Long ago, I came to the conclusion that it’s a bad idea for skeptics and real scientists to agree to a public debate about areas of pseudoscience, such as creationism, climate science denialism, antivaccine pseudoscience, and the like. My reasons are many. First is what I like to call the tendency of cranks to believe that all truth comes from public debate, which is a corollary to crank magnetism, the tendency of cranks who believe one form of pseudoscience and conspiracy theory to believe multiple types. Basically, I’ve noticed that many cranks value public debates in front of sympathetic audiences as the best way to get at the truth of a question. Of course, as I’ve described many times before, the problem with such forums is that, even if the moderator isn’t biased against the scientist, such forums value rhetoric and verbal cleverness over actual scientific evidence, which is one reason why science isn’t decided by a public debate. Such forums also allow cranks to do what we call the “Gish gallop.” This debate technique, named after creationist Duane Gish (who was a master of it) involves burying the skeptic in misinformation, half-truths, and dubious studies, forcing him to spends so much time trying to refute it all that he has no time left to get his own positive points across properly. Most scientists aren’t sufficiently familiar with the common tropes of the pseudoscience in their field and flounder, drowning in a sea of misinformation. Worse, cranks win staged debates like this just by letting the crank appear on the same stage with a real scientist as a seeming equal. The same thing applies to “forums” and “roundtables” that include cranks, which is why, when I was invited to participate in a roundtable-style discussion called “One Conversation,” I immediately recognized an antivaccine trap and politely declined.
Unfortunately, I was not the only real medical authority invited, and, equally unfortunately, some of them accepted, seemingly unaware of what they were getting themselves into. After all, as I had documented before, the One Conversation panel was stocked with antivaccine activists, including Del Bigtree, producer of a antivaccine propaganda film disguised as a documentary (VAXXED); Christopher Shaw, a scientist who’s turned to the Dark Side and now engages mainly in highly dubious studies designed to “prove” that aluminum adjuvants in vaccines are horribly dangerous and has made claims that HPV vaccines kill; Sherri Tenpenny, a physician who’s turned to the Dark Side of antivaccine quackery even having gone so far as to claim that vaccines are “contaminating” human DNA in the name of transhumanism; Toni Bark, a “holistic” doctor who’s into homeopathy, and Mahin Khatami, a former NIH scientist who appears to have gone rogue (and into cancer cure conspiracy theories) since her retirement. You get the idea.
It was two weeks ago when last I checked in with One Conversation. Earlier this week, I wondered what had happened in the interim. Basically, I wondered whether the three real scientists—Dr. Catherine Roe, a neuroscientist; Dr. Jubilee Brown, a gynecologic oncologist; and Dr. H. G. Stringer, an infectious disease specialist—who had agreed to appear were still on the bill now that their names had been publicly revealed. So I checked, and I immediately noticed that all of them were listed as having canceled. Then, the other day, a couple of readers who had registered to go to One Event got this email:
Dear One Conversation Ticket Holder,
We have an announcement regarding our panelists.
As of September 24, 2018, some of our confirmed panelists have changed. As you may be aware, topics pertaining to vaccinations are often controversial and have a tendency to light emotional responses in some people. The motive behind One Conversation has always been to remove the barriers which divide, address YOUR questions and explore scientific responses with various perspectives represented. Due to heavy outside influences and coercion from respected national medical organizations (whose main concern is maintaining only one message of vaccine importance and safety to ensure public compliance), several panelists have since withdrawn their participation from the event.
One Conversation is more committed than ever to present to you scientific information and clarification to the questions which are asked the most. Block 2 of the event will be the “Scientific Block” and Block 3 will be the “Conversation Block” in which clarifications will take place.
The differences between vaccination versus natural immunity will be discussed along with many other pressing topics. Please join us for an engaging evening filled with valuable information, dynamic conversation and an incredible panel!
While I had chuckled when reading the list of panelists a three days ago and noticing that the real scientists and doctors who were pro-vaccine had all canceled, I laughed out loud when I saw this email, particularly the part about how “heavy outside influences” and “coercion from respected medical organizations” having been responsible for Drs. Roe, Brown, and Stringer having withdrawn from their event. More likely, people just informed these medical professionals just what they were getting into and who, for instance, Del Bigtree, Toni Bark, and Chris Shaw are. Then, realizing that they had been duped and not wanting to lend their names to such an event dedicated to demonizing vaccines, they quite reasonably canceled, having learned a tough lesson before the damage to their reputations was too bad.
So let’s say you’re an organizer of an antivaccine conference whose plan had been to include three real, pro-vaccine scientists on a panel with rabid antivaccine activists in order to make it appear that their pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and fear mongering are worthy of serious consideration. Let’s say that, less than three weeks before your event, your pro-vaccine panelists catch on to your plan and withdraw. What do you do?
Why, you double down on the antivaccine quackery, of course!
Gone are three real scientists. Oddly enough, also gone is Mahin Khatami. (Who knows why?) In are:
Dr. James Lyons-Weiler, PhD
CEO of the Institute of Pure and Applied Knowledge
Research scientist and author of “Cures vs. Profits“, “Environmental and Genetic Causes of Autism“, and “Ebola:An Evolving Story” Dr. Lyons-Weiler is a long-time veteran in the areas of genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics and evolutionary biology. He earned a PhD in Ecology, Evolution & Conservation Biology, and won a US DOE/Sloan Postdoc in Computational Molecular Biology at Pennsylvania State University under the mentorship of Drs. Webb Miller and Masatoshi Nei. He has served as faculty, Senior Research Scientist, and Scientific Director in support of translational research, systems biology, sequence analysis, and the creation of novel algorithmic solutions for the analysis of complex and challenging data.
Dr. Gayle DeLong, PhD
Associate Professor of Economics and Finance in the Bert W. Wasserman Department of Economics and Finance at Baruch’s Zicklin School of Business.
Dr. DeLong has published in leading journals, including Journal of Finance, Journal of Financial Economics, Journal of International Money and Finance, Financial Management, and Journal of Financial Research. Research interests include bank acquisitions, regulatory capture, and conflicts of interest.
Mother of two children with Autism.
Publications include: Conflicts of interest in vaccine safety research. Accountability in Research, 19, 65-88.
A positive association found between autism prevalence and childhood vaccination uptake across the U.S. population. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A/Taylor & Francis, 74(14), 903-916.
A lowered probability of pregnancy in females in the USA aged 25-29 who received a human papillomavirus vaccine injection. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health Pages 661-674 | Received 05 Aug 2017, Accepted 14 May 2018, Published online: 11 Jun 2018
I laughed even louder, because these are two more antivaccine cranks whom I’ve written about before. For instance, earlier this year James Lyons-Weiler caught my notice when he got into a pissing match with antivaccine crank and former homeopath Leslie Manookian over who was the most antivaccine. Basically Manookian attacked Lyons-Weiler for not being sufficiently pure in his antivaccine opposition to school vaccine mandates, after which Lyons-Weiler fired back. Let’s just say that Lyons-Weiler, who used to be a legitimate systems biologist but now runs the pseudoscientific Institute for Pure and Applied Knowledge, is no longer particularly rigorous about scientific evidence. Alternatively, he might be as rigorous as before except when the evidence involves studies claiming to implicate vaccines as a cause of harm. Either way, he’s quick to blame certain vaccines for death when there is no evidence that they killed the person who died. He’s as antivax as they come, and, like Christopher Shaw, seeks to slap a patina of seeming scientific respectability onto pseudoscientific nonsense about vaccines.
As for Gayle DeLong, we’ve met her a few times before, too. Her most recent antics include the promotion of a horrible study that she did purporting to find that HPV vaccines lower female fertility. When the mistakes in her incompetent study were pointed out, she tried to correct it by blogging—badly. The first time I encountered her, however, was when she published a truly risibly bad study claiming to show that vaccines cause autism. The hilarious thing about DeLong is that she isn’t even a scientist. She’s an economist. She has no knowledge of epidemiology; at least none is discernable from her abuse of statistics and epidemiology in her antivaccine “studies.” DeLong, not surprisingly, is the mother of two children with autism and believes that vaccines caused it.
Shannon Kroner and Britney Valas, the organizers of One Conversation, might think that it was the nefarious forces of big pharma and organized medicine that put the muscle on its three pro-vaccine panelists and frightened them into withdrawing, but in reality it was simply, well, reality. From my own personal experience with Kroner and Valas, I know that they come across as very earnest and sincere. Maybe they are earnest and sincere. Even after I had declined their invitation and blogged about their panel, they kept trying to persuade me. Indeed, on Sunday I received this email from Shelly Wynter, a radio personality in Atlanta who will be moderating One Conversation:
My name is Shelley Wynter and I am the host of the Shelley Wynter Show and I will be having Dr. Kroner and Ms. Valas will be on my show tomorrow morning at 630AM eastern discussing their event on October 11th in Atlanta, GA. We will also be discussing vaccinations: safe or sorry.
I wanted to invite to listen at http://www.talk1067atlanta.com and feel free to call in to the show ar 844-404-1067 with cooments or questions. I thought I would invite you on since you assumed I was a anti vaccer due to my support of Trump. Not how the two go together but I have been accused of much in my life so its all good.
I hope you can listen in and again feel free to call in.
First off, I didn’t conclude Wynter is antivax because he supports Trump (although there certainly does appear to be a correlation in general). Rather, I speculated that he might be based on what I found on the web and his coziness with Nation of Islam members who are antivaccine. (It also didn’t help that he was apparently chosen by two antivaxers to be their panel moderator.) Be that as it may, the desperation was palpable. I declined, of course, because I was at work.
In any case, One Conversation has collapsed, and I’m not at all sad to see that it has turned into what it was always destined to be: An antivaccine crankfest.