I am Spartacus! or: Orac applies some Insolence to a rather confused antivaccine blogger

I’ve used my current pseudonym since at least the late 1990s, first on Usenet and then on the first incarnation of this blog. Not surprisingly in retrospect (although it surprised me at the time), people who didn’t like me began trying back in the 1990s to “unmask” me. It began with Holocaust deniers. No, I’m not trying to Godwin this post; it really did begin with Holocaust deniers because, as longtime readers know, my “gateway drug” to skepticism was refuting the lies and misinformation of Holocaust deniers. So, round about the turn of the millennium, a group of Holocaust deniers managed to figure out who I was, because I had been naive and careless enough to have left crumbs of information on Usenet a couple of years before linking Orac to my real name. As a result, hilariously (in retrospect because I didn’t quite find it so hilarious at the time) some neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers (but I repeat myself) circulated a list of people who were active combatting Holocaust denial on Usenet claiming that they were members of NAMBLA. For those of you not familiar with that acronym, it stands for the North American Man-Boy Love Association. Yes, they were trying to smear us as pedophiles. They also seemed to think that I could maintain two addresses more than 800 miles apart.

Consistent with that history, attempts to “out” me began within months of my starting the first incarnation of this blog in December 2004. By April 2005, a cancer quack by the name of William P. O’Neill had outed me, as did a supplement hawker named Pat Sullivan. By early 2008, I had started blogging under my real name at a location many of you know and (hopefully) also love, but, whether due to sheer cussedness, habit, or just a love of this particular pseudonym, I kept blogging as Orac here, even though my identity is arguably the worst kept secret in the skeptical blogosphere. Indeed, as some have joked recently, figuring out who I am serves as an intelligence test; if you can’t figure out who I am very quickly, you really aren’t worth my effort. It’s also an incredibly low bar, given how easy answering the question is. The bottom line is that, cranks and quacks, not being able to win on the evidence, virtually always attack the person. That’s why pseudonyms drive them crazy; they can’t identify whom to attack, and they can’t dig dirt (or what they think is dirt) on them. As a result, they go to incredible lengths and, sometimes, contortions of evidence and logic fueled by conspiracy ideation, to put a name to a pseudonym. Sometimes, when it goes incredibly wrong, it can be gut-bustingly funny.

In any case, for those reasons and who knows whatever other reasons, it’s been a thing among cranks and quacks to try to “out” me since 2005. I thought that when I started blogging under my real name elsewhere and ceased to try to bother to hide who Orac is anymore that the cranks would get tired of triumphantly revealing my real name, particularly given that since 2008 my reaction has invariably been mockery or a big “meh,” but somehow they never do. Stupid is as stupid does, I guess. The tradition now continues, but in a ridiculously, hilariously silly misfire. This time it’s someone named Marco Cáceres di Iorio. It’s someone about whom I’ve never heard and whom I’ve never encountered, blogging on both an antivaccine website called The Vaccine Reaction, which is listed as being published by the Orwellian-named National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) and his own personal blog. The NVIC, as you might recall, is one of the oldest existing antivaccine groups and was the sponsor of the recent antivaccine protest at the CDC. The post itself is entitled Internet Trolls Attack Anyone Resisting Vaccine Party Line, but it might as well have been called Connecting the dots very poorly. Apparently di Iorio is very antivaccine. He demonstrates that right from the start:

Here’s how it usually goes… You say you have some doubts about vaccine safety and all those vaccinations the government requires you to give your kids. You say you’re concerned about serious side-effects you keep reading about, and particularly potential links to autism and autoimmune disorders, and the reports of encephalitis and shock. A typical response from mainstream proponents of vaccines would proceed like this…

Oh, you’re being silly, you don’t know the science. Look, 99.9% of all doctors and scientists will tell you that vaccines are safe and effective. The science is solid, it’s long been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Ninety-nine point nine percent. That sounds pretty convincing. Of course, it’s unclear what formula, study or survey was used to come up with that figure, so you start to do your own research, and you quickly realize there are lots of doctors and scientists, in addition to well informed parents, journalists and consumer advocates, who do not subscribe to the establishment’s mantra about vaccine safety and effectiveness. They do not believe the myth that the science is settled, and some are very vocal about their reservations or opposition to it.

Notice how our friend has to paraphrase about “99.9% of doctors.” To be honest, I don’t remember ever hearing anyone say that 99.9% of doctors tell you that vaccines are safe and effective. Certainly I don’t remember ever saying that myself. True, I’ve said that the overwhelming majority of physicians say that vaccines are safe and effective, because they do. But I never put a number on it.

So Mr. di Iorio decides that a certain shadowy pharma-financed someone is behind all these nasty, horrible pieces that he so detests. This is where things get funny and stupid at the same time:

Predictably, every time you give the name of a contrarian doctor or scientist in response to the 99.9% figure, what you tend to get is, “Eh, well, he’s a quack, she’s not credible.” Also, you get referred to blogs such as Science-Based Medicine, or Respectful Insolence, or the Skeptical Raptor’s Blog.

And:

Should you wish to debunk someone, anyone, who dares to disagree with mainstream thinking on vaccines, all you need do is inform Orac, and the good doctor will gladly oblige by writing up a boorish piece, long on insult and short on science. Orac’s methods are painfully predictable.

You know, at this point, I’m tempted to stand up, puff out my chest, put on my bravest, most serious face, and declare, “I am Spartacus!” I mean, seriously? This idiot really thinks I’m Skeptical Raptor. I assure him, I am not Skeptical Raptor, although sometimes when that damned pseudonymous dinosaur writes a particularly good blog post that I wish I’d written, I wish I was Skeptical Raptor. But I’m not. Now, it’s true that we share several characteristics. We are both big fans of The Walking Dead and frequently discuss episodes on Facebook in incredibly geeky detail on Mondays after a new episode airs, complete with references to past seasons and differences between the comic books and the TV series and, of course, rampant speculation about future plot developments. (As an aside, I’ve finally caught up with the most current issue of The Walking Dead; so eat it, Skeptical Raptor.) We are both snarky and sarcastic. We both like baseball. Above all, I went to the University of Michigan and, unable to escape my history, still root for U. of M. Skeptical Raptor went to the University of Utah, and still roots for Utah. Given that Utah beat Michigan this season, it is not something that endears him to me or vice-versa.

In any case, I write what I write as either Orac or under my real name at my other blog. I’m not Skeptical Raptor. Our writing styles don’t even resemble each other that much, other than the snark, which is a fairly superficial resemblance. Indeed, as I read di Iorio’s post, I kept scratching my head because some of the passages attributed to me didn’t sound to me like my writing, and, more importantly, I didn’t remember writing them. Now I know the reason, and in fact I’m more than a bit annoyed that the very first example that di Orio chooses to attribute to me is not by me, but the scaly one. (Yes, I know velociraptors had feathers. Just go with the “scaly” joke, as it sounds better and fits in so much more logically with jokes about our lizard overlords, and, besides, scaly dinosaurs are so much cooler for purposes of conspiracy theory hijinks.):

In one piece earlier this year, he criticized a prominent immunologist5 who had the nerve to write an open letter on vaccine science to state legislators in California about to vote on a bill eliminating personal belief vaccine exemptions. He started out by dismissing the individual’s credentials outright. Orac writes:

One of the most irritating problems I have with the antivaccination movement is their over-reliance on false authorities, where they trumpet the publications or commentary from someone who appears to have all of the credentials to be a part of the discussion on vaccines, but really doesn’t.

In the same piece, Orac takes a backhanded swipe at a leading neuroscientist and a molecular biochemist by first acknowledging their “sterling credentials in medicine and science,” and then going on to say…

they publish nonsense research (usually filled with the weakest of epidemiology trying to show population level correlation between vaccines and adverse events) in low ranked scientific journals.

Dude! That was a post by the Raptor entitled APPEAL TO FALSE AUTHORITY – WHO IS TETYANA OBUKHANYCH. I had nothing to do with writing it. I agree with it, but I didn’t write it. In fact, I just did a search of this blog and found that I’ve never written about Tetyana Obukhanych. I really should have written about her at some point because everything my scaly blog bud said about her is true, but I haven’t. Maybe sometime soon. Oh, I also agree with what he said about Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic, as posts I’ve written will demonstrate. Just do a search of this blog on their names plus “vaccines” to see.

Next up, though, are quotes from posts that I did write, one about Dr. Bob Sears, Dr. Suzanne Humphries, and More horrible antivaccine “science” from Theresa Deisher. And, yes, I did say all those mean things about them that so drive Mr. di Iorio to clutch his pearls so mightily that I fear he might accidentally pass out from constricting his airway or, failing that, to break his necklace and cause pearls to fly everywhere.

But guess what? They deserve every word. Dr. Bob abuses his position as a pediatrician to parrot antivaccine misinformation under the guise of “vaccine choice.” Suzanne Humphries does the same, although (fortunately) much less effectively. Theresa Deisher was indeed by what I can find out a decent scientist, but something happened. She no longer is. She publishes crap blaming DNA from cell lines derived from aborted fetuses for autism. I documented it. I explained why she is wrong based on science in multiple posts. You can type her name in the search box and find the others besides the one referenced by Mr. di Iorio. He accuses me of being “short on science.” Well, it’s easy to say that if you’ve just cherry picked the Insolence and ignored all the actual…oh, you know…science that I’ve written about over the last 11 years.

Of course, it’s not hard to predict what’s coming next. it’s what every post like this directed at me (or, for that matter, my scaly brother in arms) indulges in sooner or later:

Notice the pattern. This is only a smattering of Orac’s handiwork, but you begin to get the idea. The man’s defensiveness may have something to do with his research on a Sanofi-Aventis drug called Riluzole (Rilutek®), which may well eventually be used to treat autism. Riluzole has been approved for clinical trials (for autism) by the FDA, and one can imagine the money that might be at stake if the drug makes it to market.

First off, notice the implication that I’m studying Riluzole to treat autism and that I have an interest in it. This is, of course, a lie originally spread by Jake Crosby, who has a long history of invoking increasingly dim-witted variants of the pharma shill gambit dating back at least to 2009, although it is true that I’m studying Riluzole as a potential treatment for breast cancer. So I’ll say to Mr. di Iorio what said to Jake back in the day: I do not receive any money from Sanofi-Aventis (or any other pharmaceutical company) to fund my research (or my blogging, for that matter). Sadly, I’m not likely to be getting any of that filthy lucre from Sanofi-Aventis any time soon. My lab work is entirely funded by grants I’ve gotten through competitive applications and institutional start up funds I received when I accepted my current position. Indeed, Sanofi-Aventis doesn’t even supply me with the drug Rilutek (the trade name of Riluzole) to use for my clinical trial or experiments using mouse tumor models, which makes me a pretty damned pathetic pharma shill. I mean, really. The least I could expect from my pharma overlords is for some of their drug to use in my cancer experiments in addition to my Porsche and yacht. Seriously. I’m a pretty piss-poor pharma whore.

Besides, Mr. di Iorio is behind the times. Sanofi-Aventis sold the rights to Riluzole to Covis Pharma Sarl two and a half years ago. I’m free! Free, I tell you! Sanofi-Aventis no longer has any hold over me!

I wonder what Mr. di Iorio has to say about that.

I didn’t have much time to wonder, as Mr. di Iorio promptly nuked my irony meter with this windup:

Orac’s collection of disparaging pieces about anyone offering a different perspective about vaccination is so impressive in both volume and diversity it’s a wonder the man has any time left for surgery. But rather than take umbrage, those at whom such vitriol is aimed should feel comforted by Socrates’ memorable adage, “When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.” Or its modern-day equivalent by Britain’s Maggie Thatcher, “I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.” (… just replace “political” with “vaccine”).

That’s nice. He might even have a point if I ever engaged in slander, but sarcasm and the occasional “insolent” insult are not slander. The hypocrisy is pretty thick, too, given that he followed his complaints about my supposedly mean and nasty attacks with a mean and nasty false attack on me for allegedly being a pharma shill. Project much, Mr. di Iorio?

Of course, what he really should have said was “libel,” because everything he was quoting was written, and slander applies to speech, not writing. Mr. di Iorio’s inability to distinguish between libel and slander aside, criticizing what people like Dr. Bob Sears and company say and do, even—dare I say it?—with extreme insolence is not libel. Libel involves publicly writing something about someone damaging to his reputation that is not only untrue but that the person writing it knows it to be untrue. I challenge Mr. di Ioria to find a single instance of anything I’ve written or said about any of the doctors or scientists that was false and that I knew to be false. (Mistakes don’t count, and if he can find something I said that was mistaken and he can show me I was wrong, as always, i will admit it.) He won’t be able to; that is, if he bothers to try, which I predict that he will not.

In fact, none of the examples di Iorio cites by me (and not my skeptically scaly friend) comes close to qualifying as libel. Yes, I mentioned Deisher’s fundamentalist Catholicism as a possible cause for her several year long obsession with fetal DNA in vaccines as a cause of autism, but that’s a valid speculation given how rapidly Deicer went from being regular molecular biologist to antivaccine crank molecular biologist obsessed with fetal DNA in vaccines. Sure, I called Dr. Bob a “worthless excuse for a pediatrician,” but I based that assessment on his documented words and behavior in spreading antivaccine misinformation. It’s a valid and, in my opinion, accurate assessment. Finally, I did characterize Humphries as not knowing what she’s talking about, but in the same post I documented examples of her not knowing what she’s talking about. Was I sarcastic? Of course. it’s what I do sometimes. (OK, a lot of the time.) But it was not libel.

In the end, I’m more amused than anything else that Mr. di Iorio seems confused. He apparently can’t tell the difference between me and the Skeptical Raptor. The scaly skeptical one—or should I say the skeptically scaly one—wonders whether he should just hope that I’ll start writing over at his blog. I don’t know. Is the grass greener over there? Are the pharma checks bigger, given that the Raptor, unlike me, actually used to work in pharma?* Inquiring minds want to know, and I’m always open to new shilling opportunities.**

*That’s a joke, Mr. di Iorio! It’s a joke. I know my pharma checks are bigger.***

**That’s a joke, too, Mr. di Iorio, in case you can’t figure it out.

***So is this. Oh, never mind.