Sunday, April 7, 2013

Scientist claims vaccines cause gay, I propose truthiness causes ignorance

In the article linked above, an Italian scientist, Gian Paolo Vanoli, claims that vaccines are a direct cause of homosexuality.  First of all: WHAT?!  In a Huffington Post article, they outline Vanoli's argument as to why he think this links exist.  His reasons are as follows: vaccines cause homosexuality because they "prevent the formation of one's personality."

I was completely outraged when I read this article.  Here we are in the midst of major human rights battles all over the world, in multiple countries, striving to give humans (yes, we are all humans) the basic rights they deserve, yet we are still seeing this level of stupidity.  It is one thing to claim that there is a possible interaction  that perhaps needs to be researched, but to make a claim that vaccines directly cause people to be gay is just absurd and absolutely ignorant.

One question I have for Mr. Vanoli: if vaccines cause people to be gay, then how do you explain ALL OF HISTORY?!  Being gay is not a new thing.  Vaccines are. Homosexuality (for both males and females) dates back to the earliest history recordings.  Vaccines do not.  I fail to see the connection here and his argument rests solely on this causal chain!

Also, speaking on a strictly scientific basis, where is his evidence?  Vanoli makes claims but provides zero evidence as to how vaccines would alter personality.  He mentions mercury but says nothing as to how it effects the brain.  There is some evidence that specific brain structures, such as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, (sorry, neuro major here) vary in size between homosexuals and heterosexuals but this research is somewhat controversial and definitely out of date (1990).

Truthiness, my friends, is what we have here.  A scientist who has clout decides to take a moral belief and insert than into a non-scientific "truth."

Friday, April 5, 2013

Fairly balanced or misinformed: how do you take your daily news?

It seems to me, that a person that was exposed to "fair and balanced" news would be more knowledgeable than someone who was exposed to an altered media source.  This seems to be the case with Fox News.  They are notoriously conservative and hence write their stories with that persuasion  Thus, it follows that strictly Fox News viewers, would have less knowledge of, perhaps, the scientific truths to global warming or fracking.  

We have seen this appear in several clips that we have watched in class from Fox News, where their explicit bias resulted in a skewing of the facts.  In this particular video, Fox investigates the cause of contamination resulting from fracking.  Poor well construction is the scapegoat here for water contamination in a specific well in Pennsylvania, and no mention of any other cases of contamination are mentioned.  The video also cites an "environmental group" as saying "fracking doesn't pollute water wells."  This environmental group, the Environmental Defense Fund, turns out to have just as controversial motives as we saw with the EPA.

As we can see in this short clip, a news source's political background influences every aspect of how they present a story.  This includes everything from where they get their sources, how they interpret what their sources say to how they cite their sources.  All of these factors are unfortunately, easily manipulated by underlying biases and intentions.

Are all facts worth the same weight?

“Then there's the problem of "balance"--the idea that reporters must give roughly equal space to two different "sides" of a controversy. When applied to science, especially in politicized areas, this media norm becomes extremely problematic. Should journalists really grant equal time to the small band of scientists who deny the causal relationship between HIV and AIDS when the vast majority of researchers accept the connection between the two? Should they split column space between the few remaining global warming "skeptics" and scientific experts who affirm the phenomenon's human causation? Again, experienced science journalists will know best how to cover such stories and will be aware of the scientific community's very justifiable abhorrence of unthinking "balance". - Chris Mooney

I believe that in the above quote from Chris Mooney, a scientific journalist, has several good points about science journalism.  1) not every fact has equal weight to bear, 2) we should strive for the truth rather than balance, and 3) the importance of reporting the FACTS in order to share information with the community, not confuse them.

All facts and claims are not of equal value.  If one scientist in the UK discovered that boogers are the ultimate cure for acne, we are likely to be a little skeptical.  Has anyone else done research on boogers? Is it everyone's boogers - or are just some people born endowed with noses of gold?  If the study has not been backed up, no matter how important the findings may be, there is always the chance for a fluke case.  A "miracle."  

In science, peer review is crucial.  It is necessary for research to be backed up by other scientists and the results to be validated in order to deem the study relevant.  Therefore, these studies that have gone through this process, should hold more weight.  

