Live, from Harvard Square– it’s the Sabeti Lab!

A little more than a year ago, I wrote a piece for Smithsonian about Pardis Sabeti, a Harvard geneticist who is one of those incredible overachievers that I’d hate if only she wasn’t so damn likable. Over the past decade, she’s devised robust computational analyses that have resulted in creative new ways to study evolution. She’s also an MD, and much of her recent work has focused on acute viral hemorrhagic fevers. And on top of all that, her post-docs and grad students regularly cite her as one of the most generous and caring mentors they’ve ever had.

Sabeti told me that one of the keys to getting good work out of a team is to make sure everyone is having fun — and one of the ways she does that is with her annual holiday cards. (Last year’s was an homage Psy’s ubiquitous “Gangum Style” video.) The latest entry in this six-year-old tradition features Sabeti and her lab mates acting out classic SNL skits. (They even managed to snag Seth Meyers and Chris Martin for guest appearances.) Here’s Pardis as a Conehead:

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 6.42.57 PM

There’s plenty more where that came from. (Delicious Dish? Check. Wayne’s World? Check. Dick in a Box? Check and check.) This three-minute video clip has some behind-the-scenes action; the full card is below. Happy holidays, folks!
sabeti lab snl 2013 holiday card

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Katie Couric promotes dangerous fear mongering with show on the HPV vaccine.

Tomorrow on Katie: Tiger blood – the new cure-all?

On July 10, 2012, I received an email from a producer at Katie, Katie Couric’s daytime talk show, about a show the program was planning on vaccines. Here was the pitch:

I am interested in talking to Seth Mnookin about his book ‘The Panic Virus.’ I am researching a story about parents who opt out of immunizations for their children because of their personal beliefs. As Seth knows, parents’ fears have lead to a resurgence of diseases like measles and Pertussis and it poses a real danger to society. The goal of the hour will be to better inform the public that still questions links between vaccination and autism and need to better understand the scientific truth.

Over a period of about a month, the producer and I spoke for a period of several hours before she told me that the show was no longer interested in hearing from me on air. Still, I came away from the interaction somewhat heartened: The producer seemed to have a true grasp of the dangers of declining vaccination rates and she stressed repeatedly that her co-workers, including Couric herself, did not view this as an “on the one hand, on the other hand” issue but one in which facts and evidence clearly lined up on one side — the side that overwhelmingly supports the importance and efficacy of vaccines.

Apparently, that was all a load of crap. Here’s the teaser for tomorrow’s show on the HPV vaccine

The HPV vaccine is considered a life-saving cancer preventer … but is it a potentially deadly dose for girls? Meet a mom who claims her daughter died after getting the HPV vaccine, and hear all sides of the HPV vaccine controversy.

As I assume Couric and her staff know — they are, after all, literate — here are “all sides” of the HPV vaccine issue:

* More than 25,000 new cancers attributable to HPV occur in the United States each year. Almost 12,000 of these cases are cervical cancer in females; another 6,000 are oropharyngeal cancers in men.

* More than 100 million doses of the vaccine have been given since it was approved in 2006.

* A study published in the British Medical Journal in October evaluated 997,000 girls, 296,000 of whom had received at least one dose of the HPV vaccine. More than 150,000 of those girls received all three doses. The results? Absolutely no link to short- or long-term health problems. As Lisen Arnheim-Dahlström, the lead researcher on the study, told Reuters Health, “There were not really any concerns before our study and no new ones after.”

But hey, you know, what’s years of data based on hundreds of thousands of verifiable results when you have a single “mom who claims her daughter died after getting the HPV vaccine,” right Katie?


Category: Public health, The Panic Virus, Vaccine safety, Vaccines | Tagged , , , , , | 223 Comments

This Thursday at MIT: ChartGirl in all of her glorious awesomeness

This Thursday, Hilary Sargent, aka ChartGirl, will be giving a talk from 5pm-7pm at MIT in room 4-231 titled “Visualizing Information: An Alternative Route to Understanding and Explaining Complicated Information.”

I can’t speak highly enough of Hilary. She’s had a fascinating career — worked for traditional media (including The Boston Globe, among other places) before embarking on a career of private investigating/corporate intelligence (no joke). On the side, her frustration with the poor way visual information is conveyed in the media led her to start ChartGirl, a one-woman operation that Time recently named one of the 50 Best Websites in the world.
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Misogyny and sexism in SciComm, pt 2: Act inappropriately and suffer the consequences. Full stop.

