A lot of us laugh at the anti-science creationists. Yeah, they are lots of fun with the silly museum.  Their absolute denial of layers and layers of facts and data are astonishing to those of us who are reality based.  But in many ways they are a side show.  I understand that their insidious attempts on school boards and curriculums are to be monitored and thwarted whenever possible.  But for me that's really a problem with the educational system.  It really doesn't affect my work in genomics.  The data we examine and the analyses we do are untouched by that ludicrous perspective.  

Today I went into the belly of another anti-science beast.  I sat with them, I talked to them. My head still hurts.  It will for days, I'm sure.

There's a faction of anti-science that does affect our work and our lives on a daily basis.  The anti-vaccine cranks and the anti-stem cell factions are actively trying to alter the direction of research and disrupt the public health.  I saw some of them today.  Here's the first one I talked to.  I asked him if he was a general danger to the public health.  He replied, "I'm a right wing nut."  I said, "I would have put money on that."

The CDC held a Public Engagement Meeting in my town and I decided to go.  I had a feeling that this meeting would draw out a bunch of anti-science activists and conspiracy theorists.  And I was right.  From the signs outside to the tables inside it was a giant crank-fest. The bucket of nutty was deep and laden with foil.  And it's not only right-wing foil.

Over 100 people turned out on a very soggy Saturday for this--to spend most of the day in this discussion with the CDC.  And I have to say science was dramatically under-represented in the pews.  

At my table there were 3 local business women, 3 anti-vax moms, and one genuine CT nutter.  And me.  And that was one of the balanced tables.  I spoke to another reality-based Somervillian at the end and she said at her table she was totally outnumbered, and was accused of being a CDC plant.  

The anti-vax moms had been convinced before arriving that mandatory vaccination was about to ensue.  It is not. The CDC assured everyone that any programs will be voluntary. {And no matter how many times they said this, they weren't convinced.} CT cranks actually had literature that they were passing out. They monopolized the questions with lies about the adjuvants and more CT--and they of course have a whole bucket of CT, not just vaccines--you know, that other one that shall not be named, WHO, eh, you know the list....and they didn't believe a single one of the answers anyway.  

At our small group discussion at our table it was clear there was an insurmountable wall between science and faith (of a leftie alt-med sort). You know all the arguments, and we had them all again. At one point one of the moms was saying how we needed to have more data from credible sources, and not having Fox News try to scare everyone into getting vaccinated.  I agreed with that, I ♥ data and hate Fox anti-news more than anyone.  But I knew that data wasn't really going to reach her--that was just a stalling/goal-post moving tactic. So I said that we'll have data--we'll have peer reviewed science.  And then I asked her: Who would you believe when we have that data? What sources would convince you?  To her credit she answered honestly, "I don't know."  

I'm not going to argue for the effectiveness of vaccines as a public health measure, that data is clear--vaccines save lives.  I'm not going to have the discussion that vaccines cause autism.  They do not cause autism.  And the good news is that in the room as a whole the decision was that of the 3 vaccine roll-out options that we discussed--go slow, moderate effort, full throttle, the results were:

  • Go slow: 25%

  • Moderate effort: 42%

  • Full throttle: 34%
Sanity prevailed.  Mostly.

But still: I'm going to call out the scientists and other reality-based thinkers.  Where were you?  I know you live here.  The anti-vax and CT network knew about this meeting and showed up in force--some drove hours to get here.  Where were you? Where are we?  Why aren't we representing on this? And what can we do to become a force for reality?

I spoke to one woman from the Somerville Department of Public Health.  I told her that I came because I was afraid that this meeting would be swamped by anti-science.  She said she thought that was very prescient--she had no idea that they would show and was shocked by their presence.  They expected the meeting to be local residents, and were surprised at the far-away addresses they got in the registration process.  This was not just a collection of my neighbors.  

I spoke to another person associated with the CDC and said that I was really disappointed that scientists aren't showing up for things like this.  He agreed--and said that it has been true for years. We discussed that this is having several impacts: respect for science-based solutions is declining, mystery about what we do is increasing, and when we come looking for support for projects and funding it is going to hurt us. And in the case of vaccines, vulnerable people are going to not get vaccinated, and herd immunity will decline.  Illness and death are direct results of this.  

Our allies in public health and in science policy need us to start showing up.

In the pasts scientists have been reluctant to get into the fray for several reasons: 1) we want our work to speak for us in the peer-reviewed literature.  2) we don't want to rock the boat of our funding waters with political stances.  3) we find it hard to believe that data doesn't matter to some people.

Our standing on the slidelines is hurting us and our communities.  We need to get in this game.  How did sitting aside work for us? Did funding get better?  Did vaccination rates improve?  No.

A lot of undecided and confused regular folks are looking for information.  If we aren't there to provide it, they are gonna get it from the people with degrees from Google U.  I saw it happen at our table--luckily I was there to counter it.  

I don't think is going to get better on its own, my science amigos.  Science is back in favor right now--we have a window here. We need to do something.  We've been asked to do something by this administration.

Michael Stebbins at NN09:  "Progressives are going to be tempted to sit back in their chairs, and watch what happens, and relax. That is going to be a major mistake for any American. At this point in time we need, more than ever, the public to speak up, in a constructive way, about the things that you care about."

And it isn't just this issue--we have a collection of science-based items ourselves: climate change impacts, climate change mitigation, energy policy, environment, stem cells, health care. We science-minded folks in any discipline should be allies on reality-based, evidence-based policies.  What are we gonna do about it?  And how do we do it?  Help me out here.  Help us all out here.

Originally posted to mem from somerville on Sat Aug 29, 2009 at 05:54 PM PDT.

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