The Internet has made it easier than ever to misguide people. The anti-vaxx movement, climate change denial, protests against stem cell research, and other movements like these are rooted in the spread of misinformation and a distrust of science.
"I had been taught intelligent design and young-earth creationism instead of evolution, geology, and biology."
Science illiteracy is pervasive in the communities responsible for these movements. For the mainstream, the challenge lies not in sharing the facts, but in combating the spread of misinformation and facilitating an open dialogue between experts and nonexperts.
I grew up in a household that was deeply skeptical of science and medicine. My parents are evangelical Christians who believe the word of the Bible is law. To protect my four siblings and me from secular influence, they homeschooled some of us and put the others in private Christian schools. When my oldest brother left for a Christian college and the tuition began to add up, I was placed in a public charter school to offset the costs.
There, I became acutely aware of my ignorant upbringing. I had been taught intelligent design and young-earth creationism instead of evolution, geology, and biology. My mother skipped over world religions, and much of my history curriculum was more biblical-based than factual. She warned me that stem cell research, vaccines, genetic modification of crops, and other areas of research in biological science were examples of humans trying to be like God. At the time, biologist Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion was a bestseller and science seemed like an excuse to not believe in God, so she and my father discouraged me from studying it.
The gaps in my knowledge left me feeling frustrated and embarrassed. The solution was to learn about the things that had been censored from my education, but several obstacles stood in the way.
"When I first learned about fundamentalism, my parents' behavior finally made sense."
I lacked a good foundation in basic mathematics after being taught by my mother, who never graduated college. My father, who holds a graduate degree in computer science, repeatedly told me that I inherited my mother's "bad math genes" and was therefore ill-equipped for science. While my brothers excelled at math under his supervision and were even encouraged toward careers in engineering and psychology, I was expected to do well in other subjects, such as literature. When I tried to change this by enrolling in honors math and science classes, they scolded me -- so reluctantly, I dropped math. By the time I graduated high school, I was convinced that math and science were beyond me.
When I look back at my high school transcripts, that sense of failure was unfounded: my grades were mostly A's and B's, and I excelled in honors biology. Even my elementary standardized test scores don't reflect a student disinclined toward STEM, because I consistently scored in the top percentile for sciences. Teachers often encouraged me to consider studying science in college. Why then, I wondered, did my parents reject that idea? Why did they work so hard to sway me from that path? It wasn't until I moved away from my parents' home and started working to put myself through community college that I discovered my passion for both biology and science writing.
As a young adult venturing into the field of science communication, I've become fascinated with understanding communities that foster antagonistic views toward science. When I first learned about fundamentalism, my parents' behavior finally made sense. It is the foundation of the Religious Right, a right-wing Christian group which heavily influences the Republican party in the United States. The Religious Right crusades against secular education, stem cell research, abortion, evolution, and other controversial issues in science and medicine on the basis that they contradict Christian beliefs. They are quietly overturning the separation of church and state in order to enforce their religion as policy -- at the expense of science and progress.
Growing up in this community, I learned that strong feelings about these issues arise from both a lack of science literacy and a distrust of experts. Those who are against genetic modification of crops don't understand that GMO research aims to produce more, and longer-lasting, food for a growing planet. The anti-vaxx movement is still relying on a deeply flawed study that was ultimately retracted. Those who are against stem cell research don't understand how it works or the important benefits it provides the field of medicine, such as discovering new treatment methods.
In fact, at one point the famous Christian radio show Focus on the Family spread anti-vaxx mentality when they discussed vaccines that, long ago, were derived from aborted fetal cells. Although Focus on the Family now endorses vaccines, at the time it was enough to convince my own mother, who listened to the show every morning, not to vaccinate us unless the law required it.
"In everyday interactions with skeptics, science communicators need to shift their focus from convincing to discussing."
We can help clear up misunderstandings by sharing the facts, but the real challenge lies in willful ignorance. It was hard for me to accept, but I've come to understand that I'm not going to change anyone's mind. It's up to an individual to evaluate the facts, consider the arguments for and against, and make his or her own decision.
As my parents grew older and my siblings and I introduced them to basic concepts in science, they came around to trusting the experts a little more. They now see real doctors instead of homeopathic practitioners. They acknowledge our world's changing climate instead of denying it. And they even applaud two of their children for pursuing careers in science. Although they have held on to their fundamentalism and we still disagree on many issues, these basic changes give me hope that people in deeply skeptical communities are not entirely out of reach.
In everyday interactions with skeptics, science communicators need to shift their focus from convincing to discussing. This means creating an open dialogue with the intention of being understanding and helpful, not persuasive. This approach can be beneficial in both personal and online interactions. There are people within these movements who have doubts, and their doubts will grow as we continue to feed them through discussion.
People will only change their minds when it is the right time for them to do so. We need to be there ready to hold their hand and lead them toward truth when they reach out. Until then, all we can do is keep the channels of communication open, keep sharing the facts, and fight the spread of misinformation. Science is the pursuit of truth, and as scientists and science communicators, sometimes we need to let the truth speak for itself. We're just there to hold the megaphone.
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.