Field of Science

Hey, Nature--the 1950s wants its sexist prose back

"Oh, Beaver! I LOVE to shop!"
Maybe it's because they're middle aged. That can't be it, though, because I am, and I know better. My husband is, and he knows better. Maybe it's because they like Jethro Tull. Anyone who likes Jethro Tull is immediately, profoundly suspect in my book, so I'm going to go with that as the explanation for the wildly sexist bullshit that turned up in September 2011 in Nature, ironically entitled "Womanspace." NATURE. And the year is correct: TWO-THOUSAND-AND-ELEVEN. Not 1951, but TWO-THOUSAND-AND-ELEVEN.

The author, Ed Rybicki, purports to compare the shopping styles of men and women. Thanks to passages like the one below, I was transported back to a time when men were men, women were women, and Hugh Hefner had just published the first issue of his groundbreaking new magazine, Playboy, which men like these read only for the articles. Rybicki writes:
At this point I must digress, and mention, for those who are not aware, the profound differences in strategy between Men Going Shopping and Women Going Shopping. In any general shopping situation, men hunt: that is, they go into a complex environment with a few clear objectives, achieve those, and leave. Women, on the other hand, gather: such that any mission to buy just bread and milk could turn into an extended foraging expedition that also snares a to-die-for pair of discounted shoes; a useful new mop; three sorts of new cook-in sauces; and possibly a selection of frozen fish.
Stereotype much? Let me help you gain some clarity: I detest shopping. I hate the grocery store. My least favorite day of the week is Monday, not because it's MONDAY but because it is grocery store day. I purchase clothing about twice a year in 10-minute microbursts of laser-targeted selections, primarily because I so very much hate shopping. I own clothes that date back almost to the era from which this writer appears to hail, because I so very much hate shopping. As a woman, I am not alone in that--about 50% of my sex (warning: more sexism at link), it seems, joins me in the repulsion.

The writer goes on to draw out a strained discretization of women as Gatherers and men as Hunters--perhaps he's not familiar with the fact that some of us are more Neanderthal than others and that Neanderthals didn't do that whole hunter-gatherer thing--and uses it as a springboard for an epiphany about parallel universes. It strains to the point of shatter, but it's along the lines of, "Women have mysterious ways of finding mysterious things in mysterious spaces while shopping, spaces men seem incapable of finding," extrapolated to "Women reside in a parallel universe." He then discusses having consulted other men to "observe such phenomena," collecting their observations about how women shop.

Playboy writing, this is not. Sexist writing, it is.

It goes on:
Women can access parallel universes in order to find things, whether they do it consciously or not. They have probably always been able to do this, and now there is fierce speculation as to whether this constituted the evolutionary advantage we had over other primates: the presence of bulbs, grains and nuts on the table that had been retrieved from parallel universes when the hunters came home empty-handed was probably a major factor in the survival of our species.
"Probably always been able to do this"? While the idea in itself isn't without support--see "Neanderthal lack of division of labor may have contributed to their extinction"--to connect this to some 1950s conception of Women-Shop-Gatherer vs Men-Shop-Hunter is sexist and a metaphorical failure. Has the writer ever been hunting? Far more than gathering, hunting involves finding--and taking--elusive food in places that themselves can be elusive. The parallels posited in this piece aren't parallels. The acts of hunting and gathering intersect in any number of complex ways that defy easy categorization, including division by sex.

Continuing with the "Take my wife...please" banter, the writer states that the difference between women's capacity to find things in a parallel universe in Ye Olden Tymes and our ability to do it today is that today, "they (italics mine) know they can do it." This knowledge, it seems, means "things have changed." I'm a touchy feminist, and when I see men bemoaning that women have become empowered through knowledge, I turn into a somewhat stabby feminist.

The stabbiness became extreme when I reached the penultimate graf of this sexist anachronism:
Because groceries aren't all they go looking for. It turns out the next item on the shopping list is better-looking versions of us.
After reducing women to a stereotyped shopping monolith, cheekily analogizing women's behaviors as a parallel universe (can someone finally kill the astronomic analogies for men vs women, please? This book is almost 20 years old), and expressing fear over the empowerment of women, he now marginalizes women into superficiality, hazarding that given our newfound knowledge, we will exercise it to get rid of ugly men and select "better-looking" versions.

I'd suggest that a rationale other than one based on looks might lead to the selection of a different version of the writer in question. But what I can't understand is, What was Nature thinking?

Further reading
Follow on Twitter: #womanspace
  • Comments on the piece at Nature. Some blithe. Some angry. Some dismissive.
  • A letter to the editor of Nature, "Women: Sexist fiction is alienating," taking issue in much more sober fashion than I with what the piece said and with the effect of countenancing this kind of sexism.
  • And another letter to the editor, "Women: Latent bias harms careers," doing the same.
  • From Janet D. Stemwedel, a member of the Scientific American blog network (a part of the Nature Publishing network), "In which I form a suspicion that I am not Nature's intended audience."
  • Also from a Scientific American blogger, Christie Wilcox, "The Charismatic Misogynist."
  • A letter that appeared in the Nov. 4 issue of AASWomen, addressing Nature's editor-in-chief, nothing that he is not the EIC of Cosmo.
  • A post from Dr. Isis: "What Womanspace really looks like and why Nature can suck it."
  • From Alex Wild at Scientific American: "Nature Publishing Group's New Journal: Womanspace." Now that's tongue in cheek.
  • From Paul Anderson, who points out that the "Womanspace" piece in fact violates Nature's own comment policy.
  • From Stages of Succession: NPG WTF.
  • Anne Jefferson makes the point in her title: "Dear Nature, you got a sexist story, but when you published it, you gave it your stamp of approval and became sexist, too."
  • And the smart Kate Clancy, also blogging at Scientific American (again, part of NPG), invites us to Occupy NPG.
  • Matthew Francis at Galileo's Pendulum has a warning from Galileo himself. 

