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How to have a constructive conversation with vaccine skeptics
Jonathan Berman wants us to have better dialogues.
- In his book, "Anti-vaxxers," science educator Jonathan Berman aims to foster better conversations about vaccines.
- While the anti-vax movement in America has grown, more Americans now say they'll get a COVID-19 vaccine.
- In this Big Think interview, Berman explains why he's offering an ear to the anti-vax movement.
As two COVID-19 vaccines roll out in America, Pew Research reported a rare glimmer of hope in the ongoing saga of vaccine disinformation: the number of citizens willing to get a vaccine increased to 60 percent. The trend is moving in the right direction, course-correcting anti-vaccination rhetoric that led to the first increase in measles cases (and the highest number of measles deaths) in the modern era.
While we have fabricated research by disbarred doctor Andrew Wakefield to thank for this trend, anti-vaccination efforts are tethered to the first vaccinations. As with seemingly every topic, vaccines are a wedge issue, with a fervent cohort of anti-vaxxers going so far as to be "single-issue voters."
Jonathan Berman, an assistant professor in the Department of Basic Sciences at NYITCOM-Arkansas, grew tired of seeing all of the "dunking on anti-vaxxers." As with many science advocates, he grew skeptical of the anti-vaxx movement while studying for his degree in the aughts. Though he agreed with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, he recognized them as bullies. Berman wanted to grapple with the underlying reasons for opposing vaccination rather than just write them off.
Those reasons, which comprise a chapter of his recent book, "Anti-vaxxers: How to Challenge a Misinformed Movement" (MIT Press), include issues of social class, race, individual liberties, individual and collective rights, distrust of authority, and changing ideas about health and medicine. Instead of exhibiting knee-jerk reactions, he wants to offer compassion and empathy while expressing critical thinking when analyzing the science of vaccines. As Berman recently explained of anti-vaxxers,
"They're making a risk evaluation just like we're making a risk evaluation. They're doing it in a less reasonable and healthy way and arriving at the wrong decision. That doesn't mean that we have to call them stupid or act like they're foolish. It means we can have a conversation with them. Hopefully, that's a more productive way to go about it."
Conspirituality 31 interview: Jonathan Berman
As he wrote the book before the pandemic hit, Berman is a bit dismayed (though not surprised) by the growth of the anti-vaccine movement. He noticed a convergence point this year: anti-mask and anti-lockdown proponents (as well as QAnon devotees) learned a set of tactics from the longstanding anti-vax movement, while anti-vaxxers took the energy of "personal liberty" and "bodily sovereignty" being expressed by those groups.
There have been a number of anti-vax leaders whose star has risen this year: Mikki Willis has surged since the release of his Plandemic film; Del Bigtree, whose show "The Highwire" is in large part funded by hedge fund managers, is growing more influential; and gynecologist Christiane Northrup, who has used her social media platforms to promote QAnon-related and anti-vax sentiments, is also seeing a rise in followers. As Berman writes, celebrities are not the best sources of information, and their intentions might not be as benevolent as they seem.
"There's a degree of grift in what they're doing. They're collecting donations from their audience of anti-vaccine people they've built up."
Science sometimes suffers from lack of celebrity. Paul A. Offit will never be Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye. While a select few science educators break through, vaccination advocates are unlikely to achieve that level of star power. Berman, one of the founders of the "March for Science" movement—a rare mainstream moment of science advocacy in the Trump era—knows the difficulty of spreading the gospel of sound scientific methods.
Navigating the tricky terrain of vaccines is difficult. Thankfully, Berman's excellent book offers hope. Twenty-two concise chapters pack a lot of punch: the history of both vaccines and the anti-vax movement; dangerous ploys by grifters; the science of vaccines; and a chapter on vaccine ingredients, like adjuvants.
While Berman is pro-vaccine, he believes Pfizer and Moderna deserve scrutiny. Commentary from outside organizations and researchers should be offered. That said, while pharmaceutical companies certainly have a track record of corporate greed, vaccines only account for 2 percent of profits—hardly cash cows like painkillers and antidepressants.
Berman laughs off the occasional criticism that he's a paid shill. "I'm still on the negative on the book—just because of caffeine purchases while I was writing it."
Disinformation abounds in the modern era. Posts about the dangers of thimerasol and aluminum persist even though neither are in the Pfizer vaccine. Berman advocates for pushing back against misinformation with better data.
"The coronavirus vaccine—these are very simple formulations. There's salt, RNA, and a lipid to help the RNA cross cell membranes. If someone says there's aluminum in that, you can say, 'not in this one.' And if someone says there's mercury in that, you can say, 'not in this one.'"
He knows the challenges that lie ahead. Still, as Pew shows, more Americans understand the role that vaccines play in reaching a post-pandemic world. Berman concludes our talk on what you might say is a hopeful note.
"We're not going to get everyone on board. We just need to get enough people on board."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.