Anti-Vaccine Advcoates are Wrong, but can we Change Their Minds?

Yesterday I listened to this NPR Science Friday segment on the disagreement between scientists and the public on key issues. As I have been reading posts on Facebook and twitter about the measles outbreak and condemnation of people who do not vaccinate their children I asked myself, are these posts making a difference?

Sadly the answer might be no. Michael LaCour on the podcast discusses his study on changing minds on gay marriage and then studies vaccine education. Sadly the education campaigns the CDC put out that were studied did not lead more vaccination. Even more jarring are the two phone conversations in the podcasts between scientists and skeptics about vaccines and genetically modified foods. In both cases the skeptics decline to switch their positions despite the evidence and data presented to them. It turns out that knowing the truth is only half the battle, it has to be communicated effectively.

While LaCour seems to think that people are only persuaded by vulnerable people telling stories face-to-face, I think that there are other ways to communicate facts effectively and we just have to find them. In 2011 Barack Obama released his long-form birth certificate and after doing so the population of people who believed he was born outside the United States plummeted. Not only was the birth certificate definitive proof, but it also showed the skeptics to be frauds.

How to Learn to Code

I started coding when I was in middle school. I taught myself through a combination of experimentation, searching the Internet, a book I received, and an intensive summer school class. Many years later I am still learning. I do not call myself a software developer or professional programmer, rather I view myself as a hacker. I am also not a professional teacher with a background and understanding of learning theory. However the failures and roadblocks you encounter over time are experience when they happen to you, but then become wisdom when shared with others and I think that we have a shortage of wisdom in this arena.

You probably want to know what to do first. I recommend dipping your toes into the water with some HTML and CSS, probably through Codecademy. These are fairly quick languages to get the basics down in and you will get the most bang for your buck in seeing immediate results. It is also a necessary skill for working with other web programming languages like Javascript or Ruby and PHP. Even if you start down this path and later decide you have no interest in programming you will find knowing HTML and CSS to be useful in any job where you have to wrestle with Wordpress or another content management system.

You probably noticed you are not making apps on your computer yet. I think the next good step is to build your foundation through Harvard’s CS50 course. I did not do this but I watched all the lecture videos last year and they are well done.1 You will learn the basics of computer science and at the end have the vocabulary to move on to whatever other adventures intrigue you. The advantage of CS50 over other courses or material is that there is a large volume of material and network of learners that you can draw upon to supplement your learning and fill-in the gaps. A frequent problem I encounter when learning programming is that tutorials will assume a piece of basic knowledge that I do not have or a revision in software will cause a change in behavior that I cannot explain. Much of the pain of learning involves trying to distill what I am missing. CS50 will spare you much of this pain.

Once you have learned the foundation then a problems, references, and examples model is what will guide you right in the future. Define a specific problem like creating a map of Connecticut election results and Google how to tackle it. Break it down into steps, you will be surprised how many little speed bumps you go over. Consult the reference for whatever programming language or framework you use relgiously. If you encounter a roadblock more likely than not someone on Stackoverflow has encountered it too. Once you build your own project, congratulations, you are a programmer!

  1. I learned the foundational concepts of programming from AP Computer Science. It was taught in Java which I have not used since. Programmers will waste time debating the merits of different languages. Once you learn a few the basics are similar and you just spend your time learning common functions, data types, and the different syntax conventions. Stick with the one that works for you and do not waste time learning new languages for a while unless it is necessary. 

FullContact for iOS

A while back I recommended CoBook for contact management and syncing on the Mac. They were acquired by FullContact and the other day they finally released an updated iOS application.. This provides a gateway to easily sync your iCloud contacts over to your Google account. I also find the UI easier to use to update contacts. The only downside is it does not yet seem to have a mode where iCloud can be the canonical place where all your contacts live, and I am hopeful they fix this soon.

Ezra Klein on the Intersection of Technology and News

Ezra Klein has some great thoughts on the future of news and what has worked at in this video:

I Know if You Voted Last November

Nearly nine years ago two political scientists at Yale conducted an experiment to see whether publicizing the voting histories of individuals to their neighbors would increase voter turnout. This strategy took many years to catch on and started to come into vogue in 2010. Here in the land of steady habits we remained largely oblvious to what our Ivy League university had unleashed unto the rest of the world until the last election cycle. After the two parties deployed this tactic last year there was a lot of discussion about big data boogeymen and whether voting records should be public.

Connecticut has broad freedom of information statute that makes government records public unless they fall into an exemption. In practice information has different levels of accessibility depending on how it is produced and who uses it. One of the records that government maintains is the voting history of each individual. While people involved in politics are aware that this is public information it does not seem to be the case that the general public is aware.1

The reason voting records are public is not merely because it is helpful for parties to reach out to voters, but because it is a check against the validity of an election. A citizen can request a copy of the voter roll for a precinct and compare the number of people that are crossed off as having voted to the number of ballots that were cast at the precinct. If fraud is suspected they can go back to the voters on the rolls to ask them about whether or not they actually voted. If voting records were private then compromised poll workers could cast ballots for one candidate or another and then check off names and we would never know the election was compromised.

So I think it would be foolish to make voting records private. We do not want to lose this check and balance in our democracy. Furthermore voting records are used by campaigns to try and boost voter turnout. All things being equal we should prefer to live in a world where there is more voter turnout than a world with less voter turnout. Government should do the easy things that lead to more turnout whether it is giving parties the data they need to contact supporters or make it easier to register to vote online. Sometimes public information will be misused or unintended uses will occur but if there is a large public backlash I do not believe that parties will continue to deploy tactics that upset their voters.

  1. This has likely changed. 

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This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.