“Bullying” over vaccines?

There’s been a post over at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism that I had meant to address when it first broke its head through the surface of the stupid to spew more stupid. Fortunately, nothing much was going on in the blogosphere that compelled me; so this was a good time to revisit the post and take care of some unfinished business, particularly given that there have been followup posts since then. It also goes to show how antivaccine cranks like to misuse language, sometimes unintentionally (which is probably the case here) and sometimes intentionally (too many examples over the years to list). For example there’s the word bully, and I will say right here and right now to the the woman who wrote the post, Cathy Jameson: “Bully.” You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The post I’m revisiting is entitled, amusingly enough, Things to Know or Do When You’re Up Against a Vaccine Bully. It should really be called “When up against someone who knows what he’s talking about regarding vaccines, stay calm and baffle him with BS.” You’ll see what I mean in a minute, but first, let me just state my annoyance again at the antivaccine movement for trying to co-opt October, which has been Breast Cancer Awareness Month for over a quarter century, as Vaccine Injury Awareness Month. Jameson starts out with this canard right in the first sentence, also pointing out that it is National Bully Prevention Month. Naturally, she can’t resist trying to put the two together, much as an antivaccinationist tries to put two neurons together arguing science. Like that antivaccinationist, she fails, and fails miserably. However, there are amusement and, perhaps, education in her failure.

First, she whines about headlines about vaccines that she doesn’t like:

My head spins when I see headlines like those above. But, to the average reader, they may truly not know why some of the content of those stories are absolutely ridiculous. The reader may not be aware of the many risks of vaccinating or realize how much money goes into this industry. This happens when mainstream news refuses to offer both sides of the vaccine story.

Jameson amuses me here. When I started paying attention to the antivaccine movement about a decade ago, one of the things that drove me crazy, as it still does for many forms of pseudoscience, was the false balance in many news reports. In any story about vaccines, or so it seemed, every journalist seemed to feel obligated to interview antivaccinationists like Andrew Wakefield, Jenny McCarthy, or J. B. Handley antivaccine propagandists like David Kirby or Dan Olmsted; or local vaccine-averse parents. This was done in the name of “balance,” of “telling both sides.” Indeed, one of the key messages that I’ve been hammering home here again and again and again is that science is not politics. It is not a popularity contest. In science there are questions where there really are not two sides to an issue. The issue of whether or not vaccines contribute to the development of autism is one of these issues; a mountain of science and clinical studies has failed to find a link between vaccines and autism. Although science can never say never with the absolute religion-like certainty that antivaccinationists demand, it can tell us that the odds that there is a biological link between vaccines and autism is infinitesimally small. For that reason, in stories about vaccines, there is no need to bring out a crank antivaccinationist (but I repeat myself) for “balance,” because there really is only one side to the story.

I think Dara O’Briain puts it best when he talks about homeopaths:

It’s been a while since I’ve shown that clip; as far as I’m concerned, it’s hard to show it too much, because there is a message there that needs to be repeated loud and often. Let’s just put it this way. Cathy Jameson and her ilk are in the same category as the homeopaths and people who remove their own teeth that O’Briain mocks in the clip above, and turning to an antivaccinationist for “balance” in a news report is no different than turning to a homeopath. Do we interview moon hoax believers whenever there is a story about space travel? No! So why is it that, all too frequently, reporters feel obligated to interview antivaccinationists in stories about vaccine science?

Now here’s the funny thing. It’s something that makes me happy, but it makes Cathy Jameson very upset. I’m referring to a definite trend in news reporting about vaccines not to give the cranks equal time in the name of “balance.” I don’t have any quantitative evidence, but my anecdotal experience is that stories about vaccines rarely trot out an antivaccinationist any more in the name of “balance.” This is a very, very good thing, but not to Cathy Jameson and the merry crew of antivaccinationists at the antivaccine crank blog AoA. Unfortunately, it is not a good enough thing, as just this week we see that there is still a lot of false balance out there in a list of ten stories publicized on AoA, as one of the stories is an article by an autism biomed quack Dan Rossignol. Yet the AoA commenters are still upset that one of the stories didn’t mention a link to vaccines.

