The Irony of Dr. Jill Stein’s Media Coverage

The simple question I would like to explore here is this: Why do some people persist in painting Jill Stein as an anti-science candidate, despite so much evidence to the contrary? I will primarily address the content of this accusation here, along with the supporting evidence (or lack thereof) that has been given for some of the recent claims about Dr. Stein. I would not like to make this a post on why one should vote for Stein, because that’s each person’s decision to make (perhaps I will later on, in a separate post). Instead, it is my intention to help dissolve some of the most egregious rumors, so voters can focus on Dr. Stein’s intended political message.

(There are already some great articles that address the strategic use of these attacks quite well, check out: http://www.inquisitr.com/3432300/no-jill-stein-supporters-you-are-not-crazy/ & http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/08/19/roaming-charges-prime-time-green/)

Although recent articles and discussions on social media have relied upon many differing assumptions, evidence, or justifications, the essential charge is that Dr. Jill Stein promotes or gives cover to dangerous, anti-scientific ideas. Instead of responding to that oversimplified claim, it might be more useful to address each one individually. Here are some of the accusations I’ve heard repeated…


Rumor(s):She’s an anti-vaxxer!’, or ‘has made statements that ‘dog-whistle’ to anti-vaxxers’.

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Why it’s BS: Even though this particular claim has already been evaluated as FALSE by Snopes.com (http://www.snopes.com/is-green-party-candidate-jill-stein-anti-vaccine/), the rumor continues to be spread freely, so perhaps the Snopes article deserves further attention. As reported in the article, this rumor is often attributed to a comment Stein made during a Reddit AMA back in April of this year (see link above for transcript). However, none of Jill Stein’s statements have suggested that she denies the necessity of vaccines, but instead she has repeatedly affirmed the importance of immunization on multiple occasions.

The first reaction directly from Jill Stein that I watched was during an interview with The Young Turks (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNG3gDTPYjc), in which Jordan Chariton asks, Plain and simple, yes or no, do you think vaccines cause autism? Stein responds with a sturdy, “No,” before explaining her position in further detail.

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Recognizing this fact, other writers have tried to reframe the narrative to criticize her wording as being a ‘dog-whistle’ for anti-vaxxers (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/jill-stein-may-not-be-anti-vax-but-shes-pushing-a-dangerous-anti-vax-theory_us_579f885ce4b0693164c1fab4), either because she doesn’t seem to explicitly refute anti-vaxx talking points, or perhaps because she expresses distrust towards government’s ability to provide unbiased oversight on this issue.

Then, during CNN’s Green Party town hall on August 17th, an audience member addressed Stein about the same rumor. The pediatrician asked, “…when I was reading your statements, you seem to support vaccines yet you’re evasive about your schedule, or your support of the schedule, so I just wanted you to clarify that for me.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTpz2XBGce0).

Stein’s response should help ease any doubts about the clarity of her position:

…that statement about the schedule was taken out of context. So when I was practicing and following issues around immunization, which I am not now, there were concerns at the time about the mercury dose in vaccines and how kids might be loaded up in a way related to that schedule and the presence of thimerosal in the vaccines. That’s what I was referring to, that there were legitimate questions at that time. But I understand those — you know, the thimerosal has been taken out of the vaccines, anything that would be given to a child, and it’s no longer an issue.

I think there’s kind of an effort to divert the conversation from our actual agenda, because the idea that I oppose vaccines is completely ridiculous…or that I’m ‘anti-science’. And I would encourage anybody to go look up the books that I co-authored with other physicians and public health experts at Physicians For Social Responsibility. One is called “Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging”, “Toxic Threats to Child Development”, those are two books actually. They’re both available for free on the web. You can read them on the web or download it. They both review science and they review scientific studies to have a better understanding of what is the conditions that maybe driving the developmental disabilities, what may be contributing to these issues that we’re seeing and likewise what are some of the contributors to chronic disease in adults. There are clearly, you know, environmental factors here that are playing a role.

