Mayim Bialik is a problematic ambassador for science

Mayim Bialik is an actress. She grew up playing TV’s “Blossom,” and recently has surfaced again on television as Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, a neurobiologist on “The Big Bang Theory.” In between, she went to college and on to grad school, receiving a PhD in neuroscience. She is a “Brand Ambassador” for Texas Instruments and is this year’s featured speaker at the National Science Teachers’ Association conference.

She is also anti-vaccine, and a spokesperson for the “holistic mom’s network,” which eschews much that modern medicine has to offer and features several prominent anti-vaccine advocates on its advisory board.

Reactions have been mixed regarding her gig at the NSTA convention. Skeptical raptor thinks it’s OK as long as she’s just talking about her path to science (presumably, something like this article in Nature) (he clarifies here as well). Hemant Mehta (himself a math teacher) thinks not so OK, and I lean much more that way. As I noted on the Skeptical Raptor’s Facebook page, she may really like science, but the fact is that her position on vaccines undermines not only the science, but also the very *scientists* who do such work. She’s saying that some science is great, but other parts shouldn’t be believed and accepted. This is not cool or acceptable for such a big-name speaker.

That’s not to say that there are not controversial areas within science, or that everyone has to agree on every point. Certainly there are many areas which are fraught with controversy, and which we’re working to understand. But the basics of vaccines are not one of them. Certainly people would be outraged to see Michael Behe or another prominent evolution denier from the Discovery Institute or Answers in Genesis speaking at this conference, even though they may also have a PhD and, likely, a love of science. In Bialik’s case, she is *actively endangering the lives of others,* but because she’s a fellow science lover, it’s OK to give her a podium and additional notoriety? No.

Further, because she’s a PhD, many give her views on vaccines more weight than someone like Jenny McCarthy (who lacks any formal science training and is easier to write off), even though Bialik also lacks training in microbiology and immunology. In my opinion, that makes it even more important to avoid legitimizing her vaccine opinions.

Bottom line: if you love science, don’t actively undermine a part of it that actually affects the everyday lives of millions of people, and if you’re a company or organization who is promoting science, please don’t choose as a spokesperson or honored speaker someone who does this.

 

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On the value of pseudonyms

Our new Scienceblogs overlords sure have great timing with their new pseudonymous blogging rules. For those who haven’t run across that yet, National Geographic has decided to eliminate pseudonyms and force everyone with a blog remaining here (which is already dwindling) to blog under their real names. Meanwhile, out here in the real world, there’s a new unfortunate case study (short version: “EpiGate”) showing how blogging under one’s real name can lead to serious threats and potential loss of employment, among other things.

I blog under my own name (obviously), but if I were starting out now, I probably wouldn’t make that choice again. There are a lot of things I would love to write about on here, but can’t–or won’t–for a variety of reasons. For one, I’m untenured and would like to stay gainfully employed, and ideally even promoted and tenured this academic year, so it’s difficult for me to talk about some of the more “slice of life” stuff on here. Even talking about being a woman in science and balancing work and personal issues (oh, there are so many stories I could tell there…) is kind of walking a fine line. I don’t necessarily want people who google me for my science to come across posts on my kids’ latest exploits, or various personal drama that might make for great blog posts, but also make it weird for external reviewers trying to fairly evaluate me, for instance. Second, I don’t enjoy being harassed. Long-time readers will note that it’s rare that I write about HIV denial, even though that was such a main topic of this blog once-upon-a-time that it even culminated in a journal article. It’s just tiring to be harassed personally by deniers–and even moreso to have my colleagues and administration bullied.

And this is just what’s happened to my colleague, EpiRen. He managed to tick off an online bully; said bully then called EpiRen’s superiors, who gave him a choice between his blogging and his employment. Not surprisingly, EpiRen eventually ended up pulling his public blog and Twitter feed, to the detriment of anyone who wanted a good source of public health information on the internets.

There’s an active discussion regarding the differences between blogging science as a scientist, and blogging as a journalist under one’s real name. A journalist’s job is to write for the public; a scientist’s, honestly, is not–and so if National Geographic is serious about wanting to keep good scientists in their lineup (and others have noted that, truly, they likely don’t give a shit), their decision to disallow pseudonymous blogging is shooting themselves in the foot. There are many valid reasons why a scientist may not want to be publicly identified on their blog–does that really make the information any less valid? Does NG really think that someone who may carry out experimental work with animals, and discuss animal research on their blog using a ‘nym, would really choose their blogging hobby over their livelihood and–potentially–their family’s safety? There are animal rights and anti-vaccine extremists to worry about; Carl Zimmer even points out recent threats aimed at Chronic Fatigue Syndrome researchers who have reached conclusions that some patients didn’t like or agree with. Who can blame many scientists for wanting badly to share their work and insights with the general public, but doing so in a way that disassociates those posts from their “real life” identity?

These things aren’t just theoretical. HIV denier Andrew Maniotis showed up, unannounced, at my work office one day a few years ago. The recently-arrested “David Mabus” showed up at an atheist convention. While using a pseudonym doesn’t always protect you–certainly many pseuds have been outed by those willing to do the detective work–it at least offers you some measure of protection from threats, both online and off.

NG claims to have listened to reasons for blogging under a pseudonym, but have made this decision as a way to “establish best practices” in the industry. Well, I call shenanigans. They’re freaking National Geographic–they can set the curve, and establish best practices by allowing (hey, even encouraging!) quality pseud bloggers. After all, would Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong be any less awesome if they were instead known as ParasiteGuy and RocketMan?

Twittering in the classroom

Readers may be interested in participating in this, from Dave Wessner at Davidson College:

Building on a project I piloted last fall, I will explore the potential role of Twitter more intentionally this fall in a course I teach on HIV/AIDS at Davidson College. I invite you to join me in this exploration.

Here are a few details:
Basically, I am interested in extending the class conversation outside the classroom walls and beyond the appointed class hours. I want the students to begin thinking on their own about what aspects of the subject (HIV/AIDS, in this case) truly interest them. I want to move away from the professor as purveyor of all information model. I want students to improve their ability to critically analyze information from disparate sources.

With Twitter, students can gather information from a wide variety of sources, some very reliable, some less reliable. They also can post information/questions/thoughts and get feedback from a wide variety of sources – again, some reliable and some not. Finally, Twitter provides a platform that they can easily access in their dorm room, the student union, or the local coffee shop (at any time of the day or night). And accessing Twitter, I hope, will not seem as overtly class-related to the students as accessing, for instance, course material via Blackboard.

This fall, I am requiring the students in my seminar to have a Twitter account. Students will post items on a regular basis, using the hashtag #BIO361. We also will devote some time on a regular basis to discussing items or responses from Twitter. Our first post probably will be on the first day of classes – Tuesday, August 24, 2010.

For this project to work most effectively, we need a critical mass of people outside of our class to participate. If you, your students, friends, or colleagues would like to join us, please do. We will appreciate any new comments, retweets, or responses. I’m looking forward to an engaging discussion throughout the semester.

This is up and running now, so keep an eye on #BIO361 and @dawessner.