Hannah Gadsby has a message for anti-vaxxers

In "Douglas," the Australian comedian opens up about her autism diagnosis.

Hannah Gadsby has a message for anti-vaxxers

Hannah Gadsby attends the 8th AACTA International Awards on January 4, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.

Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for AFI
  • In her new Netflix special, "Douglas," comedian Hannah Gadsby targets anti-vaxxers.
  • Diagnosed with autism four years ago, Gadsby discusses the dangers of believing vaccinations cause autism.
  • Some high-profile anti-vax activists use their platform in order to sell supplements and books.

Hannah Gadsby couldn't understand why people kept telling her she might have autism. She believed the developmental disorder mostly applied to young boys. Then the Australian comedian was diagnosed with autism and ADHD four years ago, fitting a lot of pieces into the puzzle of her life, including her response to constant noise and motion while on stage and the feeling of being sober in a room full of drunk people (or vice-versa) all of the time.

The diagnosis came shortly after her comedy special, "Nanette," was receiving critical praise around the planet. Growing up lesbian in a conservative Tasmanian community, "Nanette" is a powerful social commentary merging with raw storytelling. Her emotional roller coaster makes it difficult to distinguish tears from laughter or despair. That's the point.

After considering quitting comedy, Gadsby returned with "Douglas." As with "Nanette," it's difficult to label it comedy. Pure and simple, Gadsby is a masterful storyteller. While she touches upon a number of issues in her latest special—the pouch of Douglas, patriarchy, Renaissance art—grappling with autism and, specifically, anti-vaxxers, is the highlight.

Anti-vax rhetoric is thriving during this pandemic; its trajectory had already been rising. A Gallup poll from January found the number of American adults that believe vaccinating their children is "extremely or very important" dropped 10 percentage points from 2001. This is still a far cry from a suspect survey by an osteopathic group claiming 45 percent of adults are vaccine-hesitant. Still, the number is moving in the wrong direction.

How Hannah Gadsby's High-Functioning Autism Works | Netflix Is A Joke

In a scathing yet hilarious indictment of the anti-vax movement, Gadsby says activists are highly organized and coordinated. They're also prone to "willfully manipulate statistics," as the osteopathic study proves. This doesn't change the fact that anti-vaxxers are woefully outnumbered, however loud social media seems. Tragically, the loudest voice in the room gets taken seriously, sometimes.

After discussing her autism diagnosis, Gadsby begins the skit.

"Do you know what causes autism? No, you f***ing don't. If you honestly think you do, your confidence is making you stupid."

She's aware anti-vaxxers are likely in the room. Her core demographic is wealthy, entitled white women, which is "a Venn diagram with a lot of crossover." Gadsby holds no hope in changing minds, because that's not how closed minds work: "They don't work; they're closed for business."

She then pretends vaccines cause autism, although "pretending is not science." She's not upset about being on the spectrum. That doesn't mean having autism is easy; quite the contrary. It's difficult to always be the odd one out. That said, Gadsby brilliantly advocates for autism.

"As difficult as this life is, it's nice to have a life. And it's particularly nice to have this life in a world without polio. Polio is bad, and that is a fact, not a feeling."

Text on a screen will never compare to Gadsby's delivery: the crescendo of "polio," the playful yet serious expression on her face when delivering this information. Her critique doesn't stop there.

"I would rather have autism than be a sociopath like you."

Tough statement, which she qualifies. Believing your child is more important than all other children means you're not playing for the team. You've wrapped yourself up so tightly in a belief system that self-righteousness has become your creed. Far from being a posture on Twitter, this mindset has real-world consequences.

First, there's the economic angle. Discredited physician Andrew Wakefield, who was paid to falsify data in his infamous measles vaccine-autism study, filed a patent for a single-jab measles vaccine as the same time he was decrying vaccines. His objective appears to have been financial from day one.

Protesters hold banners against the 5G technology and vaccines as others shout slogans during an anti-government protest in front of the parliament in Sofia on May 14, 2020.

Photo by Nikolay Doychinov/AFP via Getty Images

Wakefield isn't the only opportunist. Osteopath Joseph Mercola's net worth has grown to over $100 million as he promotes his products to anti-vaxxers. Then there's Judy Mikovits, the subject of the discredited film, "Plandemic," whose book became a bestseller after the film's release. Her book was published by a house whose sole focus is promoting anti-vaccination rhetoric.

Second, the health consequences. As Gadsby says, anti-vaxxers are coordinated. Two case studies: Samoa and Orthodox Judaism.

Recently anti-vax rhetoric has rooted in Samoa. The result: over 4,000 children were infected with measles last fall. At least 70 died. An anti-vax advocate promoted the use of papaya leaf for treating measles; he was later arrested. The situation was so bad, the Samoan government declared a state of emergency and banned children under the age of 17 from gathering publicly.

Anti-vax rhetoric also hit Orthodox Jewish communities hard last year. In March, 2019 over 275 cases of measles were confirmed in New York state. The funding for this effort was provided by a wealthy Manhattan couple that has donated over $3 million to anti-vax organizations. One group is Informed Consent Action Network, an anti-vax organization run by a former television producer that specifically targets Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County.

"Douglas" is a masterful piece of common sense propaganda. Gadsby is ready for the vitriol certain to come her way for exposing the public to basic science. She snacks on hate. Following that statement, she stares out into the crowd to ask if they understand why she would eat the bluster of haters. Her response is priceless.

"It builds immunity; it's called microdosing. Your hate is my vaccine."

A slight pause.

"What are you going to do? I already have autism."


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter, Facebook and Substack. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

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Tips from neuroscience and psychology can make you an expert thinker.

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Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

  • Make Room for Innovation: Key Characteristics of Innovative Companies, with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, FutureThink, and Author, Why Simple Wins
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  • How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Put People Before Numbers, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant
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