Criticism of pseudoscience and quackery is not "hate speech"

I sense a new disturbance in the antivaccine force.

I hadn’t planned on blogging about the antivaccine movement again, but I felt that I needed to do a follow up to yesterday’s (hopefully) amusing little takedown of the antivaccine stylings of new member of that group personification of the Dunning-Kruger effect and arrogance of ignorance, namely The Thinking Moms’ Revolution (TMR). There was a point in there that I had noticed (and even briefly commented on) that requires more of an expansion, particularly since it would allow me to comment on a post that I saw last week and never got around to, a post every bit as full of self-righteous ignorance as anything on TMR but not on TMR. You’ll see what I mean in a minute.

But, first, let’s go back and look at what I noticed yesterday by quoting a sentence from “Karma,” the “Thinking Mom” who doesn’t, about pro-science articles and those who discuss the science with respect to vaccines, coming to the natural conclusion from the evidence that the antivaccine movement is promoting dangerous pseudoscience and misinformation that are threats to public health. Her characterization of such articles and blog posts? That they’re “hate speech“:

Time and Newsweek, are the grandparents who want an in with the cool kids and their money by upping the ante in regards to outright inflammatory hate speech as evidenced in posts during April 2014.


Yes, to Karma, the pushback against antivaccine pseudoscience couldn’t possibly be because antivaccine pseudoscience has contributed to declining vaccine uptake in pockets of the country where vaccination rates have fallen low enough to degrade herd immunity sufficiently to lead to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable infectious diseases like the measles. It has to be a “fad” among media outlets, something the “cool kids” are doing, so to speak. More telling, however, is Karma’s characterization of criticism of antivaccine pseudoscience as “hate speech.” It’s a new trend that I’ve noticed among antivaccinationists, to label criticism as “hate speech.” It also seems to be a natural progression from another recently proliferating trend among antivaccinationists that I noted last year of antivaccinationists referring to the same sorts of articles as “bullying.” It was such an obvious attempt to glom onto a societal trend, namely the increasing appreciation of how much of a problem bullying is, and to co-opt it in such a way as to paint antivaccinationists as victims of a campaign of intimidation. The same word, “bullying,” has been appearing frequently in antivaccine rhetoric. Naturally, I found the whole tactic disingenuous and hilarious—or should I say disingenuously hilarious?—at the same time.

The same is true of this latest amping up of the rhetoric and victimhood gambit, which comes from a woman of whom I had never heard before. Aha! I thought. A new antivaccinationist throws down the gauntlet. And what a gauntlet filled with hot showers of burning stupid. The woman, who only goes by the name of Megan, appears to run a website called LivingWhole.org. You can tell by the title what the subject matter likely is just by the name of the website, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Megan, it turns out, is a naturopath, Certified Natural Health Educator, Registered Power Yoga Instructor, writer, and stay-at-home mama and brags that:

  • We eat a gluten, dairy, meat, sugar, and genetically modified free diet; yet, our food still tastes good!
  • We potty-train our babies as infants.
  • We breastfeed exclusively for at least ten months.
  • We practice attachment parenting.
  • We do not vaccinate.
  • We do not medicate.
  • We do not use any chemical products in our home or on our bodies.
  • We believe in natural childbirth and had our last baby un-assisted at home.
  • We home school.
  • We greatly limit the use of technology in our home.
  • We don’t own a microwave.
  • We advocate natural medicine in most situations.
  • We recycle.
  • We support sustainable agriculture and sustainable living.
  • We are barefoot…most of the time.
  • We are old-fashioned.
  • We believe in Jesus.
  • And we’re definitely crunchy (in case you hadn’t figured that out).

I first learned about Megan because a post of hers was making the rounds on the usual antivaccine social media and blogs. I forgot about it, but then was reminded of it by another antivaccinationist, Sherri Tenpenny, who was very upset on her Facebook page, citing the producer of a new antivaccine movie entitled Bought (who, by the way, has been appealing for money to complete the antivaccine project):

She wrote a post answering all of the “myths” answered by another bloggers post that had gone viral about 21 myths spread by the “anti-vaccination” people. It was smart, referenced, in short – terrific.

She took a lot of heat for it and wrote a second post about the “hate” debate, talking about how much hate had been generated by her post. The post was amazing. She cut to the heart of the debate and argued for kindness in dealing with one another.

Then suddenly yesterday night, the post was gone.

Her site was gone. All of it.

Had she been hacked? Had the pro vaccination groups taken her site down? Had she just forgotten to renew her domain. Nope, none of these.

We were able to reach her today. She took her site down on her own.

She’d been threatened, harassed, and terrified. They had her address, threatened to come to her home, contact her family, her friends. They threatened lawsuits and all kind of harassment. They had all of her data. Then someone did show up to her house.