So just for policy wonks, for geeks, for science geeks, you can show yourself if you have any doubt that I, too, am a science geek. I am certainly not hostile to science. I’m not anti-science. I believe that asking questions is part of our responsibility as scientists and as physicians. We always need to be asking those questions.”

Many of us (like myself) who generally detest anti-vaxxer rhetoric are likely hyper-sensitive when it comes to anything that resembles one of their talking points. But remember who we’re dealing with here- a Harvard-educated MD who co-authored a report published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, on the impact of environmental contaminants on childhood development. This research was published in collaboration with other medical professionals and the organization called ‘Physicians for Social Responsibility’. Any disapproval of the former levels of mercury (thimerosal) used in vaccines she alluded to, comes from this extensive research on neurotoxicology & childhood development, rather than a desire to scare people away from vaccines. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have said, “it’s no longer an issue”!

As a skeptic who dislikes pseudo-science and science-deniers in general, I would argue that it is us (science enthusiasts) who have inferred these supposed ‘dog-whistles’, instead of it being Dr. Stein who has conveyed them intentionally. How many have really taken the effort to read her published works, or to understand her statements in their intended context?

It seems that those perpetuating this particular narrative either ignore Dr. Stein’s statements/responses entirely or they conflate her message criticizing corporate influence on government regulation with similar arguments made by actual anti-vaxxers to support their own ideas. Here it stands that context is everything, and given Dr. Stein’s multiple responses to this rumor, one could conclude that much more effort has been spent making something out of nothing, than actually scrutinizing the claim by seeking out primary sources.


Rumor(s): She thinks that Wi-Fi is dangerous.’

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Why it’s BS: This particularly crazy-sounding rumor can be seen spread around in articles like this: http://www.sciencealert.com/us-presidential-candidate-jill-stein-thinks-wi-fi-is-a-threat-to-children-s-health. This claim appears to stem from a Q&A session video posted on YouTube (https://youtu.be/IGQjaSJP2Xg), where Dr. Stein, after answering a question concerning the amount of time kids spend in front of computer screens today, responds to an audience member asking, “What about Wi-Fi?” We can assume in its context as a follow-up that the questioner is referring to prolonged or excessive exposure. Here is Dr. Stein’s response:

“We should not be subjecting kids’ brains especially to that. And, you know, we don’t follow that issue in this country, but in Europe where they do, they have good precautions around wireless, maybe not good enough, because it’s very hard to study this stuff. We make guinea pigs out of whole populations and then we discover how many die. And this is like the paradigm for how public health works in this country and it’s outrageous, you know.”

Although this answer didn’t inspire me with much confidence, government organizations such as NIOSH, OSHA and the FCC have continued to study the effects of wireless/EMF frequencies on human health. In a 2011 Tech Symposium, one report discussed the Europe vs. US differences which Dr. Stein mentioned. This report backed up the first portion of her comment as it concluded, “…the difference between the camps [Europe & the U.S.] is the higher tolerability to risk (RF interference and human hazards) of the North American approach compared to the European approach.” (Mazar, 2011). Personally, I generally tend to wait for the evidence of harm before coming to any conclusions myself, however, I can easily understand the propensity for others to take a different perspective. It’s not easy to be confident about safety or risk in this scenario because the research to date has either been inconsistent, or inconclusive. Dr. Stein’s answer might suggest she thinks it [exposure] may be harmful, but her response makes sense when you consider her broader philosophy concerning public health…

Below is an excerpt from her publication “In Harm’s Way” which helps to clarify that perspective. Basically, as we continue to study these issues, the public will remain “guinea pigs” as long as we regulate along the top curve of this diagram. Thus, what would follow from Dr. Stein’s statement, is that it might be preferable to take “unnecessary precautions” while evidence for safety accumulates- at least until it appears conclusive one way or the other.

Stein

Even if her answer above still seems inadequate to you, remember that Dr. Stein has not proposed any policy on this subject. She simply gave an off-the-cuff answer at a Q&A session- quite possibly because she is either not currently following the research on this, or she hadn’t anticipated the need to carve out a position on such an issue until that very moment. This image from her report in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics provides a much better explanation of her philosophy towards public health.

