Does all this blogging about quackery really accomplish anything?

Believe it or not, after nearly eight years blogging and around five years before that cutting my skeptical teeth on that vast and wild (and now mostly deserted and fallow) wilderness that was Usenet, I have occasionally wondered whether what I’m doing is worthwhile. Sometime around 1998, after I first discovered Holocaust denial on Usenet, and a year or so after that, I found the home of all quackery on Usenet, From around 1998 to 2004, Usenet was my home, and that’s where I fought what I thought to be the good fight against irrationality, antiscience, and quackery. Then, around December 2004, on a whim after having read a TIME Magazine article on blogging, I sat down in front of my computer, fired up Blogspot and started the first iteration of this blog, which still actually exists as an archive for some of my early work. (Hey, if you’re new, you might want to go there and read a few of what I consider to be “classic” posts. Just ignore the horrendous template. Hey, I thought it was kind of cool at the time.) Then, in early 2006, I joined ScienceBlogs, and, inexplicably, I’m still here. Given that a six year time might as well be six decades in Internet time, it is truly amazing that I’m still here.

In any case, what got me doing the blog navel-gazing thing that so annoys some people and that, mercifully, I rarely do was a post by a fellow fighter of the good fight, who confesses to a crisis of faith:

I’ve been away from the blog for a little bit because I had to take care of some stuff at home, at work, and everywhere in between. That, and I had a little bit of a crisis of faith. Not “Faith” faith, but just faith. I started questioning whether or not it was worthwhile to keep up this blog, keep working on “The Poxes”, and keep up my other extracurricular activities regarding combating anti-vaccine and anti-science forces.

After all, only two kinds of people show up on this blog: those who agree with science and those who vehemently oppose it. There are very few, if any, people who are in between visiting this blog. Alright, there are very few, if any, people who are in between telling me that they have been visiting this blog. I call them the “silent in-betweeners”.

Basically, this problem resonated with me, because for the most part I have the same issue. It’s not just in my vaccine posts, either (although those posts do tend to be the most polarizing). It’s in every post that deals with quackery and pseudoscience. Some of my posts about Stanislaw Burzynski, for example, have resulted in the influx of of Burzynski supporters arguing for their hero, against which my regulars argued brilliantly. The same thing regularly happens when I discuss issues such as death by alternative medicine, Andrew Wakefield, and various other issues. It’s not a problem unique to vaccines. It’s what happens whenever rationality takes on nearly any form of pseudoscience.

That being said, vaccines do appear to be among the worst, as far as bringing home the polarization, but to me that means that this is an area where I can do the most good. Like our blogger suffering a crisis of faith, I want to reach these silent in-betweeners. I realized long ago (and have said so many times) that the die-hard antivaccinationists are not people whose minds can be changed. It’s pointless even to try; if you do, you will become rapidly frustrated at your failure. Neither you nor I will be likely to be able to change the minds of the likes of J.B. Handley, Barbara Loe Fisher, Ginger Taylor, Jake Crosby, Dan Olmsted, and the like. It’s just not going to happen; they are as committed to their antivaccine faith as any fanatic is to his religion. Indeed, in my eight years of blogging, I can’t point to a single die-hard antivaccinationist whose mind I’ve changed.

On the other hand, I can point to e-mails from parents who were in doubt about vaccines who were reassured by reading my posts, both here and elsewhere. Equally importantly, I can point to e-mails from people who cite me as having helped them along their road out of woo and towards rationality. I’m not going to exaggerate. I don’t get a lot of these e-mails, maybe a dozen a year or less, but I do get them. Whenever I get such an e-mail, I can’t tell you how good it makes me feel. I feel as though I’ve succeeded in one of the major tasks that any human being can do. I also get the feeling that there must be more out there than the handful of e-mails that I get. After all, not everyone who’s affected that way will bother to write me, and, my massively egotistical blog persona notwithstanding, I don’t labor under the delusion that I’m the only one affecting those who manage to take the hard steps from credulity to skepticism, from magic to science. There are too many other skeptical bloggers out there, some of whom have been around longer than I have and some of whom are better at different areas than I am, some of whom are more prolific than I am.

There’s also another reason why I keep going, and it’s a selfish one. I love blogging, and I really like the niche in the blogosophere that I’ve made for myself. Does anyone think that I’d spend as much time doing what I’m doing that I do it almost every day, month after month, year after year? It’s a passion that drives me. If you don’t have the passion, you probably shouldn’t be doing this. You might last a while, but you won’t last indefinitely. I also take a lot of abuse for what I do. In actuality, it goes back before I even started this blog, when some neo-Nazi pinheads circulated a post all over Usenet that they referred to Nizkor NAMBLA. Nizkor is a website that’s been around since the 1990s that provides evidence-based rebuttals to the lies of Holocaust deniers. I never had anything to do with Nizkor, but that didn’t stop them from lumping me with a bunch of others who combatted online Holocaust denial in a truly hilariously inept list of “NAMBLA members.” And, of course, after I started blogging, periodically some crank or antivaccinationist or other would find out who I was and try to get me in trouble with my job. It freaked me out the first time it happened back in 2005, but I soon realized that my bosses recognized these clowns for what they were, cranks, and ignored them. The most recent attempt in 2010 actually helped me in that my dean actually offered her full-throated support and asked me if I felt that I needed protection. Obviously, I still think it’s worth it.

There’s also another benefit. I have learned so much doing this. I now know more about vaccines and immunology than I ever have before. I’ve learned all about logical fallacies, history, and areas of medicine into which I would never have ventured if not for blogging. I’ve even learned a lot about my own specialty, cancer. Before I started blogging about overdiagnosis, cancer heterogeneity, and other issues, I didn’t actually know that much about the topics. Now I do. It’s even translated into some minor academic recognition. Just last month I was invited to my second academic conference to give a talk solely on the basis of my reputation blogging, both here and at my other blogging location.

Finally, I can’t neglect the people. Over the years, I’ve accumulated an awesome set of regular commenters who have my back. I have a demanding day job. That means that, while I can produce these blog posts on a regular basis, I can’t produce these blog posts in a regular basis if I have to be the one also defending them against the inevitable antivaccine, antiscience, and pro-quackery trolls who regularly invade my comments. Then I got to meet some of you at various skeptical events, such as TAM and speaking engagements. I’ve put faces to some of the names, and I know that, in certain cities at least, I can always count on there being people there with whom I can hang out if I happen to be at a surgical or research meeting there.

Finally, all of this brings us back to the question of a “crisis of faith.” Like our blogger, some of what drives me is this:

I mean, I try to answer these questions as much as I can, but I’m going on what I think the questions are and against what the anti-science forces have said. Because they — the anti-science — are surely filling someone’s mind with all sorts of [expletive] lies. And that irritates the hell out of me, because people who should know better, and many times do, are misinforming people out of things like chemotherapy for cancer, vaccines for vaccine-preventable diseases, and even antibiotics for infections.

The bottom line is that all of us bloggers, whatever we blog about, have our own reasons for doing what we do. I’ve just blathered a bit about mine. In the end, however, you have to really love what you do, as I do. Sure, I have the occasional “crisis of faith” (although I don’t call it that, obviously) in which I wonder whether what I do is getting through to anyone. It doesn’t take much to make me realize that However, I love doing this so much that these crises rarely last very long and have rarely made me seriously wonder whether I should stop doing what I’m doing. The same is not necessarily true for everyone. I hope it’s not true for The Poxes Blog. We supporters of science need all the allies we can get.