Another defense of the antivaccine propaganda “documentary” The Greater Good from the San Ramon Valley Unified School District

San Ramon, we have a problem.

The other day, I laid some not-so-Respectful Insolence on a clueless school board president in San Ramon Valley, California, named Greg Marvel. What merited a heapin’ helpin’ of what Orac does so well was Marvel’s use of school board stationery to endorse a stinking, steaming turd of a movie that is really nothing more than antivaccine propaganda wrapped in false “balance” about vaccines. The movie I’m referring to is The Greater Good, and it’s going to be shown on Current TV this Saturday, followed by an online chat with the film’s producers. Basically, the antivaccine tropes are featured prominently, while the “balance” from token real scientists like Paul Offit, whose defense of vaccines was treated as though it were no more valid than the antivaccine pseudoscience on parade through most of the movie, which slavishly followed the “rule of three” by presenting three children whose parents believe they were injured by vaccines. As I described in my usual excruciating detail that you all come here for time and time again, none of the three anecdotes was convincing, and lined up against Dr. Paul Offit, Dr. Melinda Wharton of the CDC, Dr. Norman Baylor of the FDA, and Dr. Mark Feinberg of Merck were a whole host of antivaccine pseudosexperts, such as Barbara Loe Fisher, Dr. Bob Sears, Dr. Lawrence Palevsky, Dr. John Green III, and several trial lawyers known for representing parents suing for “vaccine injury.” The presentation made it very obvious on which side the filmmaker’s sympathies lie, and it wasn’t on the side of science.

So basically what happened is that Greg Marvel sent out a credulous letter on school board stationery strongly endorsing The Greater Good as being “balanced” and something that the parents of students in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District should watch. In other words, he unethically abused his position as school board president to sway parents to watch a movie that is nothing more than propaganda against vaccines that blames them for neurological damage, autism, autoimmune diseases, and a wide variety of other health problems. One wonders whether our old buddy Kent Heckenlively, one of the stable of bloggers at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism, had anything to do with this, given that I’m told that he’s a middle school teacher in that very same district. Or it’s possible that Marvel might have simply fallen under the sway of the antivaccine views so prevalent in the Bay Area, which is where the San Ramon Valley Unified School District is located.

Now, if you were a public health nurse in the school district whose president had just endorsed such a blatant bit of antivaccine propaganda, encouraging parents int he district to watch it, what would your reaction be? If you were science-based, you would be appalled. You might be afraid to speak out because Marvel is, after all, the school board president, and what employee of a school district wants to speak out against her school board president? What I would hope that we wouldn’t see from such a person is something like this:

Re: The film “The Greater Good”

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is Nancy Sheets, and I am a credentialed school nurse in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District. I earned my Bachelors of Science in Nursing from the University of San Francisco in 1980, and worked in medical/surgical nursing, cardiopulmonary and intensive care units, and home health case management prior to my employment as a school nurse and health educator.

As a health professional, I feel it is my responsibility to be informed regarding public health issues, current research, and policy that affects the health and safety of our children. This film raises some very thought provoking questions regarding the development of vaccines and vaccine policy. The information is well presented, and offers a well-balanced discussion of these issues. The viewpoints of individuals in the medical field who are strong advocates for current vaccine policy are presented, as well as the opinions and experiences of neuroscientists and physicians who raise pertinent questions based on their research or clinical experience in the care of children.

As a school nurse, I encourage parents to confer with their health care providers on many issues. Parents are continually making decisions that influence the health and safety of their child. This film can be an educational resource parents can utilize as they discuss immunization plans with their pediatricians.

Nancy Sheets, RN BSN PHN

Not surprisingly, the antivaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism is touting this letter too.

No, the only thing this film can be an “educational resource” for is how to make a clever bit of propaganda with fairly high production values using a combination of the “tell both sides” and “false balance” tropes, all topped off with testimonials that confuse correlation with causation. It is also a useful teaching material for skeptics like myself to educate readers on how evidence can be cherry-picked and deceptively presented to make a seemingly compelling case for pseudoscience. In fact, I did just that a few months ago.

So let’s see. So far in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, we have a president who is at the very least seriously lacking in critical thinking abilities and at worst antivaccine. (I suspect the worse.) We also have a middle school science teacher named Kent Heckenlively who is so antivaccine that he blogs for one of the most prominent antivaccine propaganda blogs in existence. Then we have a public health nurse who, like Marvel, is either highly credulous or antivaccine–or both.

ZHere’s the mission of the health educators, including Nancy Sheets, as laid out on the dSan Ramon Valley Unified School District website:

Our goals are:

  • to promote the health and well-being of school children
  • to provide for optimal educational experiences

The health educator/school nurse is a registered nurse who has completed additional educational requirements and possesses a current credential in school nursing, a public health credential, and a school audiometrist certificate.

School nurses strengthen and facilitate the educational process by improving and protecting the health status of children. Activities include the identification and removal or modification of health-related barriers to learning in individual children.

The major focus of school health services is the prevention of illness and disability and the early detection and correction of health problems.

The health educator/school nurse is specially prepared in preventative health, health assessment and referral procedures.

Writing a letter such as the one that Nancy Sheets wrote and letting the antivaccine political action group the Canary Party publish it on its website are hardly in keeping with the mission of the health educators at the SRVUSD as stated. Defending and promoting a movie like The Greater Good is not consistent with improving and protecting the health status of children, given that the intent of the filmmakers is clearly to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt about vaccines.

If there’s one thing that bothers me more than almost any other form of pseudoscience promotion, it’s when health care professionals betray their trust and endanger public health by abusing the authority of their positions to promote nonsense like antivaccination beliefs. The Patriot Nurse did it. Dr. Bob Sears does it (and did it just recently by opposing tighter restrictions on philosophical exemptions for vaccination in California, writing on that other wretched hive of scum and quackery, Mothering.com). Dr. Jay Gordon does it, profoundly misunderstanding science along the way.

And now Nancy Sheets does it.

I feel sorry for the students of the San Ramon Valley Unified School District.