Yesterday, I tried to publicly process my feelings about an incident in which Scientific American blog editor and ScienceOnline co-founder Bora Zivkovic acknowledged acting inappropriately^ toward a young writer named Monica Byrne.

Over the past twenty-four hours, I’ve had many conversations and spent many hours thinking about the information that’s come out as a result of all of this. I’m not sure if I’d even know how to get into all of that here, but I’ve been left with the following conclusion: If we, as a community, are to acknowledge that sexual harassment is both pervasive (and literally every single woman I’ve spoken with has confirmed that it is) and wrong, we are obligated to find ways to address this — not in the abstract and not in the future, but now.

One obvious step is to insist that there be consequences for people who engage in inappropriate behavior regardless of whether they were aware that their behavior made someone uncomfortable at the time. We can’t say, on the one hand, that we want to be a community where women are treated equitably and fairly and then on the other hand say that those among us who do not treat women equitably and fairly get a one-time free pass. Inappropriate behavior often occurs under murky circumstances, and women are right to assume that promises of raised awareness and different standards in the future too often translates as a quick return to business as usual.  There has to be a line in the sand. This is wrong. Do it and you will be punished.

Even after reaching this conclusion, I still struggled with the appropriate consequences for Bora. At least until this afternoon.


Earlier today, Hannah Waters, a Scientific American blogger who also runs Smithsonian‘s ocean portalposted a vividly disturbing and searingly honest account of her uncomfortable interactions with Bora over the years. I’m unspeakably grateful she shared what I can only imagine was an excruciating story to tell:

What makes this so hard to talk about—my experience and Monica’s—is that it may not look like sexual harassment. There was no actual sex or inappropriate touching. Bora wasn’t vulgar toward me, nor did he even directly announce his interest. It was all reading between the lines, which made it easy for me to discount my own experience. Instead, I did my best to ignore my discomfort to avoid conflict, or otherwise convinced myself that I was reading too far into it. How vain! To imagine all men want to have sex with me!

I’ve made it far enough now that I know my work is valuable on its own. And I’m writing today to let anyone else who has experienced sexual harassment—especially the type of harassment that can be mistaken for acceptable behavior—that you aren’t alone. Whoever did this to you is the one in the wrong. They are the one who did not examine their own power and the effect their “harmless flirting” could have on you.

It’s easy to say that now but, at my most insecure moments, I still come back to this: have I made it this far, not based on my work and worth, but on my value as a sexual object? When am I going to be found out?

I don’t think Bora intended to make me feel this way. In fact, if he knew I were carrying this with me, I’m sure he’d be horrified. But it’s our actions that matter, not our intentions. He did make me feel that way. His actions degraded my self-worth.

That’s a horrible experience for anyone to go through, and it embarrasses me that I’ve been clueless about the extent to which my colleagues and co-workers have dealt with painfully similar situations and emotions. I’m still struggling with the best and most appropriate ways to translate what I’ve learned into concrete actions.

There is one action that can occur immediately. Bora can leave SciAm and his leadership role at SciO. Bora has done a lot for the science communication community over the years, and he’s had an enormous positive impact on many young writers’ lives — and for that, I’ll be forever thankful. He’s also made smart and talented young women question their abilities and their worth — and that is unforgivable.

* Update, 4:22 pm: As I hit publish on this post, I saw that Bora voluntarily resigned from the ScienceOnline Board of Directors; his future involvement with the organization is under review. The full statement from Anton ZuikerKaryn Traphagen, and Scott Rosenberg is here.

^ Update, 5:04 pm: In the first iteration of this post, this passage read “acknowledged sexually harassing.”

Category: Ethics, Journalism, science writing, sexism | Tagged , , , , , , , | 88 Comments

A chance to discuss sexism & misogyny in science communication: DNLee, Bora, & the SciAm fiasco

If you’re reading this blog, chances are good that you already know the backstory for this: Last week, an editor at Biology Online asked Danielle N. Lee, a zoology postdoc and well-known blogger, to contribute posts to the site. She asked how much she would be paid — and when he responded that her payment would be in exposure (which, last I checked, doesn’t pay the rent or buy groceries), Lee politely declined. His response to that was to reference the title of her Scientific American blog, Urban Scientist by asking, “Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”

On Friday, Lee wrote about the experience; within an hour, her post was removed from Scientific American without any explanation. A firestorm, fueled mostly by the patently false justification tweeted by Scientific American editor Mariette DiChristina.