Teaching my sexist sons that feminism has no gonadal requirements for entry

My sons are collectively a sexist bunch, and I cannot quite pinpoint why that is. Their doctors--pediatric urologists, developmental pediatricians, pediatric ENTs, two of three pediatricians--have all been women. They are surrounded on all sides by women who hold advanced degrees, some in science or medicine, who have careers, who have demonstrated the possibilities. Yet they will still assume that women can't do certain things that men can. They've said--after all those doctors--that women can't be doctors. We've even argued over whether or not women can pee standing up. Of course, we can. It's just harder for us to hit the tree.

The Viking (my husband) and I can't quite figure out the origins of their seemingly innate sexism. We wonder if it's us, somehow. I've never discouraged my sons from whatever interest attracted them, but they also never showed any interest in the more nurturing side of play, including dolls or related toys. One confounder here is that my two older sons never did much imaginary play of any kind, so dolls weren't even on the radar. My youngest loves a good kitchen, so of course we went crazy and stocked out a full Doug and Melissa kitchen complete with every kitchen set they offer, from pizza to cake.

Today, it all lies in a pile, ignored, while the constant sound of Lego blocks scraping over Lego blocks echoes through our house as our two younger sons spend hours building. Building what? Battleships. Guns...they build their own tiny Lego guns placed into to tiny Lego hands. They make custom mini-figures that are invariably male, whether they're a HazMat worker or a guy sitting around in his living room, drinking coffee. In their Lego land, there are no women. Is that the fault of Lego or society or us...or all three?

We lecture, of course. When one of them asserts that girls aren't as good at X job or activity as boys are, naturally I take issue, provide examples. We've had to explain how the weight of history and physical strength and cultural power have conspired to hold women back, and how, in spite of that, many not-so-"well-behaved" women broke through. How in some parts of the world, this cultural and social and brute inequality still persists. My husband, who has a master's degree in geography, has discussed how availability of clean water can revolutionize women's education, while I chime in with how important women's education is to lifting up all of us.

Is it society? Was it preschool? It would be great to think that their nearest, most personal examples of feminist people--men and women--would be their touchstones for their own attitudes. I homeschool, and we read biographies of successful women and books by and about women. I seek out videos--especially science videos--that feature women. In spite of all that close-to-home investment, has their real formative experience been and will it continue to be what they see from a greater distance? Books they read in school, where Mom cooks and Dad comes home from work? School itself, where most of the teachers are women, but the principal is a man? A country whose Commander in Chief and second-in-line are and always have been men?

Whenever they look away from home, they see examples of social and cultural inequality that they take as an inherent, natural inequality. How can we raise feminist sons when the world around them--from blithely sexist women's magazine covers to people who want to make women's bodies incubators of the state--this world blasts them day in and day out with the noise of thousands of years of ingrained inequality? I had started to think that there was no way we could ever drown out the sound.

A couple of weeks ago, I was working on this badge for a site I've started, Double X Science (tagline: "Science, I am just that into you"). The goal of the site is to attract women to science, to show how cool science is, how much of interest if holds for those who have at least a little woman in us. In creating the badge, I originally had the "O" in "you" in the form of the mirror-and-comb symbol (♀) that indicates "woman."

A couple of people who very kindly critiqued the badge for me suggested that the ♀ symbol might communicate to some younger women, in particular, a certain school of hardened or strident feminism that could put them off. They were right, I think, but it was a disappointing reality. Ultimately, we incorporated the symbol into the blog banner itself, as you can see, looking a little like itself but also like a sweet little "XO" (hugs and kisses) to science.

My two older sons noticed the change and asked me about it. I explained to them why that symbol might be taken to have an almost negative connotation of feminism that might defeat my purpose and also observed that I was disappointed about that reality. It was then that I commented to them yet again that I am a feminist and that their father is a feminist, adding this time that we fully expected that they, too, would be feminists. And here's what my oldest, age 10, said: "I'm a boy. Why would I need to be a feminist?"

Ah, young fellow. Oh, young woman who might find the  symbol a tad too redolent of the strident, passionate women who made it possible for you to choose among focusing on your ass, your mind, or both, here's why: Because being feminist means being humanist.

When you commit to establishing equality for women, you've committed to equality for everyone. Being feminist means a belief in the inherent right of every human being to equal treatment under the law, under society, under culture. If you believe--as my sons do--that homosexuals should have the right to love and marry one another, then you also should be a feminist. If you believe--as my sons do--that people of all ethnicities and backgrounds have the same rights and should have the same opportunities, then you should be a feminist. Being a feminist--taking it to the women, letting the women bring it--is one of the fundamental ways a society lifts itself up and keeps moving toward the light.

When you're a feminist, you bring everyone with you. And that means even my sons, who now understand that feminism is not a casual accident of having ovaries but a willful, purposeful way of being, one that carries no specific gonadal requirements for entry. We're hoping that this way of phrasing the lesson gives it sufficient volume to drown out some of that societal noise.

Science, logic, and leaps of faith

I have this problem with Science--or maybe it's Logic--or maybe it's just that part of my brain that's inaccessible to either. Maybe it's the triumvirate interacting, and my mental state is the Roman empire, suffering as a whole as the three try to retain power over discrete pieces of me. Because, you see, I seem to be a woman of parts.

A part of me looks at the vastness of humanity, now and in times past, and thinks, in the immortal lexicon of my southern mother, Whoopteedoo. We don't matter. We don't count. We wander the face of the Earth like the agile primates we are, beating our chests with our importance, destroying whatever interferes with us, whatever our religions tell us to, whatever our technology can. We seem to do it with a sort of super-ape glee and self importance that has more in common with the chimpanzee than a huge swath of us would like to acknowledge.

We wear clothes, worry about style, adorn faces, hands, hair, noses, tongues, penises, nipples, and clitorises with jewelry, tattoos, paints. Almost each and every single one of us thinks that collectively, we're an important bunch and that individually, we are each more important than the next. I watch people in airports, malls, stores, and on television. If you walk by me, I'm watching you, and my thoughts, while not personal, are not flattering to either. On some days, a certain part of my brain reduces us all to specks, less-hairy, ironically immaterial primate specks struggling to make ourselves important through our adornments, personal, social, and cultural.

Reductionist, I know. Maybe I'm just cranky. But my science tells me that material, physical interactions drive our existence, our behaviors, everything we do. They're insensate. They don't care, any more than the vast, unforgiving universe, about our existence. They brought us here, they'll take us out, and they'll remain completely remorseless in the process. We are matter, so we are, but we don't matter.

