Science Moms: Fighting Fear with Facts and Empathy
Science Moms is a short but important documentary that provides a calm, measured, evidence-based response to the many irrational, anti-science narratives that try to sell fear to parents and which are perpetuated by groups like Moms Across America and by individuals like Zen Honeycutt and Vani Hari (aka the “Food Babe”). The brainchild of Natalie Newell, one of the hosts of The Science Enthusiast Podcast, the documentary brings together a group of five women who are both scientists and mothers to counter bullshit in a non-threatening, accessible, and relatable way. In doing this, Science Moms helps fill a conspicuous gap; the vast majority of popular-level documentaries and websites that gear discussions about vaccines and GMOs toward parents are made by uninformed or dishonest people who understand how well fear sells, and who therefore rely on gross misrepresentation of scientific facts to push their narrative.
The exceptions to this trend are notable for their rarity. One such rare offering is Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s 2016 documentary Food Evolution. Narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, this film presented the scientific facts concerning GMOs and the benefits of their use in food production with an engaging narrative style. Science Moms premiered in October 2017 at the annual QED (Question, Explore, Discover) conference in Manchester, England, and is poised to stand alongside Food Evolution as an example to scientists of what science communication and outreach should look like.
“Nature Will Kill You Really Quickly”
Science Moms opens with a quote from actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who said in an interview for the July 2013 issue of the British Cosmopolitan magazine, “We’re human beings and the sun is the sun – how can it be bad for you? I don’t think anything that’s natural can be bad for you.”
This is followed by a flat cut to plant geneticist Anastasia Bodnar saying, “Wow! I can make a list for her!” One can very easily and quickly come up with such a list of all the ways nature can kill you. In fact, the sun is one of them. The sun causes cancer, as neuroscientist Alison Bernstein points out in the movie. Being mauled by bears, lethally breaking your bones, freezing in extremely cold weather, burning to death in a forest fire, being poisoned and eaten alive by insects and spiders, and being ravaged by toxic bacteria are just a few of the ways that, as Kavin Senapathy remarks, “Nature will kill you really quickly.”
It is abundantly clear that Gwyneth Paltrow did not think about what she was saying. And yet she’s not alone. The naturalistic fallacy, which is the often-instinctive association in many peoples’ minds of the word “natural” with that which is good and the word “unnatural” with that which is bad, is prevalent and commonplace. Ironically, the appeal to nature is frequently capitalized on by groups and individuals who are trying to sell products that are unconventional as far as mainstream science is concerned. This is especially the case in the organic food and “alternative medicine” industries. Parents are a favorite target demographic of the “all-natural” peddlers, who are typically fond of romanticizing traditional practices and “the way things used to be.” One particularly troubling and dangerous example of this neo-Luddism is the natural childbirth movement, whose advocates completely ignore the maternal and neonatal mortality rates that were extremely high prior to the advent of modern obstetrics.
“When natural childbirth first came to America, the goals were very laudatory […] most especially to be able to bring a support person in with you when you were having a baby. And those were really good ideas. And by the early 1980s, the natural childbirth movement had achieved all its objectives. But instead of declaring victory and going home, they moved the goalposts. So before what was a birth that, you would have it your way essentially, now became a very stylized kind of thing. And they began promoting what they called ‘normal birth,’ which they believe recapitulated birth in nature. It really doesn’t, just like nothing we do recapitulates nature.”
The Science Moms movie helps shatter the popular idealization of “natural parenting” and in the process, bridges the socially-constructed gap between scientists and the public. Like the five women she profiles in the movie, Natalie Newell is herself a mother. Like Gwyneth Paltrow, the six of them are “here as a mother” to care about giving their children the best life they can have. But unlike Gwyneth Paltrow, they have a passion for evidence-based parenting that doesn’t take privilege for granted and that’s informed by the best that modern science and technology offers.
