Nerf Guns and Neophytes

So there was this kid. He posted a really great video. He made it himself. He wrote it himself. It was pretty awesome. He has an interest in science, so he championed a science cause. The video has been seen over a million times! Nothing I’ve ever written has been viewed that many times, and I doubt ever will. Props to him. Seriously. Kudos.

And it ignited a shit storm to end all shit storms.

And it ignited a shit storm to end all shit storms.

The kid, who tells us his name is Marco Arturo in the adorable video, tells the world that he has all the proof that vaccines cause harm. After the obvious reveal, an empty file folder, he does a hammy little mic drop. It’s the kind of thing that’s adorable when you’re twelve… and Mike Myers when you’re a grown up. But he is twelve, and this kid has internet star power.

 

Rachel Parent from  her page, A Kid’s Right To Know.

Rachel Parent from  her page, A Kid’s Right To Know.

There’s this other kid, she’s a bit older. About three years ago now, when she was just fourteen, Rachel Parent became the voice of anti-GMO. She has a blog post, organization page, and YouTube channel, and purports to tell kids all about GMOs. She’s less hammy, and more hippy dippy sweet, but manages to be just as successful in her niche.

 

Both these kids are smart, articulate, good looking, and media savvy. They’ve also both become representatives for a cause. And that’s what I want to talk about today. Remember when the girl who played Matilda wrote about how terrible it was for her fellow child actors? Remember how we all thought parents shouldn’t do that to their kids? Well, I don’t know, but I’m feeling a little dirty for the way these two kids have been adopted (or vilified) by opposing sides in very contentious debates. What does a twelve year old, or even a junior high school aged child know about politics, economics, health, regulatory policy, agriculture, big business, or the terrible media shit storm that comes when your video reaches a million hits? Well, they are finding out that last one. Unfairly, it seems to me.

When Rachel Parentwent on television to respond to Kevin O’Leary’s pro GMO statements, he handled her with kid gloves. Afraid to sound like more of an ass than most of the world already takes him for, he danced around and didn’t confront her as he would have an adult. That’s the advantage of being a kid in this game. Responsible grown ups just won’t attack you the way they would an adult opponent. To be fair, he’s a financial guy, not an agricultural scientist or medical doctor. He couldn’t be expected to really address her complaints. He made statements based on other people’s expert opinions. If they wanted to refute those claims, they would have done better to get an actual expert to debate his experts. The Canadian Broadcast Company apparently thought this would be cuter and get more ratings. I’m sure they know ratings better than a third rate, hack author like me, so I’ll give them that. But is getting ratings at the expense of science right? Is pitting a grown man against a young girl fair to either of them? What is lost here, is the truth.

Kid gloves? That doesn’t sound gentle to me.

Kid gloves? That doesn’t sound gentle to me.

Now what happens in a few years, when she is an annoying college student, not a pretty young junior high schooler, and some smarter grad student puts her in her place? That’s gonna sting. It’s ok, college is a place where your views are supposed to be challenged and we all get a few stings when we’re trying out our ideas publicly. Is this girl prepared for that? I hope so. I don’t think so, though, based on what we’ve seen so far. She has few facts on her side. She has memorized talking points that she doesn’t seem to even fully grasp because she doesn’t have to. For instance, her claim that,

I was shocked to learn that our government wasn’t doing any independent studies on GMOs but was relying on studies by the biotech companies, the very companies that stood to gain from their approval. TEDx 2014

This is simply false. Studies by the companies asking for approval have always been the standard for any product. That’s how the government makes sure the company getting the benefit, also bears the cost. But those aren’t the only studies used. That’s absurd. And a simple Google search would reveal a good many independent studies, many of which have been used by US and Canadian authorities in deciding whether to approve particular GMOs or not. It doesn’t matter, though. This is a well rehearsed talking point that anti-GMO advocates cling to tenaciously.

Her many followers will defend her reflexively from any questioning. Anyone who says she’s wrong will be attacked as a bully for questioning a child. At the same time, anyone who speaks to her as a child will be told they are patronizing her. It’s a no-win situation for her challengers. Even though O’Leary bent over backward and let her get away with evasiveness, sound bites, and utter nonsense, he’s the declared loser. Headlines from online blogs to traditional news outlets declare that Kevin O’Leary got “schooled” by the teen. Sorry, he really, really, didn’t. She really, really, said nothing, won no debate points. But that’s how popularity contests work. Anyone any kid comes up against, is automatically and without question a bully, or a fool, and possibly both at the same time.

Unless it's this kid. Kid Kaplan.

Unless it's this kid. Kid Kaplan.

But it’s also no-win for her. She’s not getting challenged on any of her claims. She isn’t getting a chance to sharpen her rhetorical claws now, before adulthood. Most of us build on our initial assumptions over time, dropping some bits that we discover are either incorrect, or merely unsupportable, and adding others that are more sound. Over time our entire position may get stood on its head, or may become stronger and more nuanced. It’s easiest to do this when we haven’t too publicly revealed our not-yet-ready-for-primetime views. It’s hard enough to change your mind, without having to overcome public humiliation in the process. Not being that well known, and not having any particular consequences tied to one’s opinions, helps most young people form their adult opinions, mostly embarrassment free. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get that time behind the curtain to do that sort of growing and polishing; she’s in the spotlight now, and that spotlight is unlikely to dim as she gets older.

Things stick around on the internet for a long, long time. When she’s forty, people will still be pulling up old memes and asking her why she thinks GMOs cause cancer? They’ve already debunked nearly everything she has ever posted anywhere, line by line in some cases. They aren’t going to be as reticent about attacking her when she’s forty, or even seventeen, as Mr. Wonderful was when she was a cute fourteen-year-old. She may not even have these same opinions by then, but they will follow her and cling on like burs on pants hems. And so far, she has shown no desire to learn anything new, nor to even listen to counter arguments. She seems to have become solidified in her thinking before her twenty-first birthday, and that’s pretty sad.

