This weekend’s This American Life radio program was a bellyfull of Christmas candy (including the accompanying stomach ache) for the writer and readers of this blog. The program, “Ruining It for the Rest of Us,” opened with an interview with researcher Will Phelps Felps, who conducts research on “bad apples” in the workplace (aka bullies), and how they can take over an office culture. His conclusions? The bad news is that bad apples can single-handedly commandeer a workplace culture and drive it into the ditch. He hired an actor to play one of three “bad apple” types: the bullying jerk (who attacks and insults people), the slacker, and the depressive pessimist.
The good news is that leadership by another person can counteract the effect of the bad apple. This person doesn’t directly confront the bully, but instead asks questions, engages team members, and works to diffuse conflicts. (This happened in only one group, however; in every other test case Phelps Felps ran, the bad apple dominated the group, and the other group members took on the bad apple’s characteristics.) This segment is only 5 minutes long, and it’s right at the start of the program, so if you’re interested in workplace bullying issues, click here to listen for free. By the way, the This American Life website doesn’t list Phelps‘s Felps’s name or his affiliation, and my efforts to try to locate his research with EBSCOhost databases and the google have failed. I’m not sure I’ve even got his name spelled right (and in fact I didn’t, as you can see from the edits above. This is bad form, This American Life. Any time you interview a researcher, you really should at least provide hir name and affiliation on your website, if not also link to hir publications.)
The program’s main feature was an exploration of a recent outbreak of measles in San Diego caused by a family who refused to vaccinate their children. The story features an interview with an anti-vaxer who is friends with the family that brought the disease to San Diego, which sickened dozens of children, and with a woman whose 11 month old son was a victim of the outbreak. If this woman’s description of measles doesn’t lead everyone listening to run out and vaccinate their kids, then I don’t know what will. The ultimate message of the program is that both the anti-vaxer camp and the pro-vaxer camp are utterly entrenched in their rival views of medicine and science. However, these camps are hardly morally equivalent: one camp is actively punching holes in herd immunity, which puts at risk infants too young for the vaccine as well as people whose immune systems are compromised. Moreover, the anti-vaxer camp’s beliefs are utterly evidence-free and based on magical thinking.
The magical thinking of the anti-vaxer crowd is very well documented in a riveting new book by Paul A. Offit called Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure (Columbia University Press, 2008). Offit, the chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, documents the financial self-interest and evidence-free claims of the hucksters who prey on the parents of autistic children and who have created unfounded public skepticism of the safety and value of vaccinations. Of course, peer-reviewed study after peer-reviewed study has demonstrated absolutely no link between vaccinations and autism. Offit shows how once the false belief that the MMR vaccine caused autism was debunked in 2004, anti-vax hysteria shifted to the use of mercury-based thimerosal as a vaccine preservative. Thimerosal has been phased out of vaccines, and yet children are still diagnosed with autism. I’m sure they’ll come up with a new pretend cause they can profit from again.
Offit’s descriptions of the thuggery and threats he has endured from the anti-vaxer crowd are sobering, and are reminiscent of the menacing that abortion providers have suffered. He writes,
[w]hile I was on a federal advisory committee to the [Center for Disease Control]–one that had made recommendations about the use of the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal in vaccines–I got a death threat. A man from Seattle wrote, “I will hang you by your neck until you are dead!” I called the CDC, which sent the e-mail to the Department of Justice, which sent it to the FBI. The threat was deemed credible, and for the next few years an armed guard was placed at the back of advisory committee meetings; for the first few months, he followed me to and from lunch, a gun hanging at his side. The mail room at my hospital regularly checks my mail for suspicious letters and packages.
Well, no good deed goes unpunished, eh? A lifetime devoted to stamping out pediatric disease–what a selfish bastard.
Here’s something that those of us who are too young to have ever had a pal suffer from measles or to have seen a friend in an iron lung need to remember: civilization is a privilege. Have a little respect for how we got here, and how lucky you are to be living at this point in human history. Along with taxes, vaccination is the price we must pay to maintain civilization. If you choose not to vaccinate, then you must also choose not to enjoy public services like neighborhoods, parks, roads, utilities, public transportation, day care centers, preschools, churches, schools, community colleges, universities, supermarkets, shopping malls, and the like. By all means, go do your Swiss Family Robinson thing, but please do it in splendid isolation from the rest of us. Homeschool your kids, grow your own food, and pave your own roads, so that the innocent or the unfortunate aren’t victimized by your exaggerated fear of imaginary problems.