In which reporters are lectured by a fake "media expert" and "autism advocate"

After the last couple of days of depressing posts about the utter failure of the FDA to do its job protecting cancer patients from the likes of Stanislaw burzynski, it’s time to move on. Unfortunately, the first thing that caught my eye as I sat down to blog last night not only fried my irony meter as though a radioactive flame had been aimed at it by Godzilla itself but it also stomped that sucker flat as though Godzilla had jumped up and down on it. It came from one of the only places where the bloggers are so utterly without a sense of self-awareness that they could achieve such a feat. No, it wasn’t, nor was it the (Not-So) Thinking Moms’ Revolution. Rather, it was an old reliable wretched hive of scum and antivaccine quackery, the antivaccine crank blog known as Age of Autism (AoA), where science is only accepted when it can be twisted into the warped world view in which vaccines cause autism and is otherwise jettisoned in favor of the rankest pseudoscience and quackery.

Even more amusingly, this irony meter-melting bit of idiocy comes from the so-called Media Editor of AoA, Anne Dachel. For those of you not familiar with what that means, I’ll explain. Apparently the job of the Media Editor of AoA is to set up a bunch of Google Alerts having to do with vaccines, autism, and “autism biomed,” wait for the links in the search results to appear, peruse them to find any that appropriately reject the scientifically discredited idea that vaccines cause autism and/or support the efficacy and safety of vaccines, and then call in her flying monkeys by posting links to the article on AoA. The readers, being antivaccine loons, form a flying monkey squad that cruises over to the comments in order to fling antivaccine poo all over the place. Mission accomplished on Anne Dachel’s part. It’s what she’s good at. I suppose that in this world of Web 2.0 it’s a potentially useful skill for a crank, as it gives the impression of an overwhelming number of people believing in crank antivaccine views, but it contributes nothing but noise to the discourse. It’s also intentionally meant to intimidate. Smaller bloggers who don’t have a cadre of commenters who have their back (as I do here), once burned by a flying monkey attack directed by Dachel, will think twice before posting something that might provoke another such attack. (Of course, antivaccinationists aren’t the only ones who use this technique, and from my observations the two types of cranks who use this technique most often appear to be antivaccinationists and anthropogenic global climate change denialists.)

Such is the woman who is now donning the mantle of investigative journalist Bob Woodward and lecturing the mainstream media on how to behave during April, which is Autism Awareness Month. Yes, Autism Awareness Month. Regular readers might recall how I used to dread Autism Awareness Month every year, although at the same time I couldn’t help but look forward to it a little. I dreaded it because I knew that there would be plenty of bad stories published by the mainstream press that expressed undue credulity when it came to the long discredited idea that vaccines cause autism. Usually, it was in the form of false balance, in which antivaccine advocates like Jenny McCarthy, Andrew Wakefield, or representatives of antivaccine groups like SafeMinds or Generation Rescue would be presented as an “alternate” viewpoint on par with the real scientists and doctors who would correctly tell journalists that there is no evidence for such a link. The result, of course, was to give far more credence to crank ideas than they deserve, which is none. Sometimes, there’d even be stories by antivaccine journalists like Sharyl Attkisson (who, apparently, has finally left CBS for less—shall we say?—restrictive pastures) would fire off a full mental jacket rant against vaccines disguised as journalism, as she did three years ago.

Here’s the video cited by Dachel:

Autism News Beat has already done a nice takedown of this particular gem from Dachel, but there’s so much stupid there that there’s plenty left over for me. First, however, I’d like to note that I don’t dread Autism Awareness Month any more, at least not the way I used to, mainly because journalists seem to have wised up considerably. It used to be that whenever there was a story on autism there’d have to be a mention of vaccines as a cause of autism and whenever there was a story about vaccines lazy journalists would inevitably also interview an antivaccine activist for “balance.” This doesn’t happen nearly as much as it used to, as far as I can tell, and perhaps that’s the reason Anne Dachel has resorted to sending her antivaccine flying monkeys in whenever possible. It’s all she has left.

All of this is what’s led to the vaporization of yet another one of my irony meters by Dachel when she points out Woodward’s three rules, lecturing journalists to follow them:

First, you’re supposed to CHECK SOURCES.

Woodward: “It means checking everything, talking to half a dozen or even a dozen people for a day story. If it’s something longer, you want to totally surround and saturate the subject.”

Second, you need DOCUMENTATION.

Woodward: “I have not really ever seen a story in a newspaper or on television or even on radio that couldn’t be enhanced with some sort of documentation that would support or add more detail to what the story is about.”

Third, you’re supposed to CHECK INFORMATION FIRST HAND.

Woodward: “Get your ass out of your chair and get over there.”

As an aside, there is a reporter who has shown her ability to do all of these things, as evidenced by her most recent story about Stanislaw Burzynski. I’m talking about Liz Szabo, of course. But I digress.

Let’s see how good reporters admired by the antivaccine movement fare when it comes to these three criteria laid down by Woodward. Let’s start with Sharyl Attkisson. Her most recent autism-related story was about the murder of an autistic boy by his mother and other caregiver. The boy was Alex Spourdalakis, and his mother murdered him because she felt helpless to control him as he got bigger and stronger and more difficult to control. We also found out that his mother was heavily into the quackery known as “autism biomed.”

Sharyl Attkisson’s report was a truly epic fail on all three of these counts. When it comes to checking sources, Attkisson either didn’t bother to “check her sources.” Either that, or she purposely didn’t report relevant background about her sources. Take your pick. For instance, she interviewed Polley Tommey, but she didn’t mention Tommey’s close ties with antivaccine “scientist” Andrew Wakefield. She also portrayed Dr. Arthur Krigsman performing endoscopy on Alex, but she didn’t let her audience know that Dr. Krigsman was also closely affiliated with Andrew Wakefield.

