Shannon Kroner invited me to a panel discussion on vaccines. Don’t fall for a trap like this.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the people who hew to crank ideas, like antivaccine pseudoscience, cancer quackery, alternative medicine believers (particularly homeopaths), “9/11 Truth,” creationism, Holocaust denial, the moon landing “hoax,” climate science denialists who reject anthropogenic global climate change, and all manner of conspiracy theories, it’s that they crave public “debate” with real experts in the fields whose conclusions they deny. I’ve seen it time and time again. The reason, of course, is that just by appearing on the same stage as an expert in a seemingly neutral venue, the crank wins. His appearance side by side with a real expert on the same stage gives his ideas the appearance of, if not outright legitimacy, at least sufficient seriousness as to warrant a debate. Worse, most real experts and scientists are not debaters in the sense that they are used to using facts, science, research, and reason to win the day, rather than rhetoric. Also, they are often unfamiliar with the fallacious attacks on their specialty’s findings made by cranks and thus ill-prepared to counter them; the “Gish gallop” plus rhetorical displays of a skilled debater can all too often leave them flummoxed and on defense, even though they are the experts. This is why I have a policy of not appearing with cranks, either for a debate or as part of a “discussion,” as such events are almost always weighted in favor of the cranks and I don’t wish to lend whatever small legitimacy I have to, for instance, antivaccine ideas. That is what I was thinking the other day when I received an email from someone I had never heard of before, Shannon Kroner. It was an invitation to be on a panel discussing vaccines.

To debate (or panel) or not to debate (or panel)?

Before I discuss Kroner’s invitation further, it’s worth revisiting my experience with such invitations and the question of whether it is ever worthwhile to debate cranks, quacks, a question whose relevance to the invitation I received will become plain in a moment. Whether or not to debate advocates of pseudoscience has long been a contentious issue in the skeptic community. I’ve even witnessed one such debate personally, when Steve Novella debated antivaccine quack Julian Whitaker about vaccine safety at FreedomFest in Las Vegas while we were at TAM six years ago. Steve mopped the floor with Dr. Whitaker so dramatically that it almost changed my mind about the value of debates with quacks. Almost. Why? Witnessing the debate, I saw that the arguments Dr. Whitaker marshaled for his position were such hackneyed antivaccine talking points that I knew I, too, could also have demolished them fairly easily. My biggest challenge would have been to maintain a cool, respectful demeanor (as Steve did) and not let my contempt show openly. Still, in the end, no minds were likely to be changed, and the question of vaccine safety was clearly being used as a tool to oppose school vaccine mandates or, as antivaccinationists like to call them deceptively, “forced vaccination.” Whether vaccines are safe and effective or not is a separate question from whether the government should mandate certain vaccines as a precondition for attending school or being in day care, but antivaccinationists like to conflate the two issues in order to allow personal belief exemptions (PBEs) to school vaccine mandates based on pseudoscience, fairy dust, and fear mongering.

Over the years, I myself have been “challenged” to similar debates. Perhaps the most bizarre example occurred when someone claiming to represent HIV/AIDS denialist Christine Maggiore contacted me claiming that she wanted to arrange a debate between us. Maggiore, unfortunately, died a mere two years later of—you guessed it—AIDS-related complications (although HIV/AIDS denialists tried to blame it on a “radical detox“). Other examples include the time that I was invited to “debate” Andrew Weil at a conference devoted to promoting “integrative medicine,” sponsored by, of all groups, the Adolph Coors Foundation, thus demonstrating that quackery isn’t just for hippy-dippy lefties any more—if it ever was; another time when Deepak Chopra invited me to an appearance in the Detroit area and then claimed that I chickened out even though I had the emails saying that I had to decline because it was my operating room day, and, then, of course, there have been antivaxers. Although occasionally the ego gratification of being asked to participate in such events vied with my longstanding belief that debating cranks doesn’t sway anyone, sharing the stage with a real scientist does unduly elevate the crank in the eyes of the public. Besides, whatever the seeming outcome of the debate, you can count on the crank to declare victory and his believers to agree. In any event, science isn’t decided by the metrics used to judge who “wins” a public debate, which rely more on rhetoric and cleverness rather than science to decide the outcome. Finally, such debates are not without risks. Although Julian Whitaker, for example, was terrible at it, and Ken Ham was similarly crushed by Bill Nye, other cranks are not so clueless.

