So people somehow try to find these sort of constellation of characteristics that they can somehow use to define being white and that somehow that that is intrinsically, biologically special. But it just doesn’t work.
Hi, everyone. It’s me. Your point of inquiry co-host Kavin Senapathy. We’re back this week with a couple more interviews that I recorded during the last cycle in Las Vegas. First up, check out my interview with award winning science writer and New York Times columnist Carl Zimmer.
His talk at Psychon was on the Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity, which is also the subtitle to his latest book. She has her mother’s laugh after my conversation with Zimmer. We’ll hear from Paul Offit, pediatrician, inventor of a rotavirus vaccine and tireless advocate for science based medicine, especially when it comes to vaccines.
Hello, everyone. I’m still here live from Steichen in Las Vegas, and I get to speak to Carl Zimmer today. Thanks for being here, Carl. Good to be with you. So Carl gave a talk today about his book and about heredity and misconceptions about this concept. But you raised an interesting point in years past. Of course, we know that biases have influenced how scientists carry out their research. So when it comes to today’s research on heredity, what are the biases and methodological issues that you’ve encountered in covering this and which ones are perhaps the most egregious?
Well, you know, I think that there are biases in the way that scientists sometimes think about their research and then they’re also just biases that emerge in the data itself.
So in terms of heredity and studies on genetics there, if you look at the data of who has been studied, what populations do we understand? Genetics and the connection, genetics and health? Well, it’s a European population. It’s white people. It’s people in Europe or people the United States of European descent. And partly that is because that has been where a lot of the research began. There has been a neglect of other populations as a result. And you cannot just generalize out from what you learn about the way genes work in a European population to other populations. So just to give one example, by studying European populations, actually scientists learned a lot about height. Height is controlled by many, many genes and scientists are identifying those genes. And they can actually like look at the versions of those genes that people have and do a pretty good job of predicting their height. You know, within, say, within a couple inches, which is pretty good in the world of genetics, but that’s only when they’re predicting on people who are European. If you look at those same genes in, say, a group of people from Africa, you do a terrible job. And, you know, there are tall people and short people in parts of Africa, just as there are tall and short people in parts of Europe. But you can become tall by different paths. Right.
And so I don’t. Wheen’s different part of a gene. That’s right, Gene. Excuse me.
There’s there’s just a huge amount of genetic diversity in our species. And right now, we’re not we’re really been focused on just a fraction of it.
Right. It reminds me of myself, actually, for my listeners, since I’m new to points of inquiry. I am trying to lose about 20 more pounds because I’m prediabetic and we have diabetes all through my family and people who are mostly thin and otherwise very fit. And it turns out that the rate of diabetes and prediabetes and young people in the population is just way higher and the risk factors differ quite a lot when compared to white people.
So I’m interested to seeing to see the research that comes out of India and perhaps reference genomes cetera. I guess that impacts so many different health issues. Right.
It really does. Yeah. I mean, and within the United States, you have people from lots of different backgrounds.
And so if you’re trying to use genetic data that came back from just mostly from one background, it’s going to be a problem when you’re trying to do public health across the whole country. But, you know, there are people know this this is this is not something that people than trying to deny that there’s a inertia. You know, like it takes a lot of effort to start up a whole new research program as opposed to just building on a research program that’s already running.
So there are some special initiatives now. You know, there is a precision medicine initiative from the National Institutes of Health called All of US and all of Fest. All of us. All of us.
So tired. I live fast as otherwise. Yeah. And all of us. Yeah. So. So.
So basically, if the goal is to to bring precision medicine to the country as a whole, public health. And they fully recognize that they have to reach out to lots of different communities to to get a better profile of the genetic diversity of the United States, even if that means, you know, recognizing that some communities. Look at this kind of research with a lot of skepticism and hesitance, because it hasn’t gone well for them interacting with these sorts of scientists in the past. So it’s definitely a work of progress to work in progress.
But it’s good to at least see that initiative. You you mentioned a lot of misconceptions about heredity and you covered a few of them today. What would you think are maybe the top three and most maybe stubborn misconception, at least when it comes to just the public, the American public?
