Sunday, July 18, 2010

Stuck in the Middle with Woo

Facebook is good for a lot of things. For example, I know what all my old buddies are up to (sometimes in excruciating detail), no matter where in the world they are. I have a tangible, visible network of support, a daily reminder that I'm not alone, that I do fit in somewhere. I can build on relationships from the comfort of my own home, without the pressure and awkwardness of face-to-face contact. Hell, Facebook even facilitated my husband's finding a job, snatching us back from the precipice of foreclosure and disgrace.
But there's a downside, and no, I'm not talking about privacy concerns (I have very little to hide). I'm talking about an infestation of woo in my news feed.

I'm used to a little woo - I went to the Down to Earth School in Silver City, New Mexico, after all, which offered classes like Tai Chi and Psychic Studies as part of the curriculum. Just because I became a skeptic doesn't mean that everyone else has to, and for the most part I can just ignore woo-friendly posts. It's the batshit crazy stuff that's getting me down.

Take Andrea, for example. She was one of my first friends here in Austin, a fun, gregarious blonde with a somewhat ditzy streak. We were roommates for a while, but we lost touch after a falling out involving a sleazy guy and a purloined telephone calling card. While in a reflective mood one day, I searched for her on Facebook and sent a friend request, which she accepted. Turns out she's got a couple of kids and lives a nomadic lifestyle roaming the beaches and mountains of Mexico. Cool, glad to be in touch, blah blah blah.

Then she went off the deep end. It started with a post that stated: Vaccines Cause Autism, along with a link to Natural News, one of the crank websites so often blasted by Orac and others. My knee-jerk reaction was to reply, no it doesn't, but I felt that was too curt and would be ineffective. So I linked to the Science Based Medicine vaccine-autism reference page and waited to see how she would respond. Half an hour later, she said this:

if you go into the contributor link at the top of this blog and look up each of the "contributors" and enter them into google, you will find each member has strong ties to big pharm. kind of makes me think that the "non biasness" of their articles might not be so unbiased. this is a really touchy topic with people, i usually don't post stuff like this, but with 1 in 10 American children being diagnosed with autism, its important to start an open dialogue so that answers can be found and the perpetrators can be brought to light, and maybe someday justice

Wow. The pharma shill gambit wrapped up in a conspiracy theory, with an appeal to emotion. I was starting to suspect there would be no getting through to Andrea, but I felt I should at least give it an honest try, just one parent to another discussing an important issue. So I replied with the following:

The claim that vaccines cause autism is certainly alarming, but I have yet to see credible evidence to support it. I agree that it's a hot-button issue and I mean you no disrespect by disagreeing with your opinion. But since most of the people qualified to write about the issue are doctors and scientists,there will naturally be some overlap with the medical and pharmaceutical industries. Lord knows there's corruption in those industries, but not all doctors and scientists are in the pocket of big pharma. Ultimately, it's the quality of the evidence that matters, regardless of the source.
I've been following this issue for some time myself - no one wants to risk exposing their child to unnecessary harm - and have yet to be convinced that the increase in autism diagnosis is due to anything other than an increased awareness of the disorder and a change in the diagnotic criteria.
All right, I thought. If that doesn't get through to her, then nothing will.

Well, I guess nothing will. She never responded and, since then, she has really ramped up the crazy. Lately my news feed has been bombarded with reports of her "spiritual awakening," which apparently is coinciding with the "9th wave of galactic energy as predicted by the Mayans". (I know. I couldn't make this stuff up.) She's also been posting more links to Natural News and sites that seem even more far out than that. Soon I may have to take the step that I've taken with only one other irritating "friend" (also named Andrea, oddly enough) -- I'll have to hide her from my news feed. I probably will if she doesn't come down from her trip a little, but I don't want to because it feels like giving up. If I turn away from and refuse to deal with things I find objectionable, I've given up any remote chance I have of influencing that person away from woo. I don't have any delusions that I can somehow reason Andrea down from the ledge, but maybe I can plant a skeptical seed somewhere in her mind. Maybe someday that seed will flourish, her head will clear and she'll ground herself in reality, which really isn't so bad, most of the time. Probably not, but maybe. It's worth a shot.

Andrea's one of the more extreme examples of my woo infestation, but there are others. I also have a friend named Mike, a fellow writer and Austinite, who is quite spiritual. Normally it doesn't bug me at all -- he's an intelligent, empathetic, and courteous man who never imposes his views on others, and I respect his right to his beliefs. But when I heard him drop the term health freedom, my skeptic sense started tingling. (This is one of the antivaxers favorite phrases to use against what they see as coerced vaccination.) And sure enough, he recently posted a link to Natural News. The article itself was innocuous enough, but I wondered if he had ever read the sort of things about Mike Adams, the man behind Natural News, that I had been reading. I had tried to reach Andrea as a parent. How could I possibly reach Mike? Fortunately Mike, unlike Andrea, listens well, is thoughtful and empathetic, and doesn't perceive challenges to his opinions as personal attacks. I decided to try a direct approach. First, I commented on the article.

I read about this case last year - the good ol' boy network strikes again.
Then I went on to say:

However, I feel I should chime in and state my opinion that Mike Adams of Natural News is a raving nutball and an asshole to boot. I'm reading an article debunking one of his claims right now - if you want me to shoot you the link, let me know.

There. I prefaced it as an opinion, using stronger language than I usually do, and left it up to him as to whether or not to respond. The ball was in his court.

He replied:

Yes. I examine all sides.

Encouraged, I shot back:

I know you do, Mike; otherwise I wouldn't bother trying to change your mind about anything. :)

Now, this article may not change your mind about Natural News, but I think you'll find that, despite his caustic writing style, Orac has extensive knowledge of medical science, always cites his sources, and has the intention of helping people avoid being taken in by scams and dubious claims.
This site contains many, many posts on Adams.

He didn't reply with his opinion of the link, but that's cool. I did my part by offering a different perspective, one he probably wouldn't otherwise have heard, on a blog he reads regularly. Whether he chooses to read Orac's articles on Mike Adams or not is beside the point - at least he knows they're there. And something tells me he might just give them a read.

So I've found yet another use for Facebook. Not to proselytize or push my beliefs (or lack thereof) on my friends. But rather, to state my position clearly and respectfully so that my friends know where I stand. Maybe, just maybe, I'll start a few people down the road to skepticism. But even if I don't, at least I'll know that I spoke up about what matters to me, in the clearest and most effective way I could. 

1 comment:

KWombles said...

Your friend Andrea also way overestimated autism rates with the 1 in 10 bit, something the Age of Autism people love to do.