Last week, Phil Plait wrote a piece on Slate defending his promotion of Mayim Bialik. I wrote a blog post disagreeing with it.
I’m pleasantly surprised that Phil Plait changed his mind and now understands that endorsing her as a science figure is harmful. When I started writing my blog post about it last week, Skeptical OB (Dr. Amy Tuteur) and The Neurologica Blog (Steven Novella) hadn’t yet posted their thoughts about it on their blogs. I mostly saw agreement at the time on social media, and I thought I’d get a lot more strong disagreement on this.
But because I know what it’s like to be an alt medder (formerly) and I remember why I believed in false things, along with having many friends who still are alt medders, I felt it important to share what I thought. Those outweighed the possibility of being unpopular or ridiculed for my former beliefs. It turns out that many felt similarly.
When I shared the link on social media, I said I respectfully disagreed. This is because I could see where Phil was coming from and that I knew he’d been a skeptic longer than I have – which is a good thing and something I hope he’s proud of – but can sometimes mean not fully seeing things from the views of alt medders and woo fence sitters.
I respect that Phil has publicly changed his mind on this. It’s not because I think everyone should have my exact same views. His former opinion wasn’t anything to make me like him any less or cancel out the good work he’s done. The reason I’m pleased is because he seems to have thought it through and taken others’ viewpoints and thought processes into consideration.
“I’ll admit I hadn’t considered that her credentials could be used by anti-vaxxers and the like to promote their incorrect (and dangerous) beliefs, and that gave me pause. Thinking that through, I have to say that does sway me; if she were promoting something like astrology, I’d probably just roll my eyes a bit and carry on. But these medical health issues are serious, and I’ve been very vocal for a very long time about vaccines and homeopathy.
Because of that, I’ll be clear: I’ve changed my mind; given the opportunity again, I’d say using her as a science role model is not a net benefit. I’d have left her off the picture.”
Thank you, Phil. And thanks to those of varying opinions who weighed in on this. As silly as it may seem on the surface, it’s an important conversation to have.
(Note: Links have been provided for reference and are not necessarily endorsements.)
This image was widely shared from the I Fucking Love Science twitter and facebook pages. It was posted in March, but Mayim Bialik is regularly praised by many skeptics as a great role model for young people or an entertainer who is something more.
When some people brought up the fact that Mayim Bialik promotes pseudoscience, many said that she still deserved to be on the image because none of us are perfect and we’re all wrong about certain things. Phil Plait just posted a Slate piece stating that it wasn’t so black-and-white and mentioned the pros of including her, even though he pointed out that she does promote harmful ideas.
But why is this a grey area, even with some of my fellow skeptics? Many of us regularly criticize Dr. Oz. He’s profited from promoting quackery. He also has a background in Cardiothoracic Surgery and has done good work helping others. Much of the advice he gives on his television show is based on real medicine and helpful, but because he’s done so much harm in introducing pseudoscience to the public, we don’t include him in lists of people who inspire others to get into the medical field. He doesn’t just have a few bad ideas, it’s many. Same with Mayim Bialik. Why do we say the good outweighs the bad with her but not others like Dr. Oz?
I agree that having some disagreeable opinions shouldn’t automatically dismiss the good work someone does. Most of us are wrong on some things and we have our weak spots. For example, I have a friend who is a scientist but believes in Astrology. But it’s a mostly private belief she doesn’t promote and doesn’t believe in it to the point of it controlling her life, so I don’t let it affect my high opinion of her. If she were strongly promoting that, I may still promote her but with a disclaimer. But if she had a blog about that plus other harmful ideas, I may still respect the good work she does, but not fully endorse her. I may share an individual act of good work she did, but not include her on any lists of influential scientists. I have another friend in STEM who is the same with Christianity. She’s a liberal Christian, mostly for cultural reasons, doesn’t promote it, and still chooses evidence over dogma for the majority of her beliefs. Not perfect, but not a disqualifier.
But these examples are not Mayim Bialik. She has a website and blog network with plenty of pseudoscience, and is a spokesperson for Holistic Moms, which promotes homeopathy and discourages vaccinating children. If she’s endorsing woo on such an extensive level, why should we endorse her? I do respect her intelligence, talent, and hard work. I was a huge Blossom fan as a kid and it was cool to later find out that an entertainer I liked as a kid went on to pursue science. But I also know what it’s like to not be a skeptic and fully understand critical thinking. As recently as five years ago, I still believed in alt med and other woo. So I know just how harmful promoting Mayim Bialik can be. When I was an alt-medder, I saw people with a science background promoting woo. One of two things happened. Either I thought, “See, this person who has a background in the field believes this. There must be something to it!” or I didn’t even know what they were promoting was considered an “alternative” opinion and thought that it was an evidence-based belief.
I think it may be hard for some skeptics, including Phil Plait, to fully realize that at first. Plait has done a lot of great work and he’s helped me in my understanding of why Astrology is hogwash. Based on his history in the Science and Skepticism fields, he’s likely been a skeptic and had critical thinking skills for many years. I’m sure there are beliefs that he’s examined and questioned throughout his life, but he’s been working in the public understanding of science for a long time. But I have a somewhat recent memory of what it’s like to not understand how to decipher good info from the bad. This is a case for the promotion of critical thinking skills and skepticism in general, but since many people don’t understand this, seeing people like Mayim Bialik endorsed by science pages and skeptics – those who usually criticize people like her – can give the impression that her pseudoscience writings are actually science. Skeptics look at this and know the background behind it. But most of the people who follow IFLS, or who saw the image shared by a friend, do not.
The majority of my friends are not skeptics. Before I became involved in the skeptic community, I was mostly involved in the music scene. I love my artistic friends dearly and since most of them aren’t skeptics, I see how they view the promotion of science. I have several friends who are anti-vaxxers and have mentioned that even Mayim Bialik, who has a PhD in the medical field, does not believe in vaccinating. They then see IFLS promoting her as a shining example of someone to be admired. In their minds, this is further confirmation that she’s right. IFLS didn’t say not to vaccinate children, but they connect those dots. It’s not the fault of IFLS if some people aren’t thinking critically, but it does help people strongly hold onto these harmful beliefs. And it can cause further confusion in people who may be on the fence.
On one hand, I understand that many skeptics have mainly skeptic friends and colleagues. It may be hard for them to see how most people think. But I also don’t understand why they think Mayim Bialik gets a pass and Dr. Oz does not.
But I will say, as Phil Plait mentioned, that this has at least created a dialogue, since many skeptics brought up the hogwash she believes. I just hope that it’s not mostly skeptics seeing that commentary.
Update 12/23/14: Phil Plait has changed his mind and I wrote my thoughts about it.