Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Invites Anti-Science Activist Mayim Bialik

Holistic Moms Network

Many scientific skeptics may recognize Mayim Bialik from hit TV-shows such as Blossom and The Big Bang Theory. In the latter, she plays the neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler who becomes the girlfriend of the physicist Sheldon Cooper. In real life, she has a PhD in a very similar field as Amy, namely neuroscience. One would think that this provides some protection against being subverted by irrational pseudoscience. However, Bialik is a notorious promoter of a wide range of different pseudosciences, including anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, alternative medicine, Waldorf schools and homebirth quacktivism.

In 2009, Bialik became a celebrity spokesperson for the Holistic Moms Network (here is their description of holistic parenting). On their website, they promote the American anti-vaccine activist Barbara Loe Fischer and recommend homeopathy as an alternative treatment to post-partum depression. In a 2011 interview, Bialik explained that she is homeschooling her children and in a 2012 interview, she confessed to using the Waldorf “philosophy” to attain this goal (which includes not letting her children watch TV or see movies). In a 2009 interview, she admitted to being “a non-vaccinating family” and claimed that she based her decision on “research and discussions with our pediatrician”. In a 2012 post on her blog, she says that she does not want to discuss her beliefs about vaccines, but deploys the classic “too many, too soon” trope. David Gorski discusses her ideas about vaccines in additional details here. In a 2012 article on homebirth, she promoted a number of classic quacktivist beliefs despite the fact that homebirth causes considerable more deaths compared with giving birth in a hospital. She calls these facts “hysteria-inducing” stories and that it is “insulting to any woman’s intuition and intelligence”. In late 2012, she posted the following on her official Facebook page: “California voters: the condoms you approved for sex workers to have to wear (which I voted for too)… maybe I’ll wear them when I eat my unlabeled genetically modified food. Sound good?”

In other words, being a neuroscientist does not, no pun intended, make you immune to pseudoscience.

Recently, American astrophysicist and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson decided to invite Bialik to his talk show StarTalk.

Tyson's screw-up?

He claims that they will be discussing neuroscience. But why is Tyson inviting an anti-science activist such as Bialik? Why is he giving her a platform to spread her pseudoscientific quackery? Is Tyson unaware about her beliefs or does not care as long as he can sell tickets to the show? Clarification is badly needed at this point.

15 responses to “Neil deGrasse Tyson Invites Anti-Science Activist Mayim Bialik

  1. Sam Smith February 21, 2014 at 02:07

    Perhaps he wants to show people why she is wrong?

  2. Robert February 21, 2014 at 21:43

    Is Neil qualified to carry out a good debate on these grounds? Shouldn’t she be up against a research MD, or at least a hardcore evidence-based biologist like PZ Myers?

  3. Emil Karlsson February 22, 2014 at 11:22

    If the show would be about NDT challenging MB on her pseudoscientific beliefs (or a debate), he would probably have announced it that way. His tweet suggest they will talk about neuroscience.

    Debating live is incredibly difficult. Even if you knew your arguments, you have to spend a lot of time practicing to deliver them in a short and clear way, as well as predict likely arguments and counterarguments made by your opponent. This is especially true if no subject has been set in advance, cause it could then lead into any of her crank beliefs.

  4. Paula April 14, 2014 at 18:09

    How can she be anti-science if she has a PhD in neuroscience?

    • Emil Karlsson April 14, 2014 at 21:04

      Because she subscribes to a great number of pseudoscientific beliefs. There is no contradiction in having a PhD in neuroscience and being a crank.

      For instance, there are dozens of Nobel Prize winners who have succumbed to pseudoscience: Linus Pauling and cancer quackery, Kary Mullis and HIV/AIDS denialism, Nikolaas Tinbergen and autism quackery etc.

    • Hasan July 17, 2014 at 20:56

      In very much the same way some scientists have religious (non-scientific or fact based) beliefs, which in psychology is called “Meta-magical beliefs”. Religious beliefs are far more illogical or disproven than “pseudo-sciences”. I’m sure in many of her arguments she is more reasonable (however non-factual) and makes more sense than a religious person in a debate.

  5. Stephen E. Baker April 20, 2014 at 04:43

    You use a lot of dismissive language without discussing facts yourself, and well I’ll concede most of your points, the safety of modern home birth is not pseudoscience: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/home-birth-with-midwife-safe-as-hospital-1.862485

    • Emil Karlsson April 20, 2014 at 11:41

      The study that is discussed in your link specifically excluded homebirths attended by quacks:

      The results also don’t cover deliveries by midwives who lacked extensive academic and clinical training.

      So yeah, if you arbitrarily exclude the most dangerous kinds of homebirth midwives, you are going to make homebirth appear less dangerous. However, this is a dishonest tactic as quack midwives are common among people doing homebirths. Your link does not demonstrate that homebirth, in toto, is safe.

      The most recent statistics from the homebirth advocacy organization MANA shows that homebirth has around 5.5x higher death rates than hospital births when risks are comparable.