In these states of mind, I recall one version of Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger, in which a being--angel? devil? He's both--creates a little world of tiny people and then, without any show of ruth, crushes the life out of them, to the horror of the human children watching. That Being from Twain's story? That, to me, is the natural world. It giveth. It taketh away. And it remains insensate to the emotion and feeling that we, gifted or afflicted as we are with sensory systems, apply to its manifestations.

It's in this way that Logic, or at least my version of it, takes me to my dark places. I can't even get starry eyed when people talk of our all being star stuff, existing only because stars lived and died before us. To me, if the natural world can kill a star, why would I--why would any of us, with our literally relative immateriality--matter?

Some people would argue that for us to understand how we matter requires a leap of faith. A leap across a great chasm between the world as we know it, understand it, and can test it and a bourne from which no traveler appears to return. Without that traveler's eyewitness account, I got nothin'. I can't make that leap. There is no faith that bridges a chasm between me and that Other Place that so many people are so sure awaits them.

A essay appeared recently claiming that religion is easier for the human mind to encompass than science is. For me, the relative ease is exactly the opposite. I can more readily accept--even leap to embrace--a physical explanation for any phenomenon than I can bring my mind to reach across that chasm toward the supernatural. Where Logic takes me to my dark places, Science simply leaves me standing on the edge of the abyss, unable to make that leap that so many millions--billions--of people seem to make.

So there they sit, Science and Logic, twin obstacles to my ability to relax fully and completely into an appreciation for Why We Are Here, or even an appreciation of Sure, We're Not Here for Much of Anything, But Isn't It Great to Be Here? Unlike Achilles in that hot mess of a film, Troy, I do not think that the gods would envy us because they cannot experience what we do. "Gods" are the natural world, humanized. And as I've noted, the natural world doesn't give a shit.

If you've made it this far, you may be wondering why I haven't offed myself at this point, given my nihilistic perspective, my thralldom to logic and science, my Borg-like inability to separate myself--or any of us--as anything special from the whole teeming, throbbing, madding superorganism that is Earth. And my answer is, my inaccessible brain, the last member of the triumvirate. There's a little core in there, one impenetrable to my conscious logic or science, one that makes its own leap of faith, of the sort a person like me has to make. If a brain can have a heart or soul, this core is it.

For some reason, in spite of myself and my intellectual honesty about my nihilism, I continue to care. That recess of my thinking lies protected and inured against all that my logic and science can throw at it, thriving and surviving like an unexpected summer wildflower in a snowfield. Hamlet told Horatio that there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in Horatio's philosophy. That little part of my brain is my mystically inclined Hamlet, defying the Horatio that makes up the rest of me.

The philosophy is likely not that mysterious. I'm sure it's got a physical explanation. I'm pretty sure evolution shaped it. Yet, in spite of its likely logical, physically explicable underpinnings, it's like magic to me. It whispers to me in the morning to go forth and try. It flogs me through the day without my conscious input, to care, to worry, to commit, to engage. From its fortress against my willful, brutal empiricism, it directs me without words to try to do things that are good for my species, for other species, for this madding and maddening superorganism called Earth.

And like the people who talk about a leap of faith but can't ever really explain it in a way I'll understand, this little core of Me forces me into my own leap. Against my better--or worse?--judgment, countering my capacity to carry a logical thread to the deepest minimalization of why any of us matters--I care. So very deeply, helplessly, I care.

That little core spans the abyss of my logical nihilism, forms the bridge that keeps me connected to humanity, in humanity. In things great and small, in defiance of my logic and my science, it all matters. I could detail more about why, but everybody's got their own whys, just as everyone's got their own version of the Leap. Mine's not one of faith. Regardless, I am thankful for whatever it is within me that compels me to take it.

[Photo credit: Rowland Turner, via Wikimedia Commons]

Oh, what a tangled web we weave

A few days ago, I brought you a bit of a tongue-in-cheek example of how easy it is to find a conspiracy among any group that has like interests at heart. In that case, the "like" interests are battling irrationally against vaccines, and the "conspiracy" led me, in the best of ironies, to a chemical company that makes what those anti-science, anti-vaxx folk would call "chemicals," or...even worse, "toxins."

But today, I bring you a timeline that suggests links of a different and even more concerted sort. The antivaxx community I illustrated in this graphic certainly interacts among themselves, linking to and supporting each other in many ways, enjoying their time in the echo chamber. It's understandable that like would turn to like and that amidst the earnestness of some, a few more nefarious sorts reside, clearly intent on making a buck or a million by taking advantage of some of that earnestness.

I admire venality as much as the next person, but I'm not sure even with that appreciation, I can admire Andrew Wakefield. His record speaks for itself [NYT]. This is someone I've been only a few feet away from twice in restaurants, and his mere presence filled me with an indescribable mix of emotions and urges, ranging from confrontation to immediate departure and from pushing away my plate to vomiting. Yet, the man is like the antagonist from a horror movie. Even after you've poked at it and assured yourself that it's vanquished, the damned thing rises up again, sneaking up behind unsuspecting you on the most benign-seeming of Wednesdays.

The former good doctor's latest is a salvo in the British Journal of Medicine (BMJ)--will they ever tire of prolonging the world's misery in this way? As described in a piece at, the salvo arrives in the form of a letter to the journal from one David Lewis (a search of the site and the current issue turns up no hits). Lewis, it seems, is a whistleblower with a longstanding feud with the EPA. He also is affiliated with this orgnization, the National Whistleblowers Center. This organization is not to be confused with, a non-profit government accountability project.

The "S," you see, makes a difference. is an entity run by lawyers from this firm, including brothers Stephen and Michael Kohn. Hold onto the name, as you will be seeing it again later. The firm, as its Website notes, specializes in "protecting whistleblowers," so it's kind of them to have set up to help out with that.

Now, it's time for a timeline.