Scientists Are People
The Science Moms’ origin story begins in August 2015, when a group of celebrity moms publicly took an anti-GMO stance, calling for the mandatory FDA labeling of GMOs on food products. One of these prominent celebrities was actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who in August 2015 went to Washington, DC to push the Just Label It campaign’s “Conceal or Reveal” petition for mandatory labels. “I’m not here as an expert,” she stated. “I’m here as a mother, an American mother, that honestly believes I have the right to know what’s in the food I feed my family.” In other words, her privileged status as a popular celebrity is the only thing that afforded her the opportunity to speak in front of lawmakers without bringing any actual scientific expertise to the table.
In response, a group of mothers who were all scientists or science communicators – women who were not just mothers but, unlike Gwyneth Paltrow, were also knowledgeable about GMOs – wrote an open letter to these celebrities. The “#Moms4GMOs” letter, posted on Kavin Senapathy’s Grounded Parents blog, explains in layperson terms the basics of plant breeding and genetic engineering, why they oppose mandatory labeling, and how we can all be confident GMOs are safe and beneficial. The authors begin their letter not only by stating their credentials, but also by laying common ground:
Dear Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ginnifer Goodwin, Sarah Gilbert, Jillian Michaels, Jordana Brewster, and other celebrity moms speaking against the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act:
We are scientists, science communicators, and farmers. We come from varying educational backgrounds, work in different careers, live across the country, and are of different ethnicities. Like you, we are moms.
. . . Please, don’t co-opt motherhood and wield your fame to oppose beneficial technologies like genetic engineering. . . . We, like millions of other Americans, line up to see your movies, and respect your occupation. Though our jobs differ, we share a common goal: to raise healthy, happy, successful kids. As moms we feel it is our responsibility to use the best available information to protect our children’s health, and to let the best science inform the choices we make for our families. We ask you to take the time to learn about how genetic engineering is being used by farmers, and the potential it has to help other moms raise healthy, happy, successful kids.
Included among the signers of the letter were the five women profiled in the Science Moms movie: Dr. Anastasia Bodnar, Dr. Alison Bernstein, Dr. Layla Katiraee, Jenny Splitter, and Kavin Senapathy. This letter came to the attention of Natalie Newell, who has a degree in psychology and has been interested in scientific skepticism since the time she took an irrational behavior course as an undergrad at Connecticut College. She has worked in the field of early childhood education as a Montessori preschool teacher and as a private school principal. Having worked with children and parents on a regular basis, she is no stranger to the culture of fear and misinformation that crops up in conversations about parenting in these environments, including unsolicited and scientifically-dubious advice given to her about how she should raise her own little ones. When I talked to Natalie on my podcast, she recounted the story of how she found encouragement and solidarity from reading the Grounded Parents letter while feeding her son in the middle of the night and what prompted her to begin the process of making her own film:
“I’m reading this letter thinking, ‘Oh okay, there are other moms and women out there who feel the same way I do about food and about these issues. That’s really cool.’ . . . I kind of connected with that in the moment. And then as I was thinking about it, and thinking about the whole narrative around parenting, which is so based in fear, here are these women doing something different. Is there a way to shine a little bit of a spotlight on them? And I contacted them and just said, ‘I think you guys could be a movie.’ So that’s what it was. And so Kavin and Anastasia, Jenny, Alison, and Layla, they were like ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ And so this documentary project was born.”
Science-loving skeptics who are fans of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer will be disappointed to learn that Buffy actress Sarah Michelle Gellar is counted among the celebrities who took a public stand against GMOs and signed the “Conceal or Reveal” petition. All five of the moms featured in Science Moms happen to be Buffy fans, and hearing some of them describe their reaction to Gellar’s promotion of anti-GMO propaganda is just one example of many that could be cited of how the movie makes these moms relatable to the public. “People perceive scientists as being these very serious people, maybe off working in their labs,” says Kavin Senapathy in the movie. “But, I mean, scientists love Buffy too, you know.”
“Layla and I are both huge Buffy fans. Huge Buffy fans,” says Alison Bernstein at one point. “So when we saw that Sarah Michelle Gellar had spoken out against GMOs, one of us said that we were slain.” (Although, it turns out that the year before promoting the mandatory GMO labeling petition, Gellar helped co-found a cooking company called Foodstirs that produces baking kits containing only organic and non-GMO ingredients and which are unsurprisingly expensive.)