Let me just say that, unequivocally, I condemn such tactics. I’ve been on the receiving end of them before, both from antivaccinationists, who tried to get me fired from my job, and from supporters of Stanislaw Burzynski, who tried to get me fired from my job and complained to my state medical board. We on the pro-science side should never engage in such tactics. Moreover, I note that, in all the years I’ve been at this, I have yet to see an antivaccine loon state that she opposes such tactics when aimed at people on the pro-science side. I have yet to see a single antivaccinationist unequivocally condemn such tactics when they are turned against, for example, Dorit Reiss, Emily Willingham, or Paul Offit. Being the cantankerous blinky box of multicolored lights that I am I don’t necessarily expect anyone who might have been on the receiving end of one of my bits of Insolence to be quite as willing to speak out for me, but there’s no excuse not to do so for these people, other than schadenfreude, approval of the intimidation, tribalism, or cowardice—or perhaps a combination of two or more of these.

Even so, I must confess that I find something fishy about the whole story.

Be that as it may, what she wrote in The Hate Debate is a perfect example of what I’m talking about, the appropriation of the term “hate speech” to paint antivaccinationists as victims, something she proceeds to do with gusto right at the very beginning:

I am sick of it – this vaccination debate. My convictions not to vaccinate have been firm for six years now and I was comfortable living a low-profile life and letting other more notable activists carry the torch; and then I started seeing misleading t.v. interviews, news stories, and backlash against parents and unvaccinated children. I saw reputable medical professionals get crucified and reputations destroyed for questioning the mainstream norm. I saw laws passed in other states removing freedoms that rightfully belong to parents and individuals as a whole. I saw fear, blame, finger-pointing, lies, and flat out hate being propagated and encouraged by people, physicians, and popular media avenues towards parents who don’t vaccinate, and their children.

This isn’t a vaccination debate, it’s a hate debate, so let’s call it what it is. And when it got personal, I got involved. Most importantly, I felt the need to clear a few things up.

Poor babies. Antivaccinationists spew nonsense, pseudoscience, misinformation, and quackery about vaccines, and they clutch their pearls at the criticism being directed their way through the mainstream media. As I’ve argued before, this criticism is a long overdue correction to the previous tendency to provide a forum for such pseudoscience either through the publication of unfiltered antivaccine viewpoints or credulous “tell both sides” journalism that gives the antivaccine viewpoint similar weight to real science. It’s a classic case of what Dara O’Briain said about giving equal weight to homeopaths in the media.

Then, after setting the stage and complaining about being attacked as quacks, Megan proceeds to spew pseudoscience and quackery hither, thither, and yon across her blog. It’s the same nonsense that she spewed in the post that “made her famous” by going viral on social media, Dear Parents, are you being lied to? Both posts are logorrheic wonders that appear almost like something Bizarro Orac would post, except that in Bizarro World I’m assuming that Orac’s posts would be incredibly brief. In any case, both posts are mixtures of antivaccine pseudoscience, easily debunked antivaccine talking points that sound clever if you don’t know a bit about vaccine science, epidemiology, and, of course, logical fallacies.

Megan proclaims that she is “not an ‘anti-vaxxer’ or a ‘disinformation activist'” but then immediately proceeds to spew antivaccine disinformation with enthusiasm, if not aplomb. Then she proceeds to attack a straw man that somehow critics of antivaccine pseudoscience are arguing that “parents can’t make an educated decision on this issue, that you should check all of your questions and reservations about vaccinating at the door.” No, pediatricians understand that parents will always have questions about vaccines, and no one—no, not even Orac!—is arguing that parents should “check all their questions and reservations” at the door. What those of us who have taken an interest in antivaccine pseudoscience are doing is to try to counter the pseudoscience and misinformation that women like Megan are spreading about vaccines.

There’s a term I coined (at least, I think I coined it; I can’t be 100% sure that someone else didn’t think of it first) called “misinformed consent.” It’s what antivaccinationists promote by exaggerating the risks of vaccines and downplaying the benefits (something Megan does in both of her posts). In misinformed consent, if you accept the misinformation, then not vaccinating seems reasonable. If vaccines don’t work, cause autism, and have a high propensity for making children ill with chronic diseases, as the antivaccine movement claims, then it’s seemingly reasonable not to vaccinate. The problem is not with the consent itself, it’s with the misinformation and manipulation of facts to persuade parents to “consent” not to vaccinate that underlie the parents’ decision, misinformation of the sort that Megan perpetuates. Countering that misinformation is not “hate speech” or bullying. Nor are laws designed to try to make sure that parents who claim philosophical exemptions at least hear reliable medical information with respect to vaccines at least once before being allowed an exemption creeping fascism or the intolerable affront to freedom—or should I say “FREEDOM!!!“—as Megan seems to think it is.