I think one big misconception is that if you’re descended from someone special, that makes you special. You know, there are there’s actually something, a CHARLAMAGNE society, actually, which is only open to people who are descended from Shaman. And you actually have to, like, prove that you’re descended from certain people are known to the central shaman to get in. But the fact is that pretty much everyone in Europe today is descended from Charlemagne.
Yeah, just some people can can prove it and have been for some reason drive to join the society. Yeah.
But, you know, the implication there is that that’s part of some, you know, super special group that that they really do consider themselves special is what you’re saying. I’m not very familiar with them. I wasn’t either. I started doing research in the book, but there they were. And and I just think that that kind of like it shows just how much we cherish these these famous people in our past. I mean, I think we all come across someone who claims to have someone famous like William the Conqueror.
And so on. But the fact is that genealogy actually doesn’t work that way. You know, like actually like you, the further you go back the chant, the more more the chances go up that there’s going to be a common ancestor that a lot of people share. And so mathematicians have actually solved. This is basically a graft problem.
And so in a continent like Europe, if you go back to the time of Charlemagne, if you find someone who has any living descendants, they probably are the ancestor of all the Europeans. So Chami is one. And if you go back a few thousand years for for there, you’re going to find a common ancestor of everyone alive today.
So you don’t have to go back very far to find a common ancestor. Obviously, we if you go back thousands of years, we all have like millions of ancestors. But the fact that you can track yourself back to somebody famous. Really? That’s not how genealogy works. And you did not inherit that specialness.
Yes. Yes. You have to have your own special. Exactly. Exactly.
And so, yeah, I mean, we specialness is not inherited in that way, right?
Yeah. It’s better if you try to do it on your own.
So and I think you covered this today and I have yet to read what you wrote.
But today the American Society of Human Genetics denounced attempts to use genetics to bolster the idea, our notion of white supremacy or racial supremacy. And they write in a statement that they’re alarmed to see a societal resurgence of groups rejecting the value of genetic diversity and using discredited or distorted genetic concepts to bolster bogus claims of white supremacy.
So I’ve noticed this resurgence as well. What’s your observation on this trend? And what do you think is driving it right now?
Well, I think that maybe there is a feeling that among some people that they define themselves as being part of the population that they think is somehow better than other populations.
And, you know, as in the United States says, as we have more and more people who are Hispanic, black people who are not white, then that that makes some people feel threatened.
And so I think that they then look around for some kind of justification for why they’re special and other people are not. And, you know, there are just some people who are just they’re just, you know, are flat out racist and always have been.
Now they’re like a neo-Nazi. They now look to these genetic tests hoping to find, you know, quote unquote, scientific validation that they are superior. The stuff that they come up with is is bogus. It’s just as the geneticists say. One example is, you know, there’s some white supremacists who like to make a big deal that they can drink milk because, you know, northern Europeans have high levels of lactose tolerance. That just means that they descend from cattle herding societies where. Natural selection favored a mutation that allowed people to make the enzyme for lactose when they were adults.
That’s it. That is all there is no like. Oh, and also that makes you super special and allows you to be what’s out there.
What’s the reasoning behind this? Then what’s the where are they getting that their ability to tolerate lactose. Makes them superior. Or how did they spin it?
It’s really hard to find any sort of coherent statement of reasoning about it. Instead, you just see the these men, you know, drinking milk in demonstrations like as if that’s as a gesture, just like a political almost masculine. Yeah. I don’t know. Maybe maybe you could say that. Well, we should.
I’m curious now. I’m going to look up videos. It must be a YouTube race. It is white supremacist. Yeah. MLK I vaguely miles of premises drinking MLK like I, I learn something new every day. But here’s the thing.
Here’s here’s the thing is that, you know, they might try to claim that, well, lactose tolerance is part of like this this great suite of traits that make northern Europeans great or something. I don’t know. But it’s just like this one result of evolution in humans. But it’s to say it has happened in parallel in other places because like Northern Europe is not the only place where people have raised cows.
So if you go to East Africa, you go and and look at Maasai and other people, they’re Africans, dark skinned Africans. They are also lactose tolerant.