In the movie, Dr. Layla Katiraee talks about another piece of popular culture that inspired her to pursue a career in science. “When I was in high school, Jurassic Park came out. And I loved Jurassic Park. The scientists in there were doing awesome things, and I started wondering, you know, was any of that possible? I never actually became a genetic engineer, I became a molecular biologist. But those were the things that led me down that path.”
Scientists are people too with day-to-day lives, hopes, dreams, and interests that anybody can relate to, and within its first five minutes, Science Moms profiles more than just women who are scientists ensconced in a lab. It profiles the other aspects of who they really are. These scientists are moms. They like fun things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Jurassic Park, and they care about their families just as much as any other parent. This movie humanizes them and connects them to all of us. Alison touches on this nicely very early in the film:
“Scientists are not portrayed well in TV shows and movies. We’re real, normal people. So I wrote this whole article about all the things about me that are normal. Like, I play tennis, I have two cats, I like to cook, I like to do arts and crafts, I have two kids. I just happen to, for my job, do science.”
Kavin Senapathy opens the movie’s section on food health and GMOs by quoting Vani “Food Babe” Hari, a popular blogger and video producer, who became infamous for stating in her 2015 book The Food Babe Way that “there is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever.” Without any scientific or medical training whatsoever, Vani Hari presumes to dole out advice about food and nutrition and has built her popularity on a foundation of fear surrounding “hidden toxins in your food” and baseless chemophobia. She has enjoyed immense success in the art of instilling fear of chemicals in many people. “The fact is,” Kavin points out in the movie, “everything is made out of chemicals, and chemicals are everything.” When the organic industry tries to sell something by marketing it as “chemical-free,” they are lying to consumers. But people who have been misled by the Food Babe are the people for whom this marketing ploy works so well. The individuals and groups who make products claiming to be chemical-free are profiting on misinformation and scientific illiteracy.
The movie launches into an accessible and non-intimidating discussion of transgenesis and other processes that use GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in food production and the benefits they confer to public health, the environment, and the economy. It also clears up several popular misconceptions and urban myths that have grown up around the issue of GMOs and food.
And these myths are everywhere. Kavin remarks, “If you put into Google, ‘what is a GMO,’ the first few Google results are bullshit. They’re not science-based, they’re not reputable sources, they’re going to be websites that are sponsored by the organic industry to scare you about your food.” To witness multiple cringe-inducing examples of the kind of fearmongering to which Kavin refers, one need only run a Google Image search for “GMO.” This will yield images of a fetus being grown inside a tomato, tomatoes with stitches, and tomatoes and other vegetables being injected with liquids of various colors from a hypodermic needle. Like watching a bad, B-grade movie, these images would be hilarious if not for the sad fact that they are made and viewed by people who believe this is how GMOs are made.
“Genetic engineering does not involve syringes with needles. It’s just not how it works,” says Alison. “I mean, it might be kind of like people inject marinade into their turkey breast when they cook. That might be what you kind of get when you inject something into a tomato.”
Another common food myth that Science Moms addresses is the claim that the organic industry never uses pesticides in its processes. The fact is that if someone wants to avoid pesticides, they are not going to do so by eating only organic produce. In fact, several of the pesticides used in organic farming are worse for the environment and for human health than the pesticides typically used in conventional farming, which has become sophisticated in its regulatory practices. Meanwhile, the only practice at which the organic industry has become sophisticated is in convincing the public that organic is pesticide-free to the point that the claim is more often assumed to be true than questioned at any length.
