An “un-American suppression” of antivaccine views or good reporting?

I’ve been writing a lot of posts on what I like to call the “antivaccine dogwhistle.” In politics, a “dog whistle” refers to rhetoric that sounds to the average person to be reasonable and even admirable but, like the way that a dog whistle can’t be heard by humans because the frequency of its tone is higher than the range that humans can hear, most people don’t “hear” the real message. However, the intended audience does hear the real message. The way the “dog whistle” works in politics is through the use of coded language recognizable to the intended audience but to which most other people are fairly oblivious. In our not-too-distant past, for instance, “states’ rights” was code for institutionalized segregation.

As I’ve described before, antivaccinationists have a number of coded dog whistles that they like to use. By far the favorite antivaccine dog whistle is the invocation of “parental rights” and “informed consent.” The former was most blatantly exhibited recently by Rand Paul when he bluntly stated, “The state doesn’t own the children. Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom.” Of course, one wonders if this was a Freudian slip, because surely someone as politically savvy as Rand Paul must know that likening children to slaves who are “owned” is distasteful. But maybe not. As I’ve said many times before, antivaccinationism is all about the parents, not the children, and unfortunately in this country there is a pervasive assumption that children are property and that parental rights to choose trump a child’s right to decent medical care. We’ve seen this time and time again in other contexts, such as faith healing, where the parents’ freedom of religion trumps the child’s right to be treated for diabetes or pneumonia or a parents’ rights trump the right of a child with cancer to effective care.

Other examples of antivaccine dog whistles abound. For instance, there’s “informed consent,” which in the case of antivaccine activists really amounts to misinformed consent, where parents base their decision not to vaccinate on misinformation painting vaccines as dangerous and ineffective. That’s why antivaccinationists hate bills that propose requiring parents to receive counseling from physician or other health care professional before an exemption to school vaccine mandates will be granted. Other dog whistles are a bit extreme, and, like a low quality dog whistle whose lower register can be heard by humans, let the crazy show even to those who are not antivaccine, such as the likening of any measure to tighten or eliminate nonmedical exemptions to the first step towards a new Holocaust or even to human trafficking. You’d have to be pretty oblivious not to recognize the crazy in these.

There’s another dog whistle that I don’t recall having discussed, but fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon your view), ex-UPI journalist turned propagandist for the nattering know-nothings at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism, Dan Olmsted, provided a perfect example the other day in a post entitled Control All Delete, Part 1: The Un-American Suppression of the Vaccine Safety Debate. (Oh, goody. There’s going to be a part 2.) In it, Olmsted puts that dog whistle to his lips and blows and blows and blows:

Last month, the Toronto Star ran a perfectly reasonable article titled “A Wonder Drug’s Dark Side,” about adverse events following the HPV vaccine Gardasil. It wasn’t long before the paper and its editor, Michael Cooke, were set on by the raving pack of hyenas that attacks anyone who dares suggest that vaccines are not pure as the driven snow.

Of course, as we know, the reason that Toronto Star article was so vigorously criticized was because it was a flaming pile of nonsense. No wonder Robert “Dr. Bob” Sears liked it. It was so bad that ultimately the Star printed an article signed by scientists about the other side, disowned the article, it and, finally, decided to take it off of the newspaper’s website. Basically, the reporters made an egregious rookie mistake when dealing with vaccine stories and treated reports in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) database as though they were reliable. Oh, sure, they added some disclaimers that just because an adverse event is reported in VAERS and Canada’s equivalent database, the Canada Vigilance Adverse Reaction Online Database doesn’t necessarily mean that the vaccine caused it, but that disclaimer was weak tea compared to portraits of a mother whose daughter died, a death she blames on Gardasil.

It’s a story I’ve discussed before in detail before, Annabelle Morin, and her death was almost certainly not due to Gardasil although antivaccinationists have been furiously spinning it as such for years. I mean, come on! The online version of the article included a video in which Morin’s mother Linda is shown looking over her daughter’s old bedroom and putting flowers on her grave! Don’t get me wrong; I do feel a great deal of sympathy for Ms. Morin, but her grief has led her down the dark path of believing that Gardasil killed her daughter when it almost certainly did not and then becoming an antivaccine activist. Against Linda Morin and the other girls portrayed as having been injured by Gardasil, coupled with the usual blather by Dr. Diane Harper, and the disclaimers couldn’t stand. That’s even leaving out the extensive contacts between some of the parents and antivaccine, anti-Gardasil groups and use of naturopathic quackery to treat their daughters.

But, hey. To Olmsted the criticism leveled at the Star, its editor and reporters, and its publisher is akin to being set upon by a “raving pack of hyenas.” (You know, that wouldn’t be a bad name for a band.) Indeed, he seems to be wishing for the “good old days” when editors had a “bite me!” attitude. Actually, that’s just what the Star‘s editor, Michael Cooke, exhibited at first, when he sent Julia Belluz of Vox.com an e-mail saying, “Stop gargling our bathwater and take the energy to run yourself your own, fresh tub” and told off another critic on Twitter thusly, “Stop being an idiot.” Very classy. No wonder Olmsted liked it. Of course, cooler heads prevailed and the publisher ultimately decided to retract the story, enraging Olmsted:

Under a barrage of criticism, on February 20 the publisher – his boss — announced that “the Gardasil story package of Feb. 5 will be removed from our website.”

In explaining the article’s removal, the publisher wrote: “The weight of the photographs, video, headlines and anecdotes led many readers to conclude the Star believed its investigation had uncovered a direct connection between a large variety of ailments and the vaccine.”

Well yeah, it kind of did lead readers to conclude that – and the conclusion was more than justified, as readers of our own coverage of the vaccine will know. But “we have concluded that in this case our story treatment led to confusion between anecdotes and evidence,” the publisher said, and so it was pulled.

So, the publisher did the right thing; we don’t know whether Cooke was on board with it or not or whether he simply had to swallow and accept this rebuke from his publisher. Either way, it took the Star over two weeks last month of flailing to realize what a mess it had made, but at least in the end its publisher made the right choice.

Now here comes the dog whistle:

This is just the latest example of a disturbing and, frankly, un-American (in the case of the Toronto Star, un-North American) trend: self-censorship and craven caving to criticism. Salon pulling Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s piece on the CDC’s cover-up of thimerosal’s damage in vaccines was among the first and foremost.

It’s not just pulling published journalism that is suppressing urgently needed debate. Google is reported to be talking about ranking its search results not just by relevance and popularity but by deciding which sites are most “accurate.” So if you humans don’t cause global warming or do cause autism, you can expect to show up lower and later because, as we all know already and need not discuss any further, you are not accurate!

Yep. If you don’t have the science, invoke “open debate” or, as I like to call it the “help, help, I’m being repressed!” gambit. It just goes to show that the media has gotten a lot better at avoiding false balance that gives too much credence to crank viewpoints with respect to vaccines. Beginning a decade ago, back when I was a new blogger struggling to find a voice, I frequently noted that I both dreaded and looked forward to April. Why? Because April is Autism Awareness Month. I dreaded it because, like clockwork I’d see the media do vaccine-autism stories and trot out antivaccine loons like J.B. Handley and, later, Jenny McCarthy and her then-boyfriend Jim Carrey to give the “other side,” alongside actual physicians and scientists. Calling Dara O’Briain!

I can’t help it. I love that video. I also like that we don’t see such egregious false balance about vaccines in the media as much as we used to. The media seem to be learning, although the Disneyland measles outbreak has unfortunately somewhat resurrected false balance or even explicitly antivaccine stories.

I also love how Olmsted has zero self-awareness:

The New York Times and other publications explicitly forbid what they call false balance – giving any credence or even coverage to what they consider “anti-vaccine” cranks. If you think that vaccine reactions are more frequent and more serious than the drug companies and government say – the heart of our argument and, again, a perfectly reasonable policy debate — and that those reactions include autism, you are a tinfoil-hat type.

Well, yes. Exactly. Dan Olmsted and the rest of the crew at AoA are tinfoil hat types, and the media have finally started to recognize it (or at least stopped being as willing to give equal time to tinfoil hat types as they used to be). AoA uses pseudoscience, misinformation, and conspiracy theories to try to argue that vaccines cause problems that they do not, problems such as autism, autoimmune diseases, sudden infant death syndrome, and the like. They claim that they are “not antivaccine” and are “pro-vaccine safety,” but you will never, ever see any of them willing to provide an example of a vaccine they consider sufficiently safe and effective to use it on their children. (If any AoA blogger has given such an example, I’ve never seen it, and unfortunately I’ve been reading the damned blog since its inception.) These are the things that make them tinfoil hat types, not their mere questioning of vaccine safety. In other words, it’s the process, the reasoning (or, more precisely, the lack thereof) and pseudoscience that got them to their conclusion that vaccines are dangerous that makes them cranks, not the conclusion.

In this, antivaccine activists are just like creationists. It’s not “questioning Darwin” that makes creationists cranks. It’s the misinformation and pseudoscience used to question evolution. It’s the process. No wonder Olmsted really detests that comparison as well:

Creationism and vaccine-induced autism – what a moral equivalency! The real equivalency is between the Times warmongering coverage of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, and its smug certainty that vaccines don’t cause autism – the most important international, and the most important domestic, issues of our time, both muffled and missed by the Times. Some institutions have no memory or ability to learn from their mistakes.

This is, of course, a non sequitur. Just because the New York Times got it wrong about weapons of mass destruction does not mean it didn’t get it right about vaccines and autism, and it did. Its explicit policy of not giving false balance to antivaccine cranks is a wise policy. After all, when it’s publishing a story about astronomy, does the NYT interview an astrologer alongside, say, Neil deGrasse Tyson for “balance”? Or when doing a story about earth science, does the NYT interview a flat earth believer, just for “balance”? Or, yes, when doing a story about evolution, does the NYT interview Ken Ham or another creationist for “balance”? No, at least not any more. The same is and should remain true about not interviewing antivaccine loons like Olmsted for “balance” in vaccine or autism stories.

Science, unlike politics, is not a system where, when you have two extreme viewpoints, the answer usually lies somewhere in the middle. That’s what’s known as the “fallacy of moderation” or the “fallacy of the golden mean.” No, in science, there are right and wrong answers, and in the case of vaccines the right answers lie on the pro-vaccine side, not the antivaccine side. It is not “un-American” to say that and act accordingly, nor is it in any way muzzling free speech, given that the antivaccine movement has numerous outlets through which they can promote their message. Nor is Google stifling free speech by trying to tweak its algorithms to produce more accurate search results rather than the most popular; it’s improving its product and responding to business imperatives. That such a change is likely to greatly diminish the rankings of many crank websites in Google searches is good thing, and certainly no website has a “right” to a high Google ranking based on popularity. It’s Google’s business, and it can change its algorithms as it sees fit.

In scientific and medical controversies, if you have the data and evidence, you use it. Since the antivaccine viewpoint is not a medical viewpoint and is not supported by science, that just leaves using dog whistles like appeals to freedom, warnings about creeping fascism, and complaints of being victims of “un-American” suppression of speech. It’s all antivaccinationists have. Well, that and anecdotes and pseudoscience.

Oh, and calling vaccine scientists like Paul Offit names like Dr. Proffit. Stay classy, Dr. Bob.