Attkisson also failed miserably on documentation, and has done so time and time again when it comes to stories regarding autism and vaccines. For example, in the story about Alex Spourdalakis, she didn’t document much of anything. It was a biased puff piece. In terms of other stories about autism and vaccines, if anything, Attkisson is best known for fawning, fact-free interviews with Andrew Wakefield, credulously accepting a horribly written and scientifically nonsensical review article without checking her sources and testing it against science, and over-the-top antivaccine rants chock full of anti-pharma conspiracy mongering so cranky that it gave Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. a run for his money. It’s not just about vaccines and autism, either. Attkisson is well known for other poorly sourced, poorly fact checked stories credulously parroting pseudoscience about breast cancer as well.

I don’t know how good a reporter Attkisson is on matters that don’t involve vaccines and/or autism, but I do know that her reporting on such stories miserably fails at least two out of three of Woodward’s admonishments to reporters. Of course, going out to check information “first hand” matters little if you’re so biased that you only see what you want to see. As the old Simon & Garfunkel song goes, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest,” which is exactly what happens when biased, pseudoscience- and quackery-susceptible reporters like Sharyl Attkisson “gets her ass out of the chair and gets over there” in order to “check information first hand.” Perhaps the most hilarious example of this in the annals of vaccine-autism pseudoscience is another blogger at AoA, namely Dan “Where are the Autistic Amish?” Olmsted. Olmsted, as you might recall, gained quite some notoriety for seizing on and popularizing the myth that the Amish don’t vaccinate and, as a result, have a much lower prevalence of autism than the rest of the US. Of course, it turns out that the Amish do vaccinate and that there are plenty of Amish children with symptoms of autism. Thus, even though Olmsted “got his ass out of the chair and got over there” to Amish communities in Pennsylvania to check information first hand, he still got it completely wrong.

Now Dan Olmsted is managing editor of AoA, and Sharyl Attkisson is a hero covering “untouchable subjects” with “fearless reporting” to the denizens of that antivaccine crank blog AoA. Prior, a similarly clueless “reporter,” David Kirby, who promoted the myth that mercury in vaccines cause autism, was AoA’s Journalist of the Year.

Of course, none of this matters to Dachel. What matters is only that the reporter find what she wants her to find, namely stories confirming her belief that vaccines cause autism:

By the way, why is it that you all never hold health officials accountable for the research they tell you about? Why do you accept every new study showing no link between vaccines and autism from the agency that runs the vaccine program as valid science? Why doesn’t someone ask, WHO FUNDED THE STUDY? Why doesn’t anyone look into THE CONFLICTS OF THE RESEARCHERS?

Uh, probably because the conflicts of interest of the researchers are, by nearly all journals’ policies, laid out in the paper. Besides, conflicts of interest don’t by themselves invalidate science reported in a paper. It might lead one to be a bit more skeptical, but if the science is properly carried out and reported, COIs don’t invalidate that science. Of course, COIs are a rather liquid thing in the mind of antivaccinationists. To antivaccinationists, Paul Offit’s perceived COIs completely invalidate everything he says. However, Andrew Wakefield had massive COIs with respect to his research, even being in the pocket of a trial lawyer looking for “science” to support his lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers. Mark and David Geier owned a chain of autism clinics that depended on their various quack protocols. Much of Jenny McCarthy’s notoriety and book sales came from her promotion of the idea that vaccines cause autism and that biomedical quackery was helping to “recover” her son. Yet these COIs, which are far more compelling as any COI reported by any legitimate vaccine scientist, mean nothing to antivaccinationists. They are excused. Because these people agree with Anne Dachel, they are “unbiased” while vaccine defenders must be in the pocket of big pharma.

And her “experts” apparently trump real experts:

Believe me, parents in the autism community (and there are more and more of us) know exactly what you’re doing. When you slam Jenny McCarthy and label her a Playboy bunny, you’re hiding the fact that medical experts support her.

On April 5, 2008 McCarthy appeared with Dr. Jay Gordon on Larry King Live. and on April 12, 2008, McCarthy was again on Larry King, this time with Dr. Jerry Kartzinel at her side.

She co-authored the best-selling book, Healing and Preventing Autism, with Dr. Kartzinel.

Dr. Gordon is a nationally renowned pediatrician, member of the American Academy of Pediatrics and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, UCLA Medical School.

Dr. Kartzinel is a well-known advocate for children’s health which includes the use of bio-medical treatments to recover children with autism. He has used these therapies to recover his own son from autism.

Pretending these doctors don’t exist smacks of a cover-up.

Far be it from me anymore to condone slamming Jenny McCarthy in misogynist terms, but Dachel sure has a strange idea of what constitutes a “medical expert.” Dr. Gordon is not “nationally renowned.” Worse, he has demonstrated time and time again that he is neither an expert about vaccine nor about autism. He fell for the “formaldehyde gambit,” after all, and for lots of other vaccine pseudoscience. Dr. Kartzinel is, similarly, an expert in neither vaccines nor autism, and he’s known for some rather despicable views about autistic people as well.

We don’t “pretend these doctors don’t exist.” We laugh at their antics because they claim to be experts when they clearly are not. Therefore, we conclude that what they have to say about vaccines and autism, not being rooted in verifiable science, does not warrant the same respect that what real experts like Dr. Offit say about vaccines. The double standard over “experts” from antivaccinationists is as blatant as the double standard over what constitutes good reporting on autism.

I really should know better than to expect my irony meter to survive first contact with an AoA screed. I really should shield it. Unfortunately, the stupid from AoA is so powerful that nothing less than sufficient shielding to survive an EMP would be likely to protect it—and even that’s doubtful.