March 14, 2010
Orac, over at Respectful Insolence, offered up a post that was characteristically and justifiably none too admiring of the good (former) Dr. Wakefield. One of the comments on the post, from someone named Michael0156*, offers the following:
We are better off for the courage of heroes like Andrew Wakefield, Richard Convertino, David Graham, Brooksley Born, Frances Kelsey, Harry Markopolos, Eric Topol, Bunnatine Greenhouse, David Lewis, Colleen Rowley, Steven Nissen, Cynthia Cooper... and many others who stood up for what they believed was right, who by their selfless example point the way to where we should go and what we can be. We have to find the will and strength to support them.
They all appear to be whistleblowers, and the results of my quick search of the name Kohn and each listed name are linked with the names above. Michael Kohn was the attorney for Bunnatine Greenhouse. David Lewis...there he a Board Member at the National Whistleblowers Center. 

December 2010
"The Research Misconduct Project was created by the National Whistleblowers Center (NWC) Board of Directors in December 2010." Here is a link to the project page, featuring David Lewis. The sole project listed? This one:
Independent Review of the Allegations Against Dr. Andrew Wakefield 
In January 2011, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published editorials and a series of articles by reporter Brian Deer accusing Dr. Andrew Wakefield of fraud associated with a case series that Wakefield and 12 coauthors at the Royal Free School of Medicine in London published in 1998 in The Lancet. The study involved 12 children with regressive developmental disorders and chronic inflammatory bowel disease. Wakefield and his coauthors called the condition lleal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia and non-specific colitis. This disease, which is neither Crohn's disease nor ulcerative colitis, involves a nodular proliferation of lymph cells in the ileum of the small intestine. Parents of the children in Wakefield's study, and the children's physicians, linked the onset of the children's autism to the measles mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
Given the potential significance of Dr. Wakefield's initial findings, the Research Project will undertake a review of the scientific attacks lodged against Dr. Wakefield in order to produce a non-biased, objective review (italics mine) of this very important matter.
Again, in spite of its year-long existence, there are no other projects listed.

January 3-8, 2011
Vaccine Safety Conference, Jamaica. Andrew Wakefield was a listed speaker (among many others in the anti-vaxx heavens) and attended. Also in attendance, according to Brian Deer, the journalist who outed Wakefield's various misdeeds, were David Lewis (as, he says, "an invited observer") and Stephen Cohn, who also was one of the illustrious speakers
In January, Lewis and Kohn were guests of anti-vaccine campaigners at the 2,000 acre Tryall Club villa resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where struck-off former surgeon Andrew Wakefield headlined the cabaret. An autism website reports that travel costs and hospitality at the five star holidayspot were paid for by the promoters
January 5, 2011
ETA: BMJ comes out with an editorial condemning "fraudulent" Wakefield study.

January 10, 2011
Gary Null at Progressive Radio Network (PRN), has Andrew Wakefield as a guest on the show. Turns out, PRN runs a lot of material featuring the good (former) Dr. Wakefield. 

January 11, 2011
Gary Null at PRN offers up "The Real Truth from Andrew Wakefield."

January 13, 2011
Andrew Wakefield releases a statement. "No fraud. No hoax. No profit motive."

January 20, 2011
"Dr. Andrew Wakefield MD whistleblower on baby vaccines and autism."

January 24, 2011
Gary Null again, this time posting the above statement in total.

January 24, 2011
Another from Gary Null, this time including a "thank you" note from the good (former) doctor himself.

January 26, 2011
Gary Null again here. A lengthy statement from Andrew Wakefield. Null has entitled it, "Dr. Wakefield was right. No fraud. No Hoax. Here's proof."

January 26, 2011
Null features Wakefield in a post entitled, "Why wrongful convictions happen." Actually, Wakefield is the only example in the post.

January 28, 2011
Null posts "Julia Ahier of Lancet speaks out!"

Thus, in the single month of January 2011, Null ran these very pro-Wakefield items on his site. There was another one from January 11 called "Vaccine witch-hunt trial scandal: Parents of Andrew Wakefield's research silenced!", but it goes to a 404 page.

But soft, there is more.

Stephen (Steve) Kohn is now a host at PRN. While his official hostitude spans only three recent episodes, he's been a presence on the show since at least December 2010

October 15, 2011
"Andrew Wakefield MD and whistleblower tells his story." Whistleblower?

November 9, 2011
A story appears, "A fresh dispute about MMR 'fraud.'" "Fraud" is in quotation marks. Nice.

The letter is a submission from one David Lewis. Yes, that David Lewis. The one who allegedly traveled to Jamaica with Stephen Cohn, whistleblower lawyer, for a cozy, resort-style get-together of the anti-vaxx firmament, including Andrew Wakefield. The one who now is in charge of the "Research Misconduct Project," in existence for a full year, with only one project: Andrew Wakefield. 

In the BMJ letter, according to the Nature story, Lewis argues that review of the forms describing biopsies from the children in the study show that Wakefield did nothing wrong with the data. The documents that Lewis reviewed include confidential forms describing biopsies from the guts of children. The forms were filled out by doctors Andrew Anthony and Paul Dhillon, who worked with Wakefield at the Royal Free. 
"These documents, Lewis says, are relevant to Deer's charge that records he obtained do not support Wakefield's claims in the Lancet paper that the children had nonspecific colitis, a supposed element of an MMR-induced syndrome. On sheets for three of the children graded by Anthony, the handwritten word "colitis" appears, and Dhillon checked a box labelled "non-specific" on 10 forms. Anthony's sheets are dated after the Lancet publication (italics mine), whereas Dhillon's are dated before."
So Dhillon noted "nonspecific" related one knows, could be "any kind of gut changes," per a GI doctor at King's College Hospital, who "doesn't believe the materials are sufficient to support claims in Lancet paper of new disease process." 

But more mysterious is the dating of Anthony's "colitis" notes. How would Wakefield have been able to say "colitis" from three of the records if the term "colitis" was added after the infamous and now-retracted Wakefield publication? Evidently, Anthony is not available for comment, and Dhillon has been told by his institution not to.

Is someone styling and grooming Andrew Wakefield as a whistleblower so that he can then present him self as such in a legal sense? I do not know. If so, I hope that he is treated better in that guise than he treated an actual whistleblower not too long ago:

Wakefield + Lewis + Cohn. What does that equal?

