Anti-Vaxxer Evidence

Virtually no one goes through life thinking, “My beliefs about the world are driven by irrationality and heuristics.”

No, we all fancy ourselves to be rational.

Regardless of what we believe, we believe the evidence is on our side.

Take John and I, for example.

John is certain that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination causes autism. But I believe John is wrong. I have evidence that John is wrong: if you look at the people in a population who are diagnosed with autism, there is no statistical difference between those who received vaccinations as children and those who did not. Epidemiologically, there is nothing that connects vaccinations to autism. (i.e. Taylor et. al 1999, etc.)

What is correlated with parents not vaccinating their children? Well, outbreaks of measles, for one. (CDC)

But my evidence is meaningless to John. Why? He believes different evidence. John’s evidence might be anecdotal (à la Jenny McCarthy), or intuitive (he’s got a hunch), ideological (don’t interfere with ‘nature’), conspiratorial (it’s all a government cover up), or unfortunately widespread misinformation (as per Andrew Wakefield). Whatever the case, John does not think to himself, My beliefs about vaccinations are irrational. No, he’s got his reasons. And he is convinced by them.

He is committed to his evidence as much as I am to mine.

As far as I can tell, given the data and evidence as I see it, John’s refusal to vaccinate his child is both irrational and irresponsible. But according to John’s evidence, he believes he is making the best decision for his child. He believes it dearly.

John and I both have our evidence, and this is the problem. Scientific, peer-reviewed, data-driven evidence is clearly only one kind of evidence — and it is a kind of evidence that John out-rightly rejects. John is so convinced by his reasons — whatever they are — that it doesn’t matter what I think.

Therefore, it is pointless for John and I to debate vaccinations. I think he is ignoring basic science. He suspects that I am deluded by blind trust in the scientific establishment. We are at an impasse. It does not matter how emphatically I drone on about ‘evidence-based medicine’, falsifiable propositions, and the null hypothesis. John is having none of it. All of this is important to me, but not to him.

John is no sooner going to entertain the validity of my evidence than I am going to accept the validity of his. I seek to surrender my intuitions to the probabilities of empirical observation, and I strive to change my position as new data emerges (especially at such a large scale of consensus). Let’s be honest: John is probably not going to talk me out of these methodological convictions. “That’s what you believe is true,” he acknowledges. “But that is not what I think and feel about the issue.”

If I am going to convince John to vaccinate his child, I need to either help him change his functional definition of evidence itself or present an appealing counter-narrative in his language — a story told in his current ‘category’ of ‘evidence.’

Herein lies the dilemma of health promotion: ‘evidence-based research’ alone has never changed the minds or behaviours of people (or policy-makers) not already convinced of the validity of quantitative data.

Before John and I can have a meaningful conversation about vaccinations, we need to have a meaningful conversation about the nature of falsifiable propositions. And this needs to be a conversation, not a monologue correcting the ‘errors’ of his evidence. I cannot change John’s convictions and conceptualizations about the nature of evidence any more than I can change his deepest hopes and dreams.

I now view the anti-vaccine movement as a sort of cult, where any sort of questioning gets you kicked out, your crunchy card revoked. I was even told I couldn’t call myself a natural mother anymore, because vaccines are too unnatural. That’s fine. I just want to be the best parent I know how to be, and that means always being open to new information and admitting when I’m wrong. (Leaving the Anti-Vaccine Movement by Megan Sandlin)

This is the bottom line: I cannot change John’s mind. Only John can change John’s mind. If I accept this premise at the outset of our conversation, my interaction with John will be markedly different than if I were to presume myself capable of correcting John’s thinking for him.

After all, I am just like John: if you are going to convince me that vaccinations cause autism, you will have to show me evidence that I accept as valid — the kind of evidence I already use and trust to make sense of the world I live in.

John and I are so different. John and I are exactly the same.

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What is Life without Wonder?

If you don’t possess wonder, what do you have? Does a sterilized, impotent vision of existence have you trapped you in its claws? Without amazement and mystery, what is there, exactly?

Life without wonder is like waking up every day and reading the last page of the novel and concluding there is no point to reading the rest of the book… or waking up at all.

