Why it’s not a good idea to respond to cranks, quacks, or pseudoscientists

One of the hazards of standing up for science and science-based medicine (and against cranks) is that some of these cranks will try to contact you at work. That’s why I have a policy about blog-related e-mails sent to me work address, and that policy is that I usually ignore them, whereas I might actually respond if it’s sent to my blog e-mail address. Well, it’s not an absolute policy. If it’s a reporter or fellow skeptic who contacts me at work, I might well respond from my blog address, but crank e-mails sent to my work address are 100% guaranteed to be sent straight to the metaphorical circular file (if such a thing existed in network of electronic information that is the Internet). So, cranks, if you want even a small chance that I might respond to your observations regarding the insolence, both respectful and not-so-respectful, that I lay down on a near-daily basis, don’t send your e-mail to any of my work e-mail addresses. You will be ignored. (I know, I know, no crank thinks or acknowledges that he’s a crank; so my warning will likely fall on deaf ears.) I’m not referring to just antivaccine cranks, either. I get it from all sorts, including alt-med believers and even 9/11 Truthers (even though I haven’t written about 9/11 conspiracy theories in a long time). If there’s one characteristic that cranks seem to share, regardless of their specific crankery, it’s a profound paranoia and feeling of grievance against the world in general and science in particular for not taking them seriously.

All of this is my usual roundabout way of saying that I really feel for Seth Kalichman. You might remember Seth. He’s a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Connecticut who’s made a name for himself casting the light of science and reason on a particularly vile form of quackery and pseudoscience, namely HIV/AIDS denialism. This particular form of quackery is based on the lie that HIV does not cause AIDS, and, besides writing a book about it, Kalichman maintains an excellent blog, Denying AIDS and Other Oddities. More recently, as I noted about a month ago, Kalichman has turned his attention to the antivaccine movement and managed to score a sweet $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation entitled “Establishing an Anti-Vaccine Surveillance and Alert System,” whose goal is to “establish an internet-based global monitoring and rapid alert system for finding, analyzing, and counteracting misinformation communication campaigns regarding vaccines to support global immunization efforts.” Naturally, the antivaccine cranks piled on, attacking Kalichman, the Gates Foundation, and vaccines in general, as though keeping an eye on antivaccine activity on the Internet were a bad thing.

It’s not, of course. It’s what I do, among other things, with my blogging time. I wonder if I can persuade the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to lay some money on me.

So why do I feel for Kalichman? Because he seems to have attracted the attention of an antivaccine activist named Louis Conte, who posted his whine about Kalichman’s not having responded to his e-mails on the antivaccine propaganda blog, Age of Autism entitled UConn’s Seth Kalichman Funded By Gates Foundation To Surveil So Called Anti-Vaccine Citizens. All I can say to Conte is: You say that as though it were a bad thing. Basically, Conte’s post consists of an extended whine about how Kalichman ignored three e-mails; well, that and how it was supposedly so very, very mean of Kalichman not to respond to Conte’s plaintive pleas for contact.

Actually, it’s more than just whining about being ignored. Conte also views Kalichman’s whole project as some sort of unjust persecution. He begins by describing his job as a Community Corrections officer; i.e., a parole or probation officer. After extolling the virtues of the legal system, in which the accused is considered innocent until proven guilty, he then makes this analogy:

It seems that there is a new concept of “Community Corrections.” Apparently, I am a member of a community of people that needs to be corrected. That community is made up of people who ask questions about vaccines safety, who ask questions about the nation’s vaccine program or who ask if some cases of autism are the result of vaccine injuries. Ask any of these questions, and you are guilty of being “anti-vaccine.”

It seems that I am guilty. I confess that I have asked questions like that.

And:

And yet, it seems that I am about to placed under surveillance, along with all the other people who have asked vaccine questions. If I write something questioning vaccine safety (maybe even something like what I doing now), I may well find myself in the cross hairs of an Internet surveillance program funded by one of the richest men on earth – Bill Gates.