ETA: What if you add Age of Autism Wizard John Stone? LeftBrain RightBrain pointed out to me that in his posted response to the Nature piece, Stone accidentally left in "Here is information to post on Nature" and this other oopsie in what was otherwise supposed to be a third-person reference: "editors at Annals of Internal Medicine rated me in the top 10% of its reviewers in 2010.15." (Nature has since deleted the comment, which violated their "no self promotion" comment rules). In other words, Stone was serving as poster boy for David Lewis. As of 11-10-11, a new poster boy emerged, one who has provided this service previously: Clark Baker. He has posted a comment on the Nature story, but it's not his first support of Andrew Wakefield. He also is an HIV denialist. Appears that the web got--and continues to be--a tad too tangled for this bunch.

ETA: In other BMJ news, BMJ's editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee, has written in a BMJ editorial that "The MMR fraud needs parliamentary inquiry." Godlee writes that six more research papers require investigation and that at least six people from the London medical school involved in the work must step up with answers. If the associated university does not initiate an investigation, Godlee says, "parliament must intervene." Link via Liz Ditz 

Further, the BMJ has produced a set of publications completely taking apart any idea that the specimens that Lewis ID'd as demonstrating no fraud were remotely indicative of colitis. Indeed...and this will come as no surprise to many in the autism community...the primary GI diagnosis among the children appears to have been constipation. 

The reports are linked below. They are behind a paywall with only the first few grafs of each freely available, but I've read them all in full, and the titles accurately reflect their content.

"We came to an overwhelming and uniform opinion that these reports do not show colitis"
"Pathology reports solve 'new bowel disease' riddle" "Unpublished data from the research that claimed links between MMR vaccine, autism, and enterocolitis reveal no enterocolitis. "
"Institutional research misconduct"
"I see no convincing evidence of 'enterocolitis,' 'colitis,' or 'unique disease process'"


*Sorry, folks. No conspiracy here!
[Image credit: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, via Wikimedia Commons under the Gnu Free Documentation License]. 

Say, have you heard about the anti-science, anti-vaxx, anti-autism Big Chem conspiracy?

I received this comment on yesterday's post about the relevance of expertise in scientific discourse:
the relationship between Pharma and Government are (sic) never satisfactorily explained
You've heard about that conspiracy, right? The one involving hundreds of thousands of researchers, scientists, and public health experts worldwide to kill or maim your children?

But have you heard about the conspiracy between Big Chem and anti-science/anti-vaxx/anti-autism groups? Have you heard about their links to a chemical company in India that has as one of its "investments" a manufacturer of Monsanto seeds and a pesticide manufacturer? One that also produces, gasp, bisphenol A? Oh, you hadn't heard about that? Well, sit back and let me tell you a little story.

Once upon a time, Joseph Mercola made an amazing discovery. If you convince people they have a problem and then offer to sell them a way to solve that problem, you can make money. So, Mercola set about creating a vast empire designed to tell people about these "problems," using a bastardized mix of online store, infomercials, and pseudoscience to convince people that the problems exist and then to sell them his solution to those problems.

The story involves so very many problems within a vast empire--one that includes, I might add, bidets (problem: toilet paper is not the best hygiene choice! Solution: Bidet!) and tanning beds (Problem: You're lacking in the sun's rays! Solution: Tanning bed!)--that here, I'll just home in on one. Keep in mind as you read this that Mercola is at the center of interaction of just about every anti-science, anti-vaxx, anti-autism group on earth right now, including the National Vaccine (mis)Information Center, SafeMinds, Age of Autism, the Canary Party, Defeat Autism Now!, and the Greater Good film publication efforts. In case that's confusing, I've made a handy flow chart to show the relationships, which you'll find at the end of the post.

Mercola, like Yertle the Turtle, is king of all he surveys on that chart. And lo and behold, there's Dr. Oz, too! Why? Because in January 2011, J. Mercola appeared on the Dr. Oz show to assure people that there was one supplement in particular that they'd never heard of that they absolutely, positively had to have. The good Mercola also allegedly devoted his entire December 2010 newsletter to this supplement, called astaxanthin. In October 2010, Mercola had entered into a "license and supply" agreement with a company, Valensa International LLC, backing Flex Pro ES, a "joint health formulation." Among the products in this formulation is astaxanthin. And indeed, Mercola offers a product like the one described on his Website.

In February 2011, Mercola reiterated the necessity of astaxanthin as a supplement. Then, in March 2011, a news release appeared. This release announced that Mercola had joined forces again with Valensa International LLC. Together, the two hailed the release of an "innovative and good-tasting spirulina and astaxanthin tablet." This tablet incorporates "Parry Organic Spirulina." Remember that name. As the news release notes, Mercola is
"A premiere partner for Valensa in bringing Pur-Blue SpiruZan to market."
That news release appeared on March 9, 2011. On March 18, 2011, the Dr. Oz show re-ran the episode from January 2011--from only three months before--that featured Mercola talking about the necessity of supplementing with astaxanthin. Let's just say that if you substituted any major pharmaceutical company for "Mercola" in the above--one that went onto a national television show to tout a drug and then got a re-run of the show three months later--people in Antarctica would be able to hear the cries of "conspiracy!"

While the news release suggests an association with a company that produces "Parry Organic Spirulina," the nature of that association didn't become clear until October 2011, when an Indian-based company announced that EID Parry, the "bioproducts and nutraceutical division of the Murugappa Group," had acquired 100% of the voting shares of U.S. Nutraceuticals LLC (Valensa International).

Curious about the acquisition, I looked into the acquiring company. I found that it is a huge conglomerate with fingers in many pies, including sugar manufacture, trading in pesticide formulations, biopesticide marketing, fertilizer manufacturing and marketing, and chemical manufacture. Among their "major investments," the company lists Parry Monsanto Seeds pvt Ltd (link is now dead; see here). A peek at their Perry Chemicals Ltd., holding revealed some interesting products, including bisphenol A, antioxidants, and polyvinyl plasticizers.