In any event, in these cases I like to cite a principle that I like to call “all truth comes from public debate.” It’s a tendency I’ve noticed among cranks to have way too much faith in public debate as a means of determining scientific conclusions. So it was that, even though what Shannon Kroner was proposing was not, strictly speaking, a “debate,” it rather was a debate, just of the panel discussion variety, as you will see. My reaction upon reading the email was akin to Admiral Ackbar’s reaction in Return of the Jedi, namely, “It’s a trap!

Shannon just wrote me a letter

Two mornings ago, I found in my in box an email sent the night before an unfamiliar person. I won’t reproduce the email in which Shannon Kroner invited me to participate in her vaccine panel, because I’ve always viewed publishing emails without permission as uncool, except in unusual circumstances, I can still provide the flavor of our exchange through paraphrase and reference to Kroner’s website and the website for the event, One Conversation. That’s all public information. The tone of the email was, unsurprisingly, quite polite and solicitous, similar to previous emails I’ve had inviting me to various events.

As I said, I had never heard of Shannon Kroner before, but her website told me that she’s a clinical psychologist and that her dissertation was entitled Childhood Vaccinations: The Development of an Educational Manual. A brief perusal of the dissertation revealed—shall we say?—a bit too much credulity towards antivaccine views. (Actually, that’s putting it kindly.) My skeptical antennae started twitching.

Let’s take a look at the description of the event, which will take place in Atlanta on October 11:

With today’s fast-paced lifestyle, in combination with limited time allocated for individual patients during average office visits, unanswered questions are lingering regarding public health and immunity. As a result, various sources are sought at an increasing rate to satisfy one’s curiosity and concern. In an age of misinformation and half-truths, “One Conversation” seeks to break down and clear the barriers of confusion with scientific data, critical thought and engaging conversation.

“One Conversation” provides the platform for questions to be addressed among an esteemed panel of participants who specialize in a spectrum of specific focuses and expertise. Scientific data, resources and visuals will be shared in a dynamic format among the industry’s top experts. The event will be moderated by a respected Atlanta FM Radio Talk Show Host who will offer questions, manage time limits and maintain focused topics among the panel of participants.

Who are the participants? Well, Dr. Kroner obviously hopes that one will be me, but the rest were left unidentified. When I asked who was going to be on the panel, she wouldn’t say other than descriptions and instead pressed me to do a conference call with her and someone named Britney Valas. Since these descriptions are public and match what is on the website, I don’t feel any compunction about quoting the website regarding the five panelists said to be confirmed thus far:

The event organizers are finalizing the esteemed panel of experts who will be revealed upon the list completion. As a teaser… “One Conversation” will be featuring an accomplished OBGYN who specializes in oncology and HPV; a highly respected Atlanta-based Infectious Disease specialist; a well-known Chicago-based MD whose focus is nutrition and preventative medicine; a Medical Journalist who has heavily researched and studied many topics in the medical community; and a book author and founder of a highly respected non-profit charity that provides medical treatment opportunities to children.

The website also notes that “several other prestigious, well-known professionals are considering this unique opportunity to share their knowledge.” Now my skeptical antennae were twitching so fast that I feared they’d act like helicopter rotors and I’d lift off soon.

But what about the moderator? It didn’t do anything to put the brakes on my skeptical antennae to learn that it was someone named Shelley Wynter:

Mr. Wynter is a prominent Radio Personality in Atlanta. His talk show, “The Shelley Wynter Show”, airs on The New Talk 106.7 FM weekday mornings from 6:00am to 9:00am and is described as “Real talk, real music, for really smart people.”

