The “no debate” debate, briefly revisited

Just yesterday, I commented on a typical whine from the antivaccine crew at the crank blog Age of Autism in which Dan Olmsted became indignant over being reminded that science does not support his belief that vaccines cause autism, that they don’t work, and that they are dangerous. Olmsted, clueless as ever about science, viewed being reminded that the science overwhelmingly doesn’t support his belief as being akin to George W. Bush trying to convince the country that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction as a pretext to invade or to Richard Nixon urging people to stop investigating Watergate. Basically, having failed to convince using science, antivaccinationists fall back on demanding that people be “open-minded” and portraying scientific conclusions that they have no evidence to cast doubt upon those conclusions. They don the mantle of “intellectual freedom” and “free debate,” trying to paint defenders of science as somehow being against both of these things when they proclaim that there is no longer a credible case, for example, behind the hypothesis that vaccines cause or contribute to autism.

Being for “free speech” and proclaiming their critics as being against “true” science, is, unfortunately, a strategy that antivaccinationists, cranks, pseudoscientists, and denialists use with great abandon. Why? Because, unfortunately, it’s a strategy that all too often works to achieve their desired end: To keep the manufactroversy going and potentially persuade those who are ignorant of the science that they might just have a case. This point came up in the comments of my last post, when investigative journalist Brian Deer referred to the “debate” sought by antivaccinationists as now being “little more than abuse,” going on to say, “The dog has barked and the caravan has moved on.”

Later in the comments, regular commenter lilady pointed out an excellent refutation of the “debate” claim. Remember a couple of weeks ago, when Brian Deer appeared at the University of Wisconsin in LaCrosse? In response, the man most responsible for ginning up the false fear that the MMR vaccine causes autism, Andrew Wakefield, decided to head on over to LaCrosse to hold a press conference on the same Day that Brian Deer appeared there. Unfortunately, a rather clueless reporter for the LaCrosse Tribune bought into the exact framing that the antivaccine activists who showed up in LaCrosse with Andrew Wakefield wanted, entitling his coverage, Vaccine-autism debate coming to La Crosse. It represented the very worst reporting, the sort of reporting devoid of even a hint of critical thinking. What do I mean by this? The very article is a perfect example of the “tell both sides” fallacy for scientific issues that do not really have two sides or that have two sides but with one of those sides being vastly more credible than the other side from a scientific viewpoint.

This refutation was written by Michael Winfrey, who chaired the Distinguished Lectures in the Life Sciences committee that brought Brian Deer to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. First, Winfrey takes aim at the antivaccinationists’ framing of the event, apparently completely bought into by Patrick Anderson, the reporter who wrote the original article:

It’s unfortunate that the Tribune chose to promote this as a “debate” in its Sept. 30 article, which led to the misconception that the university was hosting a debate between two opposing views.

This series does not organize debates. We invite distinguished scientists (or in this case a journalist) whose findings have not only had a significant impact on science and society but also whose work is widely accepted by the scientific community.

Did Anderson do this? You bet he did. The title of his article alone did it, but so did passages like this, where, after interviewing an antivaccinationist, who is a volunteer for the Andrew Wakefield Defense Fund, Anderson wrote:

“The way we see it, an innocent man has been accused wrongly and falsely,” said Patti Carroll, a volunteer for the Dr. Wakefield Justice Fund.

The group organized a response when it heard about Deer’s presentation at UW-L, Carroll said.

Carroll stopped vaccinating her children when her son fell ill after receiving a vaccine and developed autism months later, she said.

“If Brian Deer is going to come to America and start trying to sell his story, people have a right to ask questions of the person he is accusing,” Carroll said.

Wakefield is scheduled to speak 1 p.m. at a location yet to be determined.

