An anonymous critic complains to Orac’s employers over his post on the murder of Alex Spourdalakis

Antivaccinationists, quacks, and apologists for antivaccinationists and quacks (but I repeat myself) seem to have an illusion that I’m just swimming in pharma lucre, that I sit in my underwear grinding out magnum opus-worthy after magnum opus-worthy blog posts, all so that I can rake in the cash hand over fist, lead a life of pure luxury, and enjoy ruthlessly crushing any hint of dissent regarding science-based medicine. Even if that assessment were completely true, as Lord Draconis Zeneca tells us that it is, it’s not all easy being a prolific, logorrheic pharma shill servilely doing the bidding of our shape-shifting Reptilian overlords. First off, it’s a lot of work grinding out these epic posts of pure awesomeness. It really is. You can tell when the constant blogging is taking a toll on me when occasionally I actually do a post under 1,000 words—or do a somewhat navel-gazing post like the one I’m writing now. Secondly, there’s a price to pay. Sure, now that I’m approaching the end of my ninth year of blogging and am amazingly considered an established skeptical and medical blogger, I actually get invited to do speaking engagements at skeptics’ meetings like TAM. I actually blog under my real name elsewhere. Reporters sometimes contact me for interviews about alternative medicine or Stanislaw Burzynski. I’m on podcasts every so often and even, when I’m lucky, invited to be on the radio from time to time. Oh, sure, it’s nowhere near as often as often as some of those bloggers at more prestigious blog collectives (ahem, Forbes—cough, cough—Scientific American and Discovery), but I suppose that’s just the price of using a pseudonym—or of being one of the more “prickly” skeptics when it comes to quackery.

Lest my readers think it’s all sweetness, light, and wheelbarrows full of money, I do have to point out that there is a dark side. There are problems. There are even, somtimes, hazards. For sometimes, every so often, a true believer learns The Truth. Normally that’s not such a big deal. They just try to poison my Google reputation by writing an attack post against me, as the denizens over at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism like to do from time to time. (But do they have a Wikipedia entry, I ask? No, most of them do not, with the occasional exception. I do. It’s just one of the fruits of my labors bestowed upon me by skeptical Wikipedia editors who came to view me as having enough prominence to rate a Wikpedia entry.) Such attacks started way back in 2005 and seems to happen ever several months or so now.

However, sometimes, one particularly nasty, motivated crank will try to complain about me at work, apparently not realizing that this is my hobby, that I put up as many firewalls between my blogging and work as I can (not to mention disclaimers that you should never, ever mistake my blather her for anything resembling the opinions of my university or cancer center), and that my bosses know about my blogging. This has happened so many times over the years, that it now barely causes my pulse to accelerate by more than a beat or two a minute when I learn of such a complaint, compared to the past where it really disturbed me. It turns out that my bosses at two different institutions have been a lot cooler than I had feared they would be. It also helps to work for academic institutions, which generally highly value academic freedom and are usually loathe to do anything that even gives the appearance of trampling on the free speech of their faculty. (Private companies, alas, are not so open-minded.) Be that as it may, it appears that my post earlier this week about the murder of Alex Spourdalakis “inspired” an autism biomeddler to complain to my place of work. I don’t know who it was (she didn’t leave her name), but I do want to let you know the sorts of messages I get from time to time. I had thought of posting the audio file of the voice mail this person left, but, unlike the vaccine-autism conspiracy theorists who try to cause trouble for me at work from time to time, I will actually respect this person’s anonymity. I don’t recognize her voice, but it’s possible that if I were to post the audio of her message someone out there might recognize her. So I won’t.

But I will take the trouble of providing you with a transcript with my pseudonym substituted for my real name:

Are you aware that Dr. [Orac] is writing about an area out of his expertise, autism and pediatric gastroenterology? Are you aware of these things that he is—because he has a blog and he’s making comments about? I think that you should advise Dr. [Orac] to stick to what he practices and to stay out of the autistic community’s business and to stay out of the business of advocates who are trying to help families. And he’s crossing a very dangerous line here, because he is dissuading people from getting the help that they need for their children, and he should be reprimanded for this. He does not have any business crossing those lines and talking about issues that do not concern him. And, quite frankly, you know, I think that it’s a conflict of interest, and I think that he should lose his job and his license. But that’s just my opinion as one person who is an objective observer, and I honestly feel that what he is doing is not helping anyone, except maybe himself, and he needs to stop being so self-serving and so selfish.

