A misguided “chalkboard talk”

Sometimes I feel like Dug, the talking dog in the movie Up, in that when it comes to blogging I’m often easily distracted. The reason I say this is because there’s been a “viral” (if you can call it that) video floating around the antivaccine quackery blogosphere that antivaccinationists are passing around as though it’s slam-dunk evidence that vaccines aren’t safe. It’s called the Chalkboard Campaign:

Basically, it’s one long series of chalkboard images touting pseudoscience and antivaccine misinformation over and over again, all over a sappy pop music soundtrack, using the tag line from the song throughout the video, “We need to talk.” The video is popping up all over the antivaccine blogosphere, and it’s being touted on—where else?—the antivaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism.

Indeed we do need to talk, but not in the manner that the creator of this video, Rebecca Ferguson, a mother who claims to have “recovered” her child Caroline using all manner of “biomedical” pseudoscience thinks we do. We need to talk about the sheer quantity of rank misinformation, that Ms. Ferguson has packed into a single four and a half minute video. I was half-tempted to put the video up and leave its deconstruction as an exercise for my readers, and, to some extent, I still like that idea. Unfortunately, the new ScienceBlogs layout does not permit me to control where the “fold” appears, so that I could just put all of my take on this video “below the fold” So what I’ll suggest is that anyone who wants to do that watch the video now and then comment without reading my discussion. Alternatively, you can watch the video now, see how many antivaccine canards you can spot, and then compare your take on the video with mine. Ready? Here we go.

The first thing you need to know about this video is that it’s made by a newly minted board member of VaxTruth.org for this express purpose:

When I do address vaccines, I try to put myself in my own shoes. The shoes I was wearing in 2006 – when our daughter was injured and we listened to her pediatrician for far too long – and I ask, “What would it have taken to reach ME?”

What might a friend have sent me that would’ve saved our family’s life as we knew it?

To that end, I recently made a half-dozen chalkboard images. Reducing vaccine controversy to simple black and white messages captured people’s attention.

But I knew there needed to be more. And as a newly appointed board member at VaxTruth.org, the topic weighed heavily on my mind. How can we expand beyond the “choir?” How can we reach new parents?

She concludes, addressing AoA readers:

Today, it’s here. But not just for you. You already know everything it says and more. It’s for your mainstream friends.

Also, this is not her first foray into video. She’s known for making “recovery videos” of her daughter, like this one:

It’s basically one long testimonial that confuses correlation with causation, blaming vaccines for every setback, even though autism can be detected as early as six months, and crediting biomedical quackery with every improvement. In it, it’s assumed that autism is a condition of developmental stasis, so that when Caroline shows signs of improvement, such as developing language or having her sensory issues about various textures abate, the assumption behind the video is that none of these developments would have happened without the antivirals, gluten-free diet, chelation therapy, hyperbaric oxygen chamber, and, of course, homeopathic remedies Rebecca subjected her daughter to. On the other hand, I suppose the homeopathic remedies, at least, serve a purpose. Because most homeopathic remedies are nothing more than water, one can say that any improvement observed after they were administered to Caroline is certainly not due to the homeopathic remedy (homeopathic remedies more “potent” than 12C are, after all, the ultimate placebo), but rather to normal development and/or confirmation bias on the part of the parents. It’s just too bad that the rest of the quackery is not so benign.

Those who know anything about vaccines will know that the “chalk talk” video is cleverly manipulated propaganda mixing half-truths and misinformation in a toxic stew designed to frighten parents. But is it effective? Damned if I know, because the only places I’ve seen this video thus far are on known antivaccine websites, such as AoA and various “alternative health” websites. Personally, I think the video is too simple, so simple as to be insulting to the intelligence of the average person, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s ineffective. Certainly Ferguson has mastered the repetition thing.

It begins by looking at a classroom of 30 children and points out the number who will have various diseases and conditions, such as learning disabilities, food allergies, respiratory allergies, skin allergies, asthma, and attention disorders. She also says that one will have autism, although a one in thirty prevalence rate for autism is far higher than anything I’ve ever heard before, with the exception of one South Korean study. If she wanted to be correct, she’d say that approximately one child out of the children in three such classrooms has autism. One also notes that, despite the huge male preponderance of autism and autism spectrum disorder diagnoses, Ferguson chooses to use a picture of a girl to illustrate her point.

Be that as it may, after the collage of images and chalk font, the next message is, “Too many children are suffering,” followed by a demand, “As their parents, we needed answers. What is causing all the neurological disorders?” Unfortunately, the “answers” Ferguson proceeds to supply are completely wrong. Certainly, Ferguson’s claim that “we dug deep into the science” is risible at best. I’ll show you the “science” she dug into. It’s all on this page.