He said, she said. Deer was invited to speak at UW-LaCrosse. Wakefield was speaking nearby. The two must be equivalent. There are people there who believe that Wakefield was wrongly accused; so there must be a controversy! At least, that’s what Age of Autism, Andrew Wakefield, and the rest of Wakefield’s groupies want you to believe. Too bad they’re wrong, leaving them nothing except demonizing the messenger Brian Deer. Winfrey shoots this equivalency down, and shoots it down hard:

This series does not organize debates. We invite distinguished scientists (or in this case a journalist) whose findings have not only had a significant impact on science and society but also whose work is widely accepted by the scientific community.

This year we invited a journalist who exposed a grievous scientific fraud by a former British doctor. The former doctor, who was found guilty of this fraud by two prestigious medical journals and the British General Medical Council, invited himself and complained that he was not invited to debate Deer.

There are many topics worthy of debates. Whether a vaccine is the cause of autism is not among them.

Ouch! That one’s going to leave a mark! It’s also a perfect response, particularly the last sentence. There are indeed many topics worthy of debates. Whether vaccines cause autism is no longer one of them. There was a time when, although the hypothesis that vaccines cause autism was a highly implausible hypothesis, it was a hypothesis that was just plausible enough that it had to be investigated. It was investigated. The hypothesis didn’t pan out. To the best of science’s ability to determine, vaccines do not cause autism. If antivaccinationists like Wakefield want to reopen that case, as I pointed out yesterday, whining about “free and open debate” won’t cut it. They need evidence, and, as I pointed out, the evidence has to be of sufficient quality and quantity to cast doubt on the current conclusion of science that vaccines don’t cause autism.

The utter failure of the LaCrosse Tribune and Patrick Anderson aside, it can be done right. Trine Tsouderos used to do it right, before she unfortunately left the Chicago Tribune. Whoever wrote the Heath Q&A the other day for my hometown newspaper the Detroit Free Press also did it right. After urging the person asking the question about the MMR to have her baby vaccinated, the writer points out:

A 2004 investigation by England’s Sunday Times reporter Brian Deer discovered that Wakefield had planned to launch a business venture capitalizing on the MMR scare by selling his diagnostic medical tests for the new bogus syndrome of “autistic enterocolitis.” Deer believes that Wakefield might have earned as much as $43 million yearly in sales of his testing kits. Wakefield has since been stripped of his medical license to practice medicine in England. A 2011 article in the Annals of Pharmacotherapy described the MMR vaccine-autism connection as “the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years.”

And so it is.

Right on cue, Anne Dachel and her Dachelbots have shown up to bury the comments with antivaccine talking points. Dachel, as you might recall, holds the dubious position of media editor at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism. Her job description appears to be mainly to set up multiple Google Alerts for vaccine-related topics, particularly Andrew Wakefield, and then to swoop down on any blog post, news article, or op-ed that defends science and calls out antivaccine pseudoscience along with her flying monkeys to dive bomb the comment thread with poo, burying the comments with antivaccine nonsense. It’s what she does, and it’s obviously meant to perpetuate the manufactroversy. The good thing is, her talking points are so vacuous and her ability to defend them so nonexistent that all it takes are a handful of knowledgeable pro-science skeptics to shoot down her quackery. That’s why Dachel tends, having dropped her load on one article or blog post, to move on rapidly to other easier targets as her Google Alerts reveals them to her.

The entire LaCrosse incident is a perfect example of how cranks and pseudoscientists work. Having been appropriately not given the opportunity to speak at a scholarly conference, just as one would not allow astrologers to speak at an astronomy conference, creationists to speak at a biology conference, or moon hoaxers at a NASA conference, Wakefield and his groupies set up an alternate reality in which they are having a “debate,” as though having a small press conference in a little cabin makes them a credible alternative viewpoint. Then they film the proceedings, making it impossible not to conclude that the press conference cum debate was in reality primarily staged for the cameras. (One wonders if Leslie Manookian wannabe is trying to become the next great antivaccine propagandist.) Then, they rail at being excluded from speaking at conferences where they do not belong and spew venom at Brian Deer. Such is their little bubble of an echo chamber that they really think think they’re scoring points with their antics.

You know, I think Brian Deer was right.