OK, I’m going to go out of Orac mode for a while. Writing the introduction to this post was a blast, but it’s time to get serious for a bit. I must admit, I did feel my jaw drop as I listened to the above message, delivered in exactly the tone of voice you would guess from reading the transcript. Yes, it did sound exactly the way you think it would sound. And, no, that is not a good thing and does not reflect well on whoever this woman is. I really wish I could embed the audio for your edification, too, but I don’t want to take the chance that someone might listen to it and recognize the voice.

After I stopped laughing—I mean, seriously, does anyone believe this is an “objective observer”?—I became a bit annoyed. Then sadness came over me. I thought back to the first time a crank tried to harass me at my job and get me “reprimanded” or fired. That was way back in 2005, and it was William P. O’Neil of the Canadian Cancer Research Group who started sending me legal threats (why, I don’t know, because I hadn’t even written about him; I had merely praised some work by Australian skeptic Peter Bowditch). All of this was enough to freak out a then new blogger, but O’Neill also cc’ed my department chair at the time, the late (and sorely missed) Stephen F. Lowry, MD, my then division chief, and my cancer center director. In retrospect, O’Neill did me a great favor—inadvertently, of course, but a great favor nonetheless. What I learned is that my administration wasn’t troubled by his threats (indeed, Dr. Lowry even told me that O’Neill was contemptible bully). Indeed, my cancer center director never even responded or acknowledged that he had received anything, which leads me to think that he just deleted it as yet another crank e-mail and basically ignored it.

I then thought back to more recent incidents. Back in 2010 antivaccinationists, “inspired by a blog post by the Boy Blunder, Jake Crosby, and his six-degrees of separation conspiracy-mongering and insinuations of nonexistent undisclosed conflicts of interest, started bombarding the board of governors with e-mails and phone calls. After I explained what was going on and what the real situation was, my dean gave me her full support and even asked me if I felt threatened or felt as though I needed protection. Although I did acknowledge how antivaccinationists were very much like animal rights activists, I actually didn’t feel physically threatened. Maybe I should have. Then, of course, a few months ago a Stanislaw Burzynski fan took a run at me, complaining to the president of my medical group that I was practicing medicine without seeing a patient because I had commented on the anecdotes of Burzynski patients based on publicly available information. His reaction was more amusement than anything else, as he had an actual social media person who quickly ascertained that, contrary to the accusation made by this Burzynski fan (whose identity I know, by the way) I had done nothing the least bit unethical. I was told not to worry about it; so I didn’t. Unfortunately, this very same person (I’m pretty sure it was the same person) submitted a complaint to my state medical board, which promptly looked into the matter and sent me a letter saying they had found no violations of state law or regulations and that the matter was closed. I scanned that letter into a JPEG file and used it in my talk at TAM. It will feature prominently in another talk I will be giving in two weeks for a group of postdocs about communicating science as a cautionary example—along with the picture in which Steve Novella and Paul Offit’s heads were Photoshopped into that infamous cannibalistic Thanksgiving Day feast.

So why did remembering these incidents make me sad? After all, I and my blog survived them. Thanks to these, and several other incidents not mentioned here, I lost my fear of cranks, quacks, and antivaccinationists “outing” me, trying to poison my Google reputation, or even contacting me at work. These experiences made me stronger and better as a blogger. They did, however, also make me more cautious. I’m no longer as free-spirited in my writing as I used to be and write everything with the assumption that my cancer center director and surgery department chairman might read it. Even so, such tactics are now at worst a nuisance and mildly embarrassing because sometimes I feel obligated apologize to my bosses that these idiots wasted their precious time, even if it was only a few seconds to read an inane e-mail. The good thing is that my bosses know about my blog and, I suspect, now do what the director of the cancer center where I previously worked appears to have done and just ignore the occasional crank complaint like the one above.

How many skeptics and supporters of science-based medicine who want to speak out against the cranks, quacks, and antivaccinationists have been silenced by these very techniques that I, through a fortunate confluence of working in academia and having fairly understanding bosses, have been able to endure with no ill effects. I don’t know, but I do personally know of several over the years who were silenced thusly and at least a couple whose “fire in the belly” didn’t burn hot enough to enable them to endure the attacks. They quite reasonably decided that speaking out wasn’t worth the hassle. I can’t say that if I were to work for a private company, for example, that I wouldn’t be forced to conclude the same thing. It’s quite possible that, due to the poisoning of my Google reputation by antivaccinationists and quacks, I wouldn’t be able to land a job in industry anyway were I ever to decide to try to do that.

