One Conversation: An antivaccine crankfest adds two more antivaccine cranks

I didn’t expect to be writing about One Conversation, the panel discussion being organized by antivaccine activists Shannon Kroner and Britney Valas. As you might recall, Kroner and Valas invited me to be on the panel to discuss vaccines, but my skeptical antennae immediately started twiching mightily because they didn’t want to just come out and tell me who else was on the panel. It turned out that my skepticism was well-warranted, because basically One Conversation was the very epitome of false balance. There were going to be antivaccine activists on the same panel with pro-vaccine scientists. AS it is my rule never to debate cranks in a format like this, I demurred and then politely declined. After all, antivaccine quacks like Sherri Tenpenny and Toni Bark were going to be on the panel. Then, of course, there was Del Bigtree, the producer of the movie VAXXED, who, aside from his paranoid conspiracy mongering antivaccine propaganda movie disguised as a documentary, is well known for his rather—shall we say?—histrionic antivaccine speeches. There’s no way I was going to appear on the same stage with him, given that his very presence signifies an antivaccine crankfest.

Out of curiosity, late last week, I decided to follow up on One Conversation. Around the same time a reader sent me an email sent out to attendees of the event that revealed that all the real scientists were gone, having canceled. Basically, One Conversation had gone full antivaccine crankfest. Kroner and Valas had even gone so far as to add two more antivaccine cranks, James Lyons-Weiler, PhD, CEO of the Institute of Pure and Applied Knowledge, and 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. I won’t rehash what I wrote before, but it it worth mentioning a couple of things. First, DeLong is an economist who thinks she’s an epidemiologist and as a result has published some awful studies, for example, one claiming to link HPV vaccination to infertility and another one claiming to link vaccines to—yawn—autism. Lyons-Weiler, on the other hand, appears to have been a halfway decent scientist with a good funding record who, for whatever reason, turned to the Dark Side and embraced many forms of pseudoscience, including antivaccine pseudoscience.

Call me obsessive, but yesterday I couldn’t resist checking again. It wasn’t so much to see if, a mere week and a half from the event, Kroner and Valas had found any token skeptics to add to their stable. Yes, I know that they had basically gone down the route I had predicted that they’d go down if all the pro-science members of their panel were to bow out and blamed “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),” but I knew from experience that Kroner and Valas were nothing if not persistent and desperate for affirmation and respect; so I figured they’d keep trying. Also, I had noticed a rather strange pattern to how they listed the panelists who had canceled. Basically, they only listed the pro-vaccine advocates who had canceled and failed to mention the couple of antivaxers who had bowed out. I also couldn’t help but notice another rather odd change since last I looked at the website: No first names of the pro-vaxers who canceled. Truly, Valas and Kroner’s pettiness knows no bounds.

More interestingly, the first name on the list that I saw this time around was a very familiar figure:

Dr. Bob Sears, MD
Pediatrician

Dr. Bob Sears a father of three, author of The Vaccine Book and seven other books, and co-founder of Immunity Education Group, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing balanced and complete information about vaccines, infectious diseases, and public health issues.

“Dr. Bob,” as he likes to be called by his little patients, earned his medical degree at Georgetown University School of Medicine in 1995 and did his pediatric internship and residency at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. He continues to practice pediatrics at his office in Dana Point, CA, where he provides a combination of alternative and traditional medical care. He has a passion for healthy natural living and incorporates this knowledge into his style of disease treatment and prevention by limiting antibiotic use, committing to breastfeeding success for his little patients, using science-based natural treatment approaches whenever possible, and focusing on good nutrition and immune system health.

By having one of very few pediatric offices in Orange County, CA, that accepts families who don’t follow the CDC schedule of vaccinations, Dr. Bob has had the unique opportunity to observe how these naturally-minded families grow and thrive in today’s world.

With the new threat of mandatory vaccination laws, Dr. Bob’s new mission is to ensure that all families worldwide receive complete, objective, and un-doctored informed consent before they choose vaccination and that people everywhere retain the freedom to make healthcare decisions for themselves and their children.

Yes, it’s Dr. Bob. Truly this has become an antivaccine crankfest. Of course, I’ve written about Dr. Bob more times than I can remember. Rather odd, don’t you think, that somehow Kroner and Valas neglected to mention that “Dr. Bob” Sears was recently disciplined by the Medical Board of California and entered into a consent agreement requiring supervision and remedial education based on his having granted a medical exemption that was inappropriate and not having done a neurologic examination when one was required, not to mention failure to keep adequate medical records. Of course, “Dr. Bob” is antivaccine and prone to flights of hyperbole in which he blows antivaccine dog whistles and going full Godwin over California’s law eliminating non-medical personal belief exemptions to school vaccine mandates even as he himself sells dubious medical exemptions to those same mandates.

They’re definitely going full antivaccine crankfest.

If you doubt me, see who their other new addition to the panel is:

Dr. David Lewis PhD
Research Microbiologist; Research Director & Science Advisory Board Member – Focus for Health Foundation

Dr. Lewis is an internationally recognized research microbiologist whose work on public health and environmental issues, as a senior-level Research Microbiologist in EPA’s Office of Research & Development and member of the Graduate Faculty of the University of Georgia, has been reported in numerous news articles and documentaries from TIME magazine and Reader’s Digest to National Geographic.

He is Senior Science Advisor to the National Whistleblower Center and a member of its Board of Directors.

As a senior-level (GS-15) research microbiologist for EPA’s Office of Research & Development, Dr. Lewis used DNA-fingerprinting in the late 1990s to study the effects of global climate change on the breakdown of pesticides by bacteria. This research, which he published in Nature, was awarded EPA’s Science Achievement Award. EPA officials who developed the Agency’s sewage sludge regulations, however, moved to shut down his research when he began investigating illnesses and deaths linked to EPA programs promoting the agricultural use of processed sewage sludge. Nevertheless, his research in this area prompted the CDC to issue guidelines protecting workers handling processed sewage sludge.

Dr. Lewis is an internationally recognized research microbiologist who discovered, at the University of Georgia (UGA) in the early 1990s, that the AIDS virus could be transmitted by certain types of dental equipment that dentists share between patients. His research, published in Lancet and Nature Medicine, led to the current heat-sterilization standard for dentistry worldwide.
Dr. Lewis’ work has been covered in numerous news articles, editorials, and documentaries in a wide variety of professional, scientific and popular publications, and broadcasts including Science, Lancet, JAMA, The Scientist, National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, Voice of America, Paul Harvey, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, London Times, NPR’s All Things Considered, PBS Healthweek, PBS Technopolitics, CBS Evening News, ABC’s Primetime Live, and BBC Panorama.

Here’s the funny thing. When I saw this name, I didn’t remember him. Then I Googled him. I also searched for his name on my blog, and it turns out that I’ve written about him multiple times. It’s just that the most recent time was well over six years ago. That explains why I didn’t immediately recognize his name; there have just been so many cranks in the interim who’ve “merited” a heaping helping of Insolence, either Respectful or not-so-Respectful.

In any event, Lewis was indeed a microbiologist who worked for the EPA and appears to have been involved in reporting on suppression of research. So, you might ask, why on earth would antivaxers invite David Lewis to their little antivaccine crankfest? It turns out that the reason I wrote about Lewis is that he somehow managed to get himself entangled in l’affaire Wakefield. Apparently, the two met at an antivaccine conference at a posh resort in Jamaica in January 2011 and started working together.

Later that year, Lewis provided the BMJ with the original hand-written scoring sheets used by one of Andrew Wakefield’s co-investigators, pathologists Drs. Paul Dhillon and Andrew Anthony, to score the inflammation noted in the biopsy specimens from the subjects from Wakefield’s original Lancet case series in 1998. Lewis apparently thought that these scoring sheets would somehow exonerate his then newfound BFF Wakefield by showing that Wakefield was not, in fact, committing fraud but making good faith use of reports by Drs. Dhillon and Anthony, who were just making good faith diagnoses of enterocolitis. In fact the scoring sheets did exactly the opposite, as I discussed elsewhere. In fact, they showed that the specimens scored as representing inflammation were actually normal, without significant enterocolitis. As I said at the time, Wakefield must have been wondering, “With friends like these…?”

Actually, it turns out that there was more to Lewis’ issues with the EPA than he lets on. Investigative journalist Brian Deer, who published the BMJ report that documented the research fraud committed by Andrew Wakefield, became David Lewis’ target based on his work showing that Wakefield committed scientific fraud. You never want to get Deer pissed off, because Deer’s response was devastating, and revealing:

On Lewis’s webpage, a lengthy “director’s story” outlined what I later found to be a misleading account of an extraordinarily arcane dispute between himself and the Environmental Protection Agency. For most of his career, Lewis, now 63, was an environmental microbiologist at the EPA’s lab in Athens, Georgia. In addition to his paid employment, he became active on the side as an expert witness, leading at one point to a complaint to the EPA from a private company that he’d turned his employment with the government agency “into a vehicle to support his private, paid expert witness work”. It may be recalled that one of my revelations about Wakefield was that he’d secretly received huge sums of undisclosed legal money to make a pre-agreed case against MMR, beginning years before his infamous 1998 Lancet paper was published. There was no connection between the pair’s cases, but it’s not hard to see that Lewis, and others whose minds have turned to fantastic conspiracies, might want to exploit one to fuel the other.

Lewis’s principal expertise is in the potential contamination of agricultural land by harmful sewage sludge. It appears that he was being paid by lawyers to make a case against a firm called Synagro [Synagro report and summary on Lewis] – a company I’ve never before heard of, or had any dealings with. Complaints against Lewis included his alleged misuse of EPA credentials to further what was represented to be his private agenda. At some point, Lewis had himself declared a “whistleblower”. Despite its heroic-sounding quality, this is generally a technical legal issue in the US, often invoked in employment disputes. In fact, it appears that his “whistleblowing” was to make complaint against an employee of lower grade in a different section of the EPA, who took a contrary view over Lewis’s sewage sludge claims. Lewis then alleged that EPA had vicarious liability for this other employee’s conduct. Lewis signed a settlement agreement to leave the EPA, but when the date of its maturity arrived, he complained again. Lewis was represented in his dispute by Stephen Kohn, and generated increasingly long documents.

He made countless complaints which, as far as I can tell, were rejected. A relatively straightforward account of some of the matters is contained in a judgment in the US court of appeals dated February 2010, summarised online. This finally rejects his “whistleblower” complaints, after years of apparently futile rancour.

[I note that David Lewis disagrees with this interpretation rather strenuously, to the point that he was very…insistent…on telling his side. Since what he did or did not do at the EPA is not all that relevant to his agreement to participate in this antivaccine crankfest and his connection to antivaccine icon Andrew Wakefield, I did not resist too hard letting him provide me with a rebuttal. See addendum.]

As Deer says (and I agree), I can’t know what happened at the EPA with Dr. Lewis, whether he really did uncover anything objectionable or really was a legitimate whistleblower. At this point, ten years later, it’s irrelevant (at least to me). All I can go by for purposes of this antivaccine crankfest is that he’s buddies with Andrew Wakefield. All I can go by is that he tried to “exonerate” Wakefield of scientific fraud seven years ago. All I can go by is that he attacked Brian Deer, the investigative journalist who documented Wakefield’s scientific fraud. To me, whether or not he was or wasn’t a legitimate whistleblower at the EPA is irrelevant to his being an antivaccine crank, which is why he apparently completes the antivaccine crankfest. I suppose I should thank Shannon Kroner and Britney Valas for bringing back some long-forgotten memories of this particular antivaccine crank.

So One Conversation is about as much an antivaccine crankfest as you can imagine. In a way, I almost feel sorry for Kroner and Valas. They might actually have genuinely wanted a “balanced” conversation between pro-vaccine advocates and antivaxers, not realizing that any such conversation is necessarily false balance and elevates the antivaccine cranks just by having them on the same stage. Of course, antivaxers know this instinctively, which is why they try to set up events like One Conversation. It’s also why pro-vaccine science advocates who are invited to such events should decline to be used for this purpose, leaving antivaxers organizing such events stuck with the usual pathetic band of cranks.

ADDENDUM:

Response to Research Misconduct Allegations
David L, Lewis, Ph.D.

www.focusforhealth.org/davidlewis

Dr. David Gorski recently referred to allegations of research and ethical misconduct against me [1], which a reporter, Brian Deer, published on his website [2]. Deer, Gorski noted, also claims that I failed to win any of my federal whistleblower cases against EPA. The source of Deer’s allegations is a white paper published by Synagro Technologies, Inc. [3], which is involved in land application of sewage sludges. It alleges that EPA’s Office of Research & Development (ORD), where I worked as a research microbiologist, did not approve my research on land application of sewage sludges, nor me serving as an (unpaid) expert witness against Synagro, which was being sued over illnesses and deaths linked to its products.

I provided Gorski several of the exculpatory documents that a local newspaper had published in response to Deer’s allegations [4]. ORD, for example, concluded “there is no basis to warrant investigating Dr. Lewis for research misconduct.” EPA’s Office of General Counsel also concluded that Synagro’s allegations were “without merit,” that my research was “properly approved,” and that I “did not engage in any ethical violations.” The newspaper also included letters from the U.S. Department of Labor, showing that it had ruled in my favor and awarded me damages in multiple cases. It also included a letter from Synagro to the President of the University of Georgia, withdrawing all of its allegations.

Professor Robert Kuehn at the University of Alabama’s School of Law observed [5]: “In the 1950s, politicians sought to silence scientists that allegedly held political views sympathetic to Communists. In recent years, research results, rather than the scientist’s religion or politics, have motivated attacks on scientists.” Citing the U.S. Department of Labor’s rulings in my favor, Kuehn noted that allegations of research and ethical misconduct are used by government and industry to suppress research critical of certain government policies and industry practices.

It has, therefore, become necessary that science writers take extraordinary care when publishing allegations of research and ethical misconduct. Intentionally spreading false allegations constitutes scientific misconduct. Publishing them without any findings based on formal investigations conducted by governmental or academic institutions, and without contacting the scientist who is being accused, is just as bad in my opinion. It should never happen.

References

  1. Gorski D. One Conversation: An antivaccine crankfest adds two more antivaccine cranks. https://respectfulinsolence.com/2018/10/02/one-conversation-an-antivaccine-crankfest-adds-two-more-antivaccine-cranks/ Oct. 2, 2018.
  2. Deer B. David L Lewis: indignant abuse as complaints turn to nothing. https://briandeer.com/solved/david-lewis-1.htm Jan. 12, 2012.
  3. Analysis of David Lewis’ Theories Regarding Biosolids. Synagro Technologies, Inc. Sept. 20, 2001 (Withdrawn).
  4. Lewis, DL. False allegations suppress honest research. http://www.oconeeenterprise.com/opinion/article_b2d805b2-b7f9-11e6-96b0-ff371d671efd.html
  5. Robert R. Kuehn. Suppression of Environmental Science. American Journal of Law & Medicine 2004; 30:333-69.