretty convincing argument that a) we often take for granted the idea that a person’s behavioral tendencies are primarily learned, in particular learned from culture, and b) although some of the forms those behaviors take may reflect our cultural context, the tendencies themselves probably do not.

I could quibble with Pinker on some points. He could have strengthened his argument, and expanded the scope of his audience, by acknowledging that culture can and does reinforce the idea that some universal behaviors are more valuable than others. Without that proviso, I think it’s easy for the concept of a “human nature” to end up reinforcing hurtful stereotypes. I also think he glosses over some problems in the field of evolutionary psychology — in particular, an over-reliance on adaptive rationales — for the sake of streamlining his argument for a human nature.

That being said, I disavow my earlier line of argument that Pinker is letting parents off the hook, for reasons I hope to get into soon. And in general, I am starting to agree with his statement in the book’s final chapter:

I suspect that few people really believe, deep down, that boys and girls are interchangeable, that all differences in intelligence come from the environment, that parents can micromanage the personalities of their children, that humans are born free of selfish tendencies, or that appealing stories, melodies, and faces are arbitrary social constructions. … Scholars who publicly deny intelligence is a meaningful concept treat it as anything but meaningless in their professional lives. Those who argue that gender differences are a reversible social construction do not treat them that way in their advice to their daughters, their dealings with the opposite sex, and their unguarded gossip, humor, and reflections on their lives. … The alternative [to acknowledging human nature] is to make intellectual life increasingly irrelevant to human affairs, to turn intellectuals into hypocrites, and to turn everyone else into anti-intellectuals.

Like I mentioned, I hope to find some time in coming weeks to explain how Pinker turned me around.

Alan Moore’s misogynistic legacy

May 25, 2009

7/4/10 — Question for Alan Moore fans.


5/26/09 — Post script:

Here were some things that didn’t occur to me before writing the following post:

1. That anyone beyond 30-odd friends, family and acquaintances would read it.

2. That even among that group of 30-odd, some might not appreciate having one of their artistic icons trashed on highly subjective grounds.

3. That I am not an expert authority on comic books, Alan Moore or sexism.

4. That comic book readers are deeply passionate, intelligent and thoughtful people.

5. That anyone I know who reads Alan Moore’s work and has an opinion on it is a wonderful human being.

6. That in social media as in the financial world, swans sometimes turn black.

7. That I was therefore in danger of pulling a Sasha-Frere Jones.

8. That a more honest and straightforward way to broach the subject would have been to say, “Hey, I’ve been catching up on a bunch of comics lately, including LXG, and I don’t know everything about what Alan Moore intended here, and for idiosyncratic reasons I’m not sure what to make of the violence involving Mina Murray. Can anyone help me out, before I go off half-cocked and incur the ire of a healthy cross-section of Alan Moore fans home on Memorial Day? Because I would feel bad if I inadvertently attacked a mature subculture.”

9. That possibly what I should have said was nothing.

10. That I am behind on other projects and should really be focusing on them instead of making trouble for myself.

And so, without further ado…


5/25/09 — Maybe you remember when I questioned the themes expressed in Alan Moore’s seminal comic book, Watchmen, back when the film version was in theatres? Something I could have made more hay over was the book’s brutality against women. There’s a graphic scene in which the Comedian beats and tries to rape Silk Spectre; later we learn Spectre’s daughter, Laurie, herself a superhero, was the product of a second, successful rape attempt. And more subtly, a female employee of Adrian Veidt’s is shot up in a staged attempt on his life.

I’ve since wondered if maybe I was being unfair to Moore’s project, to wit, the portrayal of how sick you’d have to be to want to become an actual superhero. As it turns out, no, Moore really does have a strong misogynistic streak. I became convinced the other day as I was flipping through one of his more recent works, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (LXG) Volume 2, where there’s another one of those scenes that makes you realize you’re watching some heavy duty psychoanalytic shit play out in comic form.