      Homebirth safety

      As the chart above demonstrates, the MANA death rate for the same years was 5.5X HIGHER. In other words, the MANA death rate was 450% higher than the hospital death rate.

      On what planet is a death rate 450% higher than expected a safe outcome? Not on this planet.

      How can you say that homebirth is safe? How can you say that homebirth is not infested by pseudoscience?

    • Stephen E. Baker April 20, 2014 at 13:09

      So in countries where midwifery is well regulated and requires a reasonable level of Education. (Canada and the UK) home births are safe (within the understanding of studies completed thus far) and in countries where any quack can be a midwife it’s dangerous. Makes sense, but it doesn’t mean that home birthing in general can only be supported by pseudoscience, only that if you want to practice home birth you need to find a qualified care person in those countries that don’t well regulate instead of going with anyone willing. I am not at all an expert in this particular celebrity, but do you have any evidence that she didn’t choose a qualified care person for her home birth?

    • Emil Karlsson April 20, 2014 at 15:09

      Not so fast. I argues that if you cherry-pick your study group, you can make homebirth appear safe. That is not the same as the claim that homebirth is safe in well-regulated countries were midwives have a relevant education.

      A large meta-analysis by Wax and colleagues (2010) that looked at around half a million planned, low-risk births showed that neonatal mortality during homebirth was three times that of comparable hospital births for non-anomalous offspring. This included datasets from western countries that you claim have safe homebirth.

      Given the fact that there are so many homebirths per year, a tripling of the neonatal death rate is sufficient medical evidence that homebirth is not acceptably safe. There is no considerably medical benefit with homebirth.Others, such as Amy Tuteur, have shown that arguments for homebirth rests on pseudoscientific arguments.

  6. Curious June 1, 2014 at 05:36

    I have a couple of questions:

    a) If you did have a homebirth and it was attended by a doctor, how is that really different to a hospitable birth except that a hospitable would be better prepared for any complications and so should be fine for most pregnancies?

    b) I’m not quite sure what point you are trying to make with the homeschooling comment, except for mentioning the Waldoff method. While I think that the Waldoff method is bogus and doesn’t help a child develop the critical thinking skills they need later in life, I don’t see any inherent flaw in homeschooling itself. Admittedly, I am biased having been homeschooled but in the Australian state I live in, [that sentence is horribly awkward] homeschoolers have to abide by the same curriculum as state schools and are assessed on a yearly basis by retired principles appointed by the Department of Education. This is not to say that some don’t skirt past doing the bare minimum, a number of my close social circle were all homeschooled and were high achievers because their parents actually put in the effort. [Yes, anecdotal evidence...]

    Basically, I’m just of the attitude that if homeschooling is properly regulated then there shouldn’t be many troubles.

    • Emil Karlsson June 1, 2014 at 13:25

      Homebirths

      Homebirths are almost never attended by a medical doctor. Instead, it is either a certified professional midwife (CPM) or a certified nurse midwife (CNM).

      – A CPM is generally a quack who does not have any medical qualifications whatsoever. The organization that certifies them (MANA) has recently considered demanding a high-school diploma.

      – A CNM is a nurse with a specialist degree in midwifery.

      Among the quack proponents of homebirth, it is almost always a CPM. Absolute mortality rates for births are low, but the relative mortality for homebirths (compared with same-risk hospital births) is 3-5 times higher depending on the study.

      Homeschooling

      Homeschooling by itself is not automatically a bad thing, but a lot of homeschooling groups are based on creationism and anthroposophy. If the local public schools are crap, homeschooling is probably a viable option.

  7. Chris July 28, 2014 at 20:58

    Regarding home vs hospital births there are many people aware of the stats that may still choose a home birth. You are comparing very low probabilities in both cases, just because 1 of those is 5 times higher, it may still be well within what most rational people would consider a very unlikely outcome… to most people 1.5 in a 1000 vs 0.3 in a 1000 sounds very different that 5 times greater when assigning some risk factor value to an actual real life outcome… 1.5 in 1000 are still pretty safe odds.

    • Emil Karlsson July 28, 2014 at 22:57

      That argument does not work because you are not interpreting the effect size in the scientific context.

      Consider daily aspirin therapy. It lowers the risk of a second heart attacks, but only by a tiny amount. Had we gone by the logic you promote above, we would never recommend it. However, because heart attacks are so common, even a small risk reduction translates to thousands of lives saved (and the side-effects are minor).

      We can make a roughly analogous argument for homebirth. Even though the absolute risk is fairly low, it translates to quite a lot of children in absolute number, and even more grieving relatives. In addition, there are no clear medical benefits with homebirth, so even the observed tripping of neonatal death rates is enough to dethrone homebirth as a rational alternative.

      Why would you support human suffering just so quacks can give birth in a bathtub in the living room? A mother wants her babies to survive, so I think it is clear that the safety of the child takes priority. If you take an opposing view, would you support the right of the mother not to use a seatbelt for her child? After all, forcing mothers to use a seatbelt for their small children infringes on her freedom to choose.

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