Many people, including me, were outraged by this; I tweeted about it a handful of times during a chaotic and busy Saturday with my kids. By Sunday night, SciAm Blogs had republished Lee’s original post, DiChristina had publicly explained what had happened, and the offending Biology-Online editor, who still has not been identified publicly, was fired.

Then, at some point yesterday, writer and playwright Monica Byrne updated a post she had published a year ago detailing a encounter she had with a “prominent science editor and blogger.” You can read Monica’s detailed description of the encounter; the CliffsNotes version is: The editor friended Monica on Facebook; Monica sent him clips and asked him to coffee; in the course of discussing her clips, Monica mentioned visiting a strip club; using that as a jumping off point, the editor began talking about his marriage, his sexuality, and his sex life in ways that were clearly inappropriate. Monica later confronted the editor over email; several weeks later, he wrote her an apology and acknowledged he had behaved inappropriately.

Monica’s update contained one new piece of information: The editor and blogger was Bora Zivkovic, who runs SciAm’s blog network and is probably the best-known and most influential person in the science-blogging world. Today, Bora acknowledged that Monica’s description of the events was accurate and that his behavior was wrong — and also that his superiors at SciAm had gotten involved.

Monica writes very eloquently about the ways in which her encounter with Bora affected her. I’m grateful to her for sharing this: As a white man living in the United States in the twenty-first century, I have no idea what it’s like to be bombarded with loutish behavior and unwanted advances on an ongoing basis. Several years ago, a female friend told me about being groped on the subway. I was shocked, a fact which she found laughable: She couldn’t believe that I had no idea that every single woman living in New York had to navigate those waters every single day. By bringing light to one of the often-undiscussed realities of being a woman, Monica has made it that much harder for men to be clueless about what’s going on in the future. Speaking as the father of a daughter and as a teacher, I’m grateful she’s deepened my understanding about the insidious harassment women face.

That does not mean that Bora’s outing was not painful and confusing to me. Bora has been a friend to me and a supporter of mine. I’ve always seen him as someone who was a champion for increasing the diversity of voices in science and science communication. So I didn’t say anything about it — I didn’t tweet about it, didn’t bring attention to it on Facebook or Google+ or LinkedIn.

But my not joining in the discussion on social media obviously does not mean I haven’t been thinking about the situation. As I said above, on a global level, I’m glad Monica came forward. On an individual level, I’m struggling with the correct context through which to view his behavior. Viewed in the context of an increasingly visible attitude towards women on the part of some people whom I’d consider intellectual allies, and then in the immediate context of what happened to Lee, this is horrendous — another piece of evidence that women deal with outrageous types of discrimination and harassment that men can barely imagine.

But is that the right context? Bora has, as many have noted, done an enormous amount to increase the voices of women in science. So do I view his behavior of someone who has internalized the power imbalance and misogyny of much of the scientific and science communication worlds? Or do I view it as the fumbling, bumbling, and clearly inappropriate behavior of someone in the midst of what he has said was a difficult personal crisis?

Obviously, I don’t know all the facts here; obviously, we all may learn more in the next few days; obviously, my judgment may be affected by my personal feelings about Bora and his family. That said, to me, this certainly seems like the latter — and for that reason, it saddens me that Bora was outed at this particular moment. Based on what I know right now, I don’t think the implied rationale–that Bora is another example of the type of sexism that allowed a Biology-Online editor to casually call Lee an “urban whore” when she refused to write for him for free–is correct.

At the moment, that is all a bit beside the point. And hopefully, the events of the past four days will force a conversation about many of these issues into the open — and that is inarguably a good thing. Women are overrepresented among the ranks of those starting out in the field — here at MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, it’s not unusual for between 75 and 85% of our applicants and admittees to be female — but men remain overrepresented in positions of authority. We, as a community, have had years to have this conversation. Let’s not let this opportunity fall by the wayside.

Category: Journalism, science, science writing, sexism | Tagged , , , , , , | 172 Comments

Crosby’s labyrinth, or why I couldn’t stop myself from replying to the vaccine conspiracy theorist to end all conspiracy theorists.

Earlier today, Jake Crosby posted this comment on one of my recent posts about Jenny McCarthy. (For those of you lucky enough not to know who Jake Crosby is, here’s his entry in the Encyclopedia of American Loons and here’s a link to Orac’s posts about Crosby.)

