A few days ago, a fellow pro-science person was concerned about a tweet she received. Her antagonist was claiming that if my friend had all that time to tweet, then she obviously wasn’t working in academics as she claimed.
I have a Twitter feed that flies across the top right corner of my screen. I have over 1200 followers, and I follow the tweets well over that number. I have varied interests, but to be honest, there are too many tweets. I only respond or retweet things I happen to see when I look up to that upper right corner of my computer’s screen. I know I miss some good stuff. But I think I find a few dozen every day that lead me to read news articles or peer-reviewed journals. Occasionally, I run across a Tweet that makes me laugh or think.
Yes it takes time, but from the moment I wake up until I go to bed, I’m reading, writing, texting/messaging other scientists for ideas. We discuss books we’ve read. All of us in science writing work very hard to get where we are, which cause an epiphany bout the science deniers. I have a theory about their behavior and dismissal of science. I cannot be sure it applies to everyone; for example, there are some seriously deranged people who blame everything in science on Reptilians, Illuminati, Jews, and the US Government (run by Jews I suppose). There’s no logic with those types.
When I was in biochemistry research, we didn’t have access to computer managed cell separators or protein analyzers. Everything had to be done by hand from separating out the right cells, to removing the right proteins, growth factors, or receptor sites. Without getting into a detailed explanations of the process, to isolate proteins required a separation column that allowed you sample proteins of a particular molecular weight, so you could find the specific protein. The methodology is a bit different these days, but it’s still time consuming and sensitive.
My research involved isolating and testing a growth factor related to insulin. This wasn’t easy. A separation could take 48 hours, and you just don’t pour stuff in, go spend some time with your significant other, then return to the lab and say “voila, I’m done.” Even with computerization, which was only just entering laboratory equipment back when I was a kid, it still isn’t easy. I, and others like me, would be in the lab at 300AM, when only partiers were out on the Quad and the great security guard would share horrible coffee out of his thermos. But even today, I think of that coffee with nostalgic tears.
It’s easy dude
This leads me to a theory about the antivaccination cult (but we can just change that to global warming deniers, or evolution deniers, or any other wing nut science deniers). They think it’s easy.
I follow almost all of the pro-science (pro-vaccine) bloggers on the internet. I have had frank conversations with them with regards to infectious disease. Occasionally, it’s about politics, sports, or the zombie apocalypse.
Almost all of bloggers have advanced degrees and incredible writing skills. Many of them spent years upon years getting bachelor’s, MD’s, Ph.D.’s, J.D.’s and every other degree out there. It doesn’t make those of us with these credentials any better than anyone else (and I certainly mean no offense to those who made other, more satisfying and equally challenging, choices in life), but it means that you can look to some of them as people with years, if not decades, of intense study in our individual disciplines. From my perspective, to get to the level of knowledge that I have, I was required to spend thousands of days, tens of thousands of hours trying to be smarter, better, faster. OK, not so much faster.
To become a great baseball player, it takes thousands of hours of practice and study. The best athletes, I believe, are also the most intelligent ones. They watch film or observe their competitors for weaknesses and strengths. And you can’t Google “how to pitch a curve ball,” and then suddenly presume you will throw the best curve ball in the world. (As I know I have international readers. Just replace baseball with soccer. And replace curveball with bend it like Beckham.) And those are merely games! Yes, they are intense, high level games, but they are just games with little effect on life and death.
Similarly, you cannot expect to Google “how to induce an immune response” and then become an immunologist. I took several graduate and medical school level immunology courses, and I don’t claim to be an immunologist, and I have a broad background in biochemistry that allows me to understand it. But there are just so many points, so complex, and so detailed, to become an “expert” takes 10-20 years of study and research. Not 10-20 minutes. Or even 10-20 hours.
What the science deniers fail to understand is what it takes to become an expert in a field. The amount of sacrifice to spend 20 hours in a lab for weeks on end, to write syllabi and lecture notes, to teach an incoming class of freshmen what you know, to sit in a conference room with your best friends in the program trying to brainstorm a solution to a problem or an interpretation of one number, or to spend 100 hours writing the perfect peer-reviewed paper to get published. It’s incredibly difficult. And incredibly rewarding.
Actually it’s not easy dude
Yes, science is hard. Not impossible. Not mysterious. But to gather evidence in support or refutation of a hypothesis using the scientific method takes time and takes hard work.
Every individual that I know in research gave up so much of their lives to just learn more about their unique area of science. It really wasn’t easy. And it’s not just for a year or two, it could be for a lifetime.
It’s clear that the anti-science wing nuts (like the vaccine deniers) believe it’s all very easy. They have deluded themselves that a few minutes or hours on Google is equivalent to the expertise of a Ph.D. or MD who spent years on an important, but tiny scientific issue. They believe that Paul Offit, or Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, or anyone with that advanced degree and work, easily got to where they are in life. That somehow we all got our knowledge through an online university in the Barbados. In 3 hours.