What hope is there if you are not left speechless at the spectacles of existence? You know: things like starry skies, epic poetry, mitochondria, and subatomic particles. If you can’t accept that the ‘point’ of conscious of existence is to be repeatedly (and constantly) stunned by the sheer awesomeness of conscious existence itself, it seems the only recourse left for you is to go about life in a numbed state — as if emotionally neutered by the blinders of pithy explanations, inoculated against awe in the name of your own chintzy, substitute dogmas.

Wonder, I say. What is a day without marvel? What is an hour without astonishment? Whether you stare at bacteria in the soil or at vapours in the clouds, present yourself to life as its subject, willing to be mesmerized by the phenomenon of it all.

Or go with the alternative, if you must. The choice is up to you. Just remember the sentence to which you imprison yourself.

What is life without wonder?

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Nature and the Natural

(Thematically, this blog is all about second-guessing the obvious: thinking about different angles and perspectives. This particular post is inspired by a current environmental/political controversy that is specific to my city. The larger thesis, however, is an idea that has broader ramifications. Even if you are not a local resident, I am curious to hear your thoughts — and especially interested in the outcomes of similar debates in other regions.)

The Thames River flows through my city (London, Ontario). Intermittently, between 1870s and 2005, a dam in the Springbank region has been a feature of the river. Initially built for power, a later 1929 iteration was designed to elevate water levels sufficiently for recreational activities within the city, such as canoeing and boating. Then, in 2008, a newly refurbished version of the dam failed, leaving the municipal government in years of litigation with contractors until 2015, when a legal settlement was finally reached.

Now there is an emergent controversy about what should happen next. Some environmentalists and anglers argue that permanently decommissioning the dam is better for the ecological health of the river. As an oft mentioned 2003 environmental assessment notes, “The removal of the dam would result in the elimination of the upstream head pond that would revert the river back to its natural ‘pre-dam’ riverine state.” A 2004 report on endangered species in the watershed prompted many people to begin looking at the biodiversity of the region carefully. A February 2016 report notes:

There are now known species at risk in the area of the Springbank Dam and the part-time reservoir that it creates. They are as follows: Spiny Softshell Turtle, Queensnake, Eastern Hog-nosed Snake, Salamander (Mudpuppy) Mussel and Silver Shiner (fish), as well as species of special concern such as the Northern Map Turtle, Snapping Turtle and Green Dragon (perennial wildflower)

On the other hand, canoeists and other recreational users of the river are suspicious about the environmental claims. They point out that there are already 10 other operational dams and 244 flow barriers in the upper Thames watershed alone, not to mention 3 major flood control structures. Supporters of the dam reconstruction, like a some city planners and tourism advocates, insist on the aesthetic and social value of recreational waterways. This camp wants the dam fixed yesterday. Everyone has an angle.

First, a clarification is necessary: I resonate greatly with the ecological concerns addressed by critics of the dam. I publicly consider myself an ‘environmentalist’ — I appreciate that the very cells I am composed of exist in an irrefutably entwined relationship with my habitat. I’m a bit of a ‘systems head‘ too. You don’t have to convince me that everything is, indeed, interconnected. Yes, sign me up for ecological responsibility. I’m all in. This, in fact, is exactly why I am writing this piece to begin with.

Therefore, I propose that we apply a broader systems approach to this controversy. This means we must ask questions. How does decommissioning one dam make an urban watershed more ‘natural’? Upstream, in terms of flow rate, the Springbank dam affects about 22.5km of waterway (for local readers, see 21km from the Fanshawe dam to the Springbank dam, plus 1.5km from the Richmond Street dam to the Forks), plus related watershed. This stretch of about 22.5km is surrounded by an urban population of over 360,000 human beings.

If by ‘natural’ we mean, ‘unaffected by human activity’, then there is obviously no way that 22.5km of river surrounded by 360,000 humans can really be ‘natural’ at all. So what do we mean when we speak of ‘naturalization’ in this context? If we removed all three flood control structures upstream, parts of our own municipal region would occasionally be uninhabitable (i.e. underwater) every year. The point is this: the only way this river system is ever going to be ‘natural’ again is if we all leave (and go set up our camp in another environment somewhere else).