Rather than being a proponent of ‘woo’, it seems that Dr. Stein would simply rather approach public health issues with a higher degree of caution and skepticism than many others. While we [skeptics] may balk at that idea, let’s not forget that she hasn’t suggested we move away from any of these things (e.g. vaccines, Wi-Fi, etc.). Instead, she is a proponent of the idea that we should spend more time studying the things we interact with in our environments. The assumption that by advocating  for more research, she secretly intends to promote a pseudo-scientific agenda, is just not supported by her academic and professional history. Failing to consider these nuances might just be part of the common knee-jerk reaction which so many people have against anything that even “feels like woo”.

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I wanted to share these links and information so that people had access to more useful primary sources, instead of opinions alone. Access to these materials will help those who wish to critically evaluate future claims which propagate a false narrative about Dr. Stein, and I urge others to read her reports that can be found for free online before passing judgment:

  1. “In Harm’s Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development”

http://www.psr.org/chapters/boston/resources/in-harms-way.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/

  1. “Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging”

http://www.agehealthy.org/pdf/GBPSRSEHN_HealthyAging1017.pdf

 

Please let me know if you would like to share any more resources that might help people better understand Dr. Stein, or to clarify her message. Thanks!

-M

 

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C. Wright Mills & the ‘Power Elite’

Written: 2/29/2012*

C Wright Mills was not just an academic when it came to politics, but he was also a huge part social activist. I can appreciate his denouncement of many of his contemporaries who were only concerned with the facts of sociology. I’ve always thought there should be a common goal of scientists that would be led by the facts. Both aspects are very important.  As someone who takes an interest in politics, I find Mills’ writing in The Power Elite especially interesting. Despite that it is now sixty years after most of his works have been published, his works are undeniably timeless. Many others have touched on the same topics as Mills, but most haven’t done so as passionately. The proof is in his medical record, having suffered multiple heart attacks.

His observations on the concentration of power, if accurate then, are now ever more applicable. The three areas of the power elite were those of the military elite, the corporate elite and the political elite. Well that’s obviously true, given that since the fifties, the same families and businesses occupy those positions of power. The military industrial complex is a perfect example of this, as different powerful groups use their relationships with powerful political individuals to bid for a piece of the annual 1 trillion dollar pie that is allotted to defense budget. Another observation of Mills’ was how those that sit in the top positions of power, are also similar demographically, as well as other institutions with which they have a history. They attend the same schools, join the same clubs, and all know the same people. This structure of power is so overwhelming to the majority of the population, that it gives rise to sayings like ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’, which is at odds with what is considered the American Dream.

The ideas surrounding the concept of the power elite are found in several other Sociologists works. A few decades before Mills, Weber was writing about a concept called rationalization. This displacement of values, traditions and emotions for impersonal bureaucracy is responsible for the further concentration of power, and also for the alienation from power the majority of society feels. Even earlier than that, Marx touched on the structure of power in nearly all of his works. The difference is what Mills suggested we do with these ‘social facts’.

I agree with Mills’ criticism of Structural Functionalism especially in the context of today’s obvious relationships between powerful figures and organizations that affect everything in our everyday lives. Fortunately, this age of information allows for some transparency between these conflicting relationships, but they are still as pervasive as ever.  It would be interesting to see what Mills would have to say about how media serves a role in the power elite, due to its sensitization of issues, and appointment of political figures as ‘news anchors’. Unfortunately, as worked up as I get about this sometimes, I think ‘were Mills to see Fox News, he just might have another heart attack.’

*Update: It seems that this critique has become a runaway train since 2012. If Mills were around to see the 2016 presidential campaigns, I’d bet that he would find our current system infuriating and completely broken.

Reaction to Lessons on Marx (Circa 2013)

Once again, so much of this still resonates today. I enjoyed the anecdote about my old job at the end because I’ve been away at grad school for the last two years, and back to living among typical poor college students again.