And, you know, it’s an unusual trait. It is an unusual trait, but it’s not some sort of white special trait. So people somehow try to find these sort of constellation of characteristics that they can somehow use to define being white and that somehow that is intrinsically, biologically special. But it just doesn’t work. You know, even with skin color, I mean, we’re very sensitive to skin color. I think just because we’re a very visual species. But, you know, to try to use skin color as a way of dividing up races, classifying races is always doomed to failure. And the fact is that, like even in Europe, it turns out ancient DNA shows that people in Europe weren’t actually light skinned until maybe overall until maybe 4000 years ago.
So there’d been people of our own species in Europe about forty, forty five thousand years at least. They were quite dark skinned.
Yeah. Yeah. I think this is it’s not quite. It’s almost as ridiculous to me as flat or Thera’s, but not as recognizable as ridiculous. To your typical person, most people who aren’t Fat Arthur’s flat arteries, those people are nuts, but white supremacy.
And now these kinds of justification are so mainstream, which is what makes it particularly disturbing.
Yeah. And it’s and it is I mean, it’s their hostility extends in many directions. So, you know, my father’s Jewish and so, like, I whenever I’m writing about this sort of stuff on. For The New York Times, like on Twitter, sooner or later, I see somebody referring to me with all those parentheses marks. Well, of course there is a Jew talking about this stuff. So, you know, we know what that means.
And it’s just a very ugly fact of life right now. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that that I mean, it shouldn’t happen to anyone, but it happens to all of us. And it’s it can be an ugly place.
Look, I mean, I am I am not pretending that I have to deal with a fraction of what other people in this regard. It’s just that I think of myself as a very privileged white person. But I get it.
Well, it’s it’s it’s good that you recognize that because a lot of people don’t see your book. She has her mother’s laugh. Tell me about the title and what the impetus behind this is and what you hope readers gather from it.
So I think ever since I became a father 17 years ago, I have two kids.
I have been really fascinated by heredity simply because I’ve been watching these two people grow up and I know that they’re descended from me and my wife. And I look at them and wonder like, well, how did they become who they’re becoming?
It’s fascinating. My kids are seven and five and just their behaviors, their self. You know, you can pinpoint who they seem to come from. I’m sure some of this is just invented in our minds, but some of it is uncanny.
I’m sure there’s a lot of pattern matching.
And then it is funny that, like, people will say, oh, she got that from you or hope she got that from you or you didn’t get that from me.
No way for oh, remember how great Grandma Mary had did that. Sometimes she must have gone from great Grandma Mary, you know, things like that. So somehow, you know, just saying like, oh, she has her mother’s laugh to me, kind of captures that that ambiguity of trying to figure out heredity and wondering, you know, is this something that’s encoded in DNA that you inherited or is it something that you inherit through the experience of growing up in a household with someone? I was just say nobody has done study heritability of laughter. I can’t tell you if there’s, you know, laughter flashing your. OK. I don’t know. But more like a metaphor to get at what I was trying to explore in the book, which is this was how it is it heredity has such a power over us. And what does heredity actually.
Well, check it out. She has her mother’s laugh by Carl Zimmer. Thanks for being here with me today, Carl. Thanks so much.
There’s just so much to consider when it comes to heredity, isn’t there? I was just thinking I’ve mentioned before that I’m a parent of young kids. We spend so much time trying to work with or against heredity, depending on what’s going on. But we’ve been doing math since well before we ever sequenced or even knew about the human genome. Moving on, let’s dove into my interview with Paul Offit. He presented at Psychon this year of communicating vaccines, science and adventures and misadventures with the media.
I’m here again live from Las Vegas at Fei Con, which, of course is totally you know, we come to Vegas every year and we have a great time. And there’s no better time than talking to some of these speakers at PSI Con. I’m here right now with Dr. Paul Offit, who is a tireless communicator and defender of science and all things vaccine. He’s a call inventor of a roll of virus vaccine and a hero to the skeptic community. You could say so. Welcome and thanks for being here. Thanks for having me. So today, Paul talked a little bit about some of his mistakes when it comes to communicating science. And I think that we as a community can learn from that. So can you tell us about a couple of your mistakes?
Yeah, well, I guess some of the obvious ones that you don’t have to answer the question exactly as I asked. So once I was asked the question on a local show.
