Emergence of the Science Communicators

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” – Carl Sagan

Today, as in his time, Carl Sagan’s words ring loud and clear to those of us on the forefront in the public discussion of science. Unlike in his day, however, scientific illiteracy today is not an epidemic. It’s a movement. Those who don’t understand science have banded together to ensure that others don’t understand it either. Lack of understanding and outright denialism has become a popular trend complete with celebrity endorsement and sponsors.

A group called U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) has been funded to the tune of $194,500 by the Organic Consumers Association to attack bioetch scientists using FOIA (freedom of information act) as a weapon. This has resulted in threats and harassment of scientists like Dr. Kevin Folta and others on the academic side of the science. They used the FOIA to gain large sets of data from emails so they could quote mine and try to find ways to discredit the scientists, since they couldn’t actually refute the science itself.

We’ve seen outbreaks of vaccine preventable illnesses such as measles and whooping cough thanks to an ever-growing movement that began with the fraudulent work of Andrew Wakefield. Now, with celebrities like Robert De Niro and doctors who know better, but are pandering to their ignorant fans, like Dr. Oz and struggling presidential candidate Ben Carson leading the charge against vaccines, we’re seeing more and more illness where there’s no scientifically-acceptable reason we should.

We even see science denialism along party lines with conservative think tanks built to politicize and propagandize a fundamental misunderstanding of climate change, often funded by oil interests for the sake of their bottom line.

With this rise in anti-science culture and funded science denialism, we’ve also seen something that gives a grain of hope against the rising tide: A movement out of the scientific skeptic community comprising people devoted to science communication and advocacy has arisen and is growing exponentially. This movement has created what amounts to a new professional field, or at least a newly revitalized and expanded one, that gives the scientifically literate communicator a real outlet.

We’ve seen viral successes such as SciBabe with her massively successful article on the Food Babe (aka Vani Hari, a computer consultant by trade with no formal dietary or nutrition training). From there, SciBabe has gained many new followers on social media and her YouTube channel, as well as radio and TV appearances, and even live speaking engagements to dispel myths and misconceptions about various scientific topics in the effort to help increase science literacy across demographics.

There are well-established and well-respected journalists like Kavin Senapathy who spend copious amounts of time writing about science and poking holes in pseudoscience proponents such as David Wolfe with the #DontCryWolfe campaign. All the while, Kavin remains very accessible engaging in outreach advocacy and discussions to help the general public understand the current issues and further science literacy.

With pages like Skeptical Raptor and Science-Based Medicine  have practically set the standard in science blogging. Sites like these have become convenient and credible resources on numerous scientific topics to serve as a resource to the many people that spend time and energy on activism within social media. These bolster the efforts of those engaging in the fight against spreading myths and misinformation to the public. With these resources, they’ve become well-equipped and effective. Even devout leaders in anti-science activism have changed their mind due to the efforts and outreach of science communicators.

With this seemingly “rising force” of science communication occurring within, and even powered by, the the public sphere continuing to gain momentum and influence, the question now becomes “where do we go next?”

Well, the answer is as complicated as the question is simple, I think. More people with the knowledge and background to effectively educate the public in all branches of science need to step forward and take up the torch. Those who have been doing it can’t do it forever, and certainly can’t continue to do it alone. Journalistic publications need to go back to the days of having dedicated science writers who understand the topics they’re reporting on, and know how to fact check claims to avoid even the inadvertent spread of bad scientific information, and ultimately reinforce literacy and understanding for the general public to benefit just about any education levels.

It’s up to all of us, and you, to pave the way for a more literate and scientifically progressive future.

“I Died Today” – Portrait of an American Teenager

Inside the hearts and minds of today’s youth are countless struggles that plague them, thanks to the connectivity of social media, 24 hours a day. Many are struggles that us, as adults, went through. Many are new and far more pervasive than we even want to imagine. These are the stories that many teens live through. These are the stories that many teens don’t.

I died today, Mom.

You asked me the other day if I tried to not be gay.

I tried, just for you, Mom, but I couldn’t.