The reading and discussion of Karl Marx should be required of every student. It engages critical thinking on many levels. First, we have to put aside our preexisting feelings and sentiments to consider what it was that he was trying to convey. We then map out his theory along with historical evidence and see how alienation and a growing proletariat has already aided revolution in the past. Finally, we find the similarities in current social trends which further support his original theory.  Unfortunately, in most situations, Karl Marx has too strong of a stigma attached to him to be brought into a casual discussion. It’s as if his very name has been conditioned to bring about fear and anger in some type of Pavlovian association over the years.

Karl (note: I was already on a first-name basis with him) was certainly right that class struggles define our histories. I have endless personal examples of how divisive the topic can be. One conversation with a coworker last week reminded how duped they really have us. Basically, the other person argued that people that receive welfare should be drug tested. I think I can stop there because there’s no need to go further when it’s clear that they have no interest in helping those in need, and are pretty quick to buy into unfounded stereotypes. Perhaps, the economic downturn has made us all a little testy, and this anger and uncertainty are easily misplaced.

Reading the Communist Manifesto makes me feel disappointed that it’s not ‘socially acceptable‘ to advocate for radical social change. It also makes it clear that the existing political parties have far fewer, even superficial, differences than I originally thought. With a major election upon us, we will probably see examples of class conflict daily. Some of it will be appeals made to us in speeches from those trying to get our vote, and some of it will be in the form of voter ID laws that are being passed. Sometimes you have to look harder to see it, but it’s definitely there.

Another idea which I found interesting was that of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. I have a great deal of experience with this given that I have been in the restaurant business for over ten years now. I first worked at a quaint diner, and now I work mainly in restaurants that would be considered by most to be ‘fine-dining’.  It’s funny to watch people from the server’s perspective because their attempts at buying and displaying their status are constant and thinly-veiled. Most patrons jump at the chance to talk about their latest vacation, but they also maintain their aloof composure about it (lest they appear to not vacation regularly because they were ‘too’ excited). They balk when presented with a wine that has a screw top, and ask for their wine to be decanted regardless of whether or not it is a wine that would need to be aerated. I gladly comply with their often strange requests as it is my profession, but as a psychology major it is far more interesting than just another ‘entitled’ customer.

Income & Wealth Inequality

Note: I hope most of this has already become part of our collective consciousness. In the time between Occupy Wall St. then and Bernie Sanders now, I’m hoping that most of these ideas aren’t new to many.

The study of the political economy highlights the distribution of wealth in the US in ways that the majority of the population would rather ignore. The phrase ‘welfare state’ tends to evoke ideas involving the distribution of tax money to public assistance programs. Particularly, programs like FDAC and food stamps, rather than any of the widespread middle class, upper class, and corporate benefits are suggested. This is, in part, due to the dominant ideology that tends to view “successful” individuals or businesses as living the American Dream. The idea that they can be dependent on public funds is incompatible with this view, and rarely included in any formal socialization.

The American Dream itself is sometimes at odds with itself, as it exists in a Capitalist Democratic framework. In order to see the tug-of-war between liberty and equality, one must employ critical thinking. But how often do we critically analyze concepts which we consider second-nature? Essentially, one must favor one over the other because liberty and equality tend to compete for government resources.

* See the Noam Chomsky documentary on Netflix called ‘Requiem for the American Dream’, for more about the push and pull between inequality & democracy. Pretty concise and informative!

Although many Americans accept that taxes are a necessary burden, the public rarely looks in depth at tax codes and public expenditures, given that our public servants are entrusted to make these decisions using their expertise, with our best interests in mind. As an example, the City of Detroit provided Marathon Oil Company a 175 million dollar personal property tax reduction in order to expand its operations in the city. Although the idea behind this tax break (as the public was led to believe) was to create more jobs for inhabitants of the city, the deal resulted in a net gain of only 15 jobs for Detroit residents. This is one of the countless examples of the political influence held by large corporations. Sadly, although not the sole reason, this added to the economic troubles that sent the City of Detroit to bankruptcy. In addition to the economic impact, Detroit residents also are now faced with the environmental consequences of the refinery’s expansion. (Update: For now, let me resist the urge to add more on the problems [e.g., Flint water crisis] that have arisen since the time of this essay).