Misinformation from Megan then continues to flow, misinformation such as:

  • Claiming the whooping cough vaccine doesn’t work, misinterpreting this study. It does. It’s imperfect, but it works.
  • Deceptively comparing the low level of mumps cases thus far this year to a year in which large mumps outbreaks occurred, in essence, asking, what’s the big deal about mumps outbreaks this year and claiming that it’s not a serious disease. Just don’t mind that pancreatitis, orchitis, meningitis, or encephalitis that can complicate mumps.
  • Downplaying the seriousness of chickenpox, which can result in death.
  • Downplaying the seriousness of the measles by quote mining the CDC website, ignoring that the CDC also points out that measles can kill 1-3 per 1,000 of its victims, that 1 in 20 children who get measles will develop pneumonia, and that 1 in 1,000 children with measles will develop encephalitis.

Megan’s understanding of immunology is also—shall we say?—lacking. For instance, she denies the concept of herd immunity, utilizing multiple specious arguments riddled with straw men and massive misunderstandings of basic and clinical science. Sorry, Megan. Herd immunity works, and when vaccine uptake falls we have a number of “natural experiments” that indicate that vaccine-preventable diseases return, and, even in the herd, being unvaccinated puts children at much higher risk of contracting infectious diseases protected against by vaccines. She also tries to do a bit of woo prestidigitation with respect to the vaccination of the immunocompromised by cherry picking CDC recommendations from 21 years ago. The CDC has more updated guidelines (summarized here in a nice table form). Also, if you read, for example, the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) recommendations from 2013, for instance, provide some fairly clear-cut guidelines for patients undergoing chemotherapy or other immunosuppression:

  • Vaccines should be administered prior to planned immunosuppression if feasible (strong, moderate).
  • Live vaccines should be administered ≥4 weeks prior to immunosuppression (strong, low) and should be avoided within 2 weeks of initiation of immunosuppression (strong, low).*
  • Inactivated vaccines should be administered ≥2 weeks prior to immunosuppression (strong, moderate).

Plus a whole lot of recommendations that depend on the type of immunosuppression, whether it’s from chemotherapy or other immunosuppressive treatment or is a primary immunodeficiency condition.

Megan’s post is a veritable cornucopia of hilarity, if you’re a connoisseur of antivaccine nonsense, although some of it insults the intelligence so much that it’s hard to be amused. I’ll finish by doing a bit of “cherry picking” myself, because if I tried to fisk Megan’s Hate Debate and her other, equally hilarious Dear parents, are you being lied to? posts line by line, I’d have to write a book (or at least a very large pamphlet). Even for Orac, that’s too much, particularly for a weeknight, when I have to go to bed at a reasonable hour. Feel free to use the comment section to address Megan’s other misinformation and failures of science, medicine, and logic that I didn’t have time to deal with.

In the mean time, let’s take a look:

Those of us who believe there are safer and more effective ways to prevent disease are not conspiracy theorists, we just incorporated that little addendum to the germ theory that said “germs only live in environments conducive to growth.”
A conspiracy theory is the belief in little green men who walk on Mars and are secretly controlling our every move via invisible puppet strings. What we’re all tired of, is people pretending the American Medical Association has been around since the beginning of time and that everything else is “new age, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theory.” I hate to point out the obvious but the AMA has only been around since 1847. Before that, there were homeopathic physicians/doctors (1789) homeopathic hospitals (1825), and the establishment of the American Institute of Homeopathy in (1841).

Do you know what was around before all of that? Natural medicine – circa day 1 if you believe in God and circa day “the first time the ape-like human got a cut and put a leaf with spit on it instead of a band-aid and antibiotic” if you don’t. Hippocrates, the credited father of allopathic medicine practiced and advocated natural medicine – his motto was “do no harm.” So if you take beliefs from his ideology it’s “medicine” and if we take beliefs from his ideology it’s “quack-worthy?” If anything sounds like a “conspiracy theory” it’s the belief that the immune system requires the administration of a germ to protect itself from a germ.

Now that’s a bunch of impressive straw men, going up in flames as Megan launches flamethrowers of logical fallacies, pseudoscience, incorrect science, and just plain burning stupid at it. Maybe Megan’s not a conspiracy theorist (although that is quite debatable, given her seeming belief that the mainstream media is marching in lockstep under the influence of big pharma to crush “natural health” crusaders like her who don’t like vaccines belies that denial ), but she sure is a germ theory denialist. She’s a naturopath, for one thing, and naturopathy explicitly “tweaks” or denies germ theory in many ways. She also makes incoherent arguments expressing incredulity that effective immunity can be developed by injecting a small amounts of a dead organism that causes disease when alive can prevent disease. I also can’t hep but point out that the AMA is not the be-all and end-all of medicine; indeed, if I recall correctly, less than 20% of American physicians belong to the AMA.