So, Dr. Alford, tell us how many vaccines to children get. When did they get them and which ones do they get? I mean, if you actually answer that question, I think you’ve said health care communication back about 20 years. I mean, you need a broader answer. Like, you know, children get vaccines to prevent hepatitis and meningitis, bloodstream infections, among others. Children should make sure they get the vaccines they need to be safe. Not to actually answer the records, but it took me a while to figure that out.
That’s one example. So how would you answer that same question today?
Yeah, that’s how to answer. I answered by saying children get vaccines to prevent diseases like.
And then just mentioned the disease. The better way to answer, rather. And not all of them. Did you get an MMR vaccine at that age? This, as you know, DTP vaccinated this age. This age you’ve got a HIB vaccine at this age is cancer. That pretty much conjures that that image of the baby with all of their needles stuck in Nahlah.
Yeah, that’s the other mistake I’ve made, actually. Also ask the question, how many how many vaccines could a child get? And instead of answering it the way I should have, which is to have said the children’s immune responses are broad and deep, they can respond to many more vaccines and they’re getting. I actually answer to the way it immunologist would answer it was to try and figure out, you know, the sort of the genetics of antibody diversity, how many how many antibodies can you make, how many, you know, get B cells, make antibodies, how many B cells you have in your body. And, you know, I came up with a very conservative figure of 10000, but, you know, and when I answered it that way, when I said a child could get, you know, as many as 10000 vaccines once I became the ten thousand vaccines. I mean, here the people challenge me to get 10000 vaccines. There was a PR newswire that came up that said I’d received 10000 vaccines that had died. I mean, it’s all so good, like the PR people at my hospital called to make sure I was still alive.
I mean, it’s my holiday that reminds me of a similar mistake where you were just talking to Dr. Carl Harvat mobile, the plant geneticist.
But there was a similar mistake, I think, made by a few scientists when it came to drinking a pesticide.
And now, like, yeah, I would drink that. And then they became the people who wouldn’t drink this toxic pesticide.
So I just yeah, let’s not let’s not drink pesticides, even though maybe they wouldn’t hurt you. What are some mistakes then that you see? Because I know you’re pretty active on the Internet.
So when it comes to, you know, someone being wrong on the Internet about vaccines and of course, there are many in the pro vaccine and skeptics community that are quick to jump in and do I mean, what I think is the noble work of correcting misrepresentations about vaccines and and other issues.
But I do see some mistakes.
And I was wondering what you see the most when it comes to vaccine and vaccines in particular?
Well, the biggest mistake is to think we don’t need to explain ourselves. I think, you know, when my parents were children of the 20s, 30s, they saw the theory is a killer of teenagers. They saw polio as a crippler of young people. They understood Vecsey, the importance of vaccines. I was a child of the 50s, 60s. I had measles. I had mumps and rubella had virus. So I had all those vaccines. So Neff convinced me to vaccinate my child. But my children are in their 20s. I mean, they don’t see these these today. They did grow up with these diseases. So for their vaccinations, better faith, faith and who in the pharmaceutical industry, the medical establishment and the government? There’s a lack, at least in that kind of faith. So I think we need to step back and say here’s why it’s still important to get these vaccines, because from a parent’s standpoint, you know, we as parents of young children to give their their their children about 14 vaccines at 40 different diseases in the first year of life. That can be as many as 26 inoculations during that time. It can be as many as five shots at one time to prevent disease. Most people will see using biological fluids, most people don’t understand. And people look at and say, well, I need a polio vaccine. Why? I look at pictures of polio. They’re all in black and white. I need theory. A vaccine, a tetanus vaccine will be talking about. So I think it’s hard to watch your child get five shots at once. No, but I am fascinated. You are in immunology. So virology. So I think we do need to vigorously explain ourselves, because if we don’t, then what’s gonna happen is what’s happening, which is that you’ll see some of these these start coming back. I mean, we eliminated these this company in the year 2000 gone. But it came back because we chose not to vaccinate our children. We limited RuBo, which is a dangerous infection. If you get rubella germ of measles in the first trimester of your pregnancy, you have an 85 percent chance of delivering a child with a birth defect, severe permanent birth defect. Do I think with go to which we eliminated from this country, who knows what could come back? Absolutely. For the same reason that measles to some extent has come back. And then and maybe that’s what it takes. Maybe the only way people are going to really get vaccinated again is they’re scared of the disease. That all happened really in Southern California, which was a hotbed of anti vaccine activity. In 2014, 2015, there was a measles outbreak that started in the Disneyland area, spread drying states, one 180 people. And then suddenly mothers and fathers in Southern California were getting their children vaccinated because we thought that the vaccination rate go yes.