The idea of a ‘natural’ river, in this sense, is impossible to achieve. Even if we diligently treat every ounce of raw sewage before dumping it into the river, 360,000 inhabitants are still going to leave a significant mark on the local ecology. Therefore, this is not a question of whether or not the river should be naturalized, it’s specifically a question about what it means for the river to be healthy. But this means we actually asking a deceptively difficult question: what does it mean for 22.5km of river to be ‘healthy’ while it is surrounded by 360,000 human beings? We clearly ought not confuse the idea of a ‘healthy river’ with the concept of a ‘natural river’ here.

We might think of this another way: an urban park is full of nature, but it is not particularly natural. It is often mowed, manicured, and trimmed. Using our definitions, a ‘natural’ park would not be much of a ‘park’ at all: it would be an undisturbed swath of land at some stage in an ecological fauna/flora cyclical, probably initially beginning with a dense underbrush. Parks may be beautiful, they might ‘connect’ us with nature, but they are not naturally occurring phenomena. Like human dwellings, highways, pets, vegetable gardens, and parking lots, every recreational park also encroaches on and displaces certain species of plants and wildlife, too. On one hand, our ‘green spaces’ are a bit like our shopping malls: they exist because we create them; they are designed by us. But is this a reason to get rid of all our urban parks? No. In fact, on the contrary, we protect them. As much as parks are unnatural, we tend to weigh the social and environmental cost of losing them as greater than the social and environmental cost of keeping them. Culturally, we seem attuned to the notion that maintaining this ethereal ‘connection to nature’ in our urban centres is important, even if our tactile experience of nature is admittedly fabricated and contrived.

We want a healthy river. We also want to convince generations who are not yet born that they should want a healthy river, too. How do we send this memo forward in time? Obviously, our best efforts will all be for naught if our great grandchildren are elected to higher government and decide that imposing sewage treatment regulations on municipalities is a superfluous demand on tax payers! (Indoor plumbing and sewage treatment, incidentally, are not ‘natural’ phenomena either: they are human inventions designed precisely for the betterment of our own health as per the health of our environment.)

Here’s my point: If we want a healthier river tomorrow, we need as many people as possible to appreciate the river today, in much the same way we hope our descendants will continue to protect and value the parks and green spaces we have inherited. Ultimately, systemically, if we want fewer swimming pools and car washes emptied into the Thames in the future, we need to be inspiring more families to become canoeists, evening strollers, and park enthusiasts. If we want future terms of council to fix sewage plant bypass problems when they arise, we need another generation of electable individuals who value the river.

If there is such a thing as an environmental case for fixing the Springbank dam, I suppose it might be this: increasing the usability, accessibility, functionality, and aesthetics of this relatively short, 22.5km stretch of river is our best hope for assuring its health in future generations. For it to be healthy, a river surrounded by 360,000 people must be respected by a critical mass. For it to be respected, it must be valued. For it to be valued, it must be a focal point and a concern for as many people as possible.

From the perspective of a broader, long-term, system analysis, the Springbank dam is an issue that is bigger than our own city alone. Protecting other remote and isolated environments from the unnecessary human interference begins here, when people come to value the ecology around them. In urban environments, we ‘save’ environments beyond our region principally by creating ways for people to fall in love with nature. Therefore, we ought to use our 22.5kms of river as an asset in the cause of bringing people closer to nature, instead of pretending that a small stretch of river surrounded by 360,000 people — book-ended by dams on every side — can ever truly be something we should honestly describe as ‘natural’.

In the end, I do not personally know whether we should fix the dam or not. But I suspect the least helpful thing for anyone to do is to continue framing this as a debate between ‘recreationists’ and ‘environmentalists’. At a fundamental level, virtually everyone here is arguing for the same outcome: a healthy, well-loved river, that is cherished by everyone in the community. How might this discussion be different if we were all to back up to our first principles and listen to one another? Unfortunately, the tenor of the debate in my city has led to the ‘people who love being in nature’ into contention with the ‘people who love protecting nature’ — as if these must be two fundamentally different, ideologically opposed camps.

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Think ‘Adaptivity’, Not ‘Fitness’

We hear sentiments about fitness all the time, especially in early January. We tend to describe fitness as a state or as an end goal — “I’m getting fit,” “That person is really fit,” or “I’m really out of shape.” But I wonder: does the language and terminology we associate with ‘fitness’ unwittingly bewitch us?