In the cultural debates about food health and safety and the controversies over “natural” versus synthetic food, we often forget just how privileged we are as consumers in modern-day life to have access to an abundant food supply. In the developed world, farmers who have devoted their lives to producing food and scientists who have devoted theirs to finding ways to enhance that food through biotechnology have afforded the rest of us the power of choice. Too often we take that choice for granted. First-world consumers who fall for marketing campaigns that promise “pure” or “100% clean” food products have been afforded the privilege of choosing that expensive lifestyle because of the efforts of scientists and conventional farmers whose work completely debunks that “purity” standard over which people obsess. Purity in food does not exist. All farming and food production relies on artificial and synthetic processes. We are no longer hunter-foragers who eat what nature offers raw, and as a result we live longer than 30 years. The fabled Garden of Eden never existed in nature, and the science of genetics has demonstrated that there is no such thing as a perfect platonic form of anything nature offers us. The food traits we all find the most desirable and attractive – such as the nonbrowning trait that has been bioengineered into Arctic™ Apples, to take just one example that plant geneticist Anastasia cites in the movie – are all the result of modern biotechnological processes, which are unnatural by definition. Ignorance and irrational fear of science is what mediates and catalyzes peoples’ failure to place their privileged situation in context by appreciating just how abundant and safe our food supply is compared to poorer countries. “And that’s where it doesn’t become about us living in the United States in our comfy houses,” Layla points out in the movie. “It becomes about other people in distant lands that we may not know and are genuinely suffering from hunger.”
The movie also seeks to highlight the often-overlooked farming profession and open lines of communication and understanding between farmers and the people who rely heavily on them, including both scientists and laypeople. This is important because communicative barriers between groups of people is what has allowed anti-GMO ideologues to demonize various technologically sophisticated farming methods. For example, when anti-GMO activists push the oversimplified narrative of “factory farms,” as in Robert Kenner’s popular documentary film Food, Inc., their motivation is to dehumanize the process by which the food we eat makes its way into our grocery stores. In contrast, Science Moms takes a refreshingly humanizing look at the farming industry, highlighting the humanity of the people who are growing food. This is another way in which the movie is intersectional and breaks down the walls people build between each other out of fear or loyalty to our tribe.
“Once somebody believes that you have the same values that they do, and that you care about things similar to them, then all of the sudden their barometer on, ‘Is this a person trying to convince me of something?’ is way, way lower. They’re much more like, ‘Hey, this person is like me, I’m okay with hearing what they have to say, hearing their information, and maybe I could take that information on.’
[…] I go talk to farmers a lot, and one of the pieces of advice that I’m always giving them is, if you show up to a disagreement about the safety or quality of the food, and you say, ‘I’m a farmer, listen to me,’ they won’t listen to you. But if you show up and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got kids,’ or, ‘I have a family, I drink water, I care about the environment, I love being outdoors,’ then all of the sudden people are like, ‘Oh, you’re like me, and you’re a farmer, and I’m much more interested in hearing that.”
–– Vance Crowe, Director of Millennial Engagement at Monsanto, on The Science Enthusiast Podcast (#012, August 10, 2016)
Farming is by and large a generational and family-oriented vocation. The land on which they produce food belongs to them, and they have very strong incentive to remain solvent in business, which necessitates having some knowledge of biotechnology and economics. This is why the anti-GMO narrative of the “simple farmer” who is fooled by biotech corporations like Monsanto into poisoning their land is ridiculously false. Contrary to the misinformation being propagated by activist groups, Monsanto does not own farms and are not planting seeds themselves. This is an important point that Anastasia brings up in the movie:
“When you come down to it, people aren’t farmers because . . . it’s not like venture capital or something like that, where you’re just in it to make money. They’re there because they love it, because they love producing food. And so whether it’s the corn that goes into making corn syrup or some heirloom tomato that you get at the farmer’s market, it’s love that’s coming to you through the farm.”
Science Moms is also clearly a labor of love; it speaks directly to people who may be easily convinced by fear-based antiscience memes by seeking out common ground as a starting point and meeting concerned citizens where they are. Its central, overriding message is that parents do not need to be scared or paranoid about food and medicine. And the moms in this movie understand these fears and empathize with them. Alison talks candidly about when, during pregnancy, she used to be afraid and paranoid of anything that wasn’t organic or BPA-free. Jenny, whose child has a peanut allergy, talks about times she has experienced irrational fears about what her child is exposed to and reassures the movie’s target audience that “it’s normal to freak out.”
Alison and Jenny both learned that keeping children safe, healthy, and happy does require turning oneself into a nervous and paranoid wreck of a person dominated by stress. With just a little critical thinking, they were able to avoid going the debilitating and unstable route of Sophie, a character played by actress Zoe Lister-Jones in Consumed, a poorly-written and ill-conceived drama film which tells the story of a single mother who slowly descends into complete paranoia and insanity as she searches for answers to the mysterious persistence of her young son’s rash symptoms. Along the way, she experiences a nervous breakdown in a grocery store, rips open her bed with a letter opener with which she later threatens her own mother, and throws rocks at the window of a junkyard crane. The movie ends in the stands of a football stadium, where Sophie is trying to enjoy watching a sporting event with her mother and son. But when she takes note of all the people around her eating terrible food, the camera zooms in slowly on the look of sheer, paralyzing terror that comes over her face while the woeful strains of Jim Reeves’ classic country song “Welcome to My World” plays suggestively in the background. Then the credits roll.
This is not some exaggerated caricature of a crunchie mom written by a snarky science-savvy humorist. Sophie is supposed to a protagonist in what the writers of the film, which includes Lister-Jones herself, intended to be a serious cautionary tale. The anti-GMO, organic-only movement wants you to be afraid of everything. I have never been a parent myself, but I feel fairly confident in asserting that this is not a good way to go about parenting and that a fear-based mindset can only result in making both parents’ and children’s lives miserable. Jenny, who is a parent, can back me up on this:
“There’s just only so much you can do. So you may as well just enjoy being a parent … other than like the basic safety stuff, which you can fit on a half a page, you do not need to be freaking out about when you introduce solids or whether they do baby-led weaning or not … When your kids are 10, 12, no one’s talking about whether they were breastfed on the playground or when you picked them up from school. You don’t get to, like, carry the medal with you throughout parenthood. So just don’t worry about it, you know?”
Parents want what’s best for their children, and knowing how to tell the difference between reliable, trustworthy sources of information and anti-science bullshit can be a daunting task if all they hear are the voices of cynicism and fear who have an investment in selling bullshit and who take advantage of the fact that parents are an easy target. “If you can scare a parent,” says Kavin in the movie, “then of course they’re going to shell out extra for the alternative.” Later in the movie, Jenny adds, “Moms are a big, high-spending demographic, because people are willing to spend money on their kids.” Individuals and companies invested in selling bullshit understand this all too well. They are very adept at using buzz words that strike a chord with moms, making them feel not just afraid, but also that they are doing the right thing by buying organic or avoiding GMOs. This is why anti-GMO activist Jeffrey M. Smith, an outspoken apologist for nutritional woo, stated in a 2015 lecture delivered to the Hippocrates Health Institute that, “Our Institute for Responsible Technology is now gearing up an education program, not focused on the Whole Foods shopper, but on the Wal-Mart shopper. . . . We need to go to the more receptive demographic groups. Moms – you give information to a tiger mom, you get out of the way. Moms are a key demographic.”
Science Moms takes an important stand against this cynical and demeaning attitude toward mothers, which is infuriatingly common among purveyors of organic-only marketing campaigns. The women in this movie take scared mothers by the hand and tells them, we understand your concerns, and we want to show you a better way to take care of your children and yourself, because you are a human being who doesn’t deserve to be exploited by an anti-science movement that wants to keep you constantly scared and stressed out.
Every parent wants to feel like they are doing everything within their power to keep their kids safe, healthy, and happy. Science Moms validates these feelings in the best way possible: by refusing to call the intelligence of young mothers into question – something which cannot be said of Jeffrey Smith and his ilk – and gently explaining that the fruits of modern science, once understood and utilized, have the potential to empower mothers of young children. Most young parents fall for the anti-GMO, “all-natural” propaganda simply because it has been so popularized by the organic industry. This is an industry that is happy to take advantage of the fact that many of them simply don’t have the time or energy to wade past all the bullshit in the first few pages of Google results and devote serious effort to find and read the peer-reviewed information about biotechnology and food safety. Jenny makes this point early in the film:
“I feel like a lot of people I meet, actually they’re not so anti-GMO. They haven’t had time to research it because they’re busy and they’re not that interested in it. So they just figure, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll just pick the organic option, because I’ve heard, I have some vague sense, that maybe that’s better for my kids.”
As it turns out, anti-science groups who are heavily invested in the organic industry do not need to do much of the legwork to spread their misinformation. Once the “natural equals healthy” meme has been planted in the popular imagination through very little effort, concerned parents will perpetuate the “vague sense” they have acquired that GMOs are dangerous in the way they talk to other parents. This creates a cultural environment conducive to what social psychologists call “group polarization.” In his book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear (Virgin Books, 2008, p. 136), Canadian journalist Dan Gardner provides the following explanation of this phenomenon:
Decades of research has proved that groups usually come to conclusions that are more extreme than the average view of the individuals who make up the group. When opponents of a hazardous waste site gather to talk about it, they will become convinced the site is more dangerous than they originally believed. When a woman who believes breast implants are a threat gets together with women who feel the same way, she and all the women in the meeting are likely to leave believing they had previously underestimated the danger. The dynamic is always the same. It doesn’t matter what the subject under discussion is. It doesn’t matter what the particular views are. When like-minded people get together and talk, their existing views tend to become more extreme.
The results of group polarization are not pretty, and it has doubtless contributed to many scary and highly dangerous practices that parents inflict on their children in the name of “alternative medicine.” Science Moms addresses this subject as well, moving on from discussing the safety and benefits of GMOs to a discussion of the real dangers that come from eschewing vaccines and relying on the empty promises of homeopathy and other alternative medicine practices.
It is a sad fact of life that irrational fear, coupled with an aversion to conventional medical science, can make parents capable of doing downright insane things to their young children. I asked a group of science-minded parents in a Facebook group to share with me some of these practices they have heard about and investigated, and the list is long and horrifying: baby teething tablets containing belladonna, celebration of childhood illness as a natural phase by throwing “chicken pox parties,” mothers taking extreme measures to avoid formula by buying other mothers’ breast milk with which to feed their babies, industrial-grade bleach enemas to “cure” autistic children (incidentally, this is something Alison Bernstein has been speaking out against and raising awareness about), allowing chiropractors to “align” the spine of infants, and a wide range of other “alternative and complementary medicine” (CAM) practices that children are exposed to without choice. In Alberta Canada, a 19-month-old toddler died of meningitis in 2012 because his parents tried to treat him with natural remedies such as ginger root, olive leaf extract, and maple syrup. They also took him to be treated by a naturopath instead of a qualified doctor. Sadly, people do not always learn from their mistakes, even when the same tragedy occurs in the same region and for the same reasons. A year later in Alberta, a seven-year-old boy died of a severe strep throat infection and meningitis because his mother did not take him to a doctor, relying instead on dandelion tea and oil of oregano as natural home remedies.
Children die because of the poor decisions made on their behalf by adults who buy into bogus and ignorant claims about medicine and health that are based not on evidence but on exploitation of fear. When the modern snake-oil merchants of junk science and woo begin offering their unqualified advice on medicine and health, they cross a line from disseminating bullshit that is relatively benign to disseminating highly dangerous bullshit that can and does result in the death of children. This is why it is necessary for those of us who care about science and the lives of other human beings to tread into the potentially uncomfortable and tricky waters of talking critically about “alternative medicine.” Science Moms does this with its critical discussion of homeopathy.
Who would believe that the cure for whatever ails you is a substance that causes or exacerbates the symptoms of whatever it is you are suffering? Who would believe that the “mechanism” by which this is achieved involves diluting that the ingredients of said substance in water over and over again until literally none of the original ingredients remains in the water, not so much as a single molecule? Finally, who would believe that the reason this is supposed to make sense us because water somehow retains a memory of the substance it contained prior to repeated dilutions?