“I think [public health decisions] should be based on scientific evidence. I’m never going to waver in this.” [Note: He’s quoting me here.]

Well isn’t that just funny? I brought up scientific evidence to you that CDC of all agencies produced associating earlier MMR vaccine exposure to autism, and asked you if you thought CDC should retract its conclusion of no association that’s completely contradicted by the results.

You refused to respond, called the study I plugged “insignificant minutia,” said my question was “devoid of facts,” complained of my past criticisms of you online and ultimately refused to answer my question.

So then how can you make the following claim that: “…this isn’t a matter of the heart, it’s one of the mind” when you take criticism you don’t have a response to so personally?

Speaking of which, of the “dozens” of studies you claim prove vaccines don’t cause autism, IOM only uses four to say thimerosal doesn’t cause autism and four to say thimerosal doesn’t. This is an organization that has been caught saying it will never come down that autism is a true side effect of vaccines before looking at any evidence, and it obviously does not even think most of your “dozens” of studies are any good. Pretty bad, don’t you think?

I initially wrote what follows as a response to Crosby but decided it was worth getting of my chest once and for all…so here goes:

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Category: Autism, Comments, Quacks, The Panic Virus, Vaccines | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

A PSA to journalists writing about vaccines: Thimerosal was never used in the MMR vaccine

The shameless and lamentable decision on the part of ABC to hire Jenny McCarthy as one of its co-hosts for the daytime talk show The View has, once again, brought the topic of vaccines and autism into the news. Fortunately, the spineless “on the one hand, on the other hand” reporting that characterized this debate for so many years has, for the most part, been replaced by an almost universal acknowledgment that vaccines are a safe, life-saving public health intervention — and that there is not now and never has been the smallest shred of evidence showing a causal link between any vaccine and autism.

As someone who’s been reporting on and writing about this issue for five years, I know how confusing it all can be — and anti-vaccine activists (like McCarthy or RFK Jr.) take advantage of this confusion by moving the goalposts, throwing up smokescreens, and generally doing whatever they can to obfuscate the reality of the situation. (When there aren’t any facts on your side, your only hope is to create enough distractions so that the public forgets what the real issue was in the first place.)

Which is why I get a little nuts when I see well-meaning journalists who are attempting to grapple seriously with the issue make basic mistakes. Take this Los Angeles Times story^ titled “Jenny McCarthy on ‘View': A new forum for discredited autism theories.” After running through the sorry history of charlatan/opportunist Andrew Wakefield’s efforts to scare people into thinking the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine could cause autism, the author writes (the emphasis, obviously, is mine):

Subsequent efforts to replicate Wakefield’s findings failed. But vaccination rates began a steep decline anyway, and a new generation of parent activists — skeptics of the biomedical industry’s claim on their children — was born. Meanwhile, the findings spurred additional research, which suggested that the specific culprit in the MMR vaccine was the widely used preservative thimerosol.

I’ll say this as clearly as I can: The MMR vaccine does not and never did contained thimerosal. (This mistake is made so often that the FDA has included it as one of it’s FAQ’s about thimerosal.) It’s a small, niggling point in this larger debate — but when the anti-vaccine movement’s entire tactic is to blur reality, it’s crucially important that those of us dedicated to uncovering and reporting the truth make sure we get every last detail right.

^ July 19: Earlier today, the Times changed the wording in their story and appended a correction which read, “For the Record, 9:08 a.m. PDT, July 19: An earlier version of this online article incorrectly stated that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine had contained the preservative thimerosal. It did not.” Kudos to them for making the change. I’m not sure why it took them more than 80 hours to do so, but better late than never…

Category: Journalism, Vaccines | Tagged , , , , , | 32 Comments

A Jenny McCarthy reader, Pt. 4: The real dangers in following Jenny’s advice

Note: Earlier today, Jenny McCarthy was officially named as a new co-host of the popular daytime talk show The View. As many people have already noted, this is an extremely unfortunate move on ABC’s part: It’s giving the network’s imprimatur to someone who has worked, methodically and relentlessly, to undermine public health. 

In (dis)honor of McCarthy’s new perch, I’ve decided to post a chapter of my book The Panic Virus titled “Jenny McCarthy’s Mommy Instinct” on the blog. Since it’s well over 5,000 words, I broke it up; this part final installment is about the dangers in following McCarthy’s advice. You can go back and read Part 1 (“The birth of a star and an embrace of ‘Crystal Children“), Part 2 (“Jenny brings her anti-vaccine views to Oprah,” and Part 3 (Jenny legitimizes the scientific fringe“). 

