The perils of engaging the public

People wonder why scientists involved in controversial areas are reluctant to address the public. Courtesy of our favorite band of anti-vaccine bloggers at the anti-vaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism, we see yet another reason why. Yes, AoA’s resident attack poodle Jake Crosby decided to disrupt the Q&A session of a public talk (videocast here) by the editor-in-chief of BMJ, Fiona Godlee:

Throughout the question and answer session, I patiently waited my turn, until finally called on by Dr. Glass (you can view the exchange on the 54:00 of the NIH Videocast):

“Yeah? Introduce yourself?”

“Hi, my name is Jacob Crosby with GW School of Public Health and Health Services. I just want to…you made a number of statements here regarding Andy Wakefield who is not here to defend himself against them, but…there are a couple problems that I…that I saw with Brian Deer’s claims. He claimed that three children weren’t autistic because the have Asperger Syndrome, children 6, 7 and 12, but Asperger Syndrome is a form of autism. He said that the bowel pathology results were fraudulent because they don’t match up with the routine pathology results, which is only the first step in the tertiary diagnostic process. The end result from the routine pathologist’s report…is not accused of fraud, to my knowledge…matches up with what was in the paper. And…furthermore, all the five children – or five to six children – that he claimed did not really regress or have some sort of deterioration after the MMR vaccines…those five children…were all developmentally normal except for one kid who had developmental problems due to an unrelated preexisting condition. And…(people in the background started to mumble)…they all faced developmental regression after the vaccine. So…

At that point – about a minute and a half into my question – I was interrupted by Dr. Glass:

“Give us your question!”

I continued undeterred:

This is how cranks behave. They ramble on, monopolizing precious Q&A time without regard to the rest of the audience, and then, when the exasperated moderator asks them to get to the point, they “continue, undeterred.” In this, Jake reminds me a lot of the Royal Rife guy who “continued undeterred” at the Trottier Symposium last year in Montreal after multiple requests that he get to the point and then, later, more pointed requests that he yield the microphone in order to give someone else a chance to ask a question. I will, however, thank Jake for mentioning Respectful Insolence. I like to know I’m making a difference in a young man’s life.

In the end, from my perspective Godlee was far more gracious and patient with young Jake than I would have been capable of. I’m just not as patient. I’m also not sure how she managed it, but she did, and that’s admirable. Who knows? Perhaps she planted a seed that will later germinate into some rationality and scientific reason. I doubt it, but a guy can hope.