In any case, Jameson has been getting questions, and these questions are about what she refers to as “vaccine bullies”:

I get several phone calls and emails every month from parents asking for help when they see similar headlines in the news. I get questions like: What can I do when my doctor isn’t listening to me? Why is my doctor bullying me about this? What do I say if I don’t want all those shots? What should I bring to the appointment to prove what he’s saying about vaccines and autism is wrong? I let parents know that the best thing that they can, and should do, is to learn as much as they can. I tell them to be ready to speak up when it’s time and to never forget it’s their child—not the doctor’s, that they are bringing into the exam room. I also suggest to these parents to read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. And then read some more. Knowledge truly is power, and applying that knowledge can be very powerful.

In the past, the places I spend the most time discussing vaccines, vaccine safety and how autism is linked to vaccines occurs in an exam room with one of my son’s medical providers as well as on blogs, message boards and in the comments of web-based articles. In the exam room, some doctors and medical staff are adamant about “No vaccines? No service.” Fine! I say. I’d rather take my children to someone else who actually respects them and their health. It may be more costly to find a different provider, but their life is absolutely worth it.

Funny, but if I were a pediatrician, I would say that protecting my patients, particularly ones who are immunosuppressed or have contraindications against being vaccinated and freeing up my time from unproductive discussions trying to persuade antivaccinationists like Cathy Jameson are absolutely worth losing a few patients like Jameson’s children. Jameson seems to think that doctors and nurses enjoy trying to correct the misinformation about vaccines that they believe; they do not. It’s an educational effort that is rarely successful, takes up a lot of time, and results in much frustration. It is also an example of the mind-numbing arrogance of ignorance that she thinks that her Google University knowledge trumps the knowledge that a physician has accumulated dedicating his life to taking care of children. In any case, based on that arrogance of ignorance, Jameson has decided to give her readers some advice. The funny thing about it is that some of it is actually good advice, just not in the way Jameson thinks. Much of it is a case of massive projection.

First, here’s the not-so-bad advice that is such a massive case of projection that it utterly fried yet another irony meter. (Actually, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m fast running out of outrageous descriptions of distressed irony meters; so I’m going to back it off for a while.) Jameson tells us to be calm:

# 1 – Do stay calm. Online trolls love vaccine drama. Pharma shills do too. They get off on their wordsmithing, their debating skills and how much of your time they can waste. If it’s in the exam room that you raise a question or concern, and if it’s an ill-informed doctor or pushy nurse you’re up against, be prepared well ahead of time with what you want to ask, say or point out. Because your knowledge directly benefits your child’s health, stay calm, know your stuff and be ready to stand your ground. Keep in mind that some practices benefit from doling out pharmaceutical products. The more you know about where your doctor’s loyalty lies, the stronger you can be with the decisions or statements you want to make.

We currently have an antivaccine troll here “debating” over in another thread. He’s been at it for a couple of weeks and over 300 comments thus far. His technique involves an ever-shifting array of fallacious arguments that seem superficially plausible. He’s wasted a lot of your, my readers’, time with some rather unskilled commenting prestidigitation. As for Jameson’s advice in the exam room, all she’s succeeding in doing is filling worried mothers’ heads with antivaccine misinformation while convincing them that they know more than their doctors and can change the their doctors’ mind if they’re just persistent enough. All they do is to endanger their children and waste their doctors’ time.

Next up:

# 2 – Do show them the studies. Back in the day this may have been hard to do. But, with the internet teeming with reliable, scientifically-based data, all one has to do is point out where the studies are. Ginger Taylor gathered studies as did TACA . You’ll see plenty of links to copy, paste, print and share. The next step once you’ve swapped studies? Ask them to read your stacks of facts. Make sure you’ve read theirs also. Don’t be shy. You’ll need to read them, too, because you’ll want to know how to counter them politely with science. If they won’t catch up to what you’re presenting, then you might feel that there’s no need to continue to argue/debate/beat your head against the wall with them. If, by chance, they do catch up, and if for instance, the argument is vaccines cause autism, follow up with a cordial reply asking if they need more proof that autism can result from vaccinations, share that the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program has compensated families for their child’s autism which resulted from vaccinations. Remember that you may never get them to switch teams and join the vaccine safety camp, but you can plant tons of seeds to get them to think outside of their pharma-funded pro-vaccine box.

