Mayim Bialik is a problematic ambassador for science

Mayim Bialik is an actress. She grew up playing TV's "Blossom," and recently has surfaced again on television as Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, a neurobiologist on "The Big Bang Theory." In between, she went to college and on to grad school, receiving a PhD in neuroscience. She is a "Brand Ambassador" for Texas Instruments and is this year's featured speaker at the National Science Teachers' Association conference.

She is also anti-vaccine, and a spokesperson for the "holistic mom's network," which eschews much that modern medicine has to offer and features several prominent anti-vaccine advocates on its advisory board.

Reactions have been mixed regarding her gig at the NSTA convention. Skeptical raptor thinks it's OK as long as she's just talking about her path to science (presumably, something like this article in Nature) (he clarifies here as well). Hemant Mehta (himself a math teacher) thinks not so OK, and I lean much more that way. As I noted on the Skeptical Raptor's Facebook page, she may really like science, but the fact is that her position on vaccines undermines not only the science, but also the very *scientists* who do such work. She's saying that some science is great, but other parts shouldn't be believed and accepted. This is not cool or acceptable for such a big-name speaker.

That's not to say that there are not controversial areas within science, or that everyone has to agree on every point. Certainly there are many areas which are fraught with controversy, and which we're working to understand. But the basics of vaccines are not one of them. Certainly people would be outraged to see Michael Behe or another prominent evolution denier from the Discovery Institute or Answers in Genesis speaking at this conference, even though they may also have a PhD and, likely, a love of science. In Bialik's case, she is *actively endangering the lives of others,* but because she's a fellow science lover, it's OK to give her a podium and additional notoriety? No.

Further, because she's a PhD, many give her views on vaccines more weight than someone like Jenny McCarthy (who lacks any formal science training and is easier to write off), even though Bialik also lacks training in microbiology and immunology. In my opinion, that makes it even more important to avoid legitimizing her vaccine opinions.

Bottom line: if you love science, don't actively undermine a part of it that actually affects the everyday lives of millions of people, and if you're a company or organization who is promoting science, please don't choose as a spokesperson or honored speaker someone who does this.


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She has clarified she's NOT anti-vaccine. She said she discusses with her pediatrist on which vaccines are actually necessary and which ones are not, but that her kids do have most vaccines. She even mentioned during an interview on TV some days ago about getting polio vaccines before travelling to Israel.

How has she undermined the science of vaccines? I understand that she has made a choice not to follow the ACIP recommended schedule, but she has not (to my knowledge) denigrated the science behind vaccinations.

Nina, do you have a source for that? Everyone says they're "not anti-vaccine" but her actions have shown otherwise.


How do you define anti-vaccine? It seems to me that someone who gets some vaccines but not necessarily all is NOT anti-vaccine, but many people seem to feel that anyone who questions the decision to forgo or delay any vaccination for their children is considered anti-vaccine. Where do you draw the line?

Sure, here…

and where she says her kids are vaccinated took the polio vaccine before travelling thing is on this interview with Howard Stern

What she says, basically is that it is necessary to be informed about vaccines and do research and then decide, which, IMO is not being anti-vaccine.

My mom did that with me & my sisters after a measles vaccine almost killed me when I was 9 months old (that vaccine was later taken out of circulation here in my country after killing several children). Since then she did her research assisted by her pediatrist before administering the vaccines and decided on which ones were necessary/not-so-necessary/potentially-dangerous and which ones were not. That, IMO is not being anti-vaccine.

Beth, here is why I define her as such:… At the end, she trots out the old canards of the anti-vaccine movement, and links to two books by anti-vaccine doctors. (And yes, they are. See more here on Feder… and Dr. Bob Sears's latest rant against measles vaccine here:…).

I haven't seen the Howard Stern interview yet, but will watch it when I have the chance so I'll see if her position is more nuanced than she's previously presented it when she declared "they were a non-vaccinating family." Even if she has decided to vaccinate with a few, based on what I've seen and linked here and above, I would still put her in the anti-vaccine camp. She is promoting writings of anti-vaccine advocates and serves as a spokesperson for a group which is led by such. She is promulgating unfounded fears of the vaccines which are unsupported by scientific studies. Hence, she is not a respectable advocate for science.

I would have to say that "OK" probably overstates my position. I'm torn between her woo-ish views, especially on vaccination, versus having a popular woman with a real Ph.D. in a real science from a real university advocate strongly for teachers and learning science.

I find her anti-vaccination stance disgusting, but she has said little about it over the past couple of years. And she's specifically asked to not discuss period, and she hasn't. If she's a leader of the anti-vaxx movement, they ought to quit now, because I don't know how much she really invests in that movement. I'm more concerned about Diane Harper's lies and prevarication.

Yes, the Nature article is kind of what I thought she'd be doing.

By SkepticalRaptor (not verified) on 28 Mar 2014 #permalink


Thanks for the response. By 'old canards' did you mean "Children today get about four times as many vaccines as the average 35-year-old did when we were kids." That was the only thing I thought would fit that description and I don't understand why it is considered a cannard. Isn't it true?

What 'unfounded fears' were promoted? So far, I haven't seen her make any claims that autism is connected to vaccinations, although I might have missed that as I'm not a fan of her TV shows and don't read her blog. I've only read some of the stuff that's been linked to. She did mention someone she knows had a brother that suffered brain-damage as a vaccine reaction, but while that's rare, it does happen, so it's not IMO an unfounded fear.

She indicated the books she used to make her decision. I understand that you don't approve of them, (I haven't read them, so can't comment) but I don't that as an egregious overstepping of bounds on her part.

Even if she has decided to vaccinate with a few, based on what I’ve seen and linked here and above, I would still put her in the anti-vaccine camp.

Why? I don't understand this attitude. It's certainly common, but why is someone considered anti-vax when they accept some vaccines? This would to indicate that such a person/parent accepts the science behind vaccinations and that they do work to prevent disease.

Beth, yes. It's one of those things that is technically true on the surface, but is meant only to frighten parents away from vaccination (otherwise, why would more vaccines be a bad thing? You're protecting them from more diseases!) The fact is that there are actually fewer antigens that kids are exposed to now via vaccines than there were when I was a kid, largely because the pertussis vaccine has been modified.

Those books likewise peddle the same thing--half-truths that are meant to scare parents that are not supported by science. I still can't listen to the Stern interview (traveling currently) and if she's taken some vaccines, great, but even if so her message remains that scientists are mistaken about vaccine safety and efficacy and parents should be hesitant to accept them according to schedule--and as such, she's promoting anti-science views, which is the whole point of my reservations about her.

Skeptical Raptor, thanks for your comments. I'll link them into the post as well.

When did advocating that people read books and make their own decisions become "anti-" anything? I'm as exasperated at the anti-vaccine movement as I can be, but this woman, it appears to me, to try and stay out of places where she uses her fame to influence others on this issue and when forced, gives people sources of information she found useful and asks them to decide for themselves. How does that make her wrong, other than to be on the side you are not?

By Rick Fletcher (not verified) on 29 Mar 2014 #permalink

The problem is that she is posing as a science advocate, but the recommendations she is making for reading and the groups she is supporting (Holistic moms network) are not based in science. it would be like having a supposed to science advocate recommending that people check out books from the Discovery Institute or Answers in Genesis.

Beth, besides the half-truths Tara pointed out, these claims aren't made in a vaccuum. There is a long history of the anti-vaccine movement, and if you've followed it for years like I'm sure she and most other science bloggers have, you begin to recognize the veiled (but still lame) attempts at undermine science. Unsuspecting people can think these arguments are reasonable cause they seem so on the surface.

Just like with the creationist "intelligent design" movement, they evolve when people catch on to their lies. As Tara said, very few antivaxers will claim now to be anti-vax. They now say they're for separate vaccines (a trend that Wakefield himself promoted back in the day cause he had patents for a separate measles vaccine), or that overy oft-repeated half truth about the "too many too soon" vaccines.

They should replace her with Neil de Grasse Tyson.

By Laurel Kornfeld (not verified) on 28 Apr 2014 #permalink

Putting people into camps (even virtual ones) based on their opinions or statements and then advocating for dismissing them, not inviting them, etc, and defaming them... how is that different in spirit than a 15th century witch hunt? Sad thing is, this is the common state of the "science community". Pathetic.

She actually believes in homeopathy from what I understand.

By Michael Bart (not verified) on 03 May 2014 #permalink

I think Miss Bialik has become a feather in the cap, so to speak, for the anti-vax movement, because she's one of very few legitimate famous people that actually has a PhD, of course in an unrelated field, but a PhD, no less. It would appear that she has their undying devotion now, encouraging them to question the merits of established science without advocating the use of the scientific method as their approach, rather, they're depending, primarily, on anecdotal and unscientific conjecture to arrive at a large cross-section of their absolute conclusions and "undeniable facts." In which case, all it takes is stating their fallacious arguments, repeatedly, until it becomes "fact."
The only information that they'll typically warm up to is anything which they feel supports their ire over vaccine science and other related views, even if it's mostly conjecture, anecdotal and untested data.
If you attempt to provide anything to the contrary, it's like your the enemy now, they shut you off and tune you out, and quite frankly, that is one if the frightening outcomes of her influence; to be far more stubborn than ever before, feeling they've reached a critical point of empirical superiority.
Hearing this all from what they construe to be a "trusted doctor" only because she confirms their fears, whereas any other doctor not in line with their beliefs are considered, without question, to be quacks, when it's the other way around, and it's all they needed to see to rest upon their laurels and say, "See, I knew it! One of their own has turned on them and was 'brave enough' to take a stand, so it must be true, her assessment must be well-reasoned. Because, she wouldn't follow something that lacked empirical evidence because she's a doctor, of course." And this is why I feel they believe her to be a feather in their cap!
Yes, her suspicions about vaccines may have more of a scientific basis and the reading she's done may have been well-written enough to compel her to approach vaccines in this current light, but it's still only anecdotal in terms of her personal decisions and reasoning, as well as, their untested opinions and reason; she is not a researcher in this field, she's not testing these hypotheses or having her data peer-reviewed to establish a causal relationship between vaccines and a litany of purported reactions, illnesses and outcomes.
So, in summary, I find her to be an incredibly irresponsible individual; to knowingly advocate for something in this manner when she is far better educated than most in this realm, in particular Jenny McCarthy and jokes like Dr. Sears, to truly know better. She didn't earn her certificate from the University of Phoenix, she has a legitimate PhD and there's absolutely no excuse for her actions here. And yet she now seems to have recused herself of any responsibility and backed away from this conversation in recent years, pretending to be neutral on the subject, all the while leaving her past assessments on vaccination and her great distrust of epidemiology and immunology out in the open for people to take as they will without her providing any amendments to address the former.
She has not come out against herself, she leads people on to the notion that epidemiology and immunology is just bad science and it's not to be trusted, even though, without it, there would be far, far greater suffering, death and illness in the world. I couldn't be more disgusted with her and her abuses of her PhD and her fame from a science-based hit sitcom.

I am in agreement re two camps. People are so quick to judge/comment/dismiss. "Disgusting" stance on vaccines? Cmon, she's not an idiot.

By sandrakaydee (not verified) on 16 May 2014 #permalink

I am in agreement with Hugo. People are so quick to judge/comment/dismiss. "Disgusting" stance on vaccines? Cmon, she's not an idiot. When my kids were little I didn't take my advice from celebs, even "smurt 'uns". These comments are counter productive nonsense.

By sandrakaydee (not verified) on 16 May 2014 #permalink

I have several questions for people that vehemently defend vaccinating children on the current (ridiculous) schedule ~49 doses before the age of six?

1) How many expert bio-medical researchers/lab techs/doctors claim to be an expert and fully understand all of the potential side-effects of any of the current vaccines out on the market?

2) Over the course of three decades, what other correlating factor could possibly account for the increased rate of diagnosed autism go from ~1/1,000 to ~1/80, other than better recognition and diagnosis?

3) If the CDC/NIH stand so strongly behind their viewpoint on vaccination, and have pumped millions and millions of dollars into studying the effects of vaccines on children, why haven't they (still) conducted a survey and study to compare if there are apparent different health outcomes in the the vaccinated population vs. the vaccinated population... Seems logical, especially since so much attention, money and research has gone into this topic in the last decade, wouldn't conducting this research be comparatively simple to other research that's already been done, and be pretty vital information for anyone trying to educate themselves on the topic? (…)

4) Even if you don't want to debate any of the questions asked above, why was the Vaccine Injury Compensation program established, and settlements/verdicts in courts are actively RIGHT NOW, TODAY, deciding in favor of/paying out retribution to families that bring charges against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service for believing vaccines contributed to their child having autism? (, . Most settlements to date have included the caveat that although they are settling with the prosecution, they are not relenting to the charge that vaccines did in fact cause autism. Most recent cases however are NOT including this caveat, although they are not explicitly acknowledging that they believe vaccines are responsible either.

Before, pharmaceutical companies that produced the vaccines were responsible for this. The US government realized early on this was not sustainable and there would be no companies to massively produce these vaccines if the current course was allowed to play out, so they created the Vaccine Injury Compensation program and vaccine court and don't hold pharmaceutical companies liable if they correctly go through the current process of making a vaccine safe for public consumption.

I'm not a medical doctor (I have my grad degree in Computer Science/Mathematics), so I am intelligent enough to read through and understand all of the current medical testing/studies done on current vaccines and whether they contribute to the development of autism in children, and I've read a great deal of credible medical journal publications/online articles on the subject in the last decade. As far as that goes, all I can do is take medical researchers' word for it, as it should also apply for the rest of the majority population, but most people seem to think that all of the research published by medical experts is their own and tout it as a universal truth. How many emerging studies/publications have you read about in the last decade that reverse the majority understanding and safe use of a particular drug/vaccine? How many get recalled every year by the FDA??? I can also ask the CDC/NIH the same questions that seems to repeatedly be asked by vaccine skeptics, and then wonder why the hell there usually aren't any straight answers. I understand there is a realistic and legitimate reason to be afraid of exposing frightening statistics and research to the general population that would cause a massive vaccine outcry, and possibly lead to epidemic outbreaks and in many cases the unnecessary loss of life for preventable diseases. That is a legitimate fear of the CDC/NIH, and why so much of the behind-the-scenes acknowledgment of the problems vaccines can cause is hush-hush. If you research the current list of vaccines children take before the age of six, the majority are for illnesses that are not fatal, and the potential side-effects are sometimes worse (not the majority, just a few, I'm only illustrating a point here, not making it the main topic of conversation). Children with vaccines have developed the sickness they are vaccinated against as well too (again, not my main point or even close to it, just another thing to consider for the Pros/Cons argument). Why the hell does a child need a Hep B shot if the mother or close family members know they are not positive for it....really? If anyone thinks pumping 30-some vaccines into a child before they turn 1-year old is perfectly healthy/safe and normal, I ask you to seriously reconsider your stance by looking at the reams of data out there on the negative effects what certain batches can cause, the countless stories/accounts out there now of regression/disabilities developing in children soon after a round of vaccines, and that the courts since 1989, through the HHS Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, has made more than 3,000 payments totaling more than $2 billion to families of those who have been injured or have died because of vaccines. The federal government has also quietly compensated a number of families whose children developed autism or symptoms of autism as a result of vaccines.

Most people I've raised these questions with that are considered to be in the "anti-vaccine" camp really aren't anti-vaccine at all, they are usually for a delayed and more spread-out vaccine schedule for their children. The reason why these debates are so hot is because ultimately people are worried to death that their kids may die on one side of the fence of a preventable illness or on the other side develop a serious disorder/condition as the result of trying to prevent their children from dying b/c of a preventable illness. It's not a black and white issue, scientists and the medical community have only scratched the surface of fully understanding the entire autism spectrum and what goes on in the brain, so if you don't have a full, complete understanding of a condition, how can you say with 100% certainty you know vaccines don't contribute to it because you haven't found that "magic gene" yet?

I am for a delayed vaccination schedule for my children, after observing serious regression and continued speech/expression difficulties following a round of three shots for my oldest son. All of my children will receive vaccines, but they won't be getting 49 before the age of 6, and it's truly confounding to see so many people adamantly defend vaccinating their children exactly as instructed by the majority of doctors out there today when there are still so many unanswered questions out there

By Christopher Schuller (not verified) on 20 May 2014 #permalink

We live in a world controlled by media, and that media is focused almost entirely on the lives of so called "celebs". So to suggest that new parents don't base their judgements on what celebs think or advise is just ignorance, most of the population teeter on the trends of celebs. Fashion, Health Fitness, all of these have a huge impact on the populace and they are widely promoted by celebrities, so to have one dismiss the importance of vaccinations for children is morally wrong.

Christopher, I'll try to get to some of your concerns in a new post, maybe next week.

I'm seeing an awful lot of "she's not an immunologist" remarks, which are somewhat problematic as reasons to reject Bialik's arguments. First, she has a doctorate in neuroscience, and I would presume that carries over into some broad knowledge of biology. Second, logically, if only an immunologist could have intelligent opinions on the subject, then only an immunologist could recognize that someone else's opinion wasn't intelligent. Thirdly, if one supports such a restriction of valued opinion to an anointed few, then obviously one must believe in a whole raft of religions, because one would certainly not think oneself qualified to dispute the issues with trained, accredited theologians.
There are a great number of theologians who believe things I do not, and I have no degree in their field, while many of them hold doctorates. And if that's acceptable, I see nothing at all wrong with a neuroscientist having reason to disbelieve the opinion of an immunologist.
Rational thought is not restricted to the accredited experts in a field.

As a scientist trained with a PhD in immunology, I can attest that I know little to nothing about neuroscience. Not because I am not interested, but because the amount of scientific literature is vast and keeping up with my own immunological niche is difficult. I have a hard time keeping up with immunological findings outside of my own field, much less in other, unrelated, fields (i.e. neuroscience). Dr. Bialik is undoubtedly smart and certainly knows much about her niche field of neuroscience, but to say that translates into immunology is unlikely. Broad knowledge of biology does not work for understanding the scientific literature clearly.

The current schedule is not pulled out of the blue and was designed such that it would provide immunity to certain diseases (MMR for example) at times when children were most likely to acquire the disease. Delaying actually makes one more susceptible to those diseases for a longer period. It's not voodoo although it can seem like it. There is also little evidence that multiple vaccines at once or back to back can "overwhelm" the immune system. It is exquisitely evolved to respond to and contain multiple assaults at once and, in fact, does so on a daily basis.

Great article. I am always surprised to find intelligent people who embrace pseudo science. These are the concerns of educated, well-off people in North America. In the developing world where issues like life and death are critical, this is an issue at all. In fact, those who espouse love for CAM, will always embrace Science-based medicine when faced with something serious. I will even wager a bet on that.

By David Grant (not verified) on 21 Feb 2015 #permalink

I was astounded by Ms. Bialik's anti-vaccine stance so I looked at her qualifications for her PhD. As it turns out, she has no research publications from her "PhD" work. How is it possible that a PhD was awarded to her when publishing original research is a requirement at better PhD programs. I'm astounded because even several publications in low impact journals do not reflect a decent PhD and she does not have even one. Will UCLA explain how it is possible that she was awarded a PhD with no research publications? Given this revelation, it is not surprising that she harbors such views on science when she is clearly unqualified to do so.

By Jack Nieman (not verified) on 04 Jun 2015 #permalink

And what about his recent video against animal testing? He says it's unnecessary, but the truth is that we would know so little about Biology without animal research. She starts the video saying that in real life she is a neuroscientist. I appreciate she got her PhD and all, but in real life she is an actress, not a neuroscientist. Real-life neuroscientists don't only have a PhD, they work on neuroscience everyday. As a Biology professor, I was really offended by her video.