I must say, I’m impressed at the utter lack of research chops Ferguson shows. If this, as one must assume, is the best that she can come up with, it’s pretty pathetic indeed. For instance, there’s a typically fallacy-laden article by all-purpose quack and crank Russell Blaylock, for whom there apparently is no quackery too quacky for him to embrace. There’s also another article by Andreas Moritz. Remember him? I do. He’s a cancer quack who thinks that chemotherapy doesn’t work, claims that cancer is not a disease but rather the “wisdom of the body,” and is also known for using legal threats to intimidate into silence critics who point out his cancer quackery. In the article cited by Ferguson, Moritz claims that vaccines suppress the immune system, which is so demonstrably not true that I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read his article. Another article cited by Ferguson is a scary-sounding list of vaccine ingredients. Yes, indeed, her “evidence” is the “toxins” gambit here, the very same gambit that our old friend Dr. Jay Gordon used when he did a bit of fear mongering about formaldehyde. The list of “references” goes on, being made up mostly of articles from antivaccine sources, such as Ginger Taylor and Fourteen Studies, nearly all not published in the peer-reviewed literature. Sure, there are a couple of exceptions, one of which is mentioned through the antivaccine propagandist reporter Sharyl Attkisson (who is well known not just for her execrable journalism about vaccines but for her ties to Generation Rescue), namely Helen Ratajczak’s hideously wrong “review” of the literature about vaccines and autism.

Yes. This is the “research” Ferguson has done.

The result is a series of scientific claims regarding vaccines and autism that are so wrong they’re, as we say, “not even wrong.” She begins by asking “What has the power to change our immune system?” I bet you know the answer to that one. Yup, it’s the dreaded vaccines! She even claims, apparently based on Moritz’s nonsense, that vaccines decrease immune reactivity to viruses and increase immune reactivity to allergens. This is next followed by the “toxins” gambit, in which fear is brought to bear about how “even the smallest amounts of heavy metals and toxins in vaccines” can “bypass all natural defenses” because they’re, you know, injected directly into the body, “further impare the immune system, increasing unbalanced reactivity,” leading to “gut-brain encephalopathy,” whatever that is. Of course, doctors won’t tell you this because (of course!) according to Ferguson they rely on pharmaceutical reps for their information and are, of course, “pharma shills.”

In contrast (and please, swallow any drink you might have in your mouth and put your glass or cup down now before you read this), the parents “scour the scientific studies and published research and have an unbiased interest in finding the truth.” Really? Everybody has biases. Everybody. Where people go drastically wrong is when they think that they, alone among all humans, are “unbiased.” There is no such thing. The best we can do is to admit our biases, make sure they’re transparent, and try to compensate for them. In fact, the scientific method wouldn’t need to exist if there were truly “unbiased” people. It exists largely to try to correct for biases in observation and interpretation that we all have. In the case of Ms. Ferguson, it’s clear that her bias is that “something” caused her daughter’s autism and that “something” can cure it. That might or might not be true, but her bias leads her to latch on to vaccines as the cause of her daughter’s condition and quackery like homeopathy and chelation therapy as the cure. Her bias has completely short-circuited her critical thinking skills, and now she’s functioning mainly in the realm of motivated reasoning, cherry picking information sources (not even scientific studies) that support her bias. She believes there must be a reason, even when there isn’t always.

Ferguson’s last major claim is that “there has never been a single study of the current vaccine schedule”:

This is, of course, silly. One might first ask: Which schedule? Every country has different vaccine schedules, designed to meet the needs of its children according to the diseases most prevalent in each country. Moreover, every new vaccine that is introduced is tested in the context of the the entire vaccine schedule as it currently exists. Then there are epidemiological studies looking at different vaccines, vaccinated versus less vaccinated populations. It’s hard to do an epidemiological study looking at vaccinated versus unvaccinated populations, at least in the U.S., because there are, fortunately, relatively few completely unvaccinated children. Particularly hilarious, attempts at “studies” of unvaccinated versus vaccinated children have been made by the antivaccine movement; if anything, they suggest that vaccines are protective against autism. Of course, they’re utter crap as science; so I don’t seriously say that they show this. I do say that even the antivaccine movement hasn’t been able to link vaccines to autism or any other condition in a convincing fashion. Unfortunately, that doesn’t keep antivaccine propagandists from demanding a “vaccinated versus unvaccinated study,” even though there isn’t really any good evidence to suspect that vaccines cause autism (or all the other conditions Ferguson attributes to them) given that the existing evidence is negative. That evidence comes from multiple countries over several decades, too.

After looking at Ferguson’s website and video, I have to conclude that its simplistic message just might work to persuade some parents that vaccines cause autism. However, its message is undermined by conspiracy mongering and just how over-the-top its claims are. Even parents predisposed to believe might have a hard time believing that there hasn’t ever been a “single study” of vaccinated and unvaccinated children, which is why I suspect that this video will probably mainly resonate with true believers, rather than serving as a tool to convert large numbers of undecided parents. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at the copious praise the denizens of AoA have heaped upon this video in the comments after Ferguson’s post.) On the other hand, one of the favorite canards of quacks and pseudoscience supporters is to demand “one study” that shows them everything they want to see. Science and medicine don’t work that way. Conclusions in medical science are built up based on many studies from multiple different sources, and it requires a background in the relevant science and medicine to be able to interpret the totality of the medical literature on the subject.

It takes a lot of arrogance of ignorance to believe otherwise and that you can interpret the medical literature better than real scientists, and that’s what Ferguson demonstrates in abundance: The arrogance of ignorance.