Those who saw LXG the movie (a piece of shite) will recall the story is about a “dream team” of characters assembled from Victorian era genre literature: Allan Quatermain, Mina Murray (née Harker; of Dracula), Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin (the invisible man) and Mr. Hyde. In volume 2, the league battles the Martians from H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, who, after being attacked by characters from Gulliver of Mars, make a brake for Earth, where they torch people alive with heat rays and threaten to sack London from atop tripod-limbed war machines.

The invisible Griffin, for one, welcomes our new tentacly-brain-looking overlords, providing them details about English military fortifications in return for a privileged place in the new Martian order. The “rape scene” occurs when Griffin, his treason discovered by Mina Murray, proceeds to beat the shit out of her. For two full pages – 18 panels, set 3 by 3 on the page – Murray is bloodied, thrown down, beaten until she vomits, then made to grovel before being allowed to rest in her own puke. Only Griffin is invisible the whole time, so there’s nothing impinging our view of Murray being beaten and degraded. (If you’ve got the stomach, here’s the end of the scene.) Not quite as fun as when invisible Buffy diddled Spike.

Exrapolating from Watchmen, I gather that what LXG is “really about” is how fucked up Victorian genre heroes – the superheroes of their day – really were, and therefore how fucked up we are*. Wikipedia claims Moore was originally going to call the book The League of Extraordinary Gentlefolk but changed it to Gentlemen “to better reflect the inherently sexist attitudes of the Victorian era.” Zing, Victorian era!

It’s a clever concept. But it doesn’t explain why Murray needs to get her shit knocked around in graphic detail. Even as a shock tactic, it’s rather ham-fisted, and we’re too far removed from that era for it to be meaningful to us anyway. The simplest explanation (and I’m not the first to have caught on to it) is this: Alan Moore likes scripting violence against women. The fact that it may “work” in context doesn’t change anything. In fact, it allows Moore to get off twice, first by creating it and second by implicitly daring us to call him on it and expose ourselves as exactly the kind of insufferable prigs who are too stupid to be reading his books in the first place. Well, as this Moore-hater says, fuck that.

It’s not like I think Moore or his works are bad, because what does that mean? I enjoyed LXG as a comic, and I’ll get around to reading his other stuff eventually. He tells a good story. But as much as Moore gripes about movie producers and other toads focusing on the wrong parts of his stories, his very act of constructing a highly stylized reality in order to satirize it invites exactly the type of exploitation Moore bemoans. When David Chappelle, a smarter, more relevant social critic than Moore has ever been, saw his comedy being taken the wrong way, he stopped doing the Chappelle Show. (Ostensibly, anyway.)

Moore talks a good game – the old pushing boundaries shtick. Here he is interviewed about Lost Girls, his porno comic. And he’s got plausible deniability about his sexual politics: he and his wife Phyllis have a “lover,” Deborah Delano, and together the three of them published an anthology to drum up support against British anti-homosexual legislation.

The question is more one of legacy. Some comic book creators are aware of their medium’s unfriendliness to female characters. But they’re up against an audience – you can guess the demographic – that continues to valorize the less sophisticated creator, and that is exactly the type Moore will have emboldened.

Look at Garth Ennis’s book The Boys, a modern day Watchmen that follows a group of CIA-backed super-types who assassinate other supers who’ve gotten out of control. Ennis wants to complicate Moore’s moral universe: The main character, modeled on Simon Pegg (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead) is supposed to be the kind of nice, normal guy who would never want to wield horrific power. But Ennis immediately borrows from Moore’s worst tropes. The Pegg character joins the group after his girlfriend is ripped apart by an out of control super – in one panel the couple is holding hands on a date, in the next Pegg is holding her severed arm. Later, three male supers, members of the top dog superhero group, sodomize a new female recruit as part of her initiation.

In short, there’s a reason why the only “graphic novels” I’ve recommended to my girlfriend are We3, about escaped animal cyber-weapons (and super cute, at that), and Achewood, which properly speaking is a comic strip and is therefore outside the superhero tradition. (I’ve never read Blankets, so I can’t comment on it.)