By focusing on public assistance fraud as the greatest public enemy, little attention is paid to more egregious crimes committed by corporations and the wealthy. After the economic crisis on Wall Street crippled our economy, the banks have managed to keep their top CEOs and bankers from being arrested, while nearly 8,000 Americans were arrested in association with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Meanwhile, there have been only a handful of politicians that have called attention to this type of inequality. They have kept quiet, in part, by their willingness to accept millions from these corporations in campaign contributions, bolstered by the 2008 ruling made by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. This ruling has set the stage for a future where inequality will only continue to rise. Liberty too will suffer, when the majority are unable to pursue their own self-interest because their voices will have been muted by an extremely powerful elite.

Racial & Ethnic Inequality

I have been convinced for a while that our society systematically avoids frank discussions about the intersection of ethnicity and socioeconomic status. I also believe we live in a time where it is necessary to explore this topic, given the increasing digital resources that make communication easier than ever. Although I admit, I have rarely taken the opportunity to do so; this important discussion is one that I am ready and willing to have.*

*While it was less than 5 years ago when I wrote this, it is even more true now.

In grade school discussions of culture and ethnicity, I always envied my peers with such diversity in their history. We (and many other young people) were asked to write essays on the topic of our personal ethnic identities, and I felt like I had nothing to contribute to that conversation. My family history goes far back to some of the first British settlers that lived in this country in the early 1600s. Having ancestral roots in England and colonial America did not seem to be ‘show and tell’ material to me.  I mistook (and took for granted) my ethnic identity, descending primarily from the ‘Anglo Core Group’, for being bland, if not completely non-existent. American ideology, as previously discussed, is so deeply engrained in our worldview that sometimes we forget that it’s even there at all (edit: when I say ‘we forget’ there, notice the ethnocentricism. I would avoid even that phrasing now, but I’m still learning!). I was fascinated by my classmate’s stories of their families’ immigration and history, as well as learning about other languages and traditions. Although I knew that these rich cultural differences were different from mine, I wrongly assumed their experience was as “easy” and nurtured (historically speaking) as my ancestors’. This is in part due to my socialization in school, where they often leave out the ‘bad parts’, and in part due to a subjective life experience – a perspective, from which I had never tried to depart.  I did not consider the accident of birth until much later.

The optimistic perspective from which I viewed society had kept me from the insight that comes with a comprehensive understanding of what ethnicity really means. Though this understanding hasn’t made me any less hopeful, I now see the responsibility that comes along with it. The knowledge of how minority groups have been treated historically can not only help me become a more empathetic human being, but it can also allow me to positively impact the society in which I live. In my youthful naivety, I could have never imagined how something like skin color or cultural heritage could affect all subsequent life chances. Now, with every news story I read, I find myself asking how race played a part in the situation. I wonder also how others react to the same story, and if they might respond differently with a sociological perspective. Analyzing news stories and American ideological principles requires knowledge of social facts, as well as the ability to interpret the subtle elements that present themselves in any given idea.

In one recent example, Shanesha Taylor, a homeless mother of two, was arrested for leaving her kids in her car during a job interview. She had no one to watch her kids while she was attending the interview, and witnesses quickly responded to the sounds of her children’s cries. Now, she faces two child abuse charges, and her children are in protective custody. I cannot claim that the outcome would be different were she and her children of another ethnicity, but I can see how societal disadvantages for minorities (i.e. discrimination in labor and housing markets) helped to create the situation in the first place. Now, the public reaction to the story is even more indicative of the latent racism that makes having meaningful conversations about this topic so difficult. I can hardly blame the mother for making a poor choice, when I consider how limited her alternatives might have been. (UPDATE: I just searched for later developments, and Shanesha was sentenced to 18 years of probation. Yes, that’s 18 YEARS, not MONTHS!)