Relying on Ginger Taylor or TACA to interpret actual scientific studies is akin to relying on Ken Ham to teach evolutionary theory or Suzanne Somers to teach medicine. It’s just not going to happen, and you’ll only embarrass yourself regurgitating the misinformation, pseudoscience, and lies that you’ll learn. Better not to bother, because it won’t end well. If you don’t yet know how to interpret scientific studies, you won’t learn how from any of these characters, particularly if you try to repeat the lie that the NVICP has compensated children for vaccine-induced autism, which will only reveal your ignorance for all to see. The NVICP did no such thing, despite the attempts of the latest antivaccine celebrity to make a fool of himself, Rob Schneider, to convince you otherwise.

Jameson then tells her readers that they need to know the lingo. This is perhaps the most hilariously off-base advice of all, because Jameson demonstrates that she most definitely does not know the lingo herself:

# 3 – Do know the lingo. Some of these types of conversations come down to semantics. One of the biggest red flags that pro-vaccinators like to wave, and is utterly incorrect, is when they immediately reference what happened to Dr. Wakefield: “Dr. Wakefield’s study was debunked!” This is when things can get especially heated and is the biggest clue for you: Run. Just run. They aren’t worth your time. They are also showing how immature and wrong they are. But, if you want to stick around and try to educate them, by all means, tell them the facts. Tell them that, first of all, it was not a study; it was a paper. Second, if they’d actually read the paper, they would know that Wakefield, et al never said what the media says they said. Third, the crucification, of Wakefield was spurred by news reporters in the mainstream media who simultaneously flooded most of what we were reading in the newspapers. Fourth, these anti-Wakefielders were duped by the very people they adamantly continue to defend because of the misinformation the newspapers reported. Not until these folks take themselves out of the mainstream media circus sideshow act atmosphere will they be able to realize the truth. Their heads deeply buried in the sand still to see that yet.

“Tell them first that it was not a study; it was a paper”? Seriously? My jaw dropped; I did an epic facepalm; and then I started laughing, almost uncontrollably, after reading that. Here’s a hint: A paper is nothing more than an article that describes a study, and, make no mistake, Wakefield’s paper described a study. Specifically, the kind of study Wakefield’s paper described was a case series. As Brian Deer taught us, it was a crappy case series with unrepresentative sample and grossly misinterpreted pathology results, a veritable cornucopia of Piltdown medicine, and Wakefield had a massive undisclosed conflict of interest. Second, while it is true that Wakefield never explicitly stated in his paper reporting his case series that the MMR vaccine was linked with autism in his subjects, he sure wasn’t shy about implying and outright stating that it was in the popular press and then following it up with papers in journals less prestigious than The Lancet trying to draw that very conclusion. What Jameson is arguing is disingenuous in the extreme. Either that, or she really is that ignorant. Take your pick. In any case, if there was a media circus over Brian Deer’s expose of Wakefield, it paled in comparison to the media circus in the UK that was precipitated by Wakefield’s “revelations.”

After this point, I must admit that Jameson had exhausted me. It’s draining to deal with so much ignorance, and I’ve had a long week. Perhaps I should have revisited her post earlier in the week, when I had more energy. I didn’t though; so maybe you can help me out. Jameson’s remaining advice includes:

  • Do know what is going on with the “autism is only genetic” or “vaccines save lives” types of articles in mainstream news.
  • Do comment.
  • Never ever give up.

If you’re an antivaccinationist, you don’t have to bother with the first one. After all, AoA’s “media editor” Anne Dachel routinely does it for you, posts the links, and thereby inspires her squadrons of antivaccine flying monkeys to fly over to the articles linked to and to divebomb their comments with poo, which is basically what Jameson is telling her readers to do with the last two: Continue to contaminate comment threads in any story having to do with vaccines or autism with antivaccine talking points.

The flying monkeys are forming up their squadrons again. Indeed, if you want to see bullying, see how they swarm in the comments of bloggers who aren’t as established as I am and haven’t built up their own squadron of science-based commenters (as I have been fortunate enough to do over the last nine years) to drive away the antivaccine quacks, thus allowing me to continue to produce your daily dose of Insolence (relatively) unmolested.

That is, if the bullies over at AoA don’t try to harass me at my job again, as they did three years ago.