It’s been a week since I last laid down a helping of Orac’s trademark Insolence, be it Respectful or not-so-Respectful. Before I delve into today’s topic, I feel that you, my loyal audience, deserve a brief explanation in three words: Grant application deadline. The grant now submitted, I’m ready to get back into the swing of things, and the other day I got an email from a scientist named Catherine Roe, an Alzheimer’s researcher at the Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in the Department of Neurology at Washington University, in which she forwarded an email from Christopher Shaw, a scientist turned antivaccine activist. It’s the perfect topic to get the blog rolling again.
You might remember Dr. Roe as one of the legitimate scientists who had originally agreed to appear at the antivaccine quackfest of a “discussion panel” known as One Conversation. As you might recall, One Conversation was organized by antivaccine activists Shannon Kroner and Britney Valas, and Kroner initially contacted me to ask me if I would appear on the panel as part of the “other side.” Regular readers know my longstanding policy that I do not appear on the same stage as antivaccine cranks for a “debate” because, no matter what happens, it elevates the crank and there’s the risk that the cranks will be so good at Gish galloping that it might even be counterproductive. Even considering that, I recognized a trap when I saw one, particularly when Kroner would not reveal who the other panelists were going to be. Then I noted that ZDoggMD had posted a video in which he had learned that, at least at that time, Kroner had confirmed the involvement of antivaccine activists Del Bigtree and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., as well as antivaccine quack Dr. Toni Bark. I later learned that Dr. Christopher Shaw had been invited. I politely declined.
Before I describe what I did next, first let’s look, with Dr. Roe’s permission, at the text of the email that Dr. Roe sent to me on Wednesday, which included a forwarded email from Christopher Shaw:
Is this legal?
From: Shaw, Christopher
Sent: Wednesday, June 24, 2020 1:25 PM
To: Roe, Catherine
Subject: Your correspondence with Dr. Gorski
Dear Dr. Roe:
As you may be aware, a colleague of mine obtained through a FOIA request your email correspondence with Dr. David Gorski prior to the One Conversation event in Atlanta.
I intend to use these emails in a future publication to demonstrate how attempts at civil discussion on controversial topics are often suppressed. As you may know, this happens frequently concerning vaccines safety issues, but may also occur in other fields as well.
As a courtesy, I would like to offer you the opportunity to comment on these emails. If you do choose to do so, I will use your comments verbatim without any modifications. If you decline to do so, or choose not to respond to this request, I will note this instead.
Finally, I think that had you attended One Conversation you would not have found it to be as daunting an experience as Dr. Gorski suggested. Rather, I think you might have been pleasantly surprised. I rather doubt that anyone present would have subjected you to the “Gish gallop” (to use one of Dr. Gorski’s favorite terms).
As Dr. Exley was not present, I also doubt that anyone would have even mentioned aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease.
We might all have learned from your expertise and I am sorry we did not have the opportunity to have that conversation.
Christopher A. Shaw, Ph.D
The first thing I did was to reassure Dr. Roe that Shaw was going after me, not her. He would likely portray her as the victim of a grand conspiracy to keep her from appearing with the likes of Del Bigtree, Dr. Toni Bark, and him, with me being the “bully” trying to frighten her out of appearing at One Conversation. I reassured her that I can take it.
Getting a hold of emails of one’s enemies (by whatever method) has become a favored technique used by antiscience cranks like Shaw to for propaganda purposes. This technique was first “pioneered” (if you can call it that) by climate science deniers, who hacked the server of the Climate Research Unit at the University East Anglia to obtain emails between climate scientists, from which they cherry picked and misrepresented quotes to try to embarrass the scientists and portray them as conspiring to promote a “bogus” human-caused global warming conspiracy and had “tampered” with temperature data. The whole kerfuffle came to be known as “Climategate.” Not long after, anti-GMO activists at US Right To Know (USRTK) found a legal method to accomplish the same thing, abusing various states’ Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) to get ahold of researcher Kevin Folta’s emails and those of a number of other researchers and use them to paint him as a tool of Monsanto. In both cases, the technique was the same: Cherry pick passages that can be spun to sound embarrassing and promote the message the antiscience activist wants to promote. Moreover, the very act of filing a FOIA request is designed to harass the targeted scientist, who often ends up wasting many hours going through emails with her university counsel to determine what legally can and cannot be held back.
Now antivaxxers have started to do the same thing, and a number of science communicators countering antivaccine misinformation who work at public universities have been on the receiving end of similar abusive FOIA requests, myself included. That being said, my advice to Dr. Roe was either not to reply at all to Shaw or to reply with a very brief response. (Not replying at all is almost certainly the better option.)
Regular readers will be familiar with Christopher Shaw. He’s an scientist turned antivaccine activist who’s best known for publishing truly awful studies (one of which was probably fraudulent and ultimately retracted) designed to “prove” that aluminum in vaccines causes brain inflammation leading to autism. He’s also been featured for trying to demonstrate that Gardasil, an HPV vaccine, has been killing young women. His work has been funded by a wealthy antivaxxers. But how did he get Dr. Roe’s emails? Washington University is a private university and thus not subject to FOIA requests.
As for why Dr. Roe was invited to One Conversation in the first place, Dr. Shaw’s denial gives the game away. Because to antivaxxers aluminum is the new mercury (i.e., the vaccine ingredient that antivaxxers most frequently blame for autism) and there has been postulated a suspected link between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease, whether Dr. Exley (another aluminum-focused antivaccine scientist) were at One Conversation or not, it would have been an near-certainty that someone would have started trying to draw an analogy between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease and aluminum in vaccines and autism. After all, it’s the sort of thing that antivaxxers have been doing for a very long time. Indeed, it was nearly 15 years ago when I first wrote about Bill Maher claiming that flu vaccines increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
As I contemplated just how Shaw might have gotten his hands on my email exchange with Dr. Roe, at first I thought that maybe he got them from a FOIA request to my university. You might remember that Gary Null sent a FOIA request to my university looking for communications with people such as Steve Novella, Dorit Reiss, Stephen Barrett, Jon Entine, Paul Offit, Kevin Folta, the Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia, Susan Gerbic, Tim Farley, and Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia. (I laughed heartily at that last one; Null must have thought I was a really big deal that Jimmy Wales and I would communicate.) I’ve had no other FOIA requests since then, and I was sure that my email exchange with Dr. Roe wasn’t in the emails that my University ultimately provided to Null’s lawyer. I’m also amused that, apparently, as I predicted, the emails that were given up were so boring and utterly unincriminating (even with cherry-picked and misrepresented quotes) that Null has never, to my knowledge, published or used them to attack me. It’s a safe bet that, had Null found anything in those emails that he could weaponize, he wouldn’t have hesitated to publish them in articles attacking me. (I’m also very happy that my university managed to force Null to pay for the expense of gathering the emails.) In any event, when the university receives a FOIA request for emails, it always contacts the faculty member for guidance, in order to redact sensitive or personal information and other things not subject to FOIA.
So what emails are we talking about? When I learned that Dr. Roe had agreed to appear at One Conversation, I contacted the legitimate scientists whose email addresses I could find, in order to warn them what they had gotten themselves into. Given that I also believe that a strong offense is the best defense in cases like this, I’m going to publish some of my email exchange with Dr. Roe right here right now (with her permission, of course), so that Shaw can’t cherry pick or misrepresent without there being a link to the full text, which can easily be checked.
You can see from Shaw’s email what his game is. He wants to write something to portray me (and, by extension, other science communicators who routinely refute antivaccine misinformation) as working to “silence dissent.” It’s a common trope used by antivaxxers, equating criticism with “bullying” or “silencing.” In reality, I wanted to warn scientists who might not be clear about just what One Conversation was about and had almost certainly been enticed to agree to attend under false (or, at the very least, distorted) pretenses.
So here’s the full text of my original email, dated September 13, 2018:
Dear Dr. Roe,
I’m writing to you because your name came up as a participant in One Conversation, which is billed on its website as seeking to “break down and clear the barriers of confusion with scientific data, critical thought and engaging conversation” regarding vaccines. This concerns me because you are a legitimate scientific researcher and academic and I want to make sure that you know what you are likely to be in for on this panel.
How do I know? Shannon Kroner and Britney Valas reached out to me a month ago to be on the panel. The reason was that my main “extracurricular activities” involve refuting medical misinformation and combatting quackery on social media. To that end, I edit the Science-Based Medicine Blog (sciencebasedmedicine.org), write my own blog under a pseudonym (respectfulinsolence.com, although my true identity is a poorly kept secret given that it’s on the blog), and engage on Twitter (@gorskon, over 19K followers). I have nearly 20 years of experience combatting antivaccine misinformation, nearly 14 of them running my own blog. After a prolonged back-and-forth email exchange between Ms. Kroner, Ms. Valas, and myself, I politely declined their invitation. The reason was that it quickly became very clear to me in my interactions with the organizers that they are antivaccine activists and that the purpose of One Conversation was not education but propaganda. (For instance, Ms. Kroner has spoken at at least one antivaccine rally, a rally that Ms. Valas helped organize.)
I described my experience being asked to be part of this panel here:
Upon learning who is going to be on the panel, I wrote a followup post last night:
I’ll give you the short version, though, in case you understandably don’t want to be bothered reading a few thousand words about this (although, of course, I’d be happy and honored if you would). I’m also including additional links just in case you are interested in more information. Basically, there eight panelists, of whom five can definitely be described as antivaccine. Of the antivaxers, Del Bigtree is probably the most vocal and famous. He is the producer of the antivaccine propaganda “documentary” VAXXED, a film by the guru of the antivaccine movement, Andrew Wakefield. It’s a film that I once described as so over-the-top and unsubtle that even Leni Reifenstahl, were she still alive to see it, would say it was too much. Mr. Bigtree is a master propagandist prone to flights of hyperbole. For instance, in a video at the end of the this post, he speaks to a Michigan antivaccine group about how he’s willing to fight and die for “vaccine freedom”:
In any event, VAXXED was so full of antivaccine misinformation and conspiracies (particularly the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy) as to have caused me pain to watch it and try to count and deconstruct all the lies and bits of misinformation:
Also, I note that there is no mention of Andrew Wakefield in One Conversation’s bio for Mr. Bigtree, and, although I could be wrong, I’d be willing to bet that Kroner and Valas probably didn’t mention Wakefield when trying to persuade you to be on the panel and that you probably have no idea just how closely Bigtree and Wakefield work together.
Moving on, two of the physicians on the panel, Drs. Tenpenny and Bark, are “holistic” doctors practicing alternative medicine. They are very antivaccine. Bark practices naturopathy and homeopathy, while Dr. Tenpenny is a fairly big name in the antivaccine movement. Both of them were featured speakers with Andrew Wakefield on the “Conspira-Sea Cruise,” which featured all manner of cranks, from antivaccine cranks, to quacks, to 9/11 Truthers to sovereign citizens:
If you want a flavor of the sort of nonsense that Dr. Tenpenny believes in, consider that she thinks that vaccines contaminate our DNA in the name of transhumanism:
Next, Christopher Shaw is a scientist in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the University of British Columbia, However, over the last few years he’s become antivaccine and has become known for doing very bad studies funded by the Dwoskin Foundation, which funds antivaccine studies and activities. His “hypothesis” (if you can call it that) is that aluminum in vaccines causes brain damage through immune activation. He’s tried to convince New Zealand authorities that Gardasil killed a young woman and has had at least one paper I know of retracted for image manipulation. I’ve written about hims so many times that he has his own tag:
Finally, there is Mahin Khatami. I must admit that when I first perused the list of participants I didn’t recognize the name and didn’t suspect that Dr. Khatami was antivaccine, given her background at the NCI. However, it didn’t take me long to find that she’s very hostile to conventional medicine, refers to cancer treatment as a scam designed to make money for big pharma, and is very, very anti-HPV vaccine. To give you an idea, one of the books she’s written/edited is Cancer Research and Therapy: Scam of Century-Promote Immunity.
I don’t know what Dr. Kroner and Ms. Valas told you about the panel, although I can probably make a reasonable guess based on my interactions with her. I also don’t know how familiar you are with antivaccine pseudoscience, misinformation, and lies. I, unfortunately, am all too familiar with them. Because I’m so familiar with the tactics and tropes of the antivaccine movement, I hope you will strongly consider what I say when I urge you to back out of this event.The odds are stacked against you and your fellow provaccine advocates Drs. Brown and Stringer, and just by appearing on the same stage with them you will elevate them so that they win, no matter how the panel discussion goes.
Please believe that I am not disparaging you in any way. It has nothing to do with how knowledgeable you are about vaccines, how smart you are, or how good a speaker you are. You might be great on all three scores for all I know. However, it’s what you’re knowledgeable about that matters. If you aren’t familiar with the deceptive tactics of antivaccine activists, they will be able to do what we like to refer to as the Gish gallop, in which they bury you in dubious studies, bogus “criticisms” of studies showing vaccines to be safe and effective, and various other distortions, misinformation, and distractions. If you are not intimately familiar with these tropes, you will almost certainly be overwhelmed and unable to answer. Then your discomfiture will be prominently featured in selectively-edited videos made by antivaxers. I know that Dr. Kroner promised to provide you with unedited video, but ask yourself this: Are you really going to want to have to use that video to show what really happened? Even those of us who are familiar with antivaccine tactics and misinformation can have difficulty defending against a full-on Gish gallop.
If you decide not to back out and decide to go ahead with this, then let me urge you to do a few things to prepare. Above all, you need to know your opponents:
1. Peruse the websites of your fellow panelists who have websites.
2. Watch at least one video (preferably more than one video) from each of your fellow panelists and have simple refutations ready to the points they make. Del Bigtree, Toni Bark, and Sherri Tenpenny are very prolific video makers and if you Google their names + YouTube you will find a lot.
3. Watch VAXXED. (It’s on Amazon Prime—unfortunately. If you don’t have Amazon Prime, I bet Dr. Kroner would get Del Bigtree to get you access to a screener if you asked.) Then read my review of it:
4. Be prepared for the attempt for the argument that “vaccine choice” = “freedom” and school vaccine mandates = tyranny. You will hear it, because Del Bigtree is on the panel and it’s one of his favorites.
5. Keep your messages very simple, very declarative, and avoid our usual scientist’s tendency towards nuance. This isn’t a scientific conference. It’s propaganda battle. Don’t let any of them sidetrack you into the weeds.
Thanks for reading, particularly given how long this email is. I hope you will consider what I have said and withdraw from the panel. If you decide to go ahead, I will help in any way I can; that is, if you decide that you want my help. I can also put you in contact with others who have a lot of experience combatting antivaccine misinformation who could help prepare you, like Prof. Dorit Reiss, whom I’ve taken the liberty of cc:’ing. Best of luck.
Cc: Dorit Rubenstein Reiss, PhD
As I told Dr. Roe when she emailed me asking about the emails that Shaw got from this FOIA request, there is absolutely nothing that I am ashamed of in what I wrote above, which is all accurate and was written in the hope of sparing her discomfiture and embarrassment, and, yes, of depriving Kroner and Valas of a propaganda victory. I wrote similar emails to the other legitimate scientists who had agreed to appear, and it worked! All of them withdrew, and One Conversation devolved into what it was going to be all along, an antivaccine crankfest, with more antivaccine cranks, including “Dr. Bob” Sears, added. Indeed, Kroner and Valas published this announcement:
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.
I like the bit about “heavy outside influences and coercion.” I have no idea who else might have written or contacted the real scientists who had been enticed into agreeing to appear at One Conversation or even if anyone at all did. Indeed, it is quite possible that I was the only “heavy outside influence” and, as you can see from the text of my email, there was no “coercion” involved. I’m sure that’s the message that Shaw will promote. Of course, my response is that Dr. Roe was actually grateful, as she responded:
OK, I really feel stupid. I thank you for taking the time to inform me. I was all excited because someone was inviting me to a conference to talk about AD and would pay for it! I certainly don’t want to be associated with anti-vaccine people. I emailed them to decline, but haven’t heard anything back yet. One of the readers of your blog also altered me to your blog of yesterday. You are right, those people would eat me for lunch. Again, thanks for your warning and for saving me from a really unenjoyable few days.
I almost feel kind of bad now, because I hate to make you disappointed. However, I really did think that you should have “informed consent” about what you were getting into.
Don’t feel bad. There’s nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of, and there’s no reason to feel stupid. Shannon Kroner and Britney Valas oozed sincerity, and I do believe they are sincere, just incredibly misguided. They really do think that putting several antivaccine cranks on stage with real scientists is “balance.” (Of course, they don’t view the antivaxers as cranks.) Let’s put it this way. I’m naturally suspicious of this sort of thing, and they almost had me convinced that attending might not have been as horrible an idea as I usually think it is.)
The problem, of course, is that discussing vaccines with people like Del Bigtree, Sherri Tenpenny, and Toni Bark is a highly specialized skill; even people who make their living researching vaccines aren’t necessarily good at it. The reason, of course, is that they really believe their misinformation and they are convinced vaccines are harmful. To convince the audience of that they’ll distort, cherry pick, and misrepresent without even realizing they’re doing it. If you’re not intimately familiar with the sorts of bogus arguments they make, you don’t stand a chance. Even I hesitate to go into a situation like that. Of course, the kicker is that Bigtree and I are pretty much enemies, and there was no way they could get me on a stage with him no matter who else was there.
I’m curious, though. How did they pitch this to you? How did they get you interested? Alzheimer’s disease, while fascinating, isn’t a natural area to be discussing on a panel about vaccines, although there is an antivaccine myth out there that the flu vaccine and “heavy metals” from vaccines cause Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Roe confirmed my suspicions:
Oh please don’t feel bad. Feel happy that you saved me! Once I watched a couple of the videos you sent, I was out. Appalled. They did not make it clear to me that this was an anti-vaccine forum. I kept telling them that I didn’t know much about immunology, and what I could talk about – which was the development of preclinical and symptomatic AD. They kept saying that was fine. They did bring up the issue of aluminum, but I told them that honestly, I didn’t really know the literature regarding that (probably because there is hardly any literature!) and wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about it. They seemed perfectly cool about me talking just about AD.
In fact, toward the end of the call I actually asked, “Is this a friendly panel?”, and they both rushed to assure me that it was, and that everyone would behave very nice and politely. After seeing that Bigtree guy, I was like – NO WAY is that guy going to behave. I also suck at debating (as my high school teachers will attest to). Plus, I get really irritated at Facebook friends and family who send that anti-vaccine garbage around.
I think that you are right that they are probably sincere in their beliefs, but I will tell you that I felt duped after the information you sent. They were not straightforward with the purpose of the event.
I’ll give Dr. Roe credit. She quickly figured Del Bigtree out after just a little exposure to him. He’s a grandstanding blowhard and demagogue. She’s right. No way would he have “behaved,” no matter how much the organizers urged him to. As predicted, when One Conversation actually occurred, it was a total antivaccine crankfest. There were a couple of more emails, but the above gives the gist. As I tried to reassure Dr. Roe the other day by email, Shaw wasn’t after her. He was after me. Dr. Roe did absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, nor was there anything embarrassing in her emails, unless you count the realization that she had been persuaded under what now look to me like false pretenses to be a participant. She felt deceived and used, with good reason in my not-so-humble opinion. Worse, as she informed me recently, she’s gotten some fairly abusive, threatening emails from antivaxxers outraged that she had dropped out of One Conversation.
That still leaves the question of how Shaw even got the emails. I realized it a little later. I had cc’d Dorit Reiss, and it was my mistake that I had done so using her university email address. It is a mistake I now regret, because it caused Dr. Roe consternation. In any event, it turns out that earlier this year antivaccine activist Del Bigtree’s Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN) filed a broad FOIA request for Prof. Reiss’ emails. Here is the actual request. I wasn’t sure at first how this might have nabbed the emails between Dr. Roe and myself, though, as the request only mentions “Orac.” Then I saw that it included the search terms “Del” or “Michigan,” among others. That probably explains how our email exchange was flagged.
The bottom line is simple. Antivaccine cranks like Christopher Shaw and Del Bigtree don’t have science on their side (quite the opposite, in fact), and their antivaccine beliefs are rooted in conspiracy theories. That leaves only the techniques of denialism, including distorting and cherry picking existing science, trying to elevate their pseudoscience by finding ways to appear with real scientists and thus paint a false picture that their assertions and conclusions are on par with actual science (or at least credible enough to be taken seriously, even though they are not), and to attack and try to intimidate opponents. As I said, Bigtree and Shaw’s use of emails obtained from abusive FOIA requests were directed at me and other vaccine advocates in order to build a narrative of a vast conspiracy meant to silence antivaccine advocates and prevent real scientists from associating with them in conferences. They were after me, not Dr. Roe, and I can handle it, given that I’ve been handling it for nearly 16 years now. So can Prof. Reiss.