Truth: this should be the ultimate goal of any news story.  Before media attention, before balance, before anything, the truth should be what is reported.  If that means not including Madame G's famous "proven" cure in an article about excessive sweating, I think we can all survive the omission.

An important point to consider is the audience of most science journalists: normal people.  People that work 9-5 so they can pick up their kids after school and rush them to soccer practice.  Not people that have time to do their own research about whether or not we are causing global warming and "oh my god what do I do about the hole in the ozone from the entire can of hairspray I used this morning?!"  These people need the facts; not back and forth information that, as Mooney said,will only leave them with whiplash.  

Journalists need to focus on getting the story out there in the most concise and informative way possible.  That means only writing about stories that are relevant and backed by other scientists.  

Stereotypes in science? The irony of first impressions

Prior to this blog, we did an exercise where we were prompted to gather drawings of what we thought a scientist looked like.  We did our own drawing and then asked for a few from different family/friends.  Most of my drawings were of males with lab coats and a various array of apparatus including: googles, flasks and weird exploding liquids. They were also all white - or at least no one made an effort to color in their scientists to render them a different ethnicity.

What does this say about how we view science?  A lot.  As we talked about in class recently, there seems to be a disconnect between laymen and scientists.  That disconnect seems to stem from the layman's portrayal of the scientist as elitist. 

The language barrier seems to be a key factor here.  Scientists use jargon and terms that the average person has probably never even heard, let alone understand their meaning enough to make it through an already dry scientific article.  

Another factor here is trust.  This may yet prove to be the biggest problem.  It is hard to trust someone that is so wavering in their conclusions - which is sometimes the case in preliminary scientific research. As research progresses, the scientist can only theorize about the data that is produced from their experiments and in an early study, this theory is likely to be altered several times, or even completely thrown out.  

Where this gets misconstrued, is when the popular press gets a hold of a promising result, or a scientist gets too cocky about their results, and word is spread.  People get excited about the newest way to "burn fat fast" or "grow hair so strong and shiny Fabio would be jealous."  And there it begins.

Naturally, more studies are going to be done and come up with conflicting results.  This is where the problems occur.  We saw this firsthand when we researched into vaccines and hydraulic fracking.  It is overwhelming to read 10 different articles on a topic and come out feeling very confused and with way more questions than answers.

As for the myths, they are not to do as much with the scientists themselves, but rather the portrayal of their research and the spread of their results.  We, as students, budding scientists, and writers, must learn to take everything with a grain of salt and realize that what we are reading could be the "quickest way to grow your hair back" but, more likely, it's just a can of spray paint.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Do you know what you're being fed? Truthiness or Fact?

As much as I would like to say I am not a victim of "truthiness", unfortunately I think all of us at some point are forced to rely on nothing more than our gut feeling about something.  We are constantly bombarded with contradictions about what is healthy or not.  One day high fructose corn syrup is the worst thing possible and the next day it's just syrup made from corn - it has to be healthy, right?  So with all the information that is being shoved down our throats on a daily basis we have to learn to sort that in some way.  We usually do this through our intuition about the facts.

Science writers may sometimes choose to tell the truthiness simply because they believe the information that they are providing.  I would hope that the intent would not be to mislead but instead to offer the best possible explanation for what may be a very confusing array of information.  In this case the writer is providing what they think is the most accurate fact, even if they are using their intuition in order to arrive at this fact.  I would suggest that the writer would also have to do research and provide additional sources with this fact in order to arrive at their gut instinct instead of the other way around.

If information began to be replaced by truthiness in the media I honestly don't think the majority of people would notice.  That may seem like a bleak outlook at the human race, but honestly with our scientific literacy in this country, I find it unlikely that the average person is doing background research on anything they hear in the media anyway.  Most people take information that they hear in the media (be it, television, news, twitter, radio, etc) and accept that information as fact with a second question.  There are several "fact" based sites that you can follow on stumble upon or twitter in order to obtain strange or uncommon facts; these facts do not come with a side of sources or data, and thus most people take them as honest fact when in reality my little brother could have a twitter called "THE MOST AMAZING FACTS" and be tweeting anything that pops up into this 11-year-old head.  I therefore make the sad claim that: the average person would NOT notice if they were being fed truthiness or fact.  