I also can’t help but point out that, back in the 1800s, 1700s, and before, that “natural medicine” that Megan touts didn’t do such a good job. Life expectancy sucked, and cemeteries from that time are filled with young children who died, the reason being that infectious disease took a heavy toll. Vaccination and sanitation took care of that. Moreover, if an adult of that time period developed an illness, if it wasn’t something that was self-limited that person was highly likely to suffer severe morbidity or even to die.

She ends up concluding, oh-so-self-righteously:

If you want to encourage people to vaccinate than by all means, utilize your freedoms to do so, but bullying, lying, misrepresenting facts, name-calling, downplaying, overlooking, and scoffing at vaccine injured children, finger-pointing, discriminating, crucifying physicians who speak out, and threatening individuals who wish not to vaccinate will not further your cause; it will only encourage people like me to speak out on behalf of those of us who have educated ourselves and are calling for more accountability and higher standards for our children.

I’m sorry, but countering posts like Megan’s, which is so chock full of antivaccine talking points that I’m hard pressed to think of one that didn’t make an appearance is not “hate speech.” It might not always be temperate speech, particularly when it’s Orac doing the speaking, but it’s not hate speech, and it’s not bullying. Antivaccine cranks like Megan—oh, dear, is that name calling, or is it simply telling it like it is?—frequently confuse freedom of speech for freedom from criticism. All it means is that, with only a very few narrow exceptions, the government can’t censor your speech. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be criticized for what you say, that private entities such as newspapers or news websites are obligated to give you a platform or equal time, or that your speech doesn’t have consequences. None of the speech directed at antivaccinationists that I’ve seen thus far constitutes real “hate speech.” Their calling it that is nothing more than a strategy for antivaccinationists to claim the high ground of victim status. Think of it this way:

Antivaccinationists can’t tell the difference between being “shown the door” and being victims of “hate speech,” which is an insult to the real victims of hate everywhere.

ADDENDUM: Commenter Colin reveals an amazing twist to this story:

There’s a lot more background about this particular anti-vaxer here. The story gets particularly bizarre recently.

An ultra-fringe conspiracy group (they complain that viruses are nanomachines designed by Jews–you can tell because the baseplate looks like a star of David–to eat out the emotion centers of the brain) picked up on the original Dear Parents piece at Violent Metaphors, and Megan’s rebuttal. But they got the chronological order reversed, and thought that the NSA had taken down Megan’s piece and replaced it with the Violent Metaphors piece as some kind of disinformation “ghost” campaign.

But once they figured out they were wrong–which involved the guy making the correction trying to prove his identity with secret codes in case he was a disinformation hacker–they decided Big Pharma or someone must have shut down Megan’s site and probably killed her. She had her stuff down for a couple of days, and what other explanation could there be?

So to make sure the feds hadn’t whacked her, they doxed her. They posted personal information about her, her family–even her kids. They threw up phone numbers for her husband’s work, and various posters indicated they’d be calling to make sure she’s still alive. If you go to the Living Whole facebook page, you can see some fallout from this circus–one of the conspiracy theorists dropped a note informing everyone, “THIS IS NOW A GHOST PAGE THE OWNER DOES NOT CONTROL.” I think the idea is that the NSA is still running her blog for her? It’s very bizarre.

And:

While a longer comment is in moderation, let me add to it that if anyone did visit Megan, it was apparently someone from an ultra-extreme conspiracy theory board checking to make sure the NSA hadn’t offed her.

Not being hip to that ultra-lunatic antivaccine conspiracy site (hey, even Orac can’t monitor them all, at least not continuously), I was unaware that in reality Megan was apparently doxed and contacted by people on “her side” (albeit the lunatic fringe of the lunatic fringe that is “her side”) because they were concerned that she had been whacked by an NSA-pharma conspiracy to silence her criticism of vaccines. Then she interpreted that as coming from pro-vaccine bloggers and big pharma trying to intimidate her into silence. The only thing I can’t figure out is why she took her blog down in the first place, because if she hadn’t the anti-Semitic ultra-fringe antivaccine loons wouldn’t have had a “reason” (if you can call it that) to become concerned that she had been whacked. Never mind that she blogged this stuff under her real name over at that one-stop-shop for quackery and New World Order conspiracy theories, NaturalNews.com, where we learn that she is an attorney as well. Liz Ditz also wrote about her, and it turns out that she was blogging under her real name up until recently.

Holy hell, you can’t make stuff like this up. (At least, even I can’t.)

ADDENDUM #2: Skeptical Raptor joins in the fun by picking apart some of the same sort of idiocy that’s been appearing on Facebook.

ADDENDUM #3: There’s an even more thorough takedown of Megan’s misinformation and antivaccine talking points over at A Million Gods.