My bottom line: If popular culture is a form of group psychotherapy, then comics like Watchmen, LXG and The Boys appeal to guys because we’re working through our ambivalence for the old-style masculine ideal. If women in comics are treated inhumanely, it’s because the men writing and reading those comics still don’t know what to do in a world of women as partners and competitors. And that’s something that could change.

The floor is now open to discussion.

Addendum: Shit, I really need to go back and read Volume 1, don’t I?

Addendum 2: I’m getting owned in comments for  a) lack of research and b) rehashing a played out argument.

Comments are now closed. Thanks for sharing your opinions.

Scientist-popularizers “[not always] completely sensitive to what the philosophical question really is.”

May 15, 2009

Rebecca Golstein, the novelist and philosopher of science, makes that very Fistful statement in a discussion of the rise of the science-literate public intellectual. See the video waaaay down below there. From an interesting set of videos on Seed magazine’s web site, on whether or not the crowd has melded C.P. Snow’s two cultures into an harmonious science-dominated whole. Sadly, Goldstein doesn’t name names. We have our suspicions, though.

Update: In fact my suspicion could not have been more wrong.

Vodpod videos no longer available.


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Feminist critique of Slate’s Double X

May 14, 2009

American Prospect’s Ann Friedman has an interesting critique of Slate’s Double X, a new “women-centric” web site launched this week.

The proliferation of woman-centric sites raises the sorts of questions that keep a feminist editor up at night. If Slate saw a demand for more content about women, why didn’t it start publishing more articles for and by women on its main site? The decision to devote micro-sites to groups that aren’t white men — The Root for black readers, Double X for women readers — implies that Slate recognizes the need for more coverage that caters to women and people of color. But it doesn’t want that coverage mucking up its main product.

I’ll be reading Double X out of professional curiosity if nothing else, but Friedman says that’s not the point.

Thanks to the feminist movement and evolving notions of gender, Double X may indeed get its fair share of male readers. (Jezebel boasts a nearly 50 percent male readership.) Even if men are interested and clicking, the problem with branding certain types of articles “for women” is that it still advances a false gender divide. We can all agree that men parent, too. Men andwomen care about fashion and follow Hollywood gossip. Yet when these articles are primarily housed under a logo that refers to female chromosomes, it perpetuates the false idea that women are interested in Forever 21 and Facebook but not torture hearings or health-care reform.

Here are a few of the Double X pieces I’ve looked at:

I’m sure for anyone versed in feminist history Friedman’s critique is an obvious one, which means there’s an obvious rebuttal, and a counter-rebuttal, and so on. Anyone care to enlighten me what a 3.5 Wave feminist would have to say about all this?


Update: Double X responds.

How sociology perpetuates the vaccine-autism rift

May 14, 2009

In my anti-Jenny McCarthy screed, I pounced on her harsh language as evidence of how misguided she was. In comments, James said he was put off by the way Slate and my own post framed the issue.

Now Matt Nisbet reminds me why an isolated group — such as the pro-vaccine movement, or the anti-vaccine movement — will move toward extreme rhetoric:

Analyzing data from a national panel survey conducted between 2002 and 2005, graduate student Andrew Binder and his collaborators find that after controlling for demographics and news use, like-minded discussion pushed respondents’ position on stem cell research to the extreme ends of the distribution, either towards strong support or strong opposition.

Remember the insanity heard at some of the McCain-Palin rallies? Same kind of deal.

To explain how conflicts can escalate even from mild rhetoric, look to Sci Am Mind, where we learn that in a behavioral economics context (games played for money), “we retaliate against selfishness more than we reward generosity—even when the slights are only illusory.”

One group of dictators started with $100 and gave a portion to the second player; the other group of dictators started with no money but took part of $100 from their partner. Later, when participants rated the dictators’ generosity, they judged the taking group inordinately more harshly than the giving group. […] Furthermore, takers do not realize how greedy they appear to those on the receiving end.