Vaccine-autism advocates: illiterate or mislead?

     I do not think it is accurate to claim that vaccine-autism advocates are scientifically illiterate, perhaps confused would be a more accurate term.  With all the controversy surrounding the relationship between vaccines and autism it makes sense that people would be confused when scientists can't even agree.  Although the relationship between early vaccinations and autism has not been proven, it is important to note that it has also not been ruled out as an option.  Autism is a complicated disease that deals with the developing brain and unfortunately this is when children are being exposed to these vaccines.  This is what makes studying this relationship so difficult and explains why scientists are having a hard time 
    An important fact to consider is the government's seemingly controversial role in vaccinations. If vaccines aren't harmful then why is it that the CDC tried to cover up the harmful nature of ingredients included in vaccines?  Why was the CDC using an invalid study (in which the "researcher" disappeared with the $2 million he supposedly spent on research) as it's source for proving mercury based vaccines were safe for children? Why did we remove Thimerosal if the toxic nature of the preservative was originally denied?  If vaccines aren't harmful why are we shipping them off to third world countries instead of using them on Americans?  Why did Bill Gates call vaccines a form of population control in third world countries when he said
                    "Let’s take a look. First we got population. The world today has 6.8 billion 
                   people. That’s headed up to about 9 billion. Now if we do a really great job 
                  on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower 
                                                        that by perhaps 10 or 15 percent

in a Ted Talk about his philanthropy foundation's work with vaccines?
     All of these questions still remain unanswered, at least to the general public.  Without sounding like a conspiracy theorist, I would like to put forth that there are still unanswered questions about vaccines and their risk/benefit factors.  Perhaps, they aren't causing autism, but the fact is that we cannot say that with absolute certainty.  
     As a science writer, taking all this into consideration, I think it is important that the proper research be done in order to clear up this muddy subject and hopefully end the spread of misinformation.  Knowing that people can be so easily persuaded by misinformation, it is important as a writer that intends to spread honest information that you check your sources.  We learned from several of these autism studies that it is important to background check studies for things such as: funding for research, sample size, methodology, replication of data, scientific validation in the community, and more.  As a science writer, we cannot also take research for granted.  It is our duty to find the correct information and make sure that is what is being spread.

Science for the Common Good

     I read an interesting book lately, not a science book, but a book written by a journalist who was interested in the relationship between science and art.  The journalist is Jonah Lehrer and his book is titled Proust was a Neuroscientist.  The book posited the idea that art - in its various forms - discovered secrets about the brain before "neuroscience" ever even existed.  Lehrer talks about Walt Whitman and how he united the mind/body duality through his poetry by showing how we are one with our bodies.  We can see an example of this in his epic poem, "Songs of myself," when he says: “I am the poet of the body, / And I am the poet of the soul".  This example shows how Whitman was able to discover the relationship between the mind and the body long before we had the technology to look into the human mind.  Lehrer uses many other examples to show how through various means of art we have been able to discover facts about the brain before neuroscience.  
     Lehrer wrote this book because he was interested in the relationship between art and science.  I think it takes this type of passion to go out and write about something that you find interesting.  I learned many things from this book that I did not know previously, even as someone who is studying in neuroscience.  Science is something that should be given away for 3 main reasons: 1. Because you did the research/discovered something yourself, 2. Because you are interested in the research 3. Because you think the information is relevant and should be more widespread.  If a writer feels compelled by any of these reasons they should pick their topic and write about it in order to spread the wealth of knowledge.  This benefits the common good by making science knowledge more accessible and adds to the general scientific literacy.
     I do not think that there should be one set way to write about science, that being said, there is no one way to write something that is going to interest everyone.  You could present the same information in 10 different ways and each way is going to appeal to a different type of person.  In order to write about science that is going to appeal to the most amount of people you have to turn it into a story.  This is what makes it interesting and relevant to the reader; this is what Jonah Lehrer did.  In order to give science away in a manner that is going to reach the most people in the most effective way the facts have to be presented in a creative way as to almost trick people into learning.  You want the reader to crave more knowledge at the end of your story so that they are intrigued enough to go out and seek additional information on their own.  A science writer should be able to effectively do this in order to spread science information for the betterment of our nation's scientific literacy.