This is a rough and tumble business for someone not yet old enough to vote. There is real critiquing of science opinions. It isn’t like posting your poetry on your My Space page. Peer review isn’t just for journals. It is part and parcel of the scientific process. John Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project, pointed out that the teen may be more influenced by her parents’ health food and nutritional supplements business than a public spokesperson should be. And let’s be clear, some people aren’t waiting until she’s forty to directly attack Parent and her views. She’s been called a fascist cunt by at least one blogger. While this isn’t appropriate language to level at any child, the blogger who insulted her points out a sad fact. Rachel’s parents and adult mentors have led her into this war zone, and then asked the adults to fire Nerf guns, while she sprays real bullets indiscriminately. It’s everything wrong with letting children run front and center in grown up confrontations. It handicaps the adults, abuses the kids, and does violence to the truth. Public debate takes a back seat to sentimentalism and emotion. It is, in the words of Penn and Teller’s old show, bullshit. 

And what of Marco? Well, you’d think being younger, he’d get even more gentle treatment. Internet fame doesn’t necessarily work that way. While real TV personalities like Mr. O’Leary have to be careful of their reputations, and therefore tend to be circumspect in the things they say to children, and about them, lesser known online opponents feel no such fear for their careers. Arturo told Buzzfeed,

Some people tell me I should have been aborted, others tell me I’m an annoying autistic child, and others that I’m the living proof that vaccines cause retardation.

Middle aged adults feel perfectly comfortable saying they would like to “throat punch” this twelve year old. At least one blogger published personal information about him and repeatedly called him a puppet. Others led an online effort to get him kicked off Facebook by repeatedly reporting him as underage.

So can Marco Arturo benefit from his acceptance as a science advocate for vaccines? Yes, of course. He’ll probably be offered TV appearances, scholarships, and possibly gifts. But will he gain a more nuanced approach to his positions, hard won knowledge wrought from criticism and debate? Well, not if his supporters have anything to say. Now to be clear, I’m one of those supporters, and they can’t all be painted with the same broad brush. That said, there’s a disturbing tendency to circle the wagons when we feel attacked.

Young Marco chose one of the most contentious of science stances to comment on. That’s why he has over a million views. It’s also what has brought out the usual suspects and trolls. Some anti-vax or vaccine hesitant commenters remained civil and merely disagreed. Some just seemed to come unhinged. And some wrote pages long blog posts about his video. And this brought out the mob mentality in otherwise civilized and logical people. How dare you question anything he has to say? Why are they picking on a kid?

When you’re asking that of a grown woman who suggested he’d think himself a “prick” when he grows up, that’s a pretty good question to ask. Why would you say that to a twelve-year-old? But when you ask that of anyone who actually addresses the content of anything he said, you’ve crossed the line into team US v team THEM. And that’s where it gets scary.

In a rather well stated reply to one of these attacks, Arturo himself made a misstatement. It wasn’t the end of the world. It wasn’t a terribly big deal. It was an overly casual use of a bad statistic about the dangers of cola. Tossed out as almost a throwaway, it was the very casualness of how he used it that annoyed my skeptical curmudgeon side. I had to correct the record. Yeah, I know, somebody’s wrong on the internet! Now that’s that, and Mr. Arturo felt no need to reply. Nothing I wrote was rude, condescending, patronizing, or mean spirited. So imagine my surprise when several people opined that I was being meanie pants (nope) or nit-picky. (Of course I was! I was commenting on a skeptical page where nit-picking is the order of the day.) The same thing many of us in the skeptical and science loving community have complained about in the case of Parent above, is being repeated in the case of boy genius, Marco Arturo, albeit not yet on the same grand scale. 

Kids, like adult science writers, need feedback, criticism, and occasional correcting. We’ve all written something, failing to take into consideration some detail that really makes a difference, or dashed off a reply hastily, without bothering to check our citations or verify our facts. If we work together in the skeptical community, we act as a self-correcting body where consensus brings us closer to validity. But if we throw up defensive walls and refuse to allow any dissent or critique, we lose that self-correcting feature. Our views can start to veer off into woo or ideology with nothing acting as a brake. Arturo and Parent need this self-correcting brake as much as we adults do, possibly more, and we deny it to them when we handle them with kid gloves. In the service of protecting them from those who want to “punt” them in the face, we inhibit their intellectual growth. Worse, we can’t really protect them from the bullies, the loons, the haters, and the trolls. We can’t even prevent them from being doxed or intimidated. What we can do is support them less by posting meaningless attaboys like “You’re awesome, kid. Don’t let them get you down.” And support them more by saying, “Great point about A, but I see a problem with how you related c to d.” The same way you would to a respected colleague, because they are. They either are, or they should not be on the playing field at all.

If I had my druthers, no one under the age of nineteen would be a spokesperson for anything more than Girl Scout Cookies and Boy Scout Popcorn. They could have and express their opinions, and get feedback on them, without becoming media darlings. Give them their childhood anonymity. Let them be kids, scrape their knees, say stupid things, stick their tongues out at grown ups, and just grow. But no one asked me. Marco Arturo and Rachel Parent are in the limelight now, and others will follow their footsteps. We can do them the great and good favor of critiquing their work politely and engaging them professionally. No free passes, no mob of protection. And when anyone says anything so hateful as they wish she were raped, or that he would get autism, we can correct them with all the force we’d otherwise reserve for dentists who kill lions or ladies whose kids fall into gorilla enclosures.