Saturday, July 23, 2016

A day in the life of a skeptic

As an advocate for skepticism and science, I find myself in some rather interesting places and even more interesting discussions.  I find that I have little time to contribute to my blog though my passion and advocacy, I'd argue, is probably stronger and more regular today.  Throughout my day, I'm often confronted with bad ideas and hear mentions of or references to "pure stupid" far more often than I'd hope from my circle of friends and acquaintances.  

I'd like to find it funny when a friend mentions something stupid and, in some ways, I'd like to simply be able to silently laugh to myself and ignore it.  As my wife can attest, that's seldom what happens and I'm more than willing to question an idea or, at times, ridicule it (ridiculous ideas deserve ridicule - though my wife is probably right, more often than not, that there could be a better way to tackle it). 

Recently when a colleague asked about an absence from work, rather than directly answering the question, I explained that I had attended a science rally.  To respond to further questions, I explained that I was advocating against anti-science propaganda and the danger that religious belief brings with it.  As they could not see the obvious connection between religion and anti-science to bad public policy, I had to point out recent laws passed to further legitimize discrimination against certain groups of people (LGBTQ community, women, etc.) and church supported misinformation regarding dying with dignity laws, birth control options (Crisis Pregnancy Centres) and, possibly more importantly, public acceptance of (near) settled science on evolution, climate change and vaccination.

The discussion, like many I have, started with much agreement - they were either surprised that people believed some of the crazy things we talked about or suggested that nobody actually believed them - age of the earth being < 10,000 years, that evolution wasn't true, that vaccines cause autism, that the story of Noah and the Ark was historically accurate and much more.  And, as with nearly all of my discussions, it touched on something that they held a firm, but not supported by evidence, belief or disbelief in.  In this case it was the idea that I supported vaccination.

I pointed out that their dismissal of people who claimed that evolution wasn't true and their almost hysterical laugh at the idea that people believe the Noah's Ark myth is the same feeling that many people have about people who claim/believe vaccines cause autism (and some of those people who accept the science of vaccination may also believe in astrology or homeopathy).  It was at that time that I explained how I blogged and that I couldn't think of a single friend who agreed with all of the propositions that I've made or the positions I've taken and it wasn't my goal to list items until I found something they disagreed with - I actually thought I was listing areas that we'd have in common so they could understand my desire and passion around fighting ignorance and anti-scientific ideas and I wasn't looking to have a disagreement or argument.

Anti-vaccine ideas are often based on ignorance of vaccines or limited scientific understanding.  The position that my colleague held, however, was that vaccines caused autism and, unlike most views on vaccination, this specific claim is almost entirely the result of a fraudulent study by Andrew Wakefield.  I felt it important to educate my co-worker about skepticism and vaccination in general so my (our) lunch later that day turned into a fairly deep discussion about the autism/vaccine controversy and eventually vaccination in general.  

It was clear (and they admitted) they'd not heard the Wakefield study was retracted, that it was found he committed academic fraud and that he lost is license to practice medicine.  They also didn't realize that there have been numerous studies that fully supports there being no link between pediatric vaccines and autism.  I further explained thiomersal (thimerosal), how vaccines work and concepts related to herd immunity.  As a result of our conversation, I think they actually accepted that the "vaccines cause autism" claim is probably false but they (almost) ended our conversation with, “well, it doesn't really matter to me, my children are grown so it's a non-issue”.

I say "almost" ended because it was at this point that I was able to explain "why it matters" that I am a skeptic and why I don't shy away from potential conflict when it comes to doing my (little) part to fight bad ideas wherever they present themselves.  

It matters because they disagreed with something I had said and they perpetuated a disproven myth about vaccines.  It matters because if they were willing to say that to me, would they agree with their children when they suggested they may not vaccinate their kids because of this fraudulent idea?  It matters because if one of their friends/family members were on the fence about vaccinations, would repeating the lie push them to be less likely to vaccinate than they, otherwise, would have been?  It matters because them holding the idea that pediatric vaccines cause autism will likely have them less inclined to getting vaccinated, themselves, for other preventable illnesses (influenza, HPV, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, etc.).  It matters because they may be less certain about other beliefs they have.  

And, most importantly, it matters because I (we) care about our fellow humans and I understand that bad ideas can have impacts that negatively affect us all.

The spreading of bad ideas has to stop somewhere - do your part in dispelling myths whenever you can because bad ideas can have bad consequences.