Let’s think about fitness is a spectrum or a continuum, rather than a state. No matter how ‘fit’ you are, you could always technically be ‘fitter’. (And what does ‘unfitness’ mean, exactly?) You can never really ‘get fit’ in a literal sense — you never cross a magical threshold and receive a certificate of achievement that says, “Congratulations! You are now Officially Fit!”

Let’s consider the concept of adaptiveness instead. Like all living creatures, humans are continually adapting organisms. If you sit on the couch all day eating potato chips and Smarties, you will adapt to these demands. If you run 5km every morning, you will adapt to this demand instead. Your body adapts to whatever you do in order to be fit for that purpose. This is equally true whether you are eating potato chips or running a daily 5km. If you constantly lift lots of heavy things, the continual tearing of muscle demands more muscle growth.

The composition of your body is a case study in adaptation: for the most part you are probably remarkably well acclimated to whatever you do on a regular basis. At the cellular level, these adaptations are not necessarily positive or negative, your body has simply adapted to the demands placed on it. These might be demands to store excess caloric energy or demands to increase cardiovascular capacity. Adaptivity is inherently neutral: it does nothing but mould to variables and demands. Your body is continually conforming itself to the world you inhabit, the activities you perform, the diet you consume, and the contexts and circumstances you experience. Indeed, it is the essence of life itself to revise, modify, and conform to its particular situation. Adaptiveness is what it means to be alive. The big question is: what are you adapting to?

One thing seems for sure: you are adapting to something.

An adaptivity approach appreciates the complex interconnectedness of the brain and body. The psychological and physical are not independent, isolated systems. Several extra pounds can nurture a lethargic desire to tarry in Candyland. Getting accustomed to an exercise-induced endorphin rush can make you feel miserable if you don’t get your daily dose. The point: You can never eliminate the reciprocal patterns of biology that influence your behaviour — but you can influence them. This is the key. You can shape who you are becoming inasmuch as you can shape the variables that you must adapt to. ‘Fitness’ is a chronically ambiguous goal, but hacking your own addictions and habits can seismically alter your evolutionary trajectory as an individual. This is an adaptivity mindset.

As a human, I am in a unique position to take some degree of ownership for my own adaptive potential. I can hijack my own micro-evolution, in a sense. To a limited extent, I can select my own nature. But the key lesson here is that self-transformation does not transpire by sitting in a room and willing myself to change, but rather by changing the room or leaving it.

This whole mindset derives from basic evolutionary biology. If you want to change a species, you can only really change the variables that the species must interact with. You might adjust context, pressures, and circumstances of a generation, but you can do little to rewire an individual animal itself. But at the cellular level, we are fractals of our evolutionary origins. Genetically identical seeds produce varyingly unique plants depending on the conditions wherein they are planted. In this sense we are all well-adapted to the unique lives we are living. We are all ‘fit’, so to speak, as evidenced by the fact that we’ve survived thus far.

But what are we becoming? This is the underlying concern of self-change and we cannot address it without asking how our circumstances and environments inform our ideas, wills, emotions, and choices. What does the world around us presently demand us to become adapted to? This is not just an interesting question to ask ourselves because it is January, but it might be the question that makes us uniquely human. There is much more to ‘fitness’ than whether or not we go to the gym today.

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The Anatomy of a Terrible Idea

A few days ago I found myself standing before the breathtaking majesty of Niagara Falls.

But all I could think about was Lake Huron, which lies upstream, about 250km to the West.

There is a plan to bury radioactive nuclear waste on the shores of Lake Huron, in the basin of these very headwaters, despite extensive public protest.

If you could guarantee me with 99.9% confidence that buried nuclear waste in the Huron basin would never leak — an idea which alone ignores some basic principles of entropy, as far as I can reckon — this still seems like a terrible proposition to me. Expediency in the short-term is not worth the risk, even a 0.1% risk, when you look at the magnitude of what is interconnected to these waters.

Canadian_Horseshoe_Falls_with_Buffalo_in_backgroundI’m not a physicist. Far from it. But I stood before Niagara Falls — with it’s cooling spray showering me, along with hundreds of other tourists — I found myself wondering: could radioactivity be aerosolized in this gigantic cloud of mist constantly pluming above us? Am I only fear mongering myself, now? All I can say for certain is that this is not just a debate for one company or one municipality… This involves us all, irrespective of borders. I’d encourage you to take action on this, and to invite your own personal network to do so as well.

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