It’s not who I am.

When the other boys at school figured it out, they didn’t look at me like you did, Mom, like you had failed.

They saw me as a victim, and treated me as one, too.

I left you a note before I did it, Mom, so you’d know that I loved you, but I couldn’t live with the pain anymore.

I died today, Mom, because no one, not even you, would accept me for who I am.

I died today, Dad.

You always told me I needed to man up.

Well, I did, Dad, just for you.

You told me that men do certain things, wear certain things, are certain things.

I tried to be a man, Dad, just like you wanted of me.

But…I couldn’t. I couldn’t be something I’m not.

When I told you, Dad, I knew you wouldn’t be happy.

When I told you, I knew you’d be upset, but I never expected what came next.

I died today, Dad, because you couldn’t bear to look at a daughter in your son’s body.

I died today, Dad, because you thought you could beat it out of me.

I know you didn’t mean to hit me so hard, Dad, but even at the end, I loved you.

I died today, Dad, because of you.

I died today, Mom.

You always told me, Mom, to go to the police if I was in trouble.

Well, I was in trouble, Mom.

We moved to this neighborhood because you thought it meant we were doing better.

We moved here because you said it made us better.

But those other kids, Mom, they said I didn’t belong here.

They didn’t like the color of my skin, and they hit me, Mom.

They were chasing me, so when I ran down the street to get away, I ran towards the police officer.

He wasn’t there to help, though, Mom.

He saw black teenager running at him and he was afraid.

His fear made him shoot, Mom, I know.

He wasn’t there to help me.

I died today, Mom, because no one was there to help me.

I died today, Dad.

You told me that if I dressed right and covered my body, I’d be safe.

You were wrong.

You told me that if I didn’t lead men on, I’d be fine.

You told me if I didn’t get drunk with strangers, I’d be OK.

But Dad, I wasn’t drunk. I was dressed just like you told me to.

That didn’t stop him, though. That didn’t stop your best friend from forcing himself on me.

I fought back, but he didn’t stop.

In the end, he did what he wanted, and stopped me from fighting.

I died today, Dad, because you thought rape only happened to a “certain kind of girl.”

I died today, Dad, because you refused to understand.

Every year in America, around 5000 teens die from suicide.

61% of rapes occur before victims are eighteen years old. 64% are committed by people the victim knows.

Every day, LGBTQ youth are bullied. They are often bullied by their own parents.

Stop the cycle today. Get informed. Get involved. Get it together.

FASTING, CANCER, AND SENSATIONALISM

A while back, The Telegraph posted a story.

Fasting for three days can regenerate entire immune system, study finds

They make some pretty sensational claims in this article that go far beyond the data of the study that they forgot to cite.

“Fasting for as little as three days can regenerate the entire immune system, even in the elderly, scientists have found in a breakthrough described as “remarkable”.”

“Although fasting diets have been criticised by nutritionists for being unhealthy, new research suggests starving the body kick-starts stem cells into producing new white blood cells, which fight off infection.”

“The researchers say fasting “flips a regenerative switch” which prompts stem cells to create brand new white blood cells, essentially regenerating the entire immune system.”

The study they’re referring to, which, again, they never bothered to cite, is here.

Prolonged Fasting Reduces IGF-1/PKA to Promote Hematopoietic-Stem-Cell-Based Regeneration and Reverse Immunosuppression

And the case series report is here.

Fasting and cancer treatment in humans: A case series report

They appear to be quoting one of the scientists on the study by the name of Valter D. Longo. He appears to be fairly well respected, however, he also shows up more often than anyone should like in the “natural” community websites, being cited for various diet and nutrition claims. Now, whether that stems from him or from the sensationalism that comes from those “journalists,” I don’t know. He does, however, appear far too often to promote various alternative medical claims.

That said, let’s look at the study itself. The article really pushes the idea of this “breakthrough” that even treats the elderly and cancer patients! Wow. It must have been SOME study.

Nope. Not so much.

The study included 10 people. They had a median age of 61, ranging from 44-78 years of age. They were all receiving chemotherapy. There was no control.

If anything, this is a hugely preliminary study. There is no good way to account for noise.  Even then, the“even in the elderly” quote from the article, mentioned as an aside, and the chemotherapy patients, also as aside, as if the data points to ANY other person in any other situation is demonstrably false. This is the poorest kind of science reporting possible.

Now, let’s consider the findings. What if they do a larger, placebo controlled study, and find that the results show that it DOES help with immune function post chemotherapy? That would be fantastic, however, it should still be taken tentatively. Asking chemotherapy patients, who are already struggling for nutrition and energy, to fast for 2-5 days, is potentially dangerous. Even if we find the effect to be actually present, it would be far better to then work to replicate the effect with drugs, as opposed to fasting.

So, is it possible? Sure. Is it a miracle discovery? Not even close. It’s more of a “Let’s turn them off, then turn them back on again, and see if that works” type of idea.

Not matter how you look at it, though, whether the scientists are right, or the critics are right, I think we can all agree that The Telegraph is just…wrong.

 

Social Rhetoric

I want to talk about rhetoric and the effect it has on society.
We, as in people in general, don’t consider our words nearly as often as we should. We throw around language that may be harmful to people based on gender, race, sexuality, disability, etc.

We have no problem throwing around “bitch” or “chick,” “crazy” or “bipolar,” and, well, you get the point.

Now, there’s a subset of people who think that having any problem with this makes people oversensitive. After all, back when white people freaked out when a black person used the same drinking fountain as them, no one was remotely that sensitive. Right? Right?

Others claim that we shouldn’t discuss language because there are so many “real” problems to contend with. And while they’re right in that there are many more serious problems to deal with, it all starts with language.

Language is how we normalize perceptions and make behavior acceptable based on the ingrained societal stereotypes inherent in our everyday rhetoric.

And yes, it’s a veritable minefield for the uninformed to navigate without a misstep. The cool part is that it’s OK to misstep so long as you shut up and listen, then correct your behavior.

It’s doesn’t take a lot of take the time and learn how to shift your language for the benefit of those around you. It’s not about “political correctness,” or “policing” your speech. It’s about behaving like a moral, adult human being, and respecting those around you as you would wish to be respected.

That doesn’t sound so bad, now does it?

The Poverty Dress Code

We’ve all heard it. We all know someone who regularly shouts about it. We all know it’s happening. Why are we so quiet about it?

What I’m referring to is this demonizing of people on food stamps, or SNAP, because they don’t look impoverished enough to justify getting aid from the stance of our privileged worldview.

This is something that really pisses me off.

Let me break it down for you. Only 10% of those who qualify for SNAP are unemployed. The majority are the working poor trying to feed their families. SNAP takes an extremely small amount of our tax dollars to maintain, so I have no idea why it’s such a talking point for pundits to focus on, as if it’s bankrupting the nation. The thing bankrupting the nation would be CORPORATE WELFARE, not food stamps.

Many of the people on SNAP still need to dress well and have a cell phone for their jobs. Just because someone requires aid doesn’t mean they should immediately trade in their belongings for things that look appropriate impoverished just to make you feel better. Get over yourself. It’s a position of arrogance from privilege that leads to this viewpoint of the “moochers on welfare.” Fuck you.

These people are our friends, our neighbors, our families. These are people who haven’t been as lucky as you. Yes, lucky. In this economy, where there are 3 jobs for every 1 job seeker, and most of those jobs pay low enough so that you STILL qualify for SNAP to make ends meet, the fact that you don’t need it is luck. You were fortunate to land the right jobs, or be born with a bit of money, or be a young white male in America, so that you don’t necessarily have to know what it feels like to be hungry, and watch your children be hungry, through no fault of your own. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. You shouldn’t either.

Stop shaming the poor. Stop assuming that they should look more poor so that you feel better about the tiny fraction of your tax dollars that goes to them. Start at least acting like a moral human being and realizing that the world isn’t as simple as that.

Think before you speak.

Rational thought for a better world.