An article was published recently in which a group of physicists declared that Cinderella’s lone glass slipper would have shattered under her weight when she ran away from the ball, destroying her chances of finding her handsome prince. They also dare to suggest that Superman’s attempt to turn back time would have just killed all life on Earth.
I posted the article to Facebook saying “Physics does not give a shit about your beloved childhood stories.” And many comments back were “our beloved childhood stories do not care about your physics.”
Even rationally minded people do not like it when science stomps on their beliefs. But nothing’s sacred to scientists, is it? Cinderella and Superman? What next, telling people that their deeply held beliefs about things like food science and vaccines don’t supersede doctors?
First, I was on the Skeptically Yours podcast with Heather Henderson and Emery Emery (real names, we like alliteration here), and the two other guests were non-scientists. One of the guests, who we’ll call Michael because that’s his name, had been anti-GMO until I met him at a party pre-podcast and started chewing his ear off. He went all “GMOs are the devil” and I went all “no they’re not.” Because, this will come as no surprise to you… I’m that person at parties.
There you are, just trying to enjoy the jar labeled GMO free guacamole and there’s this ridiculous blonde telling you why a label like GMO free guacamole is silly because there are currently no genetically modified avocados, limes, cilantro, salt, spices, or any of the other ingredients that should be in any decent guacamole on the market and your only thought is “you’re in between me and the guacamole, bitch I will cut you.”
This goddamn works better than anything else. Being able to answer Michael’s questions in person- kindly, while not telling him that he was an idiot- he started to come around to the notion that GMOs are not a plot by Monsanto, the government, or even little old me to poison him. I was no longer a stream of caps lock and exclamation marks yelling via a computer screen, I was a charming girl in Ugg boots. And have you seen pictures of my dog? I would never feed that face anything dangerous.
By the end of the party we were friends. And his suspicions about GMOs were starting to fade.
We continued the talk about GMOs on Skeptically Yours and Michael came with a list of questions. He veered from questions about the science to conspiracy style questions because… he went to google to find information about GMOs and this was the information he found. The volley went something like:
“But Monsanto made this other bad chemical half a century ago, how can I trust them?”
“Bayer made heroin a century ago, do you buy aspirin?”
At some point in the podcast the realization struck the anti-GMO arguments were incredibly similar to anti-vax arguments. These are all fear and belief based arguments that come from people who have never gone hungry, just like anti-vax arguments come from people who haven’t seen polio. Slowly the fears of GMOs were abated again. He’s still skeptical, but he’s listening. Conversations with a human being who you can relate to helps infinitely more than just words on a screen. But as we can’t send a scientist to everyone’s living room, the question came up on the podcast; how do we stop people from buying into misconceptions about science in the first place?
Emery answered: education. Which is a perfectly fine answer if we lived in a perfect world.
I have a second story in which education was not enough. And I’m sure this story isn’t an isolated case.
I went to a private school for kindergarten through eighth grade. I had a classmate who we’ll call Elise because that’s her name. We were in the exact same home room together for kindergarten through eighth grade. The same information from a good school was being pumped into our brains through our formative years. Then for high school, she went to the local private high school that cost a minor fortune to attend. I went to public school, so she had (arguably) better education for high school. I believe she has a math degree.
On paper, there’s education trickling out of this woman’s nipples.
You’re sitting down and waiting for the bait and switch, right? She runs a page called Research Mama. From the name what are you expecting? A scientific researcher, perhaps?
Nope. Part of going to school with Elise means that I also experienced her mother coming into the school and demanding pages be ripped out of our science text books because they didn’t accommodate her extremely Catholic world view. The apple, it seems, has rotted along with the vine.
The Research Mama an extremist pro-lifer whose descent into blogging began when she read on the internet that there were dead baby parts in vaccines. From exploring anti-vax blogs with a determination to not follow mainstream medical advice, she discovered all the other bullshit that she now sells. Very safe, very well researched medical products to prevent things like polio, measles, and whooping cough shouldn’t be used because she’s a mom who’s done her research. She tells people that elderberry is better than tamiflu, forgetting that the flu kills approximately 31,000 people per year and her assertions are shaky, at best. Her children, despite knowing that vaccine preventable diseases are coming back, are not vaccinated.
In addition to being anti-vax, she had eczema and ‘cured’ it by cutting out an evil chemical product from her life and voila, she’s a newly minted google expert. Many people try to boast about their academic accomplishments, whereas she says “Most people scoff at the term “Google University” as a joke, as if it has no merit. Me? I wear my GU Degree as a badge of freaking honor.” She works for a direct sales company selling a bunch of organic “non-toxic” nebulously unproven overpriced soaps and essential oils. Every buzz word that I’ve debunked? She’s all up in the bunk. And let’s mention once again that she’s anti-vax because religion and dead baby parts and oh fuck everything.
We need to have a little talk about religion.
There’s a lot of crossover in the skepticism community and atheism community, but debunking religion is not generally in my repertoire. Atheism is not my hobby. It’s my religion like not skateboarding on Tuesdays is my sport. I implore you to accept scientific evidence, whatever your beliefs may be. Most people I know working in science who have a belief system accept evidence as it presents itself, and that’s good enough for me as a science communicator.
But then religion steps in my sandbox with bullshit like this, and I get a little testy.
Because, especially in a case like this, Elise had everything going for her to make her able to accept science… except religious thinking. She had conditioning to accept things without sufficient proof. And whether it was religion that led her to essential oils or just needing a source of outside income in direct sales, it certainly didn’t help. She had all the educational advantages someone could have hoped for. She had monetary advantages, good teachers, a mathematics degree, probably took advanced classes in science… and proudly chooses to opt for Google University. Because religion. She thinks looking through “natural” blogs are a better resource than scientific papers because the evidence she’ll accept has been clouded so heavily by both religion and anecdotal evidence. She’s making medical decisions that may endanger her children and it’s because of religion.
Let’s be clear, I’m aware that this is an anecdote. But my point is that both my new friend Michael and my former classmate Elise had all the education available to them. They are both smart people, educated people.
And then some shit went horribly awry.
There are definitely external factors that affects somebody’s perceptions of facts and ability to accept information harder. In both of these types of situations, the people may have had education, but education is not enough if they don’t know how to think when presented with new information. Education may not be enough to overcome a deeply ingrained belief. It is not enough unless it trains someone to be a critical thinker. And it’s especially not enough when someone’s belief has a religious level fervor and they’re only accepting evidence that fits their world view.
But what does that mean for you, the skeptic, who wants desperately to help these people? They’re the victims in this of extremely bad and dangerous information (in Elise’s case, she’s now started spreading it- which I think begs the question “who’s the victim?”).
Be that person. You know, the person at parties who gets in the way of the guac? Yeah, that guy. And be that person kindly. Tell them the truth because they deserve to have their beliefs challenged from someone who they’re friends with and someone they trust. They do not deserve to continue languishing in the fear of a fairy tale reality where the appropriate course of action is to burn safe food and withhold life-saving treatments from children. They deserve the truth. Be the person who tells them, even if you know they’re not going to want to hear it. Because they deserve to hear it.
If beliefs were sacred in science, we would still believe in the world on a turtle’s back. Doctors wouldn’t wash their hands before surgery. We would still perform lobotomies.
Nothing is sacred, especially in science. Especially not your beliefs. We’re better for it.
Superman couldn’t turn back time, the glass slipper would shatter, and if you’re not vaccinating I do not give one iota of a shit what landed that belief in your head. We need to have a chat over (the obviously) non-GMO guacamole.