I had been debating whether to finish off the week with yet another post about vaccines given how much I’ve been writing about vaccines over the last couple of weeks and how little I plan on writing during the holidays (i.e., either not at all or only if something happens between Christmas and January 2 that is utterly irresistible to me as a blogger, such as a study that I feel that only I can deconstruct the way it needs to be deconstructed or a news story that is so perfect for me that I must interrupt my break—which, if history is any indication, usually happens once between Christmas and New Years). However, if there’s one thing I like about blogging, it’s that I often get a chance to follow up on a topic, news event, or incident previously written about and, in doing so, provide either closure, analysis, and/or mockery, as appropriate depending on the circumstances. In particular, I love doing this when it’s a story, study, or case that no one else is likely to write about. In this case, it’s Ken Walker, MD, a syndicated columnist for a number of Canadian newspapers who writes under the name of W. Gifford-Jones, MD. You might remember that about a year and a half ago Dr. Walker/Gifford-Jones wrote an article entitled What you may not know about vaccines. (I linked to the Archive.org version of the post because The Toronto Sun and several—but, alas, not all—of the other Canadian newspapers that ran it retracted it under criticism.) It was an article full of such horrendously ignorant (and downright dumb) pseudoscience and fear mongering about vaccines that I couldn’t resist a bit of not-so-Respectful Insolence his way. So did several others, and Twitter, as is its wont, erupted in disapproval. Ultimately, the editor of the Sun grudgingly retracted the article:
A number of medical professionals have pointed to inaccuracies in this opinion piece and it has been taken off-line. His opinion doesn’t reflect the editorial position of the Sun. Our coverage of vaccines has been balanced and we encourage people to get vaccines.
— Adrienne Batra (@AdrienneBatra) October 28, 2018
As I noted at the time, whenever I hear the word “balanced” used in the context of vaccine coverage by the media, it’s almost always false balance that gives way too much credence to antivax misinformation—false balance of the type that Dr. Walker/Gifford-Jones tried to spin in his op-ed.
So what’s the update? Well, Dr. Walker/Gifford-Jones is unhappy that his op-ed produced such blowback and ultimately ended up being retracted from so many newspapers that had run it. I found out about it on—where else?—that wretched hive of scum and antivaccine quackery, Age of Autism (AoA), in the form of a press release called Why Doctors (and Newspaper Columnists) Rarely Dare to Question Vaccine Safety. It turns out that the original press release was published earlier this week on the Orthomolecular Medicine News Service. I was duly amused. Here’s a hint. If you want to project scientific credibility while defending an article you wrote about vaccines, releasing it as a press release on the Orthomolecular Medicine News Service is exactly the wrong way to go about it. Orthomolecular medicine is a form of quackery emphasizing megadoses of vitamins and “micronutrients.” Basically, to orthomolecular medicine, if a little of a vitamin is good, megadoses are better. An example of someone who fell for orthomolecular medicine is Linus Pauling, who claimed that high dose vitamin C could cure cancer and the common cold.
Let’s watch Dr. Walker/Gifford-Jones do what antivaxers always do when their antivaccine nonsense is removed from a mainstream media outlet. Play the truth-telling Cassandra and victim of rigid groupthink and conspiracy:
Do you need excitement in your life? If so, just write a column on the rewards and risks of vaccination. Then find a safe, secure hideout. Pour yourself a drink and wait for those who want to boil you in oil. This scenario happened to me when an editor pulled my syndicated article, balanced I thought, after it was published, due to criticism.
See what I mean? The only thing missing from Dr. Walker/Gifford-Jones’ self-pitying whine is an invocation of Galileo or Ignaz Semmelweis. The “Galileo gambit” is a favorite of cranks, to which, Carl Sagan had the best response: “The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” Ditto persecution. My view on this is that if you write something full of pseudoscience and nonsense, you should be prepared for criticism. (You will richly deserve it.) Like so many cranks and ideologues, Dr. Walker/Gifford-Jones seems to want to be able to publish pseudoscience without consequences. In other words, he implicitly equates freedom of speech with freedom from criticism. The sad thing is that Dr. Walker/Gifford-Jones actually thinks that the dreck-packed load of the fetid dingos’ kidneys of science that he wrote was “balanced.”
Next up, Dr. Walker/Gifford-Jones defends the cranks who think the way he does:
A professor of medicine in Calgary writes, “I was horrified that you would publish these remarks for unsophisticated readers.” This implies newspaper readers are stupid! Another reader wrote, “Your recent piece is a threat to public health. You should be ashamed for spreading lies and fear.” These are damning comments that must be challenged.
No, “unsophisticated” doesn’t mean “stupid.” In this context, it means not medically knowledgeable enough to recognize what Dr. Walker/Gifford-Jones for the misinformation and pseudoscience that it is. That is true of most lay people. Worse, because he is a doctors (and a very old one at that), Dr. Walker/Gifford-Jones has more authority than he would have if, say, someone like J.B. Handley or another lay person who is not a scientist or physician had written the article. He knows this, unless, as all too many doctors I’ve met are, he’s blissfully oblivious to the high degree of privilege, authority, and trust he enjoys from the public as a physician.
So how does Dr. Walker/Gifford-Jones “defend himself” and “challenge” this professor of medicine who correctly took him to task for the nonsense that he published? Does he produce a well-constructed, logical argument defending the points he made in his op-ed? Does he cite well-designed studies published in respected peer-reviewed journals? Does he reference basic science findings relevant to immunology, infectious disease, and vaccines? Of course not! Instead, he trots out a bunch of praise from readers who complained to the Sun for its decision to yank his op-ed:
I also received an overwhelming positive response from readers. The general reaction was “Thank God a doctor has finally had the courage to speak out about this matter.” A few predicted I’d be fired. Another wondered why I wasn’t stoned at my front door!
WD from Toronto replied, “I cannot believe your column on vaccines was removed. What is happening in this world? Big pharma has its teeth in everything and people blindly follow. Your column simply advised people to look at both sides of the coin. We are living in a sad time.”
From the Prairie Provinces: “You are one of the brave. All mothers out in the trenches are celebrating your article.” Another reader in Massachusetts claimed that “Dropping the column was an attack on free speech.”
MG writes, “With my first and only flu shot I developed Guillain-Barre disease and became paralyzed. I’ve regained the ability to walk, but have permanent nerve damage. It’s so frustrating to hear that flu shots are safe as one nearly killed me. Thanks for speaking up.”
From Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario: “I’m a registered nurse who worked in Toronto and never took a flu shot. Like you, I take a lot of vitamin C, and also bee pollen to increase immunity.”
A doctor from Mexico says, “I wasn’t taught about immunology and I was impressed and shocked to read about the dangers of vaccines in your column.”
Word to the wise: Avoid this doctor from Mexico. Unfortunately, his name is not listed, but it’s clear from his support for Dr. Walker/Gifford-Jones’ ignorant stylings about vaccines is any indication, he is not good at evaluating science and the medical literature. Of course, there were the usual antivaccine bits there: Big pharma conspiracy mongering; an appeal to “free speech”; praising Dr. Walker/Gifford-Jones as a “brave maverick doctor“; an unverifiable anecdote; and claims of “natural immunity” from vitamin C. Let’s just put it this way. The responses chosen by Dr. Walker/Gifford-Jones to use to defend himself say way more about him than they defend him.
Then he dives into a predictable list of antivaccine tropes:
What have critics missed in denouncing this column? Investigators always counsel, “Follow the money to find the answer.” This means following 3.6 billion dollars, awarded to families due to the complications of vaccines. It’s a huge pay out if nothing wrong ever happened.
That sounds like a lot of money, but, as I’ve discussed many times, that’s over 30 years and many claims. Not only that, but the Vaccine Court by design is set up to make compensation easier than the normal courts. The evidentiary standard is, as they say, 50% and a feather. The court pays the complainants’ court costs. Although most of the time the court gets the science right, occasionally it accepts highly dubious scientific “ideas” for how a “vaccine injury” might have occurred. There are so-called “table injuries” that are automatically compensated, whether caused by a vaccine or not. I pointed out several of these things in response to the original op-ed.
Next up, there’s an appeal to exaggerated uncertainty:
Critics also make the error in ignoring the fact that no therapy in this world is 100 percent safe. I could never guarantee that my surgical patients would have an uncomplicated recovery. Every day people die of blood clots after surgery and prescription medication. Vaccines are no exception.
Yes, it’s true that no therapy is 100% safe. It’s also irrelevant to antivaccine misinformation. The key consideration in any therapy is the benefit/risk ratio. For vaccines, that ratio is astronomical. Vaccines are very, very safe and range from just effective to very, very effective. When antivaxers invoke the risks of medical procedures to justify discussing the “risks of vaccination,” it is always, always, always in order to exaggerate the risks of vaccines—or to make up nonexistent risks of vaccination, such as autism, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, and the like.
He continues in this vein:
Some critics claim that substantial amounts of mercury are no longer used in vaccines. But mercury even in small quantities is dangerous. Common sense tells us that something in the vaccine triggers occasional complications. To date, we regrettably do not have a utopian 100 percent safe vaccine.
No, “critics” do not “claim” that substantial amounts of mercury are no longer used in vaccines. Substantial amounts of mercury are no longer used in vaccines—and haven’t been in the US since around 2002. Also, the mercury in the thimerosal used as a vaccine preservative up until 2002 does not cause autism. As for the bit about the “utopian 100% safe vaccine,” no one—and I mean no one—claims that we do have vaccines that are 100% safe. We point out that the benefit-risk ratio of vaccines is incredibly favorable and that vaccines do not cause all the health problems that antivaxers attribute to them. Of course, antivaxers are the utopian ones. They love the “Nirvana fallacy,” in which if something (in this case vaccines) is not perfect, it’s crap. To them, if vaccines are not 100% safe and never, ever cause even minor harm to anyone, they are horrifically dangerous. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.)
Next up, Dr. Walker/Gifford-Jones invokes a bogus appeal to “informed consent”:
I am a moderate, actually. I’ve previously written that vaccines have thankfully saved countless lives from infectious disease. I have never counseled anyone to refuse vaccines. Rather, the decision should always be made by the patient and his/her doctor. Informed consent should include the possibility of an unexpected, minor or serious complication.
In the antivaccine world, “informed consent” is in reality what I like to call misinformed consent, as I pointed out in response to his original article. Basically, misinformed consent exaggerates the risks while downplaying and/or denying the benefits of vaccines in order to tilt the apparent benefit-risk ratio to an unfavorable range, thus inducing parents to refuse vaccines for their children. I also note that a favorite tactic of antivaxers is to portray those who criticize their promotion of pseudoscience as frenzied, self-righteous zealots who can’t be reasoned with. (Yes, they do like to project.)
Finally, Dr. Walker/Gifford-Jones plays the flawed human messenger just trying to do the best he can to tell the truth, even if it is not believed or unwelcome, you know, like Cassandra or the Oracle of Delphi:
One thing I do know. I’m not related to the Almighty. I therefore can’t be infallible. I also know that readers often request that my column be discontinued when I write about controversial social and medical issues.
In view of what happened should I have bypassed a column on vaccines? I hate hypocrisy, so I’d be the world’s worst hypocrite if I followed the non-controversial path. Medicine is made up of many controversies.
An editor 45 years ago counseled me, “It’s the job of a journalist to make people think.” This has left me with scars. But if I get fired for writing what I believe should be said, it’s time to stop. After all, the motto of the Harvard Medical School is one word, Truth. I will live or die by it.
Except when he spreads antivaccine misinformation. Then the truth is optional if it doesn’t support his narrative.