These skewed judgments led to increasing selfishness with each interaction: when participants switched roles, the new dictators responded to seemingly greedy splits with less generosity themselves, the pattern continuing with each subsequent role reversal.

I imagine the same applies to rhetorical selfishness and generosity, where the currency being thrown around is self-respect.

All the more reason to bring everyone to the same table, as James noted in pointing out the work of one Roger Bernier, CDC scientist. 

Roger Bernier, 61, an epidemiologist with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), witnessed first hand the deep lack of trust between some citizens and government at a 2001 congressional hearing on vaccinations and the controversy surrounding vaccines and autism. A citizen’s comment–“Your CDC research is dead on arrival”–served as a wake up call to Bernier. […] Bernier’s solution was to attempt to build trust by bringing together citizens and government officials with diverse views to work jointly on developing and analyzing public health policy choices. In 2003 Bernier worked with the Keystone Center in Keystone Colorado to convene a diverse group of citizens and professionals to design a new public engagement model called the Vaccine Policy Analysis CollaborativE (VPACE).

So where is the Keystone approach in the Jenny McCarthy meltdown? I might have to — gasp! — make a phone call or two. I know, I know. Calm down. It’s still a blog.

The new McCarthyism

May 12, 2009

I finally broke down and got some antibiotics from the Wal-Greens clinic on Sunday to kill off this ear-sinus thing of mine. My illness has hindered my commenting on a far more insidious disease: Jenny McCarthy’s wrongheaded campaign against childhood vaccination, now brought to you by Oprah.

With any luck, given Oprah’s sway with the disconnected masses, this new alliance means kids will soon be dropping in great numbers from measles, whooping cough and other diseases of the Oregon Trail days. I mean, you saw what happened with Oprah’s KFC coupons, right?

Here’s Jenny’s story in her own words. As Slate points out, she doesn’t give a shit about kids getting sick or dying. What she does give a shit about, in this Time snippet, is dropping the f-bomb on the vaccine-industrial complex:

I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.

Yikes. Sounds like a lot of pent up frustration and guilt. And as my war with Steven Pinker proves — temporary ceasefires notwithstanding — you can’t fight emotion with Science. Because a) confirmation bias; b) the asymmetrical advantage of bullshit.

Or in other words, I do sadly believe we’re in for another protracted cultural contest along the lines of evolution vs. creationism.

Chris Mooney has a thorough run-down of how the new McCarthyism has mutated under the selection pressure of trend data such as these from California. Originally, autism was supposed to have been caused by thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative, even though it had been phased out of vaccines (except for flu shots) by 2001. But that didn’t pan out.

So, according to Mooney:

Advocates have begun moving the goalposts, now claiming, for instance, that the childhood vaccination schedule hits kids with too many vaccines at once, overwhelming their immune systems. Jenny McCarthy wants to “green our vaccines,” pointing to many other alleged toxins that they contain.

Naturally, the pro-vaccine camp wants to close off any avenue for debate. But you don’t want to start backtracking, which will be seized on by opponents as evidence the scientists are full of it. Mooney notes the evidence doesn’t rule out “some small subgroup of children might have a particular vulnerability to vaccines and yet be missed by epidemiological studies.”

Which leads you in to arguments about how big that group might be, where your prior assumptions will depend on whether or not you believe in your bones that doctors are corrupt assholes. Which in turn depends on your experiences with doctors.

I guess the root cause is a generation of parents who know that autism is a thing kids get but are struggling to cope with it and are looking to vent their pain, which is reasonable enough. And it’s easy pickings to target a public health intervention that’s more invisible the more successful it is. Plus, some doctors are insensitive jerks, and healthcare sucks (I’m told).

Can blogger activists like David Gorski and skeptic-in-chief Phil Plait do anything to help? I think you have to present the case against vaccine refusers, partly for the sake of integrity and the public record; partly to shore up the hesitaters, concerned parents who have no axe to grind but are simply unsure what to make of McCarthyite arguments.

It may all come down to state policies and doctors’ attitudes, and that’s terribly unsexy. Damn you, Oprah.