Mr. Wynter is passionate about interviewing guests and gaining knowledge through their expertise, knowledge and conversation. He is skilled at knowing which questions are best elicited to further the conversation to deeper levels while simultaneously expressing his unique talents for active listening, empathy and compassion for his guests.

We are honored and thrilled for Mr. Wynter’s enthusiastic participation as a Moderator who truly embodies the persona of a curious citizen eager to learn.

A little Googling revealed to me that Shelley Wynter is an outspoken Trump supporter and clearly at least antivaccine-sympathetic, if not outright antivaccine. I held on to the couch (a heavy sectional) to keep myself from lifting off and hitting the ceiling. The template was coming into focus. Still, I wanted to know more. Who, exactly, is Shannon Kroner? Is she antivaccine? And who is Britney Valas, who was also included on the emails?

Shannon Kroner: Antivaccine is as antivaccine does

I know I mock antivaxers for touting their University of Google knowledge, but Google is, of course, very good for some things. One of those things is finding out more information about someone with a name that’s not too common, a name like Shannon Kroner. A quick search of “Shannon Kroner” and “vaccine” quickly yielded what I wanted to know. First, it yielded this video from ZDoggMD:

I’ll discuss this video a bit more in a moment, but for now suffice to say that it let me know that I wasn’t the first doctor Dr. Kroner tried to lure. There were, however, substantial differences, as you will see.

I also learned that Dr. Kroner is as antivaccine as they come. Here she is speaking at the Children’s March for Humanity on June 17, 2017 in Washington, DC:

There are several “tells” in this video that Kroner is antivaccine. First of all, of course, is that she’s speaking at the Children’s March for Humanity. A quick perusal of the event’s Facebook page reveals a whole bunch of antivaccine misinformation and victim playing, with support for prominent antivaxers like Polly Tommey, a post featuring Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and more. Another huge tell is that the videos of the talks were recorded by Joshua Coleman and feature the VAXXED logo prominently, as well as Del Bigtree and Joshua Coleman themselves giving speeches in front of the Capitol Building. Remember, Bigtree was the producer of this “documentary,” which was in reality an antivaccine propaganda film so over-the-top that Leni Riefenstahl, were she still alive today, would have called it too much.

Here’s Del Bigtree:

And here’s Joshua Coleman:

Let’s just put it this way. You don’t speak on the same bill with Bigtree and Coleman and consent to have your speech recorded by the VAXXED crew if you aren’t down with antivaccine views. Don’t believe me? Click on the play button for Dr. Kroner’s speech.

If you do that, you will find a whole lot of the typical antivaccine misinformation, a lot of it not unlike what I had to endure in person a week ago. That’s not surprising because she was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo California Against Mandated Vaccines, the group she had formed. She began her speech by saying how parents who sought her services as a psychologist told her stories of regression after vaccines, stories that she appears not to have considered very skeptically. She noted that she wasn’t that passionate about this topic then because she was not a mother yet.

Kroner then went on to relate her story of becoming pregnant with her first child in 2009 at the height of the H1N1 pandemic and having her obstetrician recommend that she receive the usual seasonal flu shot and the H1N1 vaccine. She refused the “swine flu” (H1N1) vaccine because she viewed it as untested but agreed to the flu vaccine. At this point, she started going on about how there are “trace amounts” of mercury in preservative-free vaccines and how the flu vaccine is a “class 3 drug that’s never been tested in pregnant women.” This is an antivaccine trope that is simply not true. (For instance, this review cites several studies of the flu vaccine in pregnant women, and Skeptical Raptor discusses another study.) Flu shots are safe for pregnant women and protect them against the flu, which can have more serious consequences during pregnancy.

You can probably guess what came next. Kroner described getting the flu vaccine, but with repeated descriptions of how the decision “just didn’t feel right.” Less than two days later, she felt her water break and how it looked very much like she was going to miscarry. The amniotic fluid leak stopped, however, and the fetus survived. There was still a heartbeat, but 95% of the amniotic fluid had been lost. Kroner’s OB and and a high risk OB consulted as a second opinion suggested that the best course of action would be for her to terminate the pregnancy, but she refused. Fortunately for her, her son survived to deliver. However, Kroner blamed (and, I presume, still blames) the flu shot, claiming that influenza vaccination causes miscarriages. (It does not, by the way.)

Throughout the rest of her talk, Kroner laid down a withering barrage of antivaccine pseudoscience and misinformation, including claiming that there is “human aborted fetal tissue” in vaccines—really, she’s so ignorant that she didn’t even say “fetal cells,” the way most antivaxers pushing that claim do, even though she did acknowledge that the viruses were grown in “fetal cells”—and, horror of horrors, fetal DNA in vaccines.

Kroner’s rant about SB 277, the California law that banned PBEs to school vaccine mandates, is epically hilarious. I’ll give you an example. She stated that the law tells parents who don’t believe in animal testing, “Tough!” After that she noted that vaccines are tested on animals. Well, yes. Yes they are. So what? So is basically every drug you ever put in your body! Does she expect legislators to give parents the right not to treat their children with antibiotics or other life-saving drugs when they are seriously ill because they were tested in animals before human clinical trials? Would Kroner support such a ban? I get the feeling that she hasn’t really thought her position through.

The rest of the antivaccine misinformation she laid down is not really worth examining in detail, because it’s so typical. Examples include the “toxins gambit” and the dreaded “monkey cells” gambit. Particularly hilarious is the part where she says that there are chicken embryos in our vaccines. No, there aren’t, but some viruses are grown in fertilized eggs, which are, of course, chicken embryos. Yes, Kroner used a ludicrous term to turn “fertilized egg” into “chicken embryo,” which is so much more gross and disgusting-sounding. She even pulled out an oldie moldy trope, “I’m not antivaccine; I’m ‘anti-toxin.'” Jenny McCarthy from 2009 called. She wants her antivax trope back.

Finally, Dr. Kroner really, really hates—no, literally hates—Senator Richard Pan, the architect of SB 277. She said so multiple times in her talk.

The plot thickens

So, having established that Kroner is antivaccine and that this “panel discussion” had every appearance of being a trap, I started wondering. I watched ZDoggMD’s video, which was revealing. First, the event to which he was invited was supposed to happen in May. As far as I can tell, no such event ever happened, but it’s possible I could have missed it. My guess is that this event was postponed from May to October, probably because Kroner hasn’t been able to entice a real scientist or skeptic to be on her panel. In any event, it’s clear to me that she’s learned to keep her cards close to the chest, because her email to ZDoggMD stated that she had confirmation of participation from Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (who is extremely antivaccine and has been the topic of many posts on this blog and whose World Mercury Project is not, as ZDoggMD notes, not a tribute to Queen’s front man Freddie Mercury), Del Bigtree (’nuff said, although Bigtree was represented as being part of the Informed Consent Action Network), and Dr. Toni Bark, an antivaccine MD who’s into homeopathy and naturopathy and who was also featured on the Conspira-sea Cruise. ZDoggMD’s letter also noted “interest” from well-known doctors and scientists who asked to keep their names confidential.

Ri-ight.

Curious, I wondered if any or all of these speakers listed as “lined up” in Kroner’s email to ZDoggMD were still on the bill. Let’s go back and look at Kroner’s descriptions. First, there was “a well-known Chicago-based MD whose focus is nutrition and preventative medicine.” Hmmm. That sure sounds like Toni Bark, whose practice is called The Center for Disease Prevention & Reversal and who sports an 847 area code, which encompasses Chicago’s northern suburbs. I’d say that’s a match. What about Del Bigtree? Well, another of the panelists listed is described as a “Medical Journalist who has heavily researched and studied many topics in the medical community.” Yes, I think that’s probably a match, too, given Bigtree’s history as a producer of segments for the TV show The Doctors. What about Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.? That one I’m not sure about. The closest I can come is “book author and founder of a highly respected non-profit charity that provides medical treatment opportunities to children.” That could be him. After all, his World Mercury Project claims to have a campaign to “restore child health.” I’d say that’s a 50-50 chance of a match. So I’m batting two and a half out of three, and they’re all antivaxers. No, they’re not just antivaxers, they’re leaders among the antivaccine movement.

But that’s not all.

I thought about the date: October 11, 2018. Then I thought about the location, namely Atlanta. The location really stood out, as Atlanta is where the CDC Headquarters is located. The date also rang a bell. Regular readers might remember that there were antivaccine protests against the CDC in 2015 and 2016. When were they held? You guessed it! In October! I did some more Googling, and, boy, did I come up with something. Yes, it’s a rally scheduled for October 10, 2018:

The Vaccine Justice or Else Movement is an organization created to protect our children against harmful vaccinations. The CDC has done enough damage that has resulted in thousands of children having autism and other mental defects. The pharmaceutical companies are full of greed and deceit. We as parents cant allow the CDC to lie to us about the safety of our children. Join us on October 10, 2018 at 1600 Clifton Rd. Atl, ga. 30329 for CDC SHUT DOWN RALLY – VACCINE PROTEST 2018.

Interestingly, the Vaccine Justice or Else Movement appears to be a wholly owned subsidiary of the Nation of Islam, who prominently participated in the 2015 antivaccine rally with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and a whole bunch of other “luminaries” of the antivaccine movement, as evidenced by its Facebook page and website. Here are the posters:

CDC Shutdown Protest

CDC Shutdown Protest, happening the day before the vaccine panel to which I was invited. Coincidence? Orac thinks not.

Finally, what about Britney Valas? I had never heard of her, either? Well, she created a GoFundMe page for the Children’s March for Humanity, which wasn’t very successful. She’s also appeared with Del Bigtree on a podcast. I’d say she’s antivaccine too.

It’s all coming together now: the date of the panel, the attendees, the location, and the host (who, as I mentioned before, appears to be tight with the Nation of Islam). It’s possible that I’m mistaken, but I don’t think I am. Shannon Kroner is almost certainly trying to lure me to be the token skeptic on an antivaccine panel to be held the day after an antivaccine protest at the CDC organized by the Nation of Islam. The moderator appears to be antivaccine (or at least far more sympathetic to the antivaccine view than the pro-science view), and no doubt the audience will be almost completely antivaccine, probably many of the same people who will have participated in the protest the day before. Add to that the fact that, as I emailed a few people about this asking their advice, I heard that there’s at least one other person on “our side” who received an invitation like this. I’d say that, with only two months to go before the panel, Shannon Kroner is getting a bit desperate.

So let me conclude with a message to my fellow skeptics, pro-vaccine activists, and pro-science advocates. If you get an email like this from someone like Shannon Kroner, be very, very skeptical. Don’t do it. Play with her a bit if you like to see if you can tease out more information. See if she’s willing to pay your airfare and lodging. Ask for a big honorarium, just for fun, before turning her down. Ask her questions like these questions I asked in my last email:

Since you’re the organizer, it matters to me what your views on vaccines are when it comes to my willingness to participate. So I’ll stop asking who’s going to be on the panel (although from your description I suspect that I have a fairly good guess as to who one of them could be) and instead ask you: What are your views about vaccines through three simple questions:

  1. Do you believe that vaccines cause autism?
  2. Do you believe vaccines are safe?
  3. Do you believe vaccines are effective?

I sent the email with these questions last night. Thus far, I have not received a response. If the person asking you to be on such a panel is as squirrelly as Shannon Kroner was with me know that this is almost certainly an antivaccine event and you are the sacrificial skeptic. Better yet, adopt my policy of never appearing on the same stage with cranks. It’s a lot safer, and you’ll be a lot happier.

Finally, know a trap when you see one, and try to recognize it earlier than Admiral Ackbar did. After fourteen years at this, I can spot an invitation that’s a trap a mile away. Learn from my experience, so that you don’t learn the hard way from your own.