Disparate Anti-Science Forces

In case you missed the big news about the Lancet retraction, Daniel Drezner has the best meta post. He hints at the parallels between the anti-vaccine nuts, GMO opponents and climate change skeptics (strange bedfellows, aye?).

I see it too, but I believe irrationality underlies the anti-vaccine movement while ideology drives the other two. Regardless, Drezner doesn’t see the forces of reason winning out anytime soon, especially with the anti-vaccine crowd. He notes the response to the Lancet retraction in a New York Times article:

the retraction may do little to tarnish Dr. Wakefield’s reputation among parents’ groups in the United States. Despite a wealth of scientific studies that have failed to find any link between vaccines and autism, the parents fervently believe that their children’s mental problems resulted from vaccinations….

Jim Moody, a director of SafeMinds, a parents’ group that advances the notion the vaccines cause autism, said the retraction would strengthen Dr. Wakefield’s credibility with many parents.

“Attacking scientists and attacking doctors is dangerous,” he said. “This is about suppressing research, and it will fuel the controversy by bringing it all up again.”

On this, here’s Drezner, in a brilliant and acerbic observation:

Activists will argue that this is an example of Big Science suppressing counterintuitive research.  And in a public battle between the Jenny McCarthy/Oprah media-industrial complex and a bunch of science nerds, I’m putting my money on Mustard Girl.

In my prior research, I’ve seen this kind of dynamic play out in the debates over genetically modified foods, and we’re still seeing it play out in the debate over climate change.  Furthermore, because scientists are not perfect, it’s becoming easier to point out flaws that don’t necessarily compromise the basic science but do tarnish the image of scientists as neutral arbiters of fact.

In a separate vein, Orac thrashes the broadcast media for its coverage of the Lancet retraction. Climate advocates will surely feel his pain. I’d be curious to hear what Science Journalism Tracker and CJR’s The Observatory think of the press coverage of this huge story. So far, neither outlet has weighed in.

UPDATE: Drezner’s post concludes with another trenchant observation and a provocative question that deserves equal attention:

To be fair, it’s true that individual scientists aren’t really completely neutral — especially when it comes to politicized debates.  The scientific method, on the other hand, is about as neutral as you can get.  But that’s not as sexy a sell to the public.

Question to readers:  is there a way to make scientific consensus more acceptable to a public that doesn’t want to hear the results?

That’s really worth mulling over. But the problem is that no amount of sexing up of science will work with subcultures that are religiously, ideologically, or irrationally predisposed to disregard scientific consensus on certain issues of importance to them. That means that creationists,  anti-vaccine activists, GMO opponents, and hardcore climate change skeptics, to name just a few groups that have fixed, unalterable views,  cannot be persuaded by reason, no matter how it’s packaged.

UPDATE 2: Charlie Petit over at Science Journalism Tracker acknowledges my prod and puts up a real nice round-up of press coverage. Definitely worth checking out. It’s fair to speculate that this story will one day take on very tragic proportions, given how many thousands of parents have not vaccinated their children since that 1998 Lancet study was published.

Now, if Curtis Brainard over at CJR’s The Observatory also takes my prod, he might write a post similar to the excellent one he recently did on the recent IPCC media coverage (or lack thereof) in the U.S. He thus would sniff out all the potential autism/science angles just waiting to be covered, such as this one, from a parent of an autistic child, who commented on the Lancet retraction news at a blog site:

Because of my firm belief in the science of vaccines not causing ASD I am ostracized and treated with pity, like I am just too naive to know the truth.

At the same blog, another commenter writes:

I know what you mean–I went through some of this with my youngest child’s health issues and was completely ostracized by my new-agey community for taking the “pharma” path with my child. Many of the people who post here are scientists and have not faced this in the same way an average mother might.

Damn, I hope this wasn’t Boulder.

5 Responses to “Disparate Anti-Science Forces”

  1. Liz Ditz says:

    I sometimes write a post that collates blog responses, both positive and negative, to a given issue.

    I’m keeping one now on responses to the Lancet retraction of the Wakefield’s paper.

    I’ve added your post to the list.

    The post is at

    http://lizditz.typepad.com/i_speak_of_dreams/2010/02/on-the-lancets-retraction-of-wakefields-1998-paper-alleging-a-connection-between-the-mmr-vaccine-and.html. There, your readers will find the views of those who disagree with the Lancet retraction and those who agree that the Lancet retraction was long-overdue.

    Science isn’t decided by a popularity poll, but the pro-science faction is running at about a 9:1 ratio.

  2. Eli Rabett says:

    Eli thought you might enjoy <a href=”http://epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Minority.PressReleases&ContentRecord_id=95a85493-802a-23ad-4090-ba6c1b31b031&Region_id=&Issue_id=”>this example of Climate McCarthyism</a>

    “February 03, 2010
    Allison C. LernerInspector General
    National Science Foundation
    Office of Inspector General
    4201 Wilson Boulevard
    Arlington, VA 22230

    Dear Ms. Lerner:

    This is a follow-up to my letter of December 2, 2009 and concerns today’s announcement by Penn State University that it has concluded its initial inquiry into possible research misconduct by one of the University’s researchers, Dr. Michael Mann. Penn State’s internal inquiry found further investigation is warranted to determine if Dr. Mann “engaged in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting or reporting research or other scholarly activities.”

    While I firmly agree that Penn State’s investigation is warranted and must commence without delay, there are federal laws and policies implicated in this matter, including your “Research Misconduct” regulations, Title 45 CFR Part 689, that go beyond the scope of Penn State’s inquiry. Therefore, in order to have a full and complete accounting of this matter, I request that you now begin a formal investigation of the allegations against Dr. Mann.

    Among other laws and regulations, I ask that you investigate compliance with, or violations of, OMB administrative procedures, 2 CFR Part 215 (OMB Circular A-110), in particular 2 CFR §215.36; Freedom of Information Act 5 U.S.C. §552 (NSF Regulation, 45 CFR Part 612); NSF guidelines implementing OMB information quality guidelines (515 Guidelines); Federal False Claims Act, 18 U.S.C. §287, and 31 U.S.C. §§3729-33; and Federal False Statements Act, 18 U.S.C §1001. Finally, given that Dr. Mann was at the University of Virginia from 1999 until 2005, I also request that you inquire whether his activities at the University of Virginia are implicated in this matter and within your jurisdiction.


    James M. Inhofe
    Ranking Member
    Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works”

    Note the difference between your illusion  and the real thing

  3. oso loco says:

    Climate McCarthyism???


    More like simple justice. 

  4. oso loco says:

    Back on topic – I don’t know about the autism/vaccine connection (if any), but I start hearing alarms in my head whenever anyone says “the scientists say (whatever) so it much be true”. 

    Fact is that even the pharm companies understand that there’s SOME fraction of the population that will react badly to ANY drug (including vaccines).  Denial of that obvious fact does nothing to enhance ones credibility.  Nor does absolute certainty about issues that are obviously uncertain (witness “climate change”.   Or, as was once said:

    Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts          Richard Feynman

  5. Keith Kloor says:

    Oso (4),

    You sound reflexively, almost pathologically suspicious of science.  There is no credible evidence whatsoever for a link between autism and vaccines. To you, the absence of evidence is something to hold on to in this case.  Weird.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.