In other words, I traveled from Mercola's push for astaxanthin, including twice in three months on the Dr. Oz show, to Valensa International LLC, to EID Parry, to Monsanto, pesticides, fertilizers, bisphenol A, and polyvinyl plasticizers. Other searches showed wholesale products shipped to a Mercola in Illinois from China, South Korea, Norway, and Spain. Clearly, Mercola's not sitting in a quiet compounding pharmacy of his own there in Illinois, laboring away at mass producing the products he offers, whether they are "natural" tampons (from Spain), dishware (that others offer, too, from the same supplier), knives, or juicers (a fun game is to look at the product from the supplier, see who else takes it, and then compare pictures and prices. A lot of the pictures on Mercola's site--at least of food-related items--come straight from the manufacturer). The company in Norway is, according to its Website, an acquisition of "the world's leading" chemical companiesBASF. It's responsible, I think, for the krill oil that Mercola has on offer.

It was then that it occurred to me that there appeared to be a Big Chem link here. Would the thread make its way through the conspiratorial world of anti-science, anti-vaxx, anti-autism groups? I checked out their connections. Were they involved with Mercola in any way?

Yes. Mercola and the National Vaccine (mis)Information Center (NVIC) have a "in-kind" agreement, it seems. Mercola's Mercola Consulting Services company in the Philippines (!) "assists" NVIC with Web design and maintenance efforts. The page also informs us that
 The Mercola Group is engaged in numerous industries, including but not limited to, e-commerce, publishing, product development and corporate social responsibility. It also manages the operations of Dr. Mercola's Natural Health Center in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.
Curious about other Mercola holdings, I found a few more. There is, of course, Mercola Com Health Resources LLC, which brings in a reported $1.9 million annually (according to See, you have a problem; buy this, and problem solved! There's Illinois Managed Capital LLC, and there's the Natural Health Center and Innovations Health Space. The guy's busy.

But not too busy to get involved, along with NVIC, with the new concern-trolling film, The Greater Good, which I've now come to consider the Callous Disregard of the visual medium (speaking of which, in another connection, Mercola once did an epic interview with Andrew Wakefield that belongs in the pantheon of groveling apologetics). The Mercola site is sponsoring free viewings of the film "for one week only" and a limited edition of the DVD...not for free.

Yes, I watched it. It features the stories of three children, blaming Gardasil for the neurological problems of a teen, blaming vaccines in general for a child's autism, and blaming vaccines for a child's death at age 5 months. It's hard to watch with its insidiousness, manipulation, and callousness, especially when an "expert" dismisses cervical cancer deaths as not being relevant enough for preventatives, or when the teen innocently assumes that waiting until her wedding night for sex would prevent her from being infected with HPV.

As it turns out, an "expert" listed on the film Website has ties to NVIC--well, she founded NVIC, actually. She's featured extensively and turns her nose up at the "greater good," complaining that it "sacrifices" people who suffer vaccine side effects. Of course, she has nothing to offer in horror about people who die from vaccine-preventable diseases. Others form a veritable flashing yellow for anyone invested in evidence-based discourse, including Cliff Shoemaker, lawyer for vaccine litigants and notorious in some circles for his damaging legal frivolity (oh, you should hear him complain in the movie about how pharma companies get to advertise), and Bob Sears, the MD who without an evidence base of any kind started the "spread out the schedule" concern trolling.

The filmmakers claim that their object d'art provides "for the first time, the opportunity for a rational and scientific discussion on how to create a safer and more effective vaccine program." Scientists never have rational and scientific discussions. The vaccine program surely hasn't been enormously, life-savingly effective. And of course, no one who actually develops, tests, or manufactures vaccines is ever the slightest bit concerned about the safety of vaccines. So thank God these filmmakers showed up to set everyone straight. Did I mention that one of the filmmakers once worked with Goldman Sachs and then ran a portfolio for Alliance Capital that had, according to her bio, assets of $4 billion? This is someone who knows the value of a dollar. Speaking of dollars, I'd be interested in seeing who the funders of this film are.

Of course, the heavy involvement of anti-autism, anti-science, anti-vaxx sites and groups like Age of Autism, The Canary Party, Mercola, and NVIC (pdf) (a) demonstrates at the very least an effort at false equivalence, and (b) yet another struggle to tie autism and vaccines together, despite the epic debunking of alleged tie. There's literally no scientific, evidence-based reason to include autism in a film about "vaccine safety" or being "sane" and "rational."

This isn't about discourse or sanity or science. It's about an anti-science/anti-vaxx/anti-autism agenda, one with many conspirators and one that endangers public health. Mercola himself articulated the core of that agenda quite well in that interview with Andrew Wakefield. Referring to news reports that one in four parents are concerned about vaccines and autism, Wakefield says: in four parents believe that vaccines cause autism. In other words, Joe, they've lost. They've lost the public relations war. We've done nothing. From our side, this is the first time I've spoken about it. You and I are sitting here for the first time. We have done nothing....And what's that one in four going to become?
To which Mercola responds:
We're going to definitely spread this word out to as many people as we can. This is a story that needs to be heard. This story needs to be spread and ultimately, get that one in four up to two in four and three in four. At one in four, you are reaching a tipping point. At 50% that's the majority of the people. So we're making a difference. I don't think we're far away that we've got them running.
Math is perhaps not his strong suit. But the agenda is clearly stated. Get "them"--the guardians of our public health--running. But by all means, let's not worry about ties to Big Chem or anything.

I'll just wrap up here with the above helpful graphic to show how Big Chem is at the end of the road that runs through Mercola, straight on to NVIC and that criss-crosses with dizzying intricacy all the anti-science/anti-vaxx/anti-autism groups out there today, including the organization responsible for DAN! and SafeMinds. Clearly what we're seeing here, people, is a giant conspiracy. The connections are clear, established, impossible to miss. It's a conspiracy to assure us that we have a problem so we'll buy what they're selling, whether it's a crusade, a supplement, a book, a program, or a film. And I just don't think that these connections will ever be satisfactorily explained away.*

[Yertle credit:]

*Do I think there's a Big Chem conspiracy? Nah. Just channeling conspiracy theorists in constructing one. Do I think that the anti-science, anti-vaxx, anti-autism groups mentioned in this post work hand-in-hand toward achieving a specific agenda, for payoffs both tangible and intangible? Yes, I do.