As the story exemplified, the importance of discussing ethnic stratification in this country cannot be understated. This requires the suspension of stereotypes and assumptions, and a willingness to consider alternative ideas. I would like to urge my peers to accept that challenge, in order to create a society where mothers aren’t forced to make decisions based on survival, and can instead show their children what it means to produce upward mobility. This should be a goal for everyone, regardless of how they identify ethnically, because it involves revitalizing the American Dream.

Gender Identity & Inequality

Please expect future posts to get more into bio and current events, but the first goal I had for setting up the page was to have a place to collect my thoughts on a number of topics. The first few postings are from a few of my Sociology classes in undergrad, circa 2011-2013. General themes for these are social inequality, so they are particularly relevant today.

Genetic distributions of traits are used to construct the idea of race, by combining ethnic generalizations and racist ideology. Similarly, society uses arrangements of genetic traits to construct one’s gender, by combining expected roles, stereotypes, and sexist ideology. This formation of a gender dichotomy has served to limit the expression of humankind’s true variation, as well as to stratify genders in relation to the dominant status group. Although the genetic differences are often understood as absolute and binary, scientific developments in Biology and Psychology are showing us that these categories are too simplistic to understand the true nature of gender. For example, varying degrees of sex differentiation occur in the womb through the interaction of the developing fetus and various hormones in their environment. Many factors can alter these levels, however, resulting in sex differences that are not fixed until long after birth. Another result is the number of individuals who are born ‘intersex’, whose gender is often assigned to them arbitrarily.

While the extent to which sex differences influence one’s “natural” predisposition is debatable, more often than not, society determines the outcomes of genetic differentiation. This is made clear when examining gender essentialism, the belief that each clearly defined gender in more suited to certain occupational roles. Often, people rationalize this belief by citing the role that women have in bearing and raising children, claiming evolution has naturally selected for men and women to have different dispositions. Even as more females now occupy traditionally male jobs, their unequal earnings show that the problem of gender inequality is more structural than was previously thought. Also, the glass ceiling keeps women from positions of power, to effectively keep the hierarchy in place. This occurs despite the creation of government agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and laws outlawing the various forms of discrimination in the workplace.

Personally, I think teaching a wider range of gender expressions is needed to promote social justice. This means also discussing the social inequality experienced by transgendered and intersex individuals, who have been widely ignored (Marger is guilty of this too). By overlooking these groups, we fail to see a third tier in the hierarchy that occupy their own ‘underclass’. Transgendered and intersex people (arguably, all LGBT minorities) have a similar challenge to that of third tier ethnic minorities, in that they were the last to gain recognition, and the last to pursue equal protection under the law. There is much evidence to support the idea of a further earning gap between these groups and the rest. According to the American Psychological Association, up to 64% of transgendered people report incomes below $25,000, yet I see little public outrage due to the group’s historical marginalization. Additionally, the APA reports that gay men earn up to 32% less than equally qualified heterosexual men. By illuminating the complexity of gender expression, and by acknowledging the existence of a diverse third tier, there is greater chance of exposing the structural discrimination of all gender/sexual minorities, including women. That distinction will also improve upon the sociological method as we will examine more accurately the convergence of race, class and gender and sexuality.

Personally, I think teaching a wider range of gender expressions is needed to promote social justice. This means also discussing the social inequality experienced by transgendered and intersex individuals, who have been widely ignored (Marger is guilty of this too). By overlooking these groups, we fail to see a third tier in the hierarchy that occupy their own ‘underclass’. Transgendered and intersex people (arguably, all LGBT minorities) have a similar challenge to that of third tier ethnic minorities, in that they were the last to gain recognition, and the last to pursue equal protection under the law. There is much evidence to support the idea of a further earning gap between these groups and the rest. According to the American Psychological Association, up to 64% of transgendered people report incomes below $25,000, yet I see little public outrage due to the group’s historical marginalization. Additionally, the APA reports that gay men earn up to 32% less than equally qualified heterosexual men. By illuminating the complexity of gender expression, and by acknowledging the existence of a diverse third tier, there is greater chance of exposing the structural discrimination of all gender/sexual minorities, including women. That distinction will also improve upon the sociological method, as we will examine more accurately the convergence of race, class and gender and sexuality.