These are the beliefs lying at the foundation of homeopathy, one of the most popular and widely-embraced alternative medicine products in the world. When Alison tries to explain homeopathy in the movie, she clearly has a difficult time keeping a straight face (and who can blame her?). But very few people who buy homeopathic remedies are even aware that these are the actual claims being made by professional homeopaths. Most seem to think it is simply another one of the many “natural” medicine products available. People do not need to be stupid or superstitious to fall for the oblique marketing approach of homeopathic remedies. In fact, homeopathy grabs hold of even very highly intelligent people, as we find out in Science Moms when Layla relates her experience with homeopathy: “As embarrassing as it is, I tried it when I was a first mom, because I genuinely didn’t know. And then later on, I thought to myself, ‘Oh, that’s why it didn’t work.’ . . . I basically just gave them sugar water, which I could have made at home, and saved myself a couple bucks.” Here is a mother, who also happens to be a molecular biologist, reassuring viewers that she is just like any of them in being susceptible to error and showing them that knowledge empowers us all to make better decisions. In much the same way as the cult religion Scientology does not succeed in winning converts if potential initiates know from the start what kinds of beliefs it involves – i.e., belief that all humans are possessed by the spirits of long-dead alien beings who were brought to Earth and hydrogen-bombed in volcanoes many millions of years ago by an evil alien being named Xenu – I submit that if more people understood the actual origins and beliefs of homeopathy, it would not sell nearly as well as it does.
Homeopathy is a fitting subject with which to introduce a more general discussion of CAM, because the fact that homeopathic solutions contain nothing more than water means that they are no more effective than a placebo in alleviating symptoms. This turns out to be the case with the vast majority of CAM treatments and products. The fact of the matter is that there simply is no “alternative medicine.” Any alternative to conventional medicine that turns out to be safe and effective after surviving the gauntlet of rigorous scientific research and testing is simply medicine. Adding qualifiers like “alternative” or “complementary” to medical treatments is even more meaningless than the “organic” and “non-GMO verified” labels are when the latter are applied to food products and leads to just as much needless obfuscation and confusion in the public. Almost by definition, any treatment or product that claims to be alternative is one that holds a damning investment in taking shortcuts around the scientific method. And yet, people in the United States spend upwards of $34 billion per year on unregulated and untested “alternative medicine” products, while simultaneously feeling afraid and even hateful towards hugely beneficial and life-saving medical advances like vaccination, which is demonstrably safe and effective at preventing the spread of fatal diseases.
Ironically, when people who are opposed to vaccination urge others, especially parents, to “do your research” on vaccines, they are not speaking from a position of knowledge or expertise acquired by doing research of their own. Their opposition to vaccines rests on a series of unsupportable claims, all of which have been conclusively shown to be false by numerous peer-reviewed studies. The appeal to nature fallacy that we encountered before is used to encourage parents to fight their children’s disease “naturally.” Anti-vaxxers are also fond of downplaying the seriousness of certain diseases that vaccines are designed to ward off, and in so doing display their ignorance of history. Alison makes this point very well in the movie, bringing her own personal family history to bear on the seriousness of the matter:
“I think if most of us asked our grandparents, who were alive before the polio vaccine, and you talked to them about vaccines, their perspective on vaccines is hugely different because they all knew someone who died of polio, who died of measles. This isn’t vaccines, it’s antibiotics, but it’s similar. My great-grandparent had a child between my grandmother and her older sister who died of scarlet fever, which is strep throat. So, do we really want to go back to a time when children die of strep throat? I don’t.”
In the late 1990s, scientists failed to replicate British medical researcher Andrew Wakefield’s hypothesized progression of infectious measles replication in the gut to a neuro-inflammatory response in the brain resulting in autism. But the modern anti-vaccination movement that Wakefield almost single-handedly helped create did not give up. They held up Wakefield as a hero, even after it was revealed by an independent investigation that Wakefield’s article linking the MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent. They also changed tactics, for example by fabricating false conspiracy-theory narratives about Big Pharma plotting to experiment on children to make a profit. Wakefield’s downfall as a credible medical doctor did not end with him being struck off the medical registry for his fraudulent actions and ethically questionable research methods and stripped of his license to practice medicine. He was scraping at the bottom of the barrel in 2014 with the release of an anti-vaccination propaganda film he made called Vaxxed which perpetuates one such conspiracy theory, this one involving an alleged cover-up by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to hide the link between vaccines and autism. This conspiracy theory was based on nothing more than snippets of recorded phone conversations taken out of context by a biased interlocutor who clearly had a conflict of interest and a grudge. Yet another tactic of the anti-vaccination movement has been to push the claim that the main culprit for autism in young children was the dangerous chemical ingredients alleged to be contained in the vaccine, such as mercury or thimerosal. These claims were also debunked, and so the anti-vaxxers have shifted the goalposts yet again. The current popular myth going around is the idea that children are being unnecessarily bombarded by vaccines “too many, too soon,” a myth that has unfortunately gained much traction in popular culture in recent years.
“The number of antigens – the number of actual things that your immune system has to react to – has gone down dramatically in the last 60 years. So it’s been a continuous decrease process. Even though the number of shots has gone up, the challenge to the immune system has actually gone down. And that’s because we’re no longer giving whole killed cells; we now know what it is that the immune system needs to recognize. We only give that one particular component to the immune system to generate the right kind of antibodies that are going to protect us against that disease. So the antigenic load has actually gone down. It’s gone opposite to whatever trend they think autism is experiencing. . . . And again, how does this all work in the absence of other factors? How is it that “too many” is resulting in any kind of negative outcome? But of course it gets echoed around. Donald Trump tweeted out that hey, maybe we shouldn’t cram them full of so many vaccines. There you go.”
–– Science communicator and vlogger C0nc0rdance, on The Science Enthusiast Podcast (#026, November 23, 2016)
It’s a sad commentary on the state of science literacy and critical thinking in the United States and elsewhere that scientists have been obliged to spend their valuable time and energy responding to misinformation that has deadly consequences. Scientists and educators have struggled to counter anti-vax propaganda effectively, because anti-vax propagandists are adept at communicating in ways carefully designed to strike at raw emotions and fire up peoples’ amygdalae. The challenge for people who care about reaching people who need to be exposed to critical thinking is to resist the inclination to provide just the facts. Extra steps are necessary to connect science and skepticism to the core emotional values that people hold near and dear. Yes, the facts are the facts. They are arrived at through the convergence of multiple lines of evidence that is freely available for anyone to see and understand for themselves. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that GMOs are safe and beneficial, that vaccines are safe and effective at preventing and potentially eliminating deadly diseases, and that alternative medicine cannot be relied upon to keep ourselves alive and healthy. Unfortunately, however, human nature is such that presenting just the bare facts is usually not sufficient to change the minds of people who are on the wrong side of the science. The psychological literature on why this is the case is enormous, but even the more reductive field of neuroscience has proved itself capable of touching on this subject in illuminating ways. One such illuminating study, published in 2009 by neuroscientist Sam Harris and colleagues, showed that the region of our brains which is used to form and hold beliefs, namely the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, is the same region used to process ordinary facts. What this means is that beliefs and facts are processed in our brains in essentially the same way.
Science Moms seeks to break through this entanglement, not only by explaining the science in a non-intimidating and accessible manner, but also by injecting a personal touch to the topics being discussed. The movie’s approach is encapsulated in its simple and straightforward title. The women in this movie are scientists and they are mothers. Scientific information is being provided while an immediate personal connection is formed. Any mother who watches this movie, including those who shop at Whole Foods, believe in homeopathy, or are afraid of vaccines, can find at least that basic common ground of what it’s like to be a mom. Using common ground as a starting point for educating the public about science lowers emotional defenses and makes people more receptive to information that they may have ignored or rejected if it had been stripped down to the level of cold, hard facts.
In addition to serving as an educational outreach tool, Science Moms also offers encouragement to science-minded people who already have a grasp on the information being presented. It’s a much-needed reminder to parents who accept the science that there is a community of people who are enthusiastic about evidence-based parenting. If you are a skeptical parent and/or science communication activist who feels a sense of isolation or estrangement from being surrounded by junk science and nonsense beliefs about food and health in your corner of the world, this is the movie for you. You will find encouragement from knowing that you are not the only person who is not afraid of trusting credible conventional pediatricians or of feeding your children processed foods. Let the women in Science Moms embolden you to speak out and often in support of science and following the evidence where it leads.