After what I think to have been a pretty amusing start, I almost hate to end this post on such a bummer note, but if you are going to be a skeptic and speak out against the quacks and, especially, the antivaccinationists, you will be targeted. Harassing skeptics at work is a feature, not a bug. It doesn’t matter how strong a firewall you think you’ve put between your blogging or other social media activity and your work. It doesn’t matter how outrageously over-the-top your disclaimer is that your opinions are not those of your employers (as my disclaimers have traditionally been). It doesn’t matter how polite you are. Steve Novella, after all, is as polite as they come, and Age of Autism still Photoshopped his head into a Thanksgiving dinner scene at which the main course was a baby. Paul Offit is as nice as they come, but antivaccinationists still regularly castigate him as a “biostitute” and an evil, baby-killing pharma shill. Harassing skeptics at work to try to intimidate them into silence is a feature, not a bug, of the Internet crankosphere. It’s a very intentional tactic designed to shut up their critics, because cranks, quacks, and antivaccinationists have nothing else. Lacking science, evidence, and reason to back up their beliefs, yet completely convinced that they are in the right, they have to try to discredit critics.

Sometimes, I even see a post like this one at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism entitled Contact CBS: Support its Strong Reporting on Alex Spourdalakis. Between our anonymous “friend’s” message and AoA’s apparently feeling enough heat to send in its flying monkeys to try to defend the indefensible, I know I’ve scored a direct hit, along with all the other bloggers who criticized Sharyl Attkisson’s whitewashing of the brutal murder of Alex Spourdalakis and her multiple lies of omission. Between the AoA post and one of the antivaccine cranks. It makes me feel all warm inside. Together, let’s keep the heat on Sharyl Attkisson’s “reporting” on Alex Spourdalakis.


If you don’t think that this is intentional, designed to shut up critics, go and see the AoA brain trust denizens, screaming that I should be fired. For example, here’s “oneVoice“:

“DR” [Orac] should be fired from his job.His patients should fire him.National Geographic needs to stop funding this stupid non-sense blog.

His peers should get this rotten apple out of the bushel before all the apples go spoiled.He brought shame and stupidity to the medical community. Lilady is a retired nurse,an epidemiologist,she is not up to date and she used to give booster shots and vaccines to thousands of kids. All of them together with their best friend dr.prOffit can go down south,take a vacation and please never ever come back.We know that they do not care about our kids,Alex or anybody.It is all about money and big pharma profit.Dig yourself a hole Orac… or whatever who you are
and stay there with your snake (pHarma symbol)friends.

Of course, if Seed/NatGeo ever “let me go,” I’d just keep doing what I’m doing elsewhere on a WordPress blog. I already have one set up and ready to bring out of mothballs at a moment’s notice. I don’t do this for the money. The same person then threatens:

Thank you,I agree with that previous comment 100%.

ATTENTION: Mr.Orac: I need to mention that one sentence Ms. Sharyl Attkisson wrote WORTH MORE,THAT YOU HAVE EVER WRITTEN in your entire lifetime.Thank you CBS,great job.

If I was your employer I would have fired you after the first five blogs for your unethical and unprofessional communication.You have lowered yourself down with the rest of the snakes (pharma) and completely forgot your number one PRIORITY,which is to protect the children and to protect the future.Do you think you are the only one here with a professional degree??? There are many professionals and parents working day and night to find answers.Idiots like you will not stop us.The professional organizations YOU BELONG need to strip your licence.I really do not understand how you made it this far.I will do a full investigation on you.SAVE YOUR MONEY,WHILE YOU STILL HAVE A JOB.
(PS:I reserve the doctor title for caring professionals only.)

Yep. An anonymous commenter on an antivaccine crank blog is threatening to investigate me. I’m all a-tremble. I mean, it’s not as though Jake Crosby didn’t try to “investigate” me. All he could come up with were bogus allegations of undisclosed conflicts of interest that were rapidly seen through and dismissed. I doubt that this person could do any better. Of course, maybe they’ll sic Sharyl Attkisson on me. If they do, though, it will be rather obvious that the motivation is totally vindictive. It would also likely amplify my message. Not a good plan. Attkisson, her antivaccine proclivities notwithstanding, almost certainly knows that.