The conspiracy theory surrounding Italian antivaccine scientist Stefano Montanari deepens

Blogging might be a bit slower than usual last week, as we are dogsitting Doug, my parents’ dog. Those of you who follow me on social media know that we agreed to foster a dog who turned out to be pregnant leading us to foster a bunch of puppies (eight, to be precise). The rest were adopted through the shelter, but my parents adopted Doug, even as we adopted the puppies’ mother. In any case, Dough is a seven month old puppy and quite energetic. As a result, he’s rather…distracting. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. As for today’s post, well, Doug arrived yesterday and I have a 7:30 AM case this morning. That does, however, leave me time to revisit the rather strange case of antivaccine scientist Stefano Montanari and his equally antivaccine scientist wife Antonietta Gatti, two Italian antivaccine “scientists” whom I’ve discussed at least three times over the last year and a half. You might recall that they were the scientists who subjected vaccines to electron microscopy without proper controls and—surprise! surprise!—found all sorts of particulates in them. When I criticized their work, they were none too happy but also none too capable of refuting my criticisms and those of other bloggers.

When last I discussed this husband-and-wife duo of pseudoscientists, antivaccine activists were spreading a conspiracy theory over an investigation by the Reggio Emilia Public Prosecutor’s Office looking into issues regarding a complaint of a non-profit organization claiming possession of a microscope purchased through a subscription and then entrusted to Dr. Gatti. Today really isn’t the day that I want to rehash all the ins and outs of that particular conspiracy theory. Rather, what caught my eye was a letter by Montanari, an English version of which was published on the antivaccine crank propaganda blog, Age of Autism, yesterday under the title Top Italian Scientist Assaulted and Threatened Over Vaccines: A Letter from Stefano Montanari.

I laughed at that headline for the simple reason that the only world in which Montanari and Gatti are “top scientists” in Italy (or anywhere else, for that matter) is in the delusional world of antivaccine conspiracy theorists. Their science is terrible and, of late, has been designed to demonize vaccines. That’s why AoA’s introduction to the letter particularly cracked me up:

Age of Autism publishes a letter from scientist Stefano Montanari, pictured with his wife Antonietta Gatti, have become caught at the center of a storm about vaccine safety over their undisputed discovery of microscopic and nano-particles in the routine vaccine supply. With the new Italian health minister, Giulia Grillo of 5 Star Movement, trying to renege on an election commitment to reverse mandate legislation for 10 vaccines, Northern League leader, Matteo Salvini – who has praised Montanari and Gatti – is coming under pressure from political forces and news media to back down. Meanwhile, no one will report the violence against Montanari.

No, it’s hardly “undisputed” that Montanari and Gatti’s “discovery” (such as it is) shows that there are nanoparticles and microscopic particles in vaccines that are any danger whatsoever. As I mentioned the last time as well, the Five Star Movement, which is the Italian equivalent of Donald Trump, full of cranks and conspiracy theorists and, yes, antivaxers, hence the issue of the promise to eliminate vaccine mandates recently enacted in response to declining vaccination rates and serious measles outbreaks. So what do the AoA cranks mean by violence? Well, apparently Montanari was assaulted recently. The circumstances are…odd, to say the least.

First, in his letter, Montanari makes his usual claim about his and his wife’s research:

16 years ago, using an electron-microscopy method based on two European research projects, we began to analyze vaccines and, to date, we have examined 35 different types of those drugs, 10 of which are now mandatory in Italy. The results are well-known: all the samples were found to be polluted by micro- and nanoparticles, none of them compatible with the human organism.

Um, no. Just no. Montanari and Gatti’s “research” (such as it was) was so riddled with methodological flaws as to be worthless.

Next up, more conspiracy-mongering leavened with a revelation:

Given the huge amount of money involved in vaccines, everything was tried to stop us: from preventing the continuation of a research on acute myeloid leukemia that had produced results that can prove very useful both for diagnosis and therapy, to the seizure of our electron microscope to that of our computers. All illegal, to be sure, but who cares?

Despite the many criticisms received, I agreed to give a lecture at the headquarters of a far-right party called Casa Pound. The name is in honor of the American fascist poet [Ezra Pound]. Let me be clear: I have never cared about the political, religious, sexual or any other kind of opinion and preference expressed by the people I talk to. I speak of science and medicine, and all the rest is neither of my competence nor of my interest. So, for me there was nothing anomalous to address an audience of fascists.

I do so love this rationalization. Sure, they’re fascists, but I’m a scientist, ma-an! I’m not into politics. Politics don’t matter to me. I so very, very much above such concerns. Whenever I hear this sort of rationalization, my first thought is: Bullshit! Would Montanari say the same thing about speaking to a group of Nazis, one wonders?

Be that as it may, note the continued conspiracy mongering about the loss of their microscope. I discussed this in detail before; suffice to say that most likely the local Reggio Emilia Public Prosecutor had reason to suspect wrongdoing. I cited one report last time (translated—rather poorly—from the Italian):

The scientist was investigated for fraud, with the investigation revolving around the complaint of a non-profit organization over a microscope purchased with a popular subscription started by the blog of Beppe Grillo, entrusted to Gatti for his research, and then donated by the non-profit organization Faenza. The non-profit organization accuses the professor of having used the tool for profit and not for scientific research, but there is a court ruling that authorizes Gatti and Montanari to be able to use the instrument and to be compensated for travel expenses. “Money that they never gave us,” explains the doctor, claiming she is not antivaccine and claims the anomaly of the times.

In other words, this looks like a dispute over the terms under which Montanari and Gatti were to be allowed to use the microscope.

Whatever the case, Montanari had finished his talk and was mingling with attendees when this happened:

While I was cordially talking with these people, suddenly, for no apparent reason, a gentleman came up behind me shouting “Don’t dare raise your voice!” I turned my head and, in a fraction of a second, unexpectedly, he hit me with a violent punch between my ear and my cheekbone. For a moment I lost my senses and I was supported by those around me, while the character was moving away, crossing my wife who, meanwhile, was coming out on the sidewalk. To her, that gentleman shouted a death threat.

Neither my wife nor I let ourselves be intimidated but we can read the writing on the wall.

After years of persecution, after clumsy and continuous attempts to attack our scientific credibility without putting any scientific arguments against our own, after having deprived us of the indispensable tools for our work, after the illegal seizure of our computers containing the data of our research, here is the physical attack. Undoubtedly something rough but certainly understandable by anyone.

It is unfortunate that some nutjob decided to take a punch at Montanari. Those of us promoting vaccine science generally believe that violence is never the answer, at least other than in self-defense against imminent harm. Of course, we also have no idea who this man was or why he punched Montanari. Even Montanari doesn’t give any real indication. Think about it. If the man’s motivation had been Montanari’s research and antivaccine views and he had said something even remotely supportive of such a motivation, I’m quite sure that Montanari would have made very, very certain to quote what his attacker said in as much detail as he and his wife could remember. He didn’t. All he quotes the man as saying was for him not to raise his voice. Why did the man attack Montanari? Who knows? Maybe he just doesn’t like fascists or people who speak at fascist gatherings. Maybe he was someone who doesn’t like antivaxers. Maybe he’s a nut. The point is that, even from Montanari’s recounting, we have no way of knowing.

Undeterred, Montanari insinuates that his attack had something to do with nefarious government machinations over vaccines:

Now something to make you understand what is the Italian situation regarding vaccines. The two parties that obtained the highest number of votes at the latest elections, although hardly mutualy compatible, have now been in government for a few weeks: Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) and Lega. Both were committed to repealing the law on compulsory vaccination. But the problem is that many parties are involved in the business and now the M5S (which has the health ministry) are making a quick turnaround, forgetting their promises. On Friday 22 June, Mr. Matteo Salvini, the new interior minister for Lega, took part in a broadcast of Radio Studio 54, during which he said that 10 vaccines are unjustified and perhaps even harmful. Then he thanked my wife and me for our work and for our courage. Within a few minutes the whole Italian regime, from newspapers to parties all compact, arose against him and covered him with insults: those words put the skimming in which all of them are more or less involved at risk. Now it is difficult to think that Mr. Salvini can resist the parliament and the media.

Every day everything becomes clearer and clearer.

So let’s see. Salvini goes on the radio and states that the ten vaccines mandated by Italian law are potentially harmful and unjustified, while praising an antivaccine “scientist” who published incredibly bad science demonizing vaccines. Science advocates in the media start pushing back and criticizing him for what he said—and quite rightly so, I might add. To the average person who isn’t an antivaxer, none of the press reaction would seem out of the ordinary. Indeed, these days in the US the press does a lot better than it used to refuting antivaccine misinformation. I’d like to think that the Italian press is moving that way too. None of that matters, though, to Montanari. To him, it must all be a conspiracy, including a lone man punching him in the face after a talk he gave to a group of fascists.

Again, I detest violence. It is rarely justified, and certainly in this case I can see no justification. I’m relieved that Montanari was apparently not seriously injured. That being said, I’d be willing to bet that this incident was not part of a grander conspiracy to silence Montanari and prevent Salvini from getting the Italian vaccine mandate repealed. In fact, if the assailant was a pro-vaxer, I call him out for using violence when none was justified and for making it so easy for a crank like Montanari to paint himself as a victim.