Jennifer Margulis: Another rising star in the antivaccine movement

About a month and a half ago, I took note of Dr. Paul Thomas, an antivaccine pediatrician following in the footsteps of “Dr. BobSears and “Dr. Jay” Gordon by representing himself as “not anti-vaccine” while peddling antivaccine pseudoscience. Dr. Sears, in particular, has made catering to antivax fears the centerpiece of his medical practice by writing a book promoting a “safe” vaccine schedule that, not surprisingly, advocates fewer vaccines and “spreading out” the vaccine schedule by delaying certain vaccines. Meanwhile, ever since SB 277, the California law passed in 2015 that went into effect for the 2016-2017 school year and eliminated non-medical exemptions to school vaccine mandates, Dr. Bob appears to have been running a side business selling non-science-based medical exemptions—and doing it online, if a parent report that I received a couple of years ago is any indication. Antivaxers love him, and he is not alone.

When I wrote about Dr. Thomas’ book, The Vaccine-Friendly Plan: Dr. Paul’s Safe and Effective Approach to Immunity and Health-from Pregnancy Through Your Child’s Teen Years, I noted how it resembled Dr. Sears’ own book with an “alternative vaccine schedule,” The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Choice for Your Child in that it peddled many of the same antivaccine tropes that Dr. Sears Did and lots of the same antivax pseudoscience and misinformation, using misinformation as a basis to suggest an “alternative” vaccine schedule not based in science. At the time, however, I neglected to comment on Dr. Thomas’ co-author, Jennifer Margulis, PhD. She, too, is a rising star in the antivaccine movement, and it was both too MD-centric (and possibly unintentionally sexist) of me not to have commented on her sooner, either at the time I wrote about Dr. Thomas or shortly thereafter. So I thank that wretched hive of scum and antivaccine quackery, the antivaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism, for drawing my attention back to Dr. Margulis with a post praising her for a blog post she wrote entitled Medical Doctors Concerned We Are Giving America’s Children Too Many Vaccines Too Soon. This post was the “gateway” that led me to look at the sorts of antivaccine misinformation Margulis has been laying down on her website and elsewhere and to give her the proper attention that she deserves, not just as Dr. Thomas’ co-conspirator spreading antivaccine pseudoscientist, but as a rising star antivaccine crank in her own right.

Let’s dig in:

When Mark Zuckerberg posted a photo of his baby daughter on Facebook with the chipper caption, “Doctor’s visit–time for vaccines!” last January, the post garnered an enormous amount of attention: 36,255 shares, 3.4 million reactions, and 83,000 comments.

The extensive comments on the post caught the interest of some scientific researchers, who analyzed over a thousand of them. Their analysis yielded what media outlets described as a “surprising” result: the “anti”-vaccine comments were more scientifically based and carefully worded than the “pro”-vaccine comments.

In the words of the researchers: “Although the anti-vaccination stance is not scientifically-based, comments showed evidence of greater analytical thinking, and more references to health and the body. In contrast, pro-vaccination comments demonstrated greater comparative anxiety, with a particular focus on family and social processes.” (My emphasis.)

Not having seen that paper before (hey, I can’t cover every study, paper, or review related to vaccines and the antivaccine movement, although it does surprise me that I never sas this paper), I naturally had to look it up right away. One thing I noticed right away is that the authors seem to be rather naive. Take a look at this excerpt from the introduction of the paper:

Because the scientific data clearly support the safety and efficacy of vaccines, we hypothesized that comments expressing opposition to vaccinations would have less evidence of analytic thought. Because vaccine hesitancy is often associated with heightened perceptions of risk and concerns about safety, we hypothesised that anti-vaccination comments would also use more risk-related, anxiety, and health words. Finally, because vaccinesceptical websites often include arguments about responsible parenting, possible vaccine-caused harm to the immune system, and profit-related conspiracies [17], we hypothesized that antivaccine comments would contain more family-, biological-, money-, and work-related (the category including medical, scientific, government, and corporate references) words.

Of course, if there’s one thing that antivaxers crave, it’s scientific respectability. To that end, they frequently try very hard to sound analytical, cite scientific literature, and the like. It’s a common denialist tactic that denialists other than antivaxers use; indeed, anti-GMO activists and climate science denialists in particular like to do this. The problem, of course, is that, superficially, the language used can appear more analytical, but if you get down into the weeds, you quickly find that the studies cited are cherry picked, misrepresented, and misunderstood, with the much larger body of evidence.

The investigators analyzed the language using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), whose dictionary comprises psychologically meaningful word categories, and output includes the percentage of words within a given text that belongs to each category. According to the authors, applying this technique “allows for a direct comparison of emotional content, cognitive processes, and areas of particular importance in proand anti-vaccination (and unrelated, control) comments.” Looking at Table 3 in the study, I was struck at two examples of “analytical” thinking in the pro- and anti-vaccine comments:

  • Pro-vaccine: Since the introduction of vaccines, American life expectancy nearly doubled.
  • Anti-vaccine: Vaccines cause death! Look up the vaccine injury court! It’s a disgusting sham but it exists. Every disease was in the decline before the vaccine.

Huh? Neither really strike me as particularly good examples of analytical thinking, but the antivaccine stance is clearly less analytic. Now here’s a part of the authors’ conclusion that Margulis left out and that most certainly does not support her claim that antivaxers are more analytical:

Efforts have focused, albeit with less-than-spectacular success, on changing the attitudes and behaviours of vaccine-hesitant individuals [39]. Because the scientific evidence regarding vaccines appears clear, the anti-vaccine viewpoint is often viewed as overly emotional, irrationally suspicious, and angry – and anecdotal illustrations of these qualities certainly exist. The current findings indicate, however, that such irrational and emotional qualities do not typify the argument-style or language of Facebook users who make comments indicating opposition to vaccinations. Instead, the antivaccination comments contained linguistic markers of analytical thinking, characterised by categorical language use, often appearing as factual (or in this case, pseudo-factual) and logically structured statements that mimic valid scientific information. This, as well as relatively lower use of anxiety-related words (giving the impression of confidence in one’s correctness), may make antivaccination arguments particularly compelling for uncertain parents seeking information about childhood vaccinations. Such language use gives the appearance of certainty and analytical thinking, even though the conclusions that have been reached are not scientifically based.

Exactly. No one who’s paid any attention to how antivaccine activists argue for their pseudoscience would be surprised to see an example of them trying very hard to sound scientific on a public post on Facebook, where they know a lot of “the other side” will be reading. Margulis clearly only read the abstract and did not bother to read the whole study. To be honest, I blame the investigators, who should have made the point above in the abstract as well, or at least pointed out that the use of analytic words does not mean that the actual content of antivaccine comments is any way analytical or scientific.

Heck, Margulis herself engages in this sort of rhetorical behavior:

The problem responsible scientists are faced with right now is that the evidence is accumulating that the CDC’s childhood vaccine schedule is not scientifically-based. The medical doctors, academic researchers, citizen scientists, and concerned parents who are taking the time to read the science and educate themselves about what we know and what we don’t about vaccines are all coming to the same conclusion: something is very wrong with today’s childhood vaccine recommendations. Our current medical recommendations seem to be harming children’s bodies and their brains.

I couldn’t help but note that all the links to articles in the passage above are to articles on Dr. Margulis’ website. That alone is not a problem (I do the same thing myself). The problem is that each of the articles linked to doesn’t actually support the assertion it’s supposed to support. For instance, the first one is an anecdote of Margulis’ own child, with the only “evidence” presented being a chart of the vaccines for which the virus is grown in cell lines derived from aborted human fetuses. The next link merely asserts that the medical system is making our children sick without actually convincingly arguing that it is, mentioning how Margulis spoke at an antivaccine conference (of course she didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was) featuring antivax luminaries such as James Lyons-Weiler, PhD; Mary Holland, J.D.; Tetyana Obukhanych; Del Bigtree; and many more. The third link was to another anecdote about how Tylenol and vaccines supposedly caused one child’s autism. In other words, there’s no “there” there.

Margulis then engages in a favorite denialist tactic of antivaxers, anti-GMO activists, and climate science deniers. She tries to give the impression that there is a “controversy” about vaccines (specifically, whether children are getting too many vaccines) by trotting out fringe “experts” in the form of antivaccine doctors. One of them, Dr. Kelly Sutton, sounded very familiar to me. A quick search of the blog revealed that, yes, I had written about her before. Indeed, at the time I noted that she was, along with Dr. Sears, selling courses on how to avoid the requirements of SB 277 and how to obtain “medical exemptions” to school vaccine mandates. Also—surprise! surprise!—Dr. Sutton is a major quack, so much so that she practices anthroposophic medicine—and, The One Quackery To Rule Them All, homeopathy. So it’s not at all surprising that Dr. Sutton would say things like:

I see daily in my practice evidence of vaccine injury and I hear stories almost every day of families that vaccinate children and then decide not to vaccinate and the unvaccinated children within the same family are healthier, more socially adjusted and more capable academically even though their parents are older than the siblings who were born first and were fully vaccinated.

Confirmation bias, much, Dr. Sutton?

Before I conclude, I do have to mention that Margulis cites another antivaccine pediatrician, one that, hard as it is to believe, I’ve either never heard of before or have forgotten, which was confirmed when I searched the blog archives and found no mention of him:

“There is clearly a relationship between vaccines and autism,” –Dr. Bose Ravenel, M.D.

Dr. Ravenel is a doctor based in Winston Salem, North Carolina and who has been practicing medicine for over 40 years. He used to be the first to dismiss the idea that vaccines might be contributing to autism. Why? Because he blindly followed the medical establishment and did not bother to do any research for himself. Denying a causal link between vaccines and autism was the most comfortable position to take. He chose his words very carefully when I interviewed him: “to say that ‘vaccines cause autism’ is an inaccurate, non-nuanced statement. At the same time, to say that ‘vaccines don’t cause autism’ is also inaccurate. In certain conditions, like with mitochondrial dysfunction, vaccines certainly can cause autism or contribute to it.”

No, there clearly is not a relationship between vaccines and autism that is greater than what can be explained by coincidence alone due to the fact that there are a lot of vaccines given during the time in development when a lot of autism is diagnosed. This has been studied again and again, and no detectable increased risk of autism has been found that can be attributed to vaccines. If vaccines in any way increase the risk of autism, the effect is so small as to be undetectable even in huge epidemiological studies. That means, for all intents and purposes, there is no relationship between vaccines and autism. The whole bit about “mitochondrial dysfunction” is an antivaccine trope that’s an oldie but baddie from the Hannah Poling days ten years ago.

As for Dr. Bose Ravenel, I wondered who he is. Margulis includes a biography that says he’s been practicing for over 40 years and that he was in academic pediatrics practice from 1976 to 1987. (One wonders why he left academia 31 years ago.) It didn’t take me long to figure out that Dr. Ravenel now belongs to an “integrative medicine practice,” Robinhood Integrative Health, that treats typical quack diagnoses like “toxicities” from heavy metals, mold, and the like; food sensitivities; hormone imbalances; nutritional deficiencies; and more with quack treatments such as dessicated thyroid, IV nutrition, chelation therapy, far infrared sauna, herbal remedies, and, yes, a quackery rivaling homeopathy for the title of The One Quackery To Rule Them All, ionic detox footbaths. In a video on the site, Dr. Ravenel reveals that he discovered functional medicine (a make-it-up-as-you-go-along quackery that combines the worst of both worlds, the overtreatment and overtesting of conventional medicine with the quackery of, well, alternative medicine) after 31 years of private practice:

DR RAVENAL from Robinhood Integrative Health on Vimeo.

Great. Another doctor who discovered quackery late in his career. As described in this news story, Dr. Ravenel retired from real medicine. in 2013 at the age of 75 to practice pseudomedicine.

Near the end of her post, Margulis goes all Galileo gambit with this passage:

Is Dr. Sutton’s an “outlier” position? Does that even matter?

Um, yes, it does. It does matter. Carry on, Dr. Margulis:

The interesting thing about science–and human health–is that 30,000 people can have one point of view and one person can have another point of view. And that one person with the dissenting point of view can turn out to be the one who is right.

Yes, but far, far, far more often, that one person will turn out to be wrong. Pray continue:

As microbiologist Morten Laane points out, science is not a Democracy.

No one ever said that it is. However, it is a discipline where evidence, experimentation, and the results of experiments testing hypotheses matter. Antivaccine views fail on all three counts—and more. Here we go now:

Consider Galileo whose idea that the Earth moved around the sun was in direct opposition to what the church authorities, and the majority of the people, believed and wanted to be true. However unpopular his theories, Galileo turned out to be right.

Ah, the fantasy of future vindication, so beloved by cranks of all stripes!

Of course, Galileo wasn’t persecuted by other scientists for his views. He was persecuted because his views went up against the dominant religion of the time. (The case was actually far more complicated than commonly understood.) To paraphrase something that several skeptics have said about the Galileo gambit, for every Galileo shown the instruments of torture for advocating scientific truth, there are thousands upon thousands of unknown scientists and cranks whose views never pass scientific muster with other scientists.

But, hey, if Galileo doesn’t support you, you can always invoke thalidomide:

Or Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, who saved U.S. babies from thalidomide despite the fact that the medical establishment believed it was safe and it was given to pregnant women in dozens of places around the world, including Canada, Britain, and the Middle East. Kelsey’s skepticism and insistence on erring on the side of caution saved thousands of American babies from devastating health problems.

No, no, no, no. The story of Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey does not support antivaccine views. Antivaxers like to invoke her name because of her role in preventing thalidomide, a drug that was approved in Europe and later found to cause severe birth defects, from being approved in the US, but her story was based on a respect for evidence and caution. Basically, she saw a lot of flaws in the data being submitted to the FDA to show the safety of thalidomide and also heard early reports of potential problems from Europe, which led her to demand more data.

In conclusion, I regret not having taken note of Jennifer Margulis more before. It’s true that I have mentioned her before, but I’ve never given her her very own taste of not-so-Respectful Insolence, something she definitely deserves. I’ve also never acknowledged her as the rising star in the antivaccine3 movement that she is. She, along with Dr. Thomas, is someone to keep an eye on.