What makes an expert in science? How about 15,000 hours?

From a Time Magazine story, "Why care about the euro," by Rana Foroohar: 
"The only way forward," said actress Jenny McCarthy, "is for Germany to support Italy and Spain, whatever it takes."
If you read the above in a story about the European economic crisis and saw Jenny McCarthy quoted as the go-to expert for commenting on sovereign-debt economics, would you do a bit of a double take?* Sure, you would (she wasn't really the one who said it). You probably just did. Yet news media outlets across the land, hand in hand with Larry King and Oprah, have gone to Jenny McCarthy as someone who has relevant insights into autism and vaccines. 

Jenny McCarthy is an actress. She dropped out of nursing school and graduated from a liberal arts high school. She has no training in infectious disease, developmental neurology, virology, physiology, or medicine. Her exposure to autism itself consists of her son Evan, who may not have autism at all. 

When we read stories in the news media about economics or history or English literature, we have an expectation that the sources in that story will be experts. No one goes to Viola Davis, as wonderful an actress as she is, for commentary on economic policy. Reporters don't turn to Ashton Kutcher for in-depth insights into whether or not Shakespeare really wrote those plays. I've yet to see Kim Kardashian selected to offer her perspective on the dynamics of 19th century European politics that set the stage for World War I. 

There's no cult of celebrity around history or economics or literature involving non-expert celebrities mouthing off with the shallowest of understanding. But vaccines? Autism? Science? Apparently, fame matters more than facts. 

But, you may say, people can turn to the interwebz for more information, to get beyond the cult of celebrity. Sure. Yet anyone searching for information about vaccines on a simple Google search turns up, on the first page, links that go straight to anti-vaccine propaganda sites. 

These sites take the typical approach of presenting half-truths--literally, they tell half of the information about vaccines--and leaving out the rest. It's as though I were telling you, "My grandmother has a lot of dead roses in her garden," but stopped at the word "dead." 

Imagine if you did a search on "economics" and turned up sites that didn't provide expert information about economics. Here's what you do get when you search "economics" in Google:

No "faux news" economics links there.

What about a search on autism and vaccines? Here's what Google kicks up for you:

You'll note that one of the top links on the page is to the anti-vaccination site Age of Autism, the most virulently anti-science, anti-vaccine, anti-autism website in the world. A faux "news site" that, by the way, has no experts in infectious disease, vaccines, physiology, medicine, or developmental neurology as editors.

What about the news media? What do they tell us when we search "economics" in Google News? 

How about "autism and vaccines" in Google News?

You'll notice that two of the visible links on that page go to...the Age of Autism website. Did I mention that this site is the most virulently anti-science, anti-vaccine, anti-autism website in the world and lacks editors with any expertise in any of the areas it "covers"?

Why do these hits matter? For two reasons. First of all, when people--students, for example--perform Web searches, they seem to be most likely to take the first links served up as the best ones, regardless of their provenance. That means that when an Age of Autism page is served up on a Google News search as "news" (and believe me, people have tried to tell Google that it's not a news site), searchers who aren't neck deep in the autism and vaccine controversy may not be aware of how egregiously anti-scientific the site is.

The second reason these hits matter, the reason it matters that the news media quotes with seeming impunity non-experts in stories about autism and vaccines, is that expertise makes a difference. Commenters on web posts about vaccines, mothers on Facebook spreading misinformation about chicken pox, the purposeful/grossly ignorant (it has to be one or the other) and cynical misinformation of "guess who profits" Mercola and Natural News? This is information not from experts in virology or infectious disease or vaccines or developmental neurology or physiology or medicine. And expertise matters. Or, at least, it should. Sometimes, even people who should know better sell out for celebrity, adoring audiences, and the more tangible payoff of benjamins by the bucket.

When it comes to science, though, the news media have even avoided going to actual scientists to determine how scientists earn their expertise. The case study here is a Fox article in which a woman with a bachelor's degree in a humanities field presumes to describe the role of graduate students in science. She dismisses graduate students as "not on the radar" and as appearing as authors on papers only because they help with the "laborious" task of writing. She clearly has no idea whatsoever about how scientists are trained. In fact, her lack of understanding about training of scientists and the relevance of that training is so profound, she ought to look into joining the editorial staff of the Age of Autism.

Here's why expertise matters and why Jenny McCarthy's stint at Google U does not. By the time a scientist-in-training enters graduate school, she has likely already (a) completed four years of studying the sciences. For a biology major, these courses start with several classes in introductory biology, physics, and chemistry plus labs and then move to upper division courses in genetics, neurobiology, developmental biology, molecular biology, cell biology, organic chemistry, and biochemistry (for biology majors). 

The usual calculation for how much time one spends on a given course to do well is three hours of study for every hour of class attended each week. For the sciences alone, most undergraduate majors will take a total of about 80 hours in the sciences, or an average of 10 h/semester for a four-year degree. For a 15-week semester, that's a total of 600 hours of study and classes (10 h x 4 h for classes/studying x 15 weeks). For a four-year course of study and eight semesters (a conservative estimate), that is about 4800 hours of studying science.

Add to that the fact that many undergraduates applying to graduate school also put in time in labs as research assistants or technicians while completing their studies, and a graduate student in the first year of graduate school is already someone well trained in both the general sciences of their field of study (biology, physics, chemistry, biochemistry) and in the basics of laboratory research.

Graduate students intending to earn the PhD do not typically obtain a master's degree first (although some do, which would extend hours invested). Many instead move from the bachelor's to the PhD. At the institution I attended, in my field of study, the average time to the PhD was five years. We were in our laboratories every day--yes, also on weekends, but let's not count those--for eight hours a day or more.

We attended graduate-level courses in our field, studied, parsed, analyzed, and cited the literature in our field, designed and conducted research in our field, evaluated data in our field, wrote grants and papers of our own, assisted each other where our studies overlapped, attended weekly or more frequent seminars in our field, attended and presented at meetings in our field, and eventually defended dissertations typically consisting of about five or six chapters, most of which were already published in or submitted to peer-reviewed journals as first-author papers.

If we take the above as constituting only a 40-hour work week (a very conservative estimate), then the average graduate student at my university who earned the PhD in five years spent 10,400 hours immersed in their science. Ten thousand and four hundred hours. MDs who also earn their PhDs? I can't even calculate the investment.

The grand total then, on average, for someone who has earned the PhD in science is at least 15,200 hours of study. 

That, Dear Reader, is expertise. That kind of that often then extends another two or four or six years in postdoctoral appointments...that's an investment that qualifies someone to speak about science from the perspective of deep, years'-long knowledge earned in the trenches, earned by studying--and practicing--science for years. It's the kind of expertise that should lead to the news media's turning always and only to scientists for quotes, for information. 

But scientists, with few exceptions, aren't celebrities. They don't appear on the big screen, in magazines, on Larry King and Oprah. As varied a group as they are, apparently few are interesting enough--or maybe it's interested enough--to achieve the cult of celebrity required for people to trust what scientists say, to give their expertise the imprimatur of a high-definition image on national television. They can't even get word count in an article from a major news outlet that's focused on how they're trained.

The reality of modern culture is that your face in high-def on a big screen earns you attention and credibility, no matter how shrill or hysterical or misinformed you may be. The deeper reality, though, is that Jenny McCarthy--short of a major educational and career shift--will never have scientific expertise. Real harm to public health and scientific literacy is the outcome when the news media and Google search engines highlight the deeply misinformed...and when scientists prove incapable of effective counterpoint.

The actual quote was from Harvard professor Kenneth Rogoff, someone who also presumably has earned the label of "expert."

The antivax women who mail pox: Who are they?

The latest from the world of antivax has gone a step beyond the infamous pox parties, in which people gather around person infected with chicken pox and purposely infect their children. The most recent--and illegal--move among this population is to send pox-infected items, such as lollipops, saliva, and clothing, through the mail. This is, as one person has noted on a Facebook page for people seeking to do it, a federal offense. It is bioterrorism of the most mindless, insane kind, one with no ill-intended target. One in which a plain-looking envelope could be a vector for illness across the landscape, and not only chicken pox. It seems that some people on the page also were seeking measles, mumps, and rubella by mail.

Who are these members of our society who are having the chicken pox parties, some of whom send pox-infected items through the mail? As I noted, they have a Facebook page. The page is now private, but the list of page members is still accessible, as are many of the Facebook profiles of the people on it. (ETA: The video report from CBS5 News available here shows some actual shots of the Facebook page. What they say is astonishing. They also interview women who are guilty of having done this).

Who are they? This small, self-selected population of extremists offers an excellent opportunity to try to figure that out. There are 149 147 154 of them (it dropped by two as I was writing this, then went up again). Based on names, only two are men, David and Michael. Their Facebook profiles, which are public, don't indicate what they do for a living. 

But the remainder are women. First, the group has Admins. They are three women, Dani, whose work involves photographing children; Evangeline, who appears to have scrubbed her Facebook profile; and Caitlin, a waitress at a diner in Illinois. Information about them is easy to find, as was their admin status for this page.

Then there are the page members. Angel is a nursing student. Elizabeth is an intactivist. Adelene is a member of the antivax Canary Party. Some are Christian Republicans, some are libertarians. Some are avowed atheists, others crunchy granola moms, at least one is a pagan. Only a handful of them appear to be familiar with Facebook privacy settings to some extent--although even their walls are still available--and there is still Google of course, which allowed me to determine that Gwendolyn may be a mental health advocate and poet or a writer and editor. Some like--as in Like--Pizza Hut. Many are into baby wearing and co-sleeping. Most of these women appear to be married to men, and at least one is married to a woman.

Stacie is a nanny. Carolyn specializes in birth photography. Sharalyn was an RN but now works at a publisher. Katie is a breastfeeding activist. Elizabeth and Tammy are pharmacy techs. Jennifer is a Navy wife who does not like vaccinations but is "pro-foreskin." Caitlin is a waitress. Melissa works at a hotel/resort. Monica works at a travel center. Michelle is a math teacher. 

They are from all over the United States--Kansas, Wisconsin, California, Delaware, Florida, Nevada, Arizona, Washington, Pennsylvania. 

It's a hugely disparate group in terms of standard measures of belief and behavior, these people who "like" the idea of sending contagion through the U.S. mail. Many of them work in public-contact professions, serving food, administering medications and healthcare. Some work directly with families of small children. They solicit or are interested in soliciting an infectious agent through the mail or in purposely exposing themselves and their children to chicken pox, and they work in healthcare, with the public, in teaching, with children. This is disgraceful and unethical...and illegal.

What is their demographic? Almost all appear to be mothers of young children. Very few list education beyond high school on their Facebook pages. They almost all appear to be non-Hispanic Caucasian, as the U.S. Census would say. Young, white, female, high-school education, mothers of young children. I can't speak specifically to socioeconomic status, as Facebook doesn't elicit that information, but most seem to fall into the middle class.

Not one of them, by inference, seems to have considered the repercussions of this behavior. Why would they? They cannot or refuse to grasp or care about the repercussions--personal and societal--of choosing not to vaccinate, so why would they care if their contagion-packed envelope of pox fell into the wrong hands, were misdelivered and opened by someone other than the intended recipient, shed virus particles all over other people's mail? 

The level of insouciance here as a trump to common sense, the willingness to endanger total strangers for the sake of a self-righteous and selfish stance...these factors cross religion, politics, and profession for these women. This combination of traits, something I've thought of as the Me! Mine! Mommy! phenotype, appears to be the common thread among them, the trait that makes them susceptible to and willing to believe the antivax propaganda that crusaders and snake oil peddlers are selling. 

So, does this Facebook group represent the demographic of the antivax movement? White, young, middle-class mothers with a high-school education, an overdeveloped sense of self righteousness and the importance of Self, and an underdeveloped common sense or community sense? Take out "middle class," and I've just described the queen of the movement, Jenny McCarthy. Do they see themselves in her? And if it's true, what--if anything--can we do with that information?
ETA: Thanks to a commenter below, I bethought me to look at Facebook and around the Web for more information and links about pox parties. Here's a sampling: