A school board president abuses his position to promote an antivaccine movie

A science-based blogger’s work is never done, apparently.

I’ll show you what I mean in a minute. But first, I just have to make a simple observation. Pseudoscience, be it quackery, evolution denial, denial of anthropogenic global warming, antivaccine nonsense, or other forms of pseudoscience, apparently never dies. No matter how many times it’s slapped down, no matter how often and how vigorously it’s refuted, it always seems to rise again. In fact, I used to liken pseudoscience and quackery to zombies, but that’s a bad analogy. After all, in most zombie lore (as told in books and movies) a head shot will take a zombie out and render it no longer a threat. Not so, pseudoscience and quackery. A detailed deconstruction of the false scientific and evidentiary underpinnings of quackery (i.e., the proverbial “head shot,” if you’ll allow me to use the metaphor) doesn’t take out a bit of quackerry. Indeed, in the minds of its followers, a “head shot” seems to make that quackery strong.

In no area of quackery is this more the case than in antivaccine quackery. If there’s one branch of quackery where evidence matters not at all and the lies are impossible to destroy, it’s antivaccine lies. More so than virtually any branch of quackery, the antivaccine movement has its own dedicated propaganda machine that is very much like the Terminator. Listen and understand. Antivaccinationists are out there. They can’t be bargained with. They can’t be reasoned with. They don’t feel pity (for the children they endanger), remorse (for the children who catch vaccine-preventable diseases because of the dimunition of herd immunity), or fear of anything other than vaccines. And they absolutely will not stop, ever, until medicine, science, and reason are dead.

I know, I got carried away, but the original Terminator movie still rocks after all these years. So sue me.

An example of this very phenomenon is the antivaccine propaganda movie The Greater Good. I and a bunch of other bloggers deconstructed the misinformation, pseudoscience, and lies that filled the movie like so much black hole matter packed at such a high density that no light of reason can escape that event horizon. Or, as I put it at the time in my review of the movie:

Orac, being a Tarial cell computer that is the most powerful and interconnected in the galaxy hidden in a cheesy Plexiglass box full of blinking multicolored lights, is able to withstand the waves of burning stupid that emanate from this film. It’s total anti-vaccine propaganda, manipulative to the core and full of misinformation confusing correlation with causation.

As awful as the movie was, both from the standpoint of evidence, logic, reason, and science as well as its cheesily obviously manipulative construction, The Greater Good has somehow been picked up by a cable channel to run this month. Specifically, a cable channel that I’ve never heard of, Current TV, will be running this despicable piece of antivaccine propaganda on March 24 at 1 PM. In fact, here’s the channel’s webpage about the movie, which describes it thusly:

THE GREATER GOOD is a character-driven documentary that looks behind the fear, hype and politics that have polarized the vaccine debate in America today. Mixing verité footage, intimate interviews, 1950s-era government-produced movies and up-to-date TV news reporting, THE GREATER GOOD weaves together the stories of families whose lives have been forever changed by vaccination. The film re-frames the emotionally charged issue and offers the opportunity for a rational and scientific discussion on how to create a safer and more effective vaccine program.

Uh, no. Not by a long shot.

But it’s worse than that. It turns out that, somehow, some way, someone claiming to represent a California school district is flogging this movie. How do I know? Easy. The antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism brags about it:

Our friends at Canary Party have posted an open letter from a California School district that encourages watching Leslie Manookian’s balanced vaccine debate documentary titled Greater Good on Current TV March 24th. We invite you to do the same. Understanding the vaccine controversy will only help families make more informed decisions. Many will proceed with full vaccination per the current schedule, some will not. But here in America, we believe in sharing both sides of a story and letting the consumer decide. There are those people who would shut down any discussion of the safety issues associated with vaccination as if it is not an American right to understand a product before consumption. They call it “protecting” the consumer – it’s not. It’s censorship to protect the product and the industry that sells it. In addition, there are attempts across the nation to eliminate vaccine exemptions and tighten mandates. America is not a nation of mandates. Just as denying access to women’s healthcare is a political football in 2012, so are vaccination healthcare rights, which is also a women’s issue in that mother’s typically manage their children’s healthcare.

I must admit, the propagandists at the Canary Party and at AoA have become fairly skillful at tying their views to the “health freedom” movement. Reluctantly, I have to tip my hat to them for their skill in trying to equate vaccine rejectionism to fighting the efforts of the Republican Party to restrict women’s health care, making it harder for them to obtain contraceptives and imposing punitive tests upon women who seek to terminate their pregnancies. As is usually the case, vaccine rejectionists try to equate their embrace of pseudoscience and quackery with “freedom.”

The disingenuously predictable tactocs of antivaccinationists aside, it’s useful to look at what the Canary Party and AoA are touting. Basically, it’s a letter by someone named Greg Marvel, who states that he is President of the Board of Education for the San Ramon Unified School District. The complete text of the letter is reproduced both at AoA and at the Canary Party website:

SAN RAMON VALLEY UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT

699 Old Orchard Drive, Danville, California 94526

Board of Education

(925) 552-2933 • FAX (925) 838-3147 www.srvusd.net

March 16, 2012

To Whom It May Concern:

RE: Vaccinations and the Film “The Greater Good”

My name is Greg Marvel, and I am currently the President of the Board of Education for the San Ramon Unified School District. I am serving my third term on the Board. In addition, I have an extensive background in educational administration, having served in various executive and Assistant CEO capacities in various K-12 and higher education institutions. I retired as a Vice Chancellor from a large college system and now am President of a consulting firm with over 100 school districts as clients. The comments in this letter are solely my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the rest of the Board of Education or my school district.

I recently had the opportunity to view the firm “The Greater Good” and found it to be very thought provoking. I am a strong believer in the use of vaccines. However, I also believe in informed consent for all parents. The tragic examples of the unintended consequences of vaccines on some of our children are graphically portrayed in this film. However, it presents a balanced argument, with national experts advocating for universal vaccination, while others in the film present cautionary arguments.

I have personal experiences with the potential adverse impacts of vaccinations on young children. My daughter was given her recommended series of vaccinations as a baby and small child. Each time, she became seriously ill for several days. We were assured that for some children that was normal. No one ever outlined the potential long-term and permanent damage that some children experience from vaccination routines. Thankfully, the impact on our daughter did appear to be temporary and she went on to graduate with honors from high school, UC Berkeley and Columbia University Law School. However, this film clearly outlines examples where the consequences were much more serious and long-term.

Parents should be encouraged to examine all the issues surrounding vaccinations and make an informed decision about what is best for their children. For many if not most parents, the decision to proceed will prove to be the right one. However, it is important that parents fully investigate and understand the benefits and the risks associated with the current recommended vaccinations and their opt out rights under their respective “mandatory” state vaccination laws. I see this film as a starting point for each viewer to begin the discussion within their own families about the benefits and risks associated with vaccinations, and thus strongly recommend that every parent watch this film.

Sincerely,
Greg A. Marvel
President, Board of Education

The first thing I wondered when I saw this letter is whether it is ethical for the president of a school board to send such an open letter out on school board stationery, in essence, promoting his personal antivaccine views using the imprimatur of his position as president of his school board to promote an antivaccine movie. To me at least, the answer is obviously no. Marvel’s behavior is profoundly unethical and potentially dangerous to the students with whose education and safety he is entrusted. Of course, given the quality of a depressingly large number of school board members all over the nation, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that one is doing something like this. Moreover, Marvel’s disclaimer strikes me as completely disingenuous and unconvincing, particularly given that he sent this letter out on school board stationery, meaning that at minimum, he used school board paper. It wouldn’t surprise me if he used school board secretarial staff and postage as well, but I don’t know that for sure. If he really wanted to distance his personal views from those of the school board, he should have published this letter using his own personal resources, not written it on school board stationery, not used the school board address, and not signed his name as the president of the school board. He’s trying to have it both ways here, linking his view with the authority of the school board while trying to claim that’s not what he’s doing.

The only question I have is whether Marvel is just naive and ignorant about the antivaccine movement, so much so that he can’t see through the obvious antivaccine propaganda in The Greater Good, or whether he’s being disingenuous and is really an antivaccine loon. I don’t know the answer to that one, but he uses a lot of the tropes of antivaccine loons. In particular, notice how he uses the usual disclaimer that antivaccinationists often use, claiming he’s a “strong believer in the use of vaccines,” while qualifying it by claiming that he’s all for “informed consent.” Here’s the problem. The entire movie is what I would characterize as an exercise in what I prefer to call “misinformed consent.” Misinformed consent is the name I apply to the phenomenon in which antivaccinationists claim that they are for “informed consent” but then do their damnedest to prevent any parent from wanting to give that consent by “informing” parents of hugely exaggerated risks attributed to vaccines based on misinformation, pseudoscience, and cherry-picked studies in tandem with claims that vaccines don’t work, or are much less efficacious than we know them to be. Given that sort of skewed information unopposed by real science-based assessments of the real risk-benefit ratio, rational people who don’t know any better will inevitably conclude that vaccines are too risky. That’s the whole point. Misinformed consent is one of the most powerful tools in the antivaccine armamentarium.

I rather suspect that Marvel is not naive. After all, look at the scare quotes around the word “mandatory” state vaccination laws. Couple that with the blatant health freedom rhetoric (and, remember, “health freedom” is nothing more than the freedom of quacks from pesky government interference), and I strongly suspect that Marvel is actually being exceedingly disingenuous. If he’s not, his critical thinking skills are clearly so seriously lacking that he shouldn’t be leader of anything, much less the president of a school board, if he found such blatant antivaccine propaganda compelling and really believes it’s telling “both sides” with each side weighted appropriately based on science and the evidence.

As I read Marvel’s letter, a little voice in the back of my head kept telling me that something sounded familiar about his school district. Then I remembered. The San Ramon Valley Unified School District is not far from Berkeley, and the Bay Area is a hotbed of antivaccinationism. Whether San Ramon Valley falls into that category, I don’t know, but the proximity is worrisome. One wonders whether Marvel shares in those antivaccine views or whether he’s pandering to the large numbers of antivaccine parents who no doubt reside in or near his school district. Neither possibility reflects well on Mr. Marvel, who is woefully misnamed. I can only marvel (in a bad way) that the president of a school board could be so lacking in critical thinking skills that he can’t see through the obvious misinformation in The Greater Good. Even worse, I can only lament that he is willing to use his position to promote a propaganda movie so blatant and so full of false “balance,” in which misinformation and pseudoscience presented as being a legitimate counterpoint to the science of vaccines.

ADDENDUM: Liz Ditz has pointed out that one of our favorite bloggers from the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism is a middle school teacher in Marvel’s district. This explains a lot.