There are many stories about what people have done to advance the cause of medicine. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin were laser focused on finding a vaccine for polio, and became, in fact, rivals because they were so diligent. The misnamed “war on cancer” involves hundreds of stories of physician researchers trying to find the best way to treat cancers. When the first ideas formed that hypothesized that radiation could effectively kill cancer cells, the researchers themselves were mortally harmed by the radiation itself. Ironically and sadly, some researchers.died or were permanently injured by the radiation. Some contracted particularly nasty forms of cancer because of their work. CDC infection control teams are always the first to head into the mouth of the lion of an outbreak, often risking their own lives. Of course, not all research is quite that dangerous, but that’s the devotion of many scientists, just to advance the mankind’s scientific knowledge.
Not that my own research mattered as much as those individuals or groups I mentioned above, but I eventually evolved into studying cardiovascular disease particularly trying to treat small distal lesions in the coronary vasculature. We had developed a new tool that worked in animal studies, but now it was time to start clinical trials. Because cases can be long and difficult, the first interventional cardiology cases, in a typical hospital, begin around 6AM. Because these cardiologists were new to how the device worked, we had to train the cardiologist on how to use it, and what it would do. It was actually a large leap in technology, and it kind of removed the dogma of how cardiologists treat certain types of stenosis.
Not being a morning person, I still had to be up at 4AM to be at an interventional cardiology lab at 5AM in Lubbock, Texas. Or freezing Calgary, Canada. Or a hectic county hospital in Los Angeles or Chicago or New York. I would then stay in the lab with cardiologists, techs, nurses, and whomever walked in until late in the evening. I’d do this for months on end, just to figure out a tiny problem with a stent or angioplasty or whatever. A cardiologist and I would pore over medical records trying to figure out why one patient did better than another. And we gave each other high fives when a patient would say “I feel so much better.” That simple device saved a few hundred lives a year, it was developed because a team of individuals in my company combined knowledge of cells, vascular physiology, fluid mechanics, plastics engineering, and torque (yeah, torque) to invent a new catheter. You could Google all day long and you wouldn’t be able to discover how to save a life of an individual with the coronary lesion that we attacked. And we didn’t do this by pretending to be knowledgeable about these areas–we were extremely knowledgeable.
The vast majority of antivaccinationists, along with most pseudoscience-pushing types, don’t have the knowledge that results from hard work. They don’t understand what it is to put in 20 hours a day in study and research. They have no clue what it is to directly save lives.
I used to have lunch with cardiology residents and fellows (fellows are kind of the next step of training in the more technical medical specialties), not because they wanted money from my Big Pharma wallet, but because they always wanted to hear about the new technology that they would try (interventional cardiology was like smart phone industry–new devices out every year). Then the conversation would wander to how hard they work. Twenty-four hour shifts. Classwork. Training medical students. Learning about how to use new devices. Trying to talk someone out of smoking. And when you’re in a cardiology lab, you have to wear a 40 kg lead apron. Physical and mental exhaustion was all over the place. But it was deeply satisfying, even to me.
Yeah, thinking it’s easy does not make it so
The antivaccinationists think it all comes so easily. They believe it takes 20 hours total to be an expert, and so they loudly proclaim, “I LEARNED THIS ON GOOGLE, SO NOW I’M A BRILLIANT AS PAUL OFFIT.” That’s their definition of hard work. And it’s not even close. It’s not even on the same planet as close. It is a perfect example of the Dunning Kruger Effect, a cognitive bias, but I don’t want this article to be a psychological analysis of the arrogance and ignorance of those pushing pseudoscience.
All that you have to understand is that they believe that becoming knowledgeable is easy. They think that sitting on their couch with their iPad will pass on great wisdom to them. But what they don’t understand, what flies over their head is that scientific knowledge is gained through blood, sweat, and tears, not luck and a proclamation that they know it all.
So lacking any real knowledge, they have to tack in another direction. They invent lies instead of scientific knowledge. They cherry pick one article instead of reading 500 articles to get the true consensus in a field of science. They claim that their 2 course in biology is sufficient, when some of us took over 75 courses in biomedical sciences over 8 years. In each of these cases, to do it right was the extremely hard way to go. It’s almost a false dichotomy–in science, your choice is take the easy route or the extremely difficult, challenging, and self sacrifice route. The former probably means you have little to offer. The latter means you strove for evidence.
I worked very very hard to get where I am. I gave up a lot. I sacrificed nearly everything for my knowledge of bio-medicine. And I know many many many others in science have done the same thing, if not a hell of lot more. They gave up nearly everything to help better mankind, including finding the best vaccines to keep our children healthy. I’ve stated this before, and it bears repeating: if the science deniers, like your typical antivaccinationist, wants to reinvent immunology by broadly proclaiming that vaccines “weaken the immune system,” then get your lazy ass in college, get a graduate degree from a challenging university, go work in a laboratory, gather evidence that supports your ideas about the immune system, publish it, stand up to criticism from the scientific world, because it’s going to come. Then wait for your Nobel Prize. But I’m not going to take serious the vomit and detritus that spouts out of antivaccination mouths because they were too lazy to do what I did. Or what Paul Offit does. Or what Dorit Reiss does. Cause you have really have no standing in this, despite your arrogance that your “research” on the internet is somehow equivalent to real scientific research.
It’s easy to be lazy and make up bullshit. It’s really difficult to actually work hard and learn what most of us know. And don’t try to compare the two. There is no comparison.