Up. Yes, like noticeably. Yeah, because.
Because measles now is knocking at the door or their next door day. Right. Or now they were scared. But it’s always the children who have to suffer our ignorance of this stuff.
Yeah. Yeah. And that’s that’s the unfortunate thing. I only had to go through chicken pox, so I consider myself lucky. I’m thirty six, but I guess my kids are luckier than I am because they don’t have to get chicken pox before I had kids. I guess I was just Livia’s to a lot of this. I didn’t even know there was an anti vaccine movement and I’m reading all of this information coming at me and I’m like, wait, I’m supposed to be worried about vaccines.
What am I supposed to believe? I don’t know. So then I, I guess, fortunate enough and had some, you know, somehow found the skeptics community. I think I was already maybe primed to find it. Which was great.
And then I learned, you know, I learned all about it. And then I’m like, oh, yeah. Vaccines. Great. Good. Wonderful. Let’s do it. I mean, I think at least in my observation, there are a lot of people like that. They’re not really thinking about these issues until they have kids.
So what do you think differentiates someone, say, like me? And I should add, and I was a huge Dr. Oz fan until I had kids, too, so I was the kind of person that was buying Dr. Oz recommended supplements. So I’m still trying to figure out why I went in the direction of skepticism. So what do you think it is that maybe might cause a person then to have a child and not really know about this and fall into the other rabbit hole and decide to either not vaccinate their kids or for some vaccines?
I think it’s hard to watch your child get five shots at once. I think that’s it. Think that’s what you said before. And that’s the one.
Yeah. You have this little two month old your line personal hepatitis B vaccine is given usually within 24 hours at birth. And that just doesn’t seem fair.
The two months of age, they’re getting five shots at once. You know, it’s just like they don’t even have enough limbs, it seems to get all that. And so it’s that it’s emotional. And I think for those who hesitate, it’s understandable. How can I say it’s not hard to find information on the Internet that will make you feel better about not vaccinating? There’s a group of people who also don’t vaccinate. You can not vaccinate, too. Here’s all the reasons why. Because vaccines cause all these things that they don’t actually cause. But at least, you know, it makes you feel like you’re not not making a bad trait, because right now it’s what you’re doing is you’re protecting yourself against infectious diseases that can kill you. But if the vaccine people’s argument essentially is that, you know, I’ll risk the infection, which I don’t think are that common to prevent these chronic diseases that can be lifelong and awful. So so that they think is the trade, even though that’s not the truth.
Right. Yeah. So I guess basically what you’re saying is if you’re already feeling like this is very emotional and hard, then you have confirmation bias and then you go to that information on the Internet.
It’s just it’s Enda’s endlessly frustrating. How do you deal with the frustration of of fighting against this? I mean, doesn’t it seem like an uphill battle sometimes?
Well, the the the image I always have in my mind are children who come into our high school who suffer and die from vaccine preventable diseases. I mean, they’ve got it because their parents invariably have got bad information which caused them to make a bad decision, which put their child at risk and occasionally death. Watch that for a few times. You become a vigorous, passionate advocate for this, because that’s always in your in your mind.
What you do is you you know, you try to understand most most parents, I’d say. Eighty five percent of the parents who call me really want to know what’s going on. They they smell the smoke. They want to know where there’s any fire there. They reassure Bull. And they really would prefer to trust their doctor, because when you go to your doctor, you say, I don’t want these vaccines. You’re saying I’ll trust you. And if I you know, I don’t trust vaccines. There’s other things I may not trust you for, too. You want your doctor to like you because you when you’re sick, you want your doctor to care. And when you say yourself a part of your doctor, that’s a hard thing. So I think most people really do want the facts her and are influenced by the facts. I mean, I would say 85 percent of people who call me can be influenced to get vaccines because. Once they have the facts, they see what the right decisions, but 15 percent are conspiracy theories. They think there’s a conspiracy to hurt their trial. They think you’re part of it. I can wonder why they ever called me to begin with, because they know more than I do and they don’t care what I say. So forget it. And which case I forget it. I mean, I bail on those conversations because we live in a country where you can choose not to vaccinate.
Well, here’s the thing. I don’t know more than you do. And and most of us in this community, the skeptics community, don’t know more and than you do. We can’t all be experts in everything. I know that a lot of us want to help.
So what is a non expert skeptic to do? What are one example, say, a friend or a neighbor of mine says I you know, I don’t vaccinate my kids because I’ve heard that, you know, there’s toxins in it. X, Y, Z, is it? Should I say something? So there’s that. There’s the neighbor scenario. And then, of course, on the Internet, what are what are the two top tips you can give us? If someone’s questioning. Not necessarily if they’re already in the in the far extreme and tiebacks, I think it is OK to say something to your neighbor.
I mean, because they’re not just making a decision for themselves or their children to make a decision for you and your child. I mean, if your child is exposed to children, run vaccine, you know, vaccines, 15 percent effective, you take something like the measles vaccine. It’s ninety five percent of it, which is one of the more effective vaccines. But one in 20 children, therefore, are at risk even if they’ve gotten the measles vaccine. You don’t want to be in a community that’s high and vaccinate because you’re at risk.
That’s what happened in Southern California.
The second part of your question was, oh, right, the Internet. So I would say the real answer, the question I get I get I get calls like I’ve done my research on the chicken pox vaccine.
I’ve decided not to go. What people mean by doing the research is they’ve read other people’s opinions about the vaccine. Well, that’s really not to your research, right? If you want to do your research, read the 300 articles that have been published on the chicken pox vaccine, which would be you would have to have some expertize in in virology statistics, molecular biology, immunology, which most people don’t have the most doctors don’t have. So what do you do? You. We turn to experts, at least collectively, have that advice that advise. You know, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics and those are the experts that have given said, OK, here’s the data. I think we can recommend this vaccine be given at this this time in this age group. You know, X number of doses because they they have looked at all the order. But nobody’s going to buy that right in the 21st century, trust us. We’re experts. So I think what with the best you can do is that these go to reputable sites. It’s not that hard. I mean, I think that sites Children’s Hospital, Philadelphia, the Mayo Clinic, the American Academy of Pediatrics, you know, sites that are universally affiliated, hospital affiliated or academic societies affiliated, don’t go to those sites that sell something as being a conspiracy. Don’t go to sites itself things. I mean, you know, they’re they’re selling, you know. Oh, yes. Is that you’d be a hit. You’re selling something. Oh, by the way, here’s an iron rearranging machine that can make your authors go. That should be a clue that this is not a reputable site.
Autism cures. Part of it is enough to drive me nuts.
And then here’s here’s something I’ll I’ll close with something that I’ve been interested in.
And I’m wondering if you can fill me in on what you know, I’ve been hearing from more and more parents who are divorced and one is anti vaccine and one is not anti vaccine. So there are the legal issues of compromising on what vaccine and their child gets and doesn’t get. Have you encountered this and how has this been playing out in the real world?
It plays out in court. Well, I mean, the parents go to court and usually the mother and father each get their own lawyers who then try and argue for whether the child should or should be vaccinated. It’s ugly.
Are there lawyers that kind of specialize in this? Is it gotten to that extent?
Yes. Well, there are there certainly lawyers will need vaccine side especially.
And can you like are they all over the country?
I know some names, but we’re not going to talk.
OK. OK, I’ll try to I’ll try to pick your brain later, but we don’t have to talk about it now. Interesting. I mean, disturbing, but interesting. Thanks so much for being here. Thank you. Appreciate it.
This has been your host Kavin Senapathy. Thanks again to my guests Carl Zimmer and Paul Offit. Point of inquiry is a production of the Center for Inquiry. CFI is a five oh one C three charitable nonprofit organization whose vision is a world in which evidence, science and compassion rather than superstition, pseudoscience or prejudice guide public policy. You can visit us at point of inquiry dot org. There you can listen to all of P0 I’s archived episodes. Learn about me and my co-host Jim Underdown and support the show and CFI as advocacy work by clicking the blue support button on the site. Please remember to subscribe and share with your friends were available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and other podcast apps. Thanks and see you again in two weeks.