James Laidler, a medical doctor who teaches in the biology department at Portland State University, has firsthand experience with the lure of this approach. About a year after his oldest son was diagnosed with autism, Laidler’s wife returned home from an autism conference flush with stories about how seemingly intractable cases of the disease had been “cured.” While initially skeptical, Laidler agreed there was no harm in seeing if their son responded to some of the vitamins and supplements that had been recommended.
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Category: Alternative treatments, Autism, Ethics, excerpt, Journalism, Public health, Quacks, The Panic Virus, Vaccines | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

A Jenny McCarthy reader, Pt. 3: Jenny legitimizes the scientific fringe

Note: Earlier today, Jenny McCarthy was officially named as a new co-host of the popular daytime talk show The View. As many people have already noted, this is an extremely unfortunate move on ABC’s part: It’s giving the network’s imprimatur to someone who has worked, methodically and relentlessly, to undermine public health. 

In (dis)honor of McCarthy’s new perch, I’ve decided to post a chapter of my book The Panic Virus titled “Jenny McCarthy’s Mommy Instinct” on the blog. Since it’s well over 5,000 words, I broke it up; this part (the third of four) is about McCarthy’s efforts to legitimize the scientific fringe. Part 1 was about the McCarthy’s rise to fame and her embrace of the “Crystal Children” philosophy, Part 2 details McCarthy’s use of Oprah Winfrey’s megaphone, and the final installment is about the danger of following Jenny’s advice. 

McCarthy’s sudden ubiquity did more than give families affected by autism hope for a miracle cure—it also further legitimized a movement that still had not completely shed its reputation as being on the scientific fringe. Dan Olmsted, a former UPI reporter who is one of the editors of the Age of Autism blog, gives McCarthy credit for singlehandedly pushing vaccine skeptics into the mainstream: “To anybody who comes to this issue from the environmental and recovery side of this debate—the idea that something happened to these kids, and it’s probably a toxic exposure—Jenny McCarthy is the biggest thing to happen since the word autism was coined.”

The media’s willingness to indulge McCarthy’s campaign and its disinclination to provide an accurate representation of the issues at stake continued unabated in 2008. On World Autism Awareness Day that April, Larry King devoted his full hour-long broadcast to “Jenny McCarthy’s Autism Fight.” Jenny-Larry King
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Category: Alternative treatments, Autism, excerpt, Journalism, Public health, Quacks, The Panic Virus, Vaccines | 9 Comments

A Jenny McCarthy Reader, Pt. 2: Jenny brings her anti-vaccine views to Oprah

Note: Earlier today, Jenny McCarthy was officially named as a new co-host of the popular daytime talk show The View. As many people have already noted, this is an extremely unfortunate move on ABC’s part: It’s giving the network’s imprimatur to someone who has worked, methodically and relentlessly, to undermine public health. 

In (dis)honor of McCarthy’s new perch, I’ve decided to post a chapter of my book The Panic Virus titled “Jenny McCarthy’s Mommy Instinct” on the blog. Since it’s well over 5,000 words, I broke it up; this part (the second of four) is about Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of McCarthy’s anti-vaccine views. The first part was about the McCarthy’s rise to fame and her embrace of the “Crystal Children” philosophy; Part 3 is titled Jenny legitimizes the scientific fringe,”  and Part 4 is “The real dangers in following Jenny’s advice.” 

jenny-oprah original

In 2005, McCarthy contacted Lisa Ackerman, the mother who’d founded Talk About Curing Autism five years earlier. “Jenny was looking for information to help her son Evan, who was recently diagnosed,” Ackerman wrote in an essay titled “TACA and Jenny McCarthy.” “Jenny is an extraordinary mom. She ran with every bit of information that she gleaned from TACA’s website, individual mentoring and community outreach efforts and was back when she needed more. As Evan improved Jenny kept good on her promise to get involved.” In fact, McCarthy got so involved that she donated a portion of the proceeds from Life Laughs, which was released in April 2006, to the organization.

Shortly thereafter, McCarthy told Ackerman she’d decided to write her next book about autism—and, McCarthy vowed, when it came out she’d publicize it on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
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Category: Autism, excerpt, Public health, Quacks, The Panic Virus, Vaccines | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments