False Balance: Where dissidence does not belong

Due weight.

Two simple, but arguably very important words in that they can be found in the Editorial Guidelines of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Journalistic guidelines regularly refer to due impartiality, and rightly so. Consumers subject to the bias of reporters are in for something like the pure fancy that comes from End Time Radio, Natural News or (where “freedom of choice is not free”) Vaccination News.

Under Impartiality – Breadth and Diversity of Opinion, the BBC Guidelines include:


Across our output as a whole, we must be inclusive, reflecting a breadth and diversity of opinion.  We must be fair and open-minded when examining the evidence and weighing material facts.  We must give due weight to the many and diverse areas of an argument.

Under Impartiality – News, Current Affairs and Factual Output:


News in whatever form must be treated with due impartiality, giving due weight to events, opinion and main strands of argument.  The approach and tone of news stories must always reflect our editorial values, including our commitment to impartiality.

The reason I’m focusing on the BBC is because of a direct link to false balance. Australia’s ABC have no parallel and our Australian Broadcasting Standards don’t contain specific attenuation of minority views getting a free ride on the coat tails of the prevailing or scientific consensus. That’s not to say either set of standards is not a useful device in underscoring or complaining about the mess of false balance. It’s just that the BBC have shall we say… history.

Presenting Wonders of the Solar System in 2010, Professor Brian Cox was explaining the impact Jupiter’s gravity has on Earth. He delightfully included in his narration, “Despite the fact astrology is a load of rubbish…”. Dedicated followers of woo complained. One stressed Cox didn’t allow the “alternative opinion”. And before you smirk dear reader, it is that astrologers use “observation and knowledge built over thousands of years”. Oooh yeah. They haz Appeal to Antiquity.

Cox provided a statement to the BBC, which they decided not to publish.

I apologise to the astrology community for not making myself clear. I should have said that this new age drivel is undermining the very fabric of our civilisation.

This example of how complete nonsense is put forward as equal, or even superior, to schools of thought and theories that are in fact completely settled opens the December 2011 BMJ Editorial by Trevor Jackson, When balance is bias. [Dropbox] [BMJ 2011;343:d8006 doi:10.1136/bmj.d800].

The BBC asked Prof. Steve Jones, emeritus professor of human genetics at University College London, to review the BBC’s impartiality and accuracy of their coverage of science. As one might guess from scanning Australian and British journalistic codes with their liberal peppering of “impartiality”, it was the impact of “due impartiality” that worried Jones. He found the guidelines:

… had a distorting effect, creating a sense of equivalence where there was none, and privileging maverick and dissident views so that they appeared as valid as established scientific fact.

Jones found in areas of science that journalists risked giving the impression there were two equal sides to a story when there were certainly not. By insisting to bring “dissident voices” into settled debates within science, the BBC was guilty of giving an unbalanced view to these same areas.

Jackson’s editorial notes the disastrous effect Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent paper had on the uptake of MMR is in part due to media impartiality. The BMJ reported in 2003 on a study that indicated the media effectively misled the public.

The BBC reported in part:

Most people wrongly believed that doctors and scientists are equally divided over the safety of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, according to new research carried out during the high profile public debate over the vaccine last year.

At the height of the media coverage the impression was created that medical scientists were split down the middle over the vaccine’s safety, including reports of links with autism, say the study’s authors, from Cardiff University.

The report found that 53% of those surveyed at the height of the media coverage assumed that because both sides of the debate received equal coverage, there must be equal evidence for each.

It said only 23% were aware that the bulk of evidence favoured supporters of the vaccine. The authors said their survey would revive the debate about media coverage of MMR and how journalists deal with “minority voices” within science.

The belief that scientists were divided over the safety of MMR was a direct result of journalists seeking balance and led to what we now know as false balance. Face palmingly, head deskingly, infuriatingly, unacceptably in the case of vaccines, it is still underway today. Even worse journalists are dusting off long settled topics and where they should be stressing deception, suggest “debate”. In the video below an individual who is effectively a public health menace was appallingly labelled as an “expert”.

Even if these terms are not utilised in the straight out fashion Channel 7’s Weekend Sunrise recently did, everything is in place for the public to be misled into thinking actual scientific dissent exists over the safety and benefit of vaccination. Indeed today, the moral bankruptcy that accompanies antivaccinationists exceeds those who were taken in by Wakefield. The science is clear. There is no debate to be had. This places the antivaccinationist in a very unique position. A position of denial and deception buttressed by repeated claims of corporate conspiracies and so-called natural alternatives.

This latter rubbish is fed to the public because the natural enemy of the anti-vaccine commentator is scientific consensus. Given an opportunity to deceive the public the antivaccinationist can now introduce a host of irrelevant and false claims which in the context of an interview will create doubt in the minds of the public. In the video below Weekend Sunrise have an unqualified, science illiterate, conspiracy theorist effectively presenting nonsense in response to advice from the Director of Australia’s National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance.

Thanks to Channel 7 and @sunriseon7 members of the public may well have been misled. Farmer’s wife Meryl Dorey wants to “extend the hand of friendship” to the NCIRS and conduct a study into vaccinated vs unvaccinated. Yes that meaningless, shrivelled old cherry again. Quite simply it leaves a scam artist looking as though they have skill when they don’t and offering one side of a balanced debate, when in fact that debate simply doesn’t exist. There is certainly no need for an impossible study, but the public cannot know this.

The previous point is one scientists need to keep in mind when asked to appear alongside unqualified saboteurs of public health. There’s nothing that can be said in a few minutes that can assuage the damage done by elevating a skilled prevaricator to your own level in the eyes of the public.

Trevor Jackson concludes in his BMJ editorial:

Meanwhile, some science journalism will continue to be weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Until the notion of due weight becomes just as, if not more, important than impartiality in journalism and science reporting, we need to ask ourselves if those without any weight or those advancing scam debates deserve to be heard at all. Clearly, and helped along by the precedents outlined here by reasonablehank, the answer is no.

Channel 7 have previously presented a scientist “debating” a proven anti-vaccine zealot. True, these enemies of reason are challenged by journalists as to the flaws in their beliefs. Yet that is not the issue. The more often members of the anti-science lobby are given a pedestal from which to preach, the larger will be the percentage of the community that believes a genuine topic of scientific dissent exists. As with climate science, fluoride in drinking water, evolution, conventional medicine and more. In the case of vaccination there simply is no debate.

Vaccination saves lives.

Peter McIntyre and Meryl Dorey on Weekend Sunrise


Medical Observer Interview: Dr. Ken Harvey

Former editor of the Medical Journal of Australia and GP Dr Annette Katelaris interviews Dr. Ken Harvey.

Dr. Harvey originally graduated from the University of Melbourne. Initially specialising in infectious disease and medical microbiology Ken’s interest in antibiotic resistance led to a study of the forces that drive prescription. Ken moved to the School of Public Health at La Trobe University to continue his work on medicinal drug policy.

He now holds the position of Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Public Health at La Trobe.

INTERVIEW – CAMs regulation and pharmaceutical industry influence – Assoc Prof Ken Harvey – Obserations

Noted public health advocate Associate Professor Ken Harvey on what’s lacking in regulating complementary medicines, and the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on ‘the hand that writes the script’.

Ken talks about his extensive role in prodding Australia’s regulator of complementary medicines and shortfalls in the present system for regulating these “listed” therapeutic products. He is also asked about the personal impact of holding shonky products, advertising and ultimately – dishonest, unforgiving individuals – to account. Ken’s interest in information technology makes him a welcome source of advice to overhaul the TGA’s Electronic Listing Facility.

For a self confessed “stubborn bastard” in chasing blatant advertising breaches, it’s clear that Australian consumers are in Ken’s debt. Ken holds life membership of the Australian Consumers Association, Choice, and is also a member of their Policy Advisory Group. Dr. Harvey is Chair of Health Action International, Asia Pacific (HAIAP). He was a member of the WHO expert group that drafted their Ethical Criteria for Medicinal Drug Promotion. [22 page PDF]


Or direct download MP3 here. 21 min 13 sec. 21.4 MB
Listen or download file at chirbit.
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Interview Source – © Medical Observer, Sound Cloud. Published August 26th, 2013.



Measles Goddess’ Wrath Hits Victoria

Victorian Chief Health Minister, Rosemary Lester offers 30 seconds of wisdom concerning the present measles outbreak in Victoria:

Or download MP3 here

As an outbreak of measles reaches 10 cases in Victoria we can be certain of one thing.

The misinformation peddled by antivaccinationists over the years will be underscored as just that. Misinformation. From ridiculous to dangerous these snippets of so-called wisdom have included claiming “measles” means “a gift from a goddess” in ancient Sanskrit, to measles being the cause of the growth spurt that happens to correlate with the most common age for childhood infection.

In the first instance a check of the link to Sitala Mataji – originally the smallpox goddess worshipped in Pakistan, Northern India, Nepal and Bangladesh – shows the divine influence to be malignant. Just as Sitala was burned by a carelessly forgotten stove, she randomly picks children in anger and burns them from within to punish the mortal.

Meryl Dorey of the Australian Vaccination Network argues that as just one of the diseases that have “beneficial aspects… prevention may not necessarily be in the best interests of the child”.

Dorey would tell her audience using large slides:

Called “gift from a goddess” in Sanskrit measles can help to mature the immune system, may help to prevent auto-immune illnesses such as cancer, asthma and allergies later in life

In reality the Sanskrit word, “masuurikaa” translates variously as smallpox, measles, eruption of lentil shaped pustules, lentil, and procuress (female procurer). There is absolutely no evidence that infection with wild measles primes the immune system against cancers or allergies. Such claims belong firmly alongside the lie that certain potentially fatal and disabling diseases are “rights of passage”. Regarding pertussis and measles Dorey famously informed a national T.V. audience:

My mother used to put me with all the neighbourhood kids when they got these diseases so we would get them and get them over with and be immune. And there was no fear, there was no worry about it. We just got them, and we were supposed to get them and we did, and we were healthier for them. Now we have a medical community that’s saying if you get measles, if you get whooping cough you’re going to die from it. Well, where is the information from that? You didn’t die from it thirty years ago and you’re not going to die from it today.

In fact with measles the risk of encephalitis is at least 1,000 times greater from measles infection than from vaccination. Prior to the success of mass vaccination:

Measles was once a common childhood disease in Australia, and medical practitioners were well acquainted with the “fever, generalised maculopapular rash, cough and conjunctivitis” syndrome that equated to a measles diagnosis. Measles complications, particularly bronchopneumonia and otitis media in children, were commonplace. With so many cases in the community, relatively uncommon severe complications, including acute encephalitis (1 in 2000 cases), subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (1 in 25 000 cases), and death, were also encountered.

There is nothing “marvellous” about measles as suggested by a despicably misleading book. Aside from the sliding scale of disability cruelly dealt by encephalitis one or two fatalities per thousand infections is normal.

The overwhelmingly positive impact of mass vaccination can be seen in the catch up programme documented here as The Australian Measles Control Campaign, 1998. There are no conflicts of interest declared by the 12 authors.

The Abstract reads:

The 1998 Australian Measles Campaign had as it’s aim improved immunization coverage among children aged 1-12 years and, in the longer term, prevention of measles epidemics. The campaign included mass school based measles-mumps-rubella vaccination of children aged 5-12 years and a catchup program for preschool children. More than 1.33 million children aged 5-12 years were vaccinated at school: serological monitoring showed that 94% of such children were protected after the campaign, whereas only 84% had been protected previously.

Among preschool children aged 1-3.5 years the corresponding levels of protection were 89% and 82%. During the six months following the campaign there was a marked reduction in the number of measles cases in children in targetted age groups.

Six pages in on page 887 of the Bulletin of The World Health Organisation 2001, 79 (9), we find this table:

Notifications_preandpostOzControlCampaignThe authors note that whilst there was no immediate reduction in the number of cases in the six months following the campaign, there was a notable reduction in the age groups targetted by the campaign. Following 1.7 million MMR doses during the campaign, there were 89 Adverse Events Following Immunisation. 80 children followed up recovered without sequelae. Nine could not be followed up due to confidentiality restraints associated with ADRAC. The benefits were not seen in “untargetted” 12-18 year olds.

As one of the largest initiatives in Australia’s immunisation history, the MCC was deemed demonstrably effective. The authors wrote:

Each of the studies in this evaluation confirmed that the campaign was highly successful, particularly among preschool and primary-school children.

Graphed data including the impact of the MCC can also be seen here (Victoria 1962 – 2004) and here (Australia 1991 – 2011). The profound impact of the introduction of a second dose in 1994 is also clear in the second graph.

The two clusters in Victoria currently reflect one distinct arrival from overseas and a source traced to a domestic flight. A disturbing case in S.A. in August 2011 resulted in two distinct warnings stemming from just one overseas arrival. The only reliable defence against jet-setting viruses and wide scale outbreaks is herd immunity.

The need for ensuring oneself is vaccinated against measles goes without saying. Particularly as exposure to someone emigrating or returning from a part of the world where measles is poorly controlled is quite simply a matter of chance. In Measles Immunity in Young Australian Adults, Gidding and Gilbert write in Conclusion:

Based on the most recent national serosurvey data available, there are 2 cohorts with levels of immunity below 90 per cent — those aged under 6 years in 1999 (born in 1994-1999) and those aged 18-22 years in 1996-98 (born in 1974-1980). Only persons aged 30 years and over in 1996-98 (ie born before measles vaccine was available) had immunity levels above 95 per cent.
These results indicate the ongoing need to improve vaccine uptake in infants and suggest that a vaccination campaign targeting young adults would be beneficial.

If we wish to attenuate measles outbreaks to state level – indeed Victoria itself – we can examine a 2005 review by Becker et al. Monitoring measles elimination in Victoria, brings into sharp focus how damaging a drop in herd immunity can be, given that outbreaks – including this one – begin with importation of the virus.

The University of QLD authors sought to use “evidence from outbreak data that Victoria has achieved, and is maintaining, elimination of measles”. They wrote:

Conclusions: The data provide strong evidence that Victoria has maintained elimination of measles over the period 1998 to mid-2003. There is scope to improve the immunisation coverage. It is not clear how much outbreak intervention is contributing to the success in achieving apparent elimination.

Implications: To prevent importations from causing a major epidemic of measles, Victoria must maintain its immunisation coverage and outbreak control at current levels, or better. It is important to monitor the control of measles even when elimination is achieved.

Time and again we see the need to maintain herd immunity via mass vaccination. Lyn Gilbert wrote in June 2011 that researchers have presented evidence that measles has been “effectively eliminated” from Australia, “as well as from Finland, the United States, South Korea, Mexico, Brazil, Canada and Cuba”.

Elimination of measles is a viable goal for a number of developed nations. The stability of elimination has slipped further from our grasp for reasons including increased importation, socioeconomic realities and the feverish efforts of antivaccinationists. Measles is a potentially fatal and entirely preventable disease that also leaves many sufferers with lifelong disability.

It’s a public health disgrace that the measles virus can arrive in Australia to meet willing hosts who have been misled into risking their own or their children’s quality of life. That this is compounded by a demographic that experiences poverty and social trauma is a negative dynamic that health authorities should strive to rectify.

It is important that a calm measured approach is taken in educating the community about the dangers of measles and effectiveness of MMR immunisation. Also, strict and lasting penalties need to be dealt to homeopaths and chiropractors (to name just a few peddlers of alternatives to medicine) who profit from risking the lives of innocent Aussies.

The wrath of the goddess Sitala Mataji is something Aussies can do without.

Denialism: ‘Researching’ the case against vaccines

Some of the most error-laden claims coming from those who deny the safety and efficacy of vaccination are accompanied by the confidence of having done their ‘research’.

However there is no way one could properly research, evaluate or study the risks and benefits of vaccination, and ultimately conclude to deny their children the protection it offers. There is no way one could properly educate themselves on the topic and actively entertain the inaccurate mantras used by anti-vaccine lobbyists. Certainly this so-called research shows no sign of being properly guided or assessed for basics such as structure, source material or conclusion.

In fact that last sentence above could apply to many areas other than vaccination. David Dunning and Justin Kruger hypothesised and successfully demonstrated a cognitive bias linked to intellectual skill. Their conclusions are examined in a 2010 episode of The Science Show. The synopsis opens with: The dumb get confident while the intelligent get doubtful. Whilst the “Dunning-Kruger effect” quite rightly takes its place in examining and explaining the phenomena, it has been noted by great thinkers for centuries.

Take this mother interviewed in a masterpiece of false balance cobbled together by Today show reporter Lauren Ellis. It’s true that the ability to gauge risk is not a natural skill in the absence of education and contemplation. We’re hard-wired to choose being safe over sorry. But one cannot objectively or conclusively “look into” the ‘flu (or any) vaccine and decide against it on that basis. The certainty this woman “studied” misinformation and evidence denial is confirmed by the rest of her comment:

When I looked into the ‘flu vaccine it wasn’t proven to be 100% safe. I made a choice that I was going to do the best that I could do to build up their immune systems through whole foods, active exercise and having a loving and caring environment at home. We actually want to invite those kinds of sicknesses into the body because that’s the body’s natural way of boosting its defences.

Along with overestimating their own level of skill the Dunning-Kruger effect lists the failure of the cognitively-challenged to identify genuine skill in others. Our subject is right on cue, later adding; “I think what we do is we cheat a little bit and we listen too much to the doctors”.

Attempting to take more responsibility for one’s health is by itself a positive trend. However the reality is that through a combination of poor regulation, apathetic accreditation, unchecked claims and lucrative scams, an industry has grown from marketing “wellness” alongside denialism. A vital skill today is that required to recognise reputable sources and source material. There is so much specialty, knowledge and experience attached to individual areas of health and medicine that ascertaining expert advice is essential.

Such a skill – let’s call it a research skill – by no means only applies to the choices we make around health, medicine and alternatives to medicine. But the amount of information is so vast and varied that intellectual tools independent of the information presented are more than likely to serve us well. More so, we are all subject to cognitive biases such as pattern recognition or emotional resonance such that we may easily hijack our attempt at objectivity.

Thus a research skill that values evidence and source, based upon merit, helps keep both ‘researcher’ and material in check. Those fortunate enough to be familiar with the scientific method apply a more complex type of such thinking. Individual topics and subject matter can be quite complex but appreciating the scientific method itself and it’s impact on scientific consensus is well within the grasp of interested individuals. Enter Scientific Denialism, which I’ve already quite purposely mentioned alongside marketing (or promoting/defending aspects) of the “wellness” industry.

Diethelm and McKee presented a Viewpoint piece in the European Journal of Public Health in 2009 entitled; Denialsm: what is it and how should scientists respond? They cite the definition of Mark and Chris Hoofnagle:

The employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists

The Hoofnagle brothers identify five elements of denialism that are employed alone or together. All five can be found with numerous representations emanating from the anti-vaccination sector.

Conspiracy Theories are employed to dismiss scientific consensus arrived at via the peer review process. Granted, the conspiracies advanced by the bulk of anti-vaccination identities go well beyond this goal into rambling nonsense. The Big Pharma Monopoly conspiracy has become a monster of ludicrous proportion. There are examples of unacceptable conduct and flawed research by pharmaceutical companies, that if presented rationally and sparingly might help support criticism of vaccines or their method of use.

Continually serving to delight critics of the anti-vaccination movement in Australia is perpetual “PhD candidate”, Judy Wilyman of Wollongong University. Her thinking, and consequent tone of argument or demand levelled at government, appears crippled by belief in a vast web of conspiracies. Doctors will lie, research conducted by drug companies is by default corrupt, science advocacy groups are motivated to support this corruption – and by extension the member’s arguments are to be dismissed. The government assisted “crime against humanity” of vaccination is helped along by corrupt media and grieving parents relaying “anecdotes” of infant fatality. This is all designed to entrap the community (for whom Judy speaks) using fear and guilt.

Not surprisingly her supervisor is well known for his authorship of scientific denialism. A strident defender of the anti-vaccine and several conspiracy movements, Brian Martin (of Wollongong University) has written frequently on the topic of supposed scientific dissent. He validates the Hoofnagle brothers observation that the peer review process is to the conspiracy theorist a means to suppress scientific dissent. As I’ve noted before, Martin writes in Grassroots Science:

Dissent is central to science: the formulation of new ideas and the discovery of new evidence is the driving force behind scientific advance. At the same time, certain theories, methods, and ways of approaching the world – often called paradigms – are treated as sacrosanct within the professional scientific community. Those who persist in challenging paradigms may be treated not as legitimate scientists but as renegades or outcasts. […]

For example, there are many individuals who have developed challenges and alternatives to relativity, quantum mechanics, and the theory of evolution, three theories central to modern science. […]

Western medical authorities at first rejected acupuncture as unscientific but, following demonstrations of its effectiveness, eventually accepted or tolerated it as a practice under the canons of western biomedicine, rejecting its associations with non-Western concepts of the body. […]

At the same time, some mainstream medical practitioners and researchers are hostile to alternative health. This is apparent in pronouncements that taking vitamin supplements is a waste of money or in police raids on alternative cancer therapists, the raids being encouraged by mainstream opponents.

Many proponents of alternative health say that mainstream medical science is distorted by corporate, government, and professional pressures. In this context, grassroots medical science presents itself as being truer to the ethos of science as a search for truth unsullied by vested interests.

Brian Martin also happens to excel at that exceptional variant of conspiracy theory known as inversionism. Here one’s own tactics and motivation are attributed to critics or those who can justify the antithesis of one’s argument. In Suppressing Research Data: Methods, Context, Accountability, and Responses Martin writes:

Censorship, fraud, and publication biases are ways in which the availability of research data can be distorted. A different process is distortion of the perception of research data rather than distortion of the data itself. In other words, data is openly available, but efforts are made to shape people’s perception of it.

Although this perfectly describes tactics of the anti-vaccination lobby, Martin is writing about what he argues is a regular process in legitimate science and the peer review process.

Diethelm and McKee note that whilst the proper avenue to validate supposed suppression of dissent is ignored by conspiracy theorists, denialism can and does exploit genuine concerns. For our purposes we may note that unethical and dishonest conduct by pharmaceutical companies has indeed occurred. Also the 2006 CSL trial of Fluvax resulted in just one adverse reaction. “Not usually regarded as an adequate signal of a major safety problem”, according to a TGA spokesperson. That single febrile seizure was equal to 0.37% of the study sample. In hindsight a valid predictor of the 0.33% rate of febrile seizures W.A. experienced in April 2010.

Health authorities and practitioners take evident problems with the pharmaceutical industry very seriously. In the case of vaccination it’s perhaps testament to the addition of truly absurd conspiracies and the overlap with New World Order themes that has seen the anti-vaccination lobby squander a potentially effective means to sew their false doubt.

A second feature of denialism is the use of Fake Experts. An excellent example of this is the appalling HIV/AIDS Rethinkers list. If subject to the criteria of listing individuals actually working in the field of HIV from which the theory being “rethought” is sourced, the list would disappear. So it is with the academic integrity of vaccine denialists.

Some such as Meryl Dorey of the Australian (anti) Vaccination Network simply append the title of expert to themselves. All that’s needed is the familiar claim of having “researched” the subject for “twenty years”, whereas doctors (Meryl assures us) study vaccines for only six hours. Few can validate the Dunning-Kruger effect better by insisting smallpox and polio were merely renamed (part of a conspiracy), vaccines certainly cause autism (thousands of documented cases), SIDS, death, shaken baby syndