This one will have you wondering if you have inadvertently participated in a science experiment by way of Facebook. Actually, you probably did.
In 2010, a team of researchers led by UC San Diego political science professor James Fowler managed to get more than 60 million people to see a “get out the vote” message at the top of their Facebook news feed. The date, in case you want to review your memory, was November 2, 2010, the day of the U.S. Congressional elections. The message, described in a news release from UCSD as “non-partisan,” carried a reminder to vote–“Today is Election Day”–and a button Facebook users could click to let everyone know “I voted.” Also available to users were a counter showing how many Facebookers had reported voting and a link to a site for finding local polling places. I have a terrible memory, but I know that a button like the “I voted” one would be exactly something I’d’ve clicked out of pride in participating in our democratic process.
I feel so used. Sort of. But in the name of Science, right?
Of the 61 million people who saw the message, a total of 60,055,176 of them also saw up to six pictures of their Facebook friends–was I one of them?–associated with the message. These friends were subcategorized as close or not to the Facebook user based on their history of interactions. Another 611,044 people got everything but the friend pictures, and another 613,096 or so got no Facebook message about election day at all, unwittingly serving as the “control group” for this grand experiment.
The Facebook responses indicated that people who saw the message along with pictures of friends were about 2 percent more likely to report having voted and about 0.39% more likely to vote compared to users who got the message without friend images and associations. And the effect was contagious: Even users who didn’t see the information message at all–with or without friend images–but had a friend who received the message were 0.22% more likely to vote, and that likelihood increased by that amount for each close friend who’d gotten that message. People were also a little more likely to click on the link to find a polling place if a close friend had gotten the informational message.
These percentages may seem unimpressive at first look. But in a commentary on the study, both published in Nature, Sinan Aral writes:
Although these estimates may seem small, they translate into significant numbers of votes. A social message saying that a Facebook friend had voted generated 886,000 additional ‘expressed’ votes (clicks on the ‘I voted’ button), and messages involving a close friend generated an additional 559,000 expressed votes.
In fact, the authors say that the social message they distributed on Facebook might have directly increased voter turnout that day by 60,000 people–enough to take Florida these days in a presidential election–and that the social contagion of indirect influence from friends might have sent another 280,000 voters to the polls who might otherwise not have gone. In other words, social contagion had the bigger influence.
That reference to actual votes is based on the researchers’ analysis of Facebook users’ voting behavior and matching with voter records, which some states make publicly available. These states include Arkansas,California, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, and the authors report that “about 1 in 3 users” were matched successfully with their voting records.
If it seems a little creepy that a group of complete strangers might influence your voting behavior via Facebook and then check that against public records … well, it is, I think. Basically, if you logged into your Facebook account on November 2, 2010, you placed yourself unknowingly into a grand experiment into the viral effects of social networks on political action. The study authors also accessed information you may have provided on Facebook about your political affiliation and ideologies and assessed your interactions with people on Facebook to determine your level of connectedness and, the researchers hypothesize, social influence and contagion. Of course, if you spend a lot of your time on Facebook fighting with the same people, the effect might have been the opposite of what they assumed. I’m not as disturbed by scientists observing human behavior unknown to the humans as I am about Facebook’s making this information available. Did we sign off on that somewhere?
What might come as no surprise to anyone deeply engaged in social media, whether Twitter or Facebook or other networks, is that “online messages may influence a variety of offline behaviors.” What the study findings seem to show is that we don’t have to see each other’s faces to pick up and spread behaviors, but we do have to have close relationships, whether virtual or otherwise, for the behavioral “contagion” to have an effect. That said, face-to-face interaction still carries a big punch.
Women are known for their strong social networks in real life, and they dominate some of the virtual platforms. One thing the study doesn’t mention is differences in the strength of social networks and their influence based on sex, so I asked the senior author, Dr. Fowler, about that. He said that the team “would be taking a look at differences in effect size between men and women in future work,” so I guess we can anticipate more unwitting involvement in science to come.
Because I also am interested in the influence of these networks–real world or virtual–in the spread of misinformation and pseudoscience, I asked Dr. Fowler if this kind of virality could translate to these other contexts. “Absolutely,” he said, noting that a wide range of beliefs and behaviors can spread in networks “up to three degrees of separation.” He added, “I don’t see why the spread of pseudoscientific beliefs would operate any differently.”
My take-home from that? Those Facebook memes that say “Wow, your Facebook post about politics has changed my mind and my vote… said no one, EVER!” might be off base. Want to be influential? Get thee to your social media and begin spreading your messages about voting or evidence-based science or child-rearing or quick dinners in 20 minutes. And if you’re skeeved out by involuntary participation in scientific studies like this by way of Facebook (are you? Do you think you participated in this one?), you might want to avoid “public service” voting messages from here on out.
The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect or conflict with those of the DXS editorial team.
Liz Neeley: Science communicator extraordinaire and lover of fine fashion… and bread.
Liz Neeley is the assistant director at COMPASS where she helps develop and lead the communications trainings for scientists, and specializes in the social media and multimedia components of their workshops and outreach efforts. Before joining COMPASS, Liz studied the evolution and visual systems of tropical reef fishes at Boston University. After grad school, she helped communities and researchers in Fiji and Papua New Guinea connect their knowledge of local coral reefs ecosystems to the media. She also dabbled in international science policy while working on trade in deep-sea corals. Liz is currently based in Seattle, at the University of Washington. You can find Liz on Twitter (@LizNeeley) and on Google+. Also check our her passion projects, ScienceOnline Seattle and her SciLingual hangout series.
DXS: First, can you give us a quick overview of what your scientific background is and your current connection to science?
I was one of those kids who knew from a really young age what they wanted to be, and that was a fish biologist. Sea turtles, dolphins – no way – I wanted to study fish. My mom actually found an old picture I drew when I was in third grade about what I wanted to be when I grew up: it was me in a lab coat, holding a clipboard, and tanks of aquaria behind me.
You combine this with the fact that I am also a really stubborn person, and I just wanted to do science straight through all my schooling. Not just the coursework either – I did an NSF young scholars program in high school, was the captain of the engineering team, and, of course, was a mathlete.
I did my undergraduate work in marine biology at the University of Maryland. I did three years of research there on oyster reef restoration, and then went straight into my PhD at Boston University, where I studied the evolution of color patterns and visual systems in wrasses and parrotfish.
I actually did not finish my PhD. Life sort of knocked me sideways, and instead of finishing my PhD, I ended up taking a masters, and then going into the non-profit world. At first, I mostly worked on coral conservation in Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and I did a big project on deep sea corals.
After I left grad school, I started a 20-hour per week internship at an NGO called SeaWeb. Vikki Spruill, who was the founder and president, has killer instincts and a passion for women’s high fashion that I share. She had noticed coral jewelry coming down the runway in Milan, Paris, and NY. People just didn’t have any idea that these pieces of jewelry were actually animals, much less that they were deep sea corals.
So we launched a campaign called “Too Precious to Wear,” which partnered with high-end fashion and luxury designer to create alternatives to these deep sea corals – celebrating coral but not actually using it. The Tiffany & Co. Foundation was our major partner, and we got to throw a breakfast at Tiffany’s that brought in fashion editors from Mademoiselle and Vogue.
Everyone always dismisses women’s fashions as shallow and meaningless, but this ended up being this huge lever that got a lot of attention for deep sea coral conservation, and my piece was the science that pinned it all together. I got a taste of the international policy component of that as well, and headed to the Netherlands for CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) as part of the work. I knew the science, but certainly helped that I knew how to pronounce the names of the designers too – opportunities like that to bridge cultures that seem foreign to each other are tremendously powerful.
I currently work at COMPASS, which is an organization that works at the intersection of science, policy, and communication/media. Our tagline is “helping scientists find their voices and bringing science into the conversation.” For my part, this means, I teach science communications trainings around the country, helping researchers understand how social media works, how reporters find their stories, and how to overcome some of the obstacles that scientists often put in their own way when they talk about their work.
What I love about this work so much is that it keeps me in the science community – around people who are pursuing tough questions. That is how my brain works, it is how my soul works, and I want to be a part of it. The power of this for me is to be able to take in all of this knowledge that is generated by these scientists and help connect it to the broader world. I feel like this is the best contribution I can make.
DXS: What ways do you express yourself creatively that may not have a single thing to do with science?
I am a pretty artistic person – or at least I think of myself as a pretty artistic person! My creative outlets usually involve some kind of graphic design. I am always giving presentations for my work, and I constantly ask “what do my slides look like, and am I telling a good story?” I so lucky that I get to spend a lot of time thinking about imagery, visual storytelling, and how people react to art or data visualization.
I also paint and draw (though I wouldn’t really share those) and I cook. I am actually doing a bread baking experiment this year where I am trying out a different type of bread recipe every weekend.
It can be really funny because sometimes, if it has been a really stressful week, I will look for a recipe that really needs to be punched down or kneaded for a long time. It’s a good workout too! And then we have this amazing bread every weekend. It is all about the aesthetics for me – I host dinner parties, bake, have a great garden – all of that is sort of my own creative outlet.
Some experimental results from Liz’s bread project.
DXS: What is your favorite bread?
The delicious baguette
LN: Oh, the baguette. I made my own for the first time last weekend and it was really fantastic! I realize that baking is one of these things that, if you want to do it properly, you have to be very precise. You should weigh the ingredients. But I’m precise in the rest of my life. When it is the weekend and I am having fun, I kind of love it when the flour is just flying everywhere. As a result, my loaves are a little bit mutated, or just not quite right, but they are delicious! Some of my other favorites also includes a great focaccia (the recipe for it is below!).
DXS: Do you find that your scientific background informs your creativity, even though what you do may not specifically be scientific?
Yes, absolutely. It’s funny because when you asked the question about my creative outlets that have nothing to do with science, it was not entirely easy to answer. You know, science is who I am – it permeates everything I do. When I am baking the bread, I am thinking about the yeast and fermentation. When I am painting, I am thinking about color theory and visual perception – after all that would have been what my PhD was in!
Speaking of color theory, Joanne Manaster recently shared a “how good is your color vision?” quiz. I took that test immediately to see how I would do. That lead me on this interesting exploration around the literature, and I read one theory that Van Gogh might have had a certain type of color blindness. I love this question of how our brains interact with the world. In animal behavior the concept is called “umwelt” – each species has a unique sensory experience of the environment. I like to think about how that applies to individual people to a smaller degree.
I think about this all the time – science, creativity, art, aesthetics – it is all one beautiful and amazing thing to me.
DXS: Have you encountered situations in which your expression of yourself outside the bounds of science has led to people viewing you differently–either more positively or more negatively?
I accept the fact that, especially when it comes to strangers, we make up stories based on what we see – clothes, hair, etc. I know that this happens to me as well. When we talk about femininity, it’s no secret that I am a girly girl. I wear makeup and heels. That’s how I feel most like myself, how I feel best. I know that this doesn’t sit well with everybody, but that’s ok. I like to think that I hold my own. Give me enough time to speak my piece and I can back it up. I’ve got an interesting career, I am a geek, and it is not hard for me to connect with people once we start talking.
In science we say that we don’t have a dress code, but the reality is that we do. Maybe it’s unspoken, and sure it is not the same as you see in the business world, but when you look different from how everyone else looks, people do want comment on it. I don’t feel like it is particularly negative in my case, and I feel that it doesn’t impede me. What is most exciting is that it often opens up conversation – mostly with other women who say “oh I really like your dress, I’ve been wearing more dresses lately!”
When I was an undergrad, I was kind of oblivious to the whole dress code thing. One day, when I was in the lab, I was wearing this pink, strappy sundress, tied up the back, and these stupid platform sandals that were really tall (clearly not appropriate lab gear). I was scrubbing out this 100-gallon oyster tank and my advisor happened to walk by and he sees me doing this. I remember freezing – all of the sudden I was afraid he was going to mock me or lecture me, but he just said, “Oh, Liz… Keep on.”
My graduate advisor was the same way – he acknowledged who I am and didn’t bother about how I dress. We didn’t avoid the topic. It just wasn’t an issue. I hope that other women can have that same experience. It doesn’t matter if you are a tomboy or a girly-girl. I don’t care – I am not judging you. You don’t have to look like me because I am in a dress.
This is why I love this #IAmSciencememe, and the whole “be yourself” mentality. And that is what I am going to do. I’ve decided to be myself. I accept the fact that not everyone will like the look of me. But, I think that we will eventually get to the point where we understand that science can be presented in lots of different ways.
DXS: Have you found that your non-science expression of creativity/activity/etc. has in any way informed your understanding of science or how you may talk about it or present it to others?
For me, my job with COMPASS really is sitting at this nexus of asking how we share science with people who aren’t intrinsically fascinated by it or connected to it. This is very much a ripe field for thinking about creative expression. Mostly, we come at it in terms of verbal presentations, storytelling and written materials, but then I specialize in the social media and multimedia components. I am always thinking about everything I am reading and seeing – news, art, music, fiction – and how we can apply what resonates with others in these non-science realms. It is very much a two-way thing; my science informs my creativity and my creativity informs my science. That makes it really fulfilling and exciting for me.
I see this in terms of the ability to make connections. When I am standing up in front of a group of researchers doing a social media training, I am making pop-culture references, alluding to literary works, quoting song lyrics. When you get it right, you can see someone’s eyes light up. It’s just another way to connect – people sit up and pay attention if you can make a meaningful reference to the artist they love or the book they just read.
One of the questions we always use in our trainings is “so what?” So you are telling me about your science, but why should I care? Miles Davis has a famous song “So What?” and we play that in the background. It makes people smile. It makes it memorable. I love that. I really like this idea that we should be using the fullness of who we are and our creative selves, including all of the sensory modalities, to talk about the very abstract and difficult scientific topics we care about so much.
(DXS editor’s side note: A portion of the previous paragraph was delivered to me in song. What’s not to smile about?!?!)
DXS: How comfortable are you expressing your femininity and in what ways? How does this expression influence people’s perception of you in, say, a scientifically oriented context?
I feel very comfortable in my own skin, and who I am and where I come from does tend to be a classically feminine look (at least in terms of clothing choices and how I wear my hair). I am never quite certain the exact definition of “femininity”, but I don’t think how I look so much influences people’s perception of me as much as it opens up opportunities for us to discuss gender and personality and science.
Part of what I do for my work is to help scientists understand that in journalism, we need characters. So, I have the obligation to walk my talk – we are all the main characters in our own lives and we have to live with that and be true to that.
It brings up interesting questions of personality and privacy. I feel pretty comfortable talking about my clothes and my art and my dogs and my bread baking – but I also know that a lot of people don’t want that type of stuff out there. I like the challenge of helping them tell their own science stories and shine through as interesting people in a way that is authentic and represents who they are in a way that works for them.
DXS: Do you think that the combination of your non-science creativity and scientific-related activity shifts people’s perspectives or ideas about what a scientist or science communicator is? If you’re aware of such an influence, in what way, if any, do you use it to (for example) reach a different corner of your audience or present science in a different sort of way?
Sure, I think that I sometimes surprise people. For example, in the world of communications and journalism, we are seeing more and more that coding and programming has great value. To just look at me, you might not believe that I geek out over altmetrics and that I miss using MatLab.
It suprises people when they find this out, and I sort of like that. I know what it feels like to walk into a room and to be dismissed. I relish these opportunities because I consider them a challenge. Instead of feeling offended (though it can get tiring), my approach is thinking, “Guess what! I have something interesting to say, and you and I are actually going to connect, even though you don’t see it yet.”
I think that this sort of willingness to interact is something I try to help the scientists that I work with to understand. Maybe you think that you are going to be met with great opposition toward some subject like climate change, but if you have the willingness to approach it without assuming the worst, it opens new opportunties. I’m no Pollyanna, but I think relentless optimism and a commitment to finding common ground with others is very effective.
When I introduce social media to scientists, it has changed a lot over the last three years, but there is still a lot of skepticism and some outright scorn for “all those people online.” I like to encourage taking a step back from that in order to reveal all of the awesome things going on online and the ways you might engage. I truly enjoy the process of turning skeptics into something other than skeptics – I might not change them into believers, but they will at least be surprised and interested onlookers.
Liz Neeley’s Favorite Focaccia
Scant 4 cups white bread flour
1 tablespoon salt
Scant 1/2 cup olive oil
1 packet of active dry yeast
1 1/4 cups warm water
Favorite olives, roughly chopped if you prefer
Handful of fresh basil
Start this mid-afternoon (between 3 and 4 hours before you want to eat it, depending on how fast you are in the kitchen)
1.In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt with 1Ž4 cup of the olive oil, the yeast & the water. Mix with your hands for about 3 minutes.
2.Lightly dust your countertop with flour and knead your dough for 6 minutes. Enjoy your arm workout and stress relief exercise!
3.The dough will be pretty sticky. Put it back in the bowl, cover it with a damp cloth, and let stand at room temperature for 2 hours.
4.Mix 1Ž2 or more of your olives and all the basil into the dough, and try to get them evenly distributed. It won’t be perfect, but it will be delicious.
5.Dump the dough onto a lined baking sheet. Flatten it with your hands until it’s a big rectangle about 1″/2.5cm thick. Slather with olive oil. Let rise for 1 hour.
6.Preheat your oven to 425°F/220°C
7.Sprinkle with flaky sea salt and drizzle with more olive oil if you want. Bake for 25 minutes or until golden.
8.Make your neighbors jealous with the amazing smell of baked bread wafting from your house.
[Ed. note: I (Emily) just attended the National Association of Science Writers annual conference in Raleigh, NC, where I moderated a session on managing the information deluge that can overwhelm those of us who deeply engage in social media. During the session, Tinker Ready noted the all-woman makeup of our panel and asked about the role of social media in helping women in science. She also asked me a few questions after the session. Below is a repost of the resulting piece, which first appeared at Nature’s SpotOn Website. SpotOn focuses on how science is communicated and carried out online, something that obviously interests our Double X Science team a great deal. We repost here with permission, and our thanks to the SpotOn folks.]
The tweet read “What makes this panel rare at science conf? #sciwri12deluge”. The attached photos featured four women leading a session at this weekend’s National Association of Science Writers meeting.
Emily Willingham Credit: Tinker Ready
Moderator and science writer Emily Willingham said she and Scientific American blog editor, Bora Zivkovic, planned it that way when they were putting together a Twitter session for the Raleigh, North Carolina meeting.
“We just thought —how often do you get to see that?” Willingham said, with a nod to the panel. “I go to a lot of scientific conferences and you don’t see this that much.”
The topic of the session was how to manage Twitter. But, the panel’s subtext was: women have a prominent place in scientific social networks. And, said Willingham and others, social networks have a role in promoting women in science.
“What you see on Twitter is a kind of de-gendering, in a positive way, of what people have to say,” she said. “You present more with words on Twitter than with anything else. Words and personality are important. “
Panel member Marie-Claire Shanahan, a science communication professor at the University of Alberta, agreed.
“I don’t pay that much attention on Twitter to whether anyone is male or female,” she said “They are often just a Twitter handle.” Gender “is so much not part of the first impression on Twitter.”
Nor is anything below the neck. “Unfortunately,” Willingham said “…That’s useful.”’
“You see people whose heads you recognize and you think, ‘wow, I had no idea what their bodies looks like’,” she said. “By that time, you’ve already fixed who they are in terms of their personality and what you think of them.
Twitter and other social networks also offer a way for women scientists to connect. It allows women who work at home to stay plugged in. Willingham home schools two of her children. She also manages the Double X Science site, which promises to bring “evidence-based science writing to women.”
“In between, I’m watching Twitter go by,” she said. “I work at home, but in this way, I’m connected to humanity. I’m connected to my colleagues, I’m connected to the conversations that are going on about sciences.”
– Tinker Ready
The opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily agree or conflict with those of the DXS editorial team and contributors.
It could be Andrew Wakefield or a brain-hijacking microbe.
by Meredith Swett Walker
I’m a scientist, but I’ve learned that when we become parents, paranoia can trump the powers of rational analysis I’ve so carefully nurtured and developed. For some parents, media-whipped fears about vaccines take front and center in the anxiety lineup. For me, a brain-infecting microbe that makes mice hang around cats is at the top of my parenting paranoia list.
Parenting requires making many, many choices. Some seem inconsequential, like whether your child will wear overalls or sweatpants, pigtails or a pixie cut. But other choices have to do with health issues such as circumcision, immunization, and breast milk vs. formula – just a few in an endless list. For geeks like me, the first impulse is to research each issue, make a choice, and prepare an argument for anyone who questions the decision (and believe me, someone will.) My response usually goes something like this: “Well, recent studies have shown that yada yada yada…” Then I pat myself on the back for being so informed and making such a well-reasoned decision.
My process ran into trouble, though, when my relationship with a university and its online library access ended. What happens when you can’t get your hands on peer-reviewed scientific journal articles? One consolation should be that we live in the “Information Age.” Surely, Google, a fast internet connection, and an overwhelming flood of information should lead to what we need to make well-reasoned, science-based parenting choices. Surely.
Maybe not. A friend recently shared with me an article from the open-access (i.e., free) online journal PLoS: “Why Most Biomedical Findings Echoed by Newspapers Turn Out to be False: The Case of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” The gist is that the news media preferentially cover initial findings described in the most prominent scientific journals. The key word there is initial. No initial result is going to be the final word in science, and all results require confirmation from other researchers repeating or extending the experiments. Sadly, in practice, many of the follow-up studies don’t get published in the most prominent journals because they are not “a big scoop.” Yet they often show that the initial, Big Headline Finding was overblown or even incorrect.
That brings me to an example that really pushes my buttons — childhood immunizations. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield and colleagues published a study in the prominent British medical journal the Lancet. The paper examined a hypothesized association between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism, but the authors used fairly moderate language in their conclusions. But then, Wakefield participated in a press conference about the paper and asserted in much stronger language that the MMR combined vaccine and autism were linked and that parents should turn to single shots for measles, mumps, and rubella. The news media ate it up.
The scientific community immediately pointed out a number of glaring flaws in the study, and subsequent investigations over the next decade failed to reproduce or confirm the results. But it was too late. The popular media and celebrities like Jenny McCarthy had already done the damage. Parents were terrified, vaccination rates dropped, and deadly measles and whooping cough outbreaks starting cropping up.
Yes, the news media covered subsequent studies reporting no link between vaccines and autism, but let’s face it: Science is slow, and news is fast. In the interval, scary information takes root. The Lancet retracted the article 12 years after its publication, and in 2011, British investigative journalist Brian Deer demonstrated that Wakefield actively falsified data. Still, to this day, vaccination rates have not fully recovered, and many parents remain misinformed and concerned about vaccinating their children. Indeed, the Wakefield debacle has been directly blamed for a huge and ongoing measles outbreak in Wales.
I could haz Toxoplasmodium in my poop, so be careful.
Admittedly, the MMR case is an extreme example but also a good one of how a single initial study and the ensuing media hysteria can have a huge effect on parents — and on children’s health.
And we all have our trigger points for fear. One (of the many) things in our family tree is schizophrenia. A member of our extended family developed schizophrenia as an adolescent and has never recovered. Schizophrenia can run in families, so my two children have up to a 4% chance of developing this disorder compared to the 1.1% chance of someone without close relatives who have it.
So along comes my March 2012 issue of The Atlantic featuring “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy” by Kathleen MacAuliffe. I would have found this article fascinating even if schizophrenia weren’t a concern. Its subject is a parasite called Toxoplasmosis gondii, which usually cycles through two hosts: cats and rodents. Toxo, as I’ll call this beast, starts life as an egg in a cat, is pooped out, and then gets picked up by a new cat. How does it get into a new cat? Cats, unlike dogs, are pretty fastidious and don’t tend to eat or otherwise mess around with cat poop. So Toxo gets itself into a less fastidious but tasty morsel like a mouse, instead, making its way into the cat when the mouse becomes dinner.
That seems simple enough, but there’s more. Toxo infection ups the odds of a mouse–cat encounter by hijacking the mouse’s brain and changing its behavior. The mouse’s activity level increases (cats love to chase fast-moving objects), and the rodent might become less wary in exposed areas and even attracted to the smell of cats. Watch these videos, and you’ll see how the infected mice move faster and wander into unknown spaces, seemingly without fear, as you can see in this video and this one.
The trouble for humans is that we also canpick up Toxo through contact with cat poop or eating undercooked meat or unwashed veggies from a garden where cats poop. Becoming infected with Toxo during pregnancy can be very harmful to a fetus, so pregnant women have long been warned off cleaning kitty litter boxes. But healthy, non-pregnant adults infected with Toxo weren’t thought to experience any detrimental effects — until recently. According to MacAuliffe’s article, which focuses on the work of Czech biologist Jaroslav Flegr, Toxo might alter human behavior, too, in mouse-like ways, such as reducing fearfulness. In most people, these purported behavioral shifts are probably very subtle and unremarkable. But Flegr suggests that in some people, Toxo infection serves as the trigger for mental illness, including schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia likely develops because of interactions between genes and the environment. Having risk gene variants isn’t a guarantee a person will develop schizophrenia, and it can arise in people without those risk variants. The list of potential environmental triggers is long and includes childhood stress, prenatal undernutrition, drug abuse, and … infections with microbes like Toxo.
Reading this article set me off on a tear of worrying. We have a cat, but I wasn’t worried about her. She is an indoor cat (we love birds), and there is a very low incidence of Toxo infections in indoor cats. But we have outdoor cats and feral cats in our neighborhood. They sometimes hang out in our yard, where my kids like to play in the dirt and eat things out of the garden, including the dirt itself. Oh, poop.
I took to Google and researched cat traps and repellents and how to get kids to wash their hands. I laid awake at night for hours strategizing about how to keep my home and yard Toxo free. And then I realized, even if I managed to exclude all cats from my yard and the totally impossible feat of getting my children (ages 1 and 2) to wash their hands before they touched their faces or food every time, I was still doomed to failure. My kids would go to friend’s houses and play in their Toxo-infested yards. Or they might already have encountered Toxo anyway.
Toxo was something I couldn’t control, and I needed to let it go. At our next check-up, I talked to our pediatrician about it, who had never heard about the potential Toxo–schizophrenia link. She graciously concealed her “Oh, Lord, another parent with a loony theory” reaction and calmed me down. As she put it, my only real option to prevent Toxo infection was to never allow my children to play outdoors or in the dirt, and the detrimental effects of that were likely far greater than the risk of schizophrenia, Toxo or no Toxo.
And she also reminded me of what I already knew and should have remembered: These findings about Toxo are initial findings.
As a scientist, I know that the schizophrenia–Toxo link needs more study. A lot more study. As a parent, well … yeah. I still worry, and no lack of replication or confirmation is likely to stop me.