Marianne Williamson is NOT a skeptic

Last week I wrote about Marianne Williamson, Oprah’s spiritual advisor and New Age self-help guru (and antivaxer) turned quixotic Presidential candidate for the Democratic nomination. Three things interested me about her. First, as I mentioned, she is an antivaxer of the “I’m not antivaccine…BUT…” variety, you know, the kind who says “I’m not antivaccine, but…” and after the “but” a whole lot of antivaccine tropes and conspiracy theories flow to qualify the just-professed allegiance to vaccines. The end result is to justify her antivaccine views by claiming to be a vaccine safety advocate or professing distrust of big pharma. Second, for some apparent reason, the media love her. She gets a lot more attention than her fringe candidacy would warrant. Third and final, in response to my pointing out on Twitter and elsewhere that Williamson is antivaccine, I’ve noticed a fair amount of pushback from people who really should know better. That form of pushback would be hard to summarize in a post, but fortunately the hapless Faye Flam of Bloomberg did it for me in the form of an article in the Technology & Ideas section entitled Marianne Williamson Is a Skeptic, Not “Anti-Science.”

There was much facepalming at that title, but the bruises from this activity took a truly alarming turn when I read the subtitle of this article: “What could be more scientific than questioning dogma and calling for more inquiry?” Yes, that demands a Godzilla-sized facepalm right there.

Godzilla facepalm

How you “question dogma” and “call for more inquiry” is even more important than questioning dogma and calling for more inquiry. Faye Flam is definitely doing it the wrong way and even more definitely needs to learn the difference between conspiracy theory-driven denial and pseudoscience and actual “skepticism.” (Hint: What Williamson is selling is not skepticism.)

Let’s take a look:

The accusation of being “anti-science” has become a popular and effective way to discredit people, at least in certain circles. Self-help guru turned presidential candidate Marianne Williamson is learning that after her debate performances. People often end up accused of being “anti-science” when they question scientific dogma, but questioning dogma is what science is all about. Donald Trump could be more accurately labelled as anti-science for the blatant cutting of funds for important scientific studies – though even he may not be opposed to the scientific enterprise so much as he is trying to protect his friends in industry at the expense of science and people exposed to pollution.

Notice how Flam takes a point with a germ of truth to it (sometimes people are a bit too quick on the draw to label someone “antiscience”) and runs right off the cliff with it. First, I’d point out that there are different ways to be antiscience. What Flam describes Trump doing is one way. Denying—excuse me, “questioning”—well-established scientific findings without evidence for your position sufficient to justify that denial—excuse me again, “questioning”—is another way. So is denying—oh, dear, excuse me a third time, “questioning”—such well-established science based on conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. Guess which two of the three Marianne Williams engages in?

Next up, Flam pulls a rather lovely gambit. I’ll give her credit; it’s fairly clever:

A particularly scathing anti-Williamson critique appeared in The Daily Beast, though the author couldn’t seem to find much fault with anything said in this week’s debate, instead digging up past statements. Indeed, she has dealt with some new-age ideas that are unscientific or even antithetical to science, but not more so than much organized religion is.

Note Flam’s comparison of Williamson’s New Age woo to religion. This is, of course, a valid comparison. After all, as was documented 27 years ago by Martin Gardner, Williamson got her start in New Age grift peddling religion, specifically her spin on something called “A Course in Miracles,” which was New Age woo heavily influenced by Christian beliefs. A week ago, Lindsay Beyerstein covered similar ground with an update that described Williamson’s long history of New Age religious grift that fuses Christian beliefs with “The Secret”-like wish fulfilment and victim-blaming. (For example, Williamson claims that “over-identification” with the physical body at the expense of the spirit places a “stress on the body that the body was not meant to carry and that that’s where sickness comes from.”) There’s definitely no denying the religious/spiritual element of such beliefs. Here’s the thing.

Here’s the clever part. Flam then pivots to Williamson’s antivaccine views, as though, compared to her gauzy New Age religious beliefs, they were more rooted in reality. She airily dismisses concerns about just how wrong, how unmoored from reality, Williamson’s beliefs are, and dives into a bit of obvious mischaracterization:

According to the piece, Williamson has opposed mandatory vaccinations, though she now says she recognizes their importance, and it seems fair to judge her on what she says now. She has apparently also questioned the use of antidepressants for kids. It’s unscientific to assume all drugs are evil, but there’s nothing wrong with trying to minimize drug use or with questioning the ratio of risks to benefits for popular prescription drugs.

Here’s the thing about science (and being “antiscience”). There’s a hierarchy, gradations, if you will, of how unscientific or antiscientific your beliefs are. Believing something for which there is no scientific evidence and, in fact, there is plenty of scientific evidence that refutes that belief is on the extreme end, as is believing such things based on conspiratorial thinking. That’s what Williamson has a long history of doing with respect to vaccines. Remember what she has said on more than one occasion?

For instance, there’s this Tweet:

And then there’s this interview Williamson did on Wednesday MSNBC’s Ari Melber:

The interview starts out with her trying very hard to backpedal her previous statements on Russell Brand’s podcast denying the existence of clinical depression by dismissing it as something someone in the clinic diagnosed. She even apologizes for her having so blithely dismissed real clinical depression and mental illness. Then, however, she quickly pivots to antipharma conspiracy mongering. For one thing, she seems unhappy that most clinical testing of new drugs is done by pharmaceutical companies, but one has to ask: What would one replace it with? No one’s willing to spend the money it would take to beef up the FDA to the point where it could take over all the clinical trials of new drugs. The best that can currently be done is to provide oversight and rigorous standards that pharmaceutical companies must meet to obtain FDA approval for their drugs.

No one, least of all myself, is going to claim that pharma is a paragon of virtue, but that’s the straw man that she likes to attribute to us, as she did in this Tweet:

She pulls a similar trope in her interview with Ari Melber. She even uses the same phrase, “paragon of virtue” (and even adds “have pure intent” and “concern for the common good” ) as in claiming that those of us who insist on rigorous science as the basis of medicine actually do assume that pharmaceutical companies are paragons of virtue. We most assuredly do not, nor is such an assumption necessary as a precondition to accepting the safety and efficacy of vaccines. I can’t resist going back to Ben Goldacre’s ever-useful response to such misdirection on the part of promoters of woo:

Yes, it must be conceded that there is a legitimate debate to be had over the treatment of mental health and the issue of regulatory capture in the regulation of pharmaceutical companies and their products, but Williamson’s dismissal of so much depression as “medicalizing normal grief” is a vast oversimplification and exaggeration. Of course, when Melber gets around to the issue of “skepticism” on vaccinations (a horrible horrible, horrible choice of a word for this) and tries to press her on it, we see her lay down this “I’m not antivaccine” antivaccine patter:

I think it’s an overstatement to say that I cast skepticism on vaccination. [Orac note: Actually, it’s an understatement.] On the issue of vaccinations I’m pro-vaccination, I’m pro-medicine, I’m pro-science. On all of these issues, what I’m bringing up that I think is very legitimate and should not be derided and should not be marginalized, particularly in a free society, is questions about the role of predatory Big Pharma.

I’ll take “I’m not antivaccine, I just question big pharma” for $800, Alex.

Melber brought up Williamson’s comparison of vaccine mandates to abortion in which she said that the government “doesn’t tell any citizen, in my book, what they have to do with their body or their child” and characterized school vaccine mandates as “draconian” and “Orwellian,” a view for which she was forced to apologize for having “misspoken” before, leading to Williamson’s response this time:

This is the issue. When I was a child we took far fewer vaccines, and there was much less bundling. There was much less chronic illness. I don’t know why—you know this is not a topic that I have consciously chosen to—this is not some big topic for me, but I have to tell you, it should not be—

At this point, Melber interrupted, asking, “Do you think vaccinations are contributing to things being worse now? Is that what you’re suggesting?” Looking a bit flustered, Williamson responded:

No, no, what I’m saying is that in 1986 there was this vaccine protection law. There was, and there have been $4 billion in vaccine compensation payments that have been made. There was much less chronic illness. There was something like 12% chronic illness in our children previous to that law, and there’s 54% now. I don’t see why in a free society. I mean, what is going on here? When you look at the fact tha big pharmaceutical companies lobbied Congress to the tune of $284 million last year alone, as opposed to oil and gas, which has lobbied Congress to the tune of $125 million last year, when you look at all the money that is spent by pharmaceutical companies even on our news channels, when you look at the fact that there are two pharmaceutical lobbies for every member of Congress, and even when you look at the tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars that have been paid into the coffers of even Presidential campaigns, why are we so okay with complete shutdown of any conversation about this topic?

This is basically the same nonsense that Williamson laid down on Twitter:

Here’s a hint: If you refer to the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act as the “vaccine protection law,” you are antivaccine. That’s an antivaccine talking point. If you try to imply that the payouts from the Vaccine Court indicate that vaccines are dangerous, you are antivaccine. (In reality, as I discussed before, when taken in context of the billions of doses of vaccines to hundreds of millions of children given during that time it’s not really that large a figure.)

As I said last time, if I had any doubts that Williamson is hard core antivax, she shattered them last week, and this week she’s stomping on the shards with her doubling down. First of all, as was pointed out on Twitter in response to Faye Flam’s editorial, Williamson is engaged in the time-dishonored crank tactic of “just asking questions,” or, as we like to put it, “JAQing off.” John Charpentier pointed this out:

And this is exactly what Williamson was doing in her response above. She was taking a straw man (that vaccine defenders argue that big pharma is always a “paragon of virtue” and this is why vaccines should be accepted as safe and effective) and then lists problems with big pharma as a reason to question vaccine safety and then implying without actually coming right out and saying it that the expansion of the vaccine schedule over the last 25 years is responsible for the increase in chronic illness among children. She then ties it all together with a rancid conspiracy bow by playing the free speech martyr and claiming that there is a “complete shutdown of any conversation about this topic.” Flam, predictably, ignored all of this, characterizing it as reasonable questioning of big pharma.

I wasn’t sure where Williamson had picked up the figure of 54% of children having chronic illness, but I recognized it as a talking point treated as gospel among antivaxers. It is, of course, odd, given that, according to the 2015 National Health Interview Survey, among those under 18, more than 85& are in excellent or very good health, which is roughly in line with what we would expect if around 12% of children had chronic health problems. I know, I know, it’s a rough comparison, but the 54% figure doesn’t jibe. There’s a reason for that. The figure of 54% of children with a chronic illness appears to come, as far as I can tell, from antivaxer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense. It’s not peer-reviewed. I thought about signing up to get the E-book that makes this claim, and maybe someday I will, but in the meantime I note that in 2007 a whole issue of JAMA was devoted to children’s health and noted that the definition of chronic illness was very critical, listing estimates of from 0.22% to 44%, depending on specific operationalization of the definition. Another review from that issue estimated that the 1994-1995 National Health Interview Survey on Disability indicated that chronic conditions of any type affect 15% to 18% of US children and adolescents but also noted that “these estimates substantially undercount some prevalent conditions, especially obesity and mental health conditions.” This was over 20 years ago.

In any case, the infamous “54% chronically ill” figure is a cherry picked figure. It’s based on a 2011 analysis of the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health. The deceptive trickery was well explained over at Vaccines Work. Basically, most of the total (43% of the entire population) was obesity:

Most of the children in the study who required special services are obese. 43.2% as of May 2011 when this study was published. That has nothing whatsoever to do with vaccines. Risk of developmental delay is likely linked to the number of premature babies surviving birth and the number of drug-addicted babies surviving birth, not vaccines. This study was conducted with children born before vaccines were recommended in pregnancy so there is no link there. Allergies and asthma have been shown not to be caused by vaccines. Peanut allergies are more likely resulting from the late introduction of solid foods. Pollution and lack of exposure to the microbiome are also thought to be causes of allergies and asthma.

Yes, antivaxers do like to cherry pick, distort, and leave out context in order to create a scary number. In reality, children today are pretty healthy. Vaxopedia notes:

If you have only been listening to the alarmists who talk about the unhealthiest generation all of the time, you likely wouldn’t know that:
  • while 2.6% of kids were thought to be in fair or poor health in 1991, that is down to just 1.8% today (2015)
  • fewer kids today (4.5%) report having had an asthma attack in the previous year than they did in 1997 (5.4%), and that fewer kids have asthma today (8.5%) than in 2003 (8.7%)
  • since 1997, fewer children, whether or not they have insurance, are visiting the emergency room
  • fewer children are requiring overnight hospital stays, down from 5.5% to just 2.1% today (2015)
  • rates of hay fever or respiratory allergy are down since 1997, from 17.5% of kids to 15.6% of kids today (2015)
  • rates of epilepsy have been stable in children for at least 40 years
  • fewer kids have multiple ear infections since 1997, when 7.1% of kids had 3 or more ear infections, to just 5% of kids today (2015)
  • fewer kids are being prescribed antibiotics
  • childhood cancer rates have been rising, but only slightly, and mortality rates have been declining
  • suicide rates are rising, but only from historic lows – they used to be about the same or higher in the early 1990s

Of course, it is true that some conditions are on the rise, including ADHD, type 1 diabetes, food allergies, eczema, obesity, and most autoimmune diseases. Even so, we’re not looking at over 50% of children being chronically ill, as Williamson claims. What do you call a woman who mindlessly parrots a figure cherry picked by an antivaxer like RFK, Jr.? An antivaxer or a fool. Flam ignores the foolishness and cherry picks the germs of reasonable criticisms laid down by Williamson as her whole argument, completely ignoring the antivaccine talking points Williamson regularly parrots, such as the implication that vaccines have caused an epidemic of chronic diseaese. I was disappointed in Melber for not following up and pressing Williamson on the source of that rather remarkable 54% figure. He just accepted it, and that’s a big problem; the media rarely pushes candidates for the sources of the statistics they cherry pick for their own message. This is not just a problem with how the media treat Williamson, either. The media treat other candidates the same way.

Particularly painful was the closing segment, where, in response to Melber’s question about whether she thinks that state and federal vaccine mandates are justified:

There are with any medical intervention, there are benefits and there are risks. The government always has to come down on the side of the public good. I was vaccinated. My daughter was vaccinated. Of course. Of course I am. I just want to know that, when it comes to the review of our drugs, when it comes to all issues related to drugs, just as we have to allow from what is happening in the opioid crisis, I want independent regulation that is conducted by the government that is not paid for by big pharma.

Ms. Flam might not realize it, but this is very much the same sort of antivaccine dog whistle that Jill Stein was called out for using. She’s also wrong about corporate influence when it comes to determining which vaccines ar eapproved. As David Weigel pointed out, most members of the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee work at academic or medical institutions, not drug companies. Yes, there are representatives from drug companies there, but they are a minority, and they are nonvoting members. Moreover, VRBPAC business is nearly all conducted in public. There are only very rarely nonpublic working groups, and all meeting materials are posted to the FDA website. Williamson can peruse them herself going back many years if she so desires. In fact, I urge her to do so. Also, VRBPAC has vigorous screening for financial conflicts of interest. If a member has any that member can’t vote. There’s also the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), the primary committee that determines the vaccine schedule in the US. It’s so open in its proceedings that it allows antivaxers to dominate the public comment period.

Yes, Williamson is antivaccine, and Faye Flam is clueless, as she reveals at the end:

Science writers often call out members of the public as anti-science for doubting that vaccines and GMOs are safe. But “safe” isn’t a scientific term. What makes more sense is to talk about the risk-benefit ratio – something I learned from talking with epidemiologists and statisticians such as Sander Greenland from UCLA. Standard childhood vaccines are well-tested and likely to be safe: low risk. They protect kids against diseases that can be nasty: high benefit. Don’t skip them. Williamson seems likely to disappear from the national conversation soon, and critics are right to go after her lack of policy experience. Criticizing her, or any other candidate, on the basis of ideas and experience makes perfect sense. But trying to discredit skeptics with the label of “anti-science” is not very scientific.

One more time, Ms. Flam. I don’t call Williamson “antivaccine” or “antiscience” just because I want to discredit her. I apply the label of “antivaccine” and “antiscience” because she says and does antivaccine and antiscience things, like regurgitating antivaccine talking points, mindlessly citing a dubious figure for the percentage of children with chronic illnesses again and again and again and implying that vaccines are responsible, and pulling what I like to call the “Help, help! I’m being repressed!” gambit when she’s criticized for repeating pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and antivaccine tropes. I will continue to keep doing so unless and until Williamson fades from the public spotlight to the point where she doesn’t matter and/or stops spewing antivaccine talking points, conspiracy theories, and persecution fantasies. Sadly, I suspect that I will be at this for a long time.

If you doubt it, let’s shift gears for a second. After Faye Flam’s article, after Ari Melber’s interview, Marianne Williamson appeared on Anderson Cooper 360 last night, leading to another deceptive headline from The Daily Beast.

In this segment, Anderson Cooper focused primarily on Williamson’s past statements about antidepressants and psychiatric drugs. Cooper pressed her on her past statements about antidepressants “numbing” people, pointing out quite reasonably that depression itself numbs people. In responses, Williamson goes full woo, denying that she’d ever said what she’s been documented saying and then going on:

What I’ve talked about is a normal spectrum of human despair, normal human despair, which traditionally was seen as the purview of spirituality and religion, that which gave people comfort. gave people hope and inspiration in their time of pain. And with the advent of modern psychotherapy, a lot of the baton passed from religion and spirituality to modern psychotherapy, which was an interesting transition. Then, over the last few years, very very quickly, the baton was passed again to psychopharmacology, and so a nuanced conversation was lost regarding the nature of human despair.

Holy hell. Marianne Williamson’s entire objection to modern psychopharmacology for depression is that it has pushed aside religion and spirituality as the primary means of dealing with “human despair.” Given that she’s a New Age grifter, one shouldn’t be surprised. She doesn’t like a disease-based model of clinical depression because it cuts into her grift. She even goes on to suggest that the treatment of depression is seeking to keep us from feeling normal sadness after, for instance, the death of a loved one, which is a complete mischaracterization of modern psychotherapy.

If that isn’t antiscience, I don’t know what is.