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« There is pervasive cultural consensus on the value of childhood vaccines in the U.S.; so why do people *think* that being anti-vaccine reflects any particular cultural predisposition? | Main | Should we care about the public's *climate science* literacy? What is "ordinary climate science intelligence" *for*? »

Weekend update: Are GM foods toxic for the science communication environment? Vice versa? (video lecture & slides)

The National Academy of Sciences Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences program has posted videos from its recent Public Engagement with Gentically Modified Organisms symposium.  It was a really great event with lots of interesting presentation and even more fascinating discussion and debate among the participants.

I gave a presentation on the first day: "Are GM foods toxic for the science communication environment? Vice versa?" (slides here).  Also was on a panel the last day with science communication genius Rick Borchelt,  director of the Office for Communications and Public Affairs Department of Energy; and with Helene Dillard, from UC Davis, and Molly Jahn, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, both of whom offered harrowing insights into the contentious atmosphere surrounding academic research on GMOs and the difficulties that poses for scientists who want to participate in public deliberations on the subject.

Strongly recommend you watch all the videos if you didn't get a chance to attend or watch live (or even if you did and the alternative is to, say, grade fall semester exams!)

Event highlight: Scheufele demonstrates "performative risk communication" by eating bowl of Frankenberry (he did get sick, but only b/c the cereal had been sitting around since 1973)

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Reader Comments (6)

Very interesting!

I watched Dan's presentation, as well as the panel discussion the final day. I will watch the other videos as time allows.

I'm a member of a group in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, composed of people who would fall in the lower right-hand extreme of Kahan's Hierarchy→Egalitarian and Individualism→Communitarianism graph, or at least who would self-identify as falling in that corner. I've lost interest in the group, however. For the most part I think its membership is well-intentioned enough, but I consider them to have completely departed from factual reality. I am, nevertheless, still on their list-serve email list.

For them, nuclear power, or any use of nuclear radiation such as for medical x-rays, is an absolute taboo, as is the production or consumption of any form of carbon energy. And apparently any and all human vaccinations are on the taboo list as well.

They are gearing up to use the measles outbreak at Disneyland to unleash an anti-vaccination campaign. Here are excerpts from an email I received this morning:

This outbreak of Measles, the consequent renewed push for the vaccine, and the resistance to the vaccine are all very important and bring up important questions. All sorts of statistics are being thrown at us -- thank you, DisneyLand! -- which are being falsely interpreted (as usual) and in some cases wholly invented....

So please, join me on that list -- whatever your views -- and participate in that discussion. To subscribe, send a message to:
SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE-subscribe-request@LIST.UVM.EDU ....

Let's follow the path of this Measles "debate" -- which is just beginning -- on the Science-for-the-People list....

Here's my latest post to the Science-for-the-People listserve:

7) From Mitchel Cohen:

Contrary to Michael Goldhaber's insinuation, I don't believe we ever discussed the Measles Vaccine before on this listserve. In the past, this listserve has been a great source of information, but also much ignorance. There was a long and extended debate, for example, over the issue of Gardasil (advertised as protection against some forms of the Human-Pappiloma Virus), the attempts to make it mandatory, and (in my view) the heroic resistance to it that swept the country. Same with the attempts to make mandatory the genetically engineered smallpox vaccine. The national fight there was led by the then-California Nurses Association and it helped roll-back national policy, saving many lives.

So one could look at vaccines separately, one by one, which is one avenue of discussion. And, one could also look at the current Measles debate as indicative for all vaccines. These are interrelated arguments, but they are not the same. I say that because there has been a tendency on this list to conflate them.

A friend of mine, whose views I endorse, wrote:

You are presupposing that getting measles is a bad thing for children. But in the United States, where there is good access to clean water and sanitary conditions (unlike many other places in the world where measles is extremely dangerous to infants), there's a lot to be said for letting children catch childhood Measles, which generates immune responses throughout life, protecting them from getting sick later in life when Measles (and other diseases) are seriously dangerous.

The vaccine is not a guarantee that someone won't ever get the measles, and as I understand it, if they do, it comes with greater risks than if they had never been vaccinated. It would be much more meaningful to compare the cases of serious injury that resulted from measles in unvaccinated people as opposed to serious injuries caused in those who come down with measles who had received the vaccine.

And then, there are the other ingredients in the vaccines themselves.

According to the CDC list of excipient ingredients in vaccines ( ) while MMR vaccines do not contain mercury, they do contain:

MMR (MMR-II): Medium 199, Minimum Essential Medium, phosphate, recombinant human albumin, neomycin, sorbitol, hydrolyzed gelatin, chick embryo cell culture, WI-38 human diploid lung fibroblasts

MMRV (ProQuad): sucrose, hydrolyzed gelatin, sorbitol, monosodium L-glutamate, sodium phosphate dibasic, human albumin, sodium bicarbonate, potassium phosphate monobasic, potassium chloride, potassium phosphate dibasic, neomycin, bovine calf serum, chick embryo cell culture, WI-38 human diploid lung fibroblasts, MRC-5 cells

Most people think of the vaccine controversy to be all about mercury and autism, but that's just one of many problems. Even though there may not be any mercury in the measles vaccines, there has been talk that injecting non-human and human DNA into children may also cause autism.

And how about the MSG in one of the measles vaccines, or the antibiotic neomycin and the GMO albumin and sorbitol?

As a vegan, I find the entire vaccine industry objectionable. They all contain animal parts, and are tested on animals.

Michael, your one question about the conferring of herd immunity versus individual decisions is an important one. It would be good to have that philosophical discussion after you acknowledge the very real problems with the measles vaccine itself and admit that many people who refuse to take the vaccine have very good reasons for doing so, instead of calling them .... us! .... "fools".


January 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

GM foods are also an absolute taboo for this group in San Miguel de Allende, as are guns.

So what do the following have in common that make them anathema?

• Nuclear energy, or any form nuclear radiation, such as that used in medical x-rays
• GM foods
• Vaccinations
• Guns
• Carbon energy

January 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle


Fascinating issues.

"taboos" are intersting.

If people have a moral outlook that makes a technology intrinsically objectionable, I don't think science-- which is just a way of knowing how world works -- has anything to say about their position one way or other. Hopefully, though, the deliberative norms & political commitments of the Open Society, which is the natural home for science, will give to the people who feel that way about the technology & those who don't a way of talking to each other that makes it possible for them to arrive at a solution that is compatible with the respect all deserve as free & reasoning people.

Of course, we all know that "taboos" are greedy; they have a marked historical tendency to overstep their bounds, misappropriating the metric of human welfare that consists in risks and benefits that admit of assessment by science's way of knowing.

The same obligation to respect free & reasoning people that compels the state to include intrinsic moral assessments of technology in the democratic lawmaking calculus forbids such misappropriation and justifies protecting citizens generally from the disorienting consequences of it

January 26, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@ Dan Kahan

I finished watching the videos of the conference you linked.

I must admit, even though you guys and gals and The Science Network crew at their Beyond Belief: Science, Reason, Religion and Survival conference tackled essentially the same problem, you are LIGHTYEARS ahead of them, and much more attached to the reality of the human condition than they are. (There were, however, some individuals who were very stark exceptions to this generalization within that group.)


When I compare the two conferences, I am very much reminded of what the philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin said in his conclusion to Cosmopolis:

Looking back at the intellectually challenging years between 1650 and 1950, from a position of lesser confidence but greater modesty, we can appreciate why the projects of Modernity carried the conviction they did. Not the least of these charms was an oversimplification that, in retrospect, was unrealistic. With this point in mind, we may recall the comment on social and political affairs made by that humane, grumpy, but normally clearheaded commentator, Walter Lippmann, which distills much of what has come to light in our inquiry. "To every human problem," he said, "there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong; and that is as true of intellectual as it is of practical problems. The seduction of High Modernity lay in its abstract neatness and theoretical simplicity: both of these features blinded the successors of Descartes to the unavoidable complexities of concrete human experience.

January 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

@ Dan Kahan said:

If people have a moral outlook that makes a technology intrinsically objectionable, I don't think science-- which is just a way of knowing how world works -- has anything to say about their position one way or other.

There is a rub though, and that is that the believers in taboos, to the best of their abilities, invariably use "reason," "logic," and "rationality" to dress up their taboos in scientific garb. The result are taboos masquerading as science, taboos in scientific drag.

Someone at your conference (Maybe it was you? Forgive me for not specifying who, because after watching all those videos it unfortunately all has a tendency to run together) pointed this out: The prestige and cachet of science is so great that NOBODY is anti-science. Almost everybody, to the best of their abilities, uses "logic," "reason," and "rationality" to put the imprimatur of science upon their most cherished beliefs and predilections.

January 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

@ Dan Kahan

I suppose we have no other option than to remain guardedly optimistic. "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary," is how Reinhold Niebuhr put it.

Thomas Jefferson conveyed essentially the same idea when in The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom he wrote

that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

The "engineers of consent," nevertheless, seen to have any number of tricks up their sleeves, so falling into a bout of Platonic or Nietzschean pessimism poses a constant danger.

The Polish psychologist Andrew M. Lobaczewski, who lived 38 years under totalitarian regimes (6 under Nazism and 32 under Bolshevism), in Political Ponerology identifies a rhetorical strategy he calls "reversive blockade," which both extremes of the political-ideological spectrum in the United States are quite adept at using. (And again, I seem to recall someone at your conference touching on this subject.)

Here's how Lobaczewski describes it:

Reversive blockade: Emphatically insisting upon something which is the opposite of the truth blocks the average person's mind from perceiving the truth. In accordance with the dictates of healthy common sense, he starts searching for meaning in the "golden mean" between the truth and its opposite, winding up with some satisfactory counterfeit. People who think like this do not realize that this effect is precisely the intent of the person who subjects them to this method.

January 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

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