Next week, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), an organization devoted “to promoting excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all,” is having their annual meeting in Boston, MA. Normally, I would not write much about this group, because they do good stuff for science, and I tend to focus on those individuals and groups that do bad stuff for science.
One of the guest speakers at this year’s NSTA conference is Mayim Bialik, who plays a neuroscientist on CBS-TV’s The Big Bang Theory (TBBT). In case you’re not a fan of the show, it is one of the better written shows on TV (a moderate standard, indeed). It follows the lives of four main male characters, who are all researchers at the California Institute of Technology, Cal Tech, one of the premier science institutions in the USA. The show continues to make obscure, but funny, references to scientific ideas, Star Trek, comics, and just about anything geeky.
Bialik plays not only a neuroscientist by the name of Amy Farrah Fowler, but the girlfriend (kind of, sort of, who knows) of one the main characters, Dr. Sheldon Cooper, a quirky theoretical physicist. But what is particularly amazing is that Bialik actually does have a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from UCLA (as does the famous atheist and science philosopher, Sam Harris), and wrote her doctoral dissertation about a rare genetic disease, Prader-Willi Syndrome, which manifests itself with various neurological and neuromuscular deficits. Frankly, it’s brilliant work.
So, given the fact that Bialik is a brilliant scientist by any measure, and got a real degree from one of the top 12 universities in the world (yes, UCLA is a top 12 world university). Her degree is totally legitimate in a very difficult field of neuroscience. Having her give a talk to the NSTA about how one teacher gave her a love of science seems like a great idea.
Yes, this all makes sense, except for one small point. Bialik is antivaccination. As a fan of the TV show, and as someone who enjoyed her character, I was disappointed when one day, a couple of years ago, Orac posted an article about Bialik’s pseudoscience beliefs:
Unfortunately (in this case at least), actors aren’t their characters, and even more unfortunately Bialik isn’t anything like Amy Farrah Fowler, at least when it comes to science. Whereas Amy Farrah Fowler is scientific to the point of having difficulty functioning in “normal” society, Bialik I just learned from commenter yesterday, is heavily into the woo. How heavily? Well, it should tell you a lot that she’s a celebrity spokesperson for the Holistic Moms Network. What is the Holistic Moms Network? Actually, the name should say it all to you. Picture the sort of organization that would name itself the Holistic Moms Network, turn it up to 11, and then multiply it by another 11, and you have an idea. The Holistic Moms Network is a cesspit of “natural” parenting, where “natural” apparently means embracing every form of “natural” woo known to humans.
But it gets worse. She believes in homeopathy, and it is purely a belief, because it’s pseudoscience. How can someone with a Ph.D. from a world renowned university (and frankly, a world renowned neuroscience program) buy into homeopathy, which is just water?
But that’s not all. If there’s one more thing that should tell you all you need to know about the Holistic Moms Network approach to science-based medicine, then take a look at its sponsors: Boiron (manufacturer of the homeopathic remedy for flu known as Oscillococcinum), the Center for Homeopathic Education (and I bet it is homeopathic too), the National Center for Homeopathy, and a whole bunch of other purveyors of woo and quackery.
Unfortunately for Amy Farrah Fowler, her on-screen boyfriend, Sheldon Cooper, thinks that homeopathy is junk science. At least TBBT’s writers get the science right.
Bialik raves about antivaccine hawkers, Drs. Jay Gordon (who Jenny McCarthy just adores) and Bob Sears, who base their vaccine denialism on the worst science possible. Here’s some comments she’s made on Facebook about Gordon and Sears:
re the intro to my book: dr. jay gordon is an LA pediatrician who has a small practice with a lot of AP celebrity clients (jenny mc carthy being the most vocal). he was the first EVER male IBCLC (lactation consultant), he is a pediatric nutritionist and author of AP books himself (good nights is a great cosleeping one). but the most incredible AP news of the day is that we got a spectacular insanely positive blurb of support from MARTHA AND DR SEARS. i cried when i read it. seriously.
As opposed to some of my fellow bloggers, I am somewhat more forgiving of the NSTA having her as a guest speaker. The facts are that Bialik is not a total science denier, or she wouldn’t have gotten her Ph.D. She actually seems to love science, and understands it, at least neuroscience, than almost anyone condemning her. As long as her discussion about teaching science focuses on her personal journey to getting a Ph.D., that can be important. And that she was inspired to become a scientist, despite a career in acting that is nearly the opposite of getting a Ph.D.
I don’t get how some scientists go off the rails, using real scientific methods on some stuff, but totally ignoring it in others. Michael Behe, a leading biochemist, who publishes about legitimate biochemistry, denies evolution, and is one of the major backers of intelligent design. Peter Duesberg is a brilliant scientist who discovered how certain genes caused cancer. He is an incredible scientist and is a member of the National Academies of Science, the most prestigious scientific institution in the world. Despite all of this Duesberg is an AIDS denialist, who doesn’t believe that HIV causes AIDS; in fact, he thinks that HIV is harmless, totally contradicting the valid scientific consensus on the topic. Because of Duesberg’s hypothesis, some African health ministers refuse to approve of basic treatments for HIV, which has lead to the deaths of large numbers of Africans.
I am thoroughly disappointed by Bialik’s attitudes towards science, not because of the show (I’ll still watch), but because she should have the skills to read journal articles that debunk almost all of her beliefs. She certainly has not presented any evidence to overrule the massive scientific consensus regarding the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. Or the consensus about homeopathy. Or attachment parenting.
I have no personal interactions with Bialik, so it becomes impossible for me to uncover her true motives or where she got derailed from science. Obviously, getting a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA is not easy. You just don’t drop into a couple of classes, fake your way through those courses, and voila, there’s your Ph.D. I personally know how hard it is, how much work it takes. And I don’t think that UCLA was going to just give her a bachelor’s degree and doctorate because she is a TV actress.
If I were to speculate, she lives in an area of Los Angeles that is filled with woo-pushing crazies who are vehemently anti-vaccines, GMO’s, or whatever trendy topic there is in being healthy.
Nevertheless, if she wants to talk about her path to science in front of teachers, I’m OK with that. If she wants to talk about vaccines with those teachers–NO. Hopefully, one day, she’ll figure out that she is denying science with some of her beliefs. I hope.