I’m guessing that Bill Gates is completely unaware that Louis Conte even exists and that, even if he did, he wouldn’t really care. What he does care about these days is public health and using his great wealth in order to make the world a better place. Conte seems to think that Gates is setting up a system to nail him for his expression of antivaccine beliefs:

So Dr. Kalichman intends to monitor people like us and quickly report his findings back to some unidentified entity (Bill Gates?) and then do stuff (we don’t know what) in response. Dr. Kalichman does not have to run his activities by a judge, as professionals involved in real community corrections do. He doesn’t even have to really define who he is monitoring and who he will direct his counter measures on. Apply the label, conduct surveillance, report back (rapidly) to Bill (I guess) and then do something to or about those people.

Oooh. There it is, the paranoid belief that Bill will personally “do something” about him or, even worse, to him for his antivaccine beliefs. Somehow, Conte gets this from the description of the project, which, recall, says “establish an internet-based global monitoring and rapid alert system for finding, analyzing, and counteracting misinformation communication campaigns regarding vaccines to support global immunization efforts.” I don’t know about you, but the way I interpret this is that the system will be used to identify vaccine misinformation and facilitate responding to it. Wow! Fascism! How nefarious can you get?

Particularly amusing is how little self-awareness Conte has. He writes this next passage, completely without irony:

If you look Dr. Kalichman up on the Internet, you will see that he is concerned about the spread of AIDS around the world and has written a book about that issue. He is also donating any profits from the sale of the book to help fight AIDS. Dr. Kalichman has some interesting thoughts about some people who question the scientific consensus that AIDS is caused by a virus. I don’t know if he equates those people with people he considers to be “anti-vaccine.”

I don’t know because he didn’t answer my emails.

As I said, oh, the irony! Antivaccinationists are very much like HIV/AIDS denialists in many, many ways, including the invocation of pseudoscience, the paranoia, the attacks on conventional science, the conspiracy mongering, and the general antiscience attitude. Why does Conte think that Kalichman’s become interested in identifying and countering antivaccine misinformation? Why does he think I’m interested in countering antivaccine misinformation? I’m a skeptic, and I’m interested in countering quackery, medical pseudoscience, as well as creationism, Holocaust denial, 9/11 Truth conspiracies, and even perpetual motion machines. They all use very similar bad arguments, abuses of science, and logical fallacies to advance their point of view. Yes, antivaccinationists are very much like HIV/AIDS denialists, and Conte himself is a perfect example of that. We’ve seen co-authoring with Mary Holland, Robert Krakow, and Lisa Colin an execrable “analysis” of Vaccine Court claims that they tried—and failed—to represent as “proof” that the government has conceded that vaccines cause autism. Truly, it was a deceptively pseudoscience- and fallacy-laden pair of fetid dingo’s kidneys. Also emblematic of Conte’s lack of self-awareness is his accusation that Kalichman is violating academic ethics. After all, Conte’s law review paper was arguably highly unethical in that he and his coinvestigators never got IRB approval for a study that should have been approved and monitored by an IRB.

All of which brings me to another common trait among cranks. They love to invoke freedom of speech. Now there’s nothing wrong with that per se, as much as a disagree with and am alarmed by their use of freedom of speech. If there’s one value I’ve promoted time and time again, it’s freedom of speech, even to the point of being steadfastly opposed to hate speech laws. However, they seem not to understand that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences of that speech or, even more basically, freedom from criticism. To Conte, as is the case with many cranks, monitoring and countering his misinformation is not just something he disagrees with, but it’s the equivalent of suppression of that speech—or even persecution. That’s right. Because Kalichman is keeping an eye on antivaccine misinformation on the Internet in order to respond to it means to Conte that the jackboots will be kicking at his door soon. In his fantasy world, they’ll probably have the Microsoft logo on their soles, too. Meanwhile, because the vast majority of what I do on this blog is to monitor websites and blogs and then respond to pseudoscience, quackery, and misinformation, I’m guessing that Conte would probably consider me to be in league with Kalichman. Her’s a hint. Monitoring something you write in public and post to public websites and blogs meant to be seen by everyone is not the same thing as “surveillance” as represented by Conte.

No wonder Kalichman didn’t answer Conte’s e-mails. I wouldn’t have answered them either. Almost every time I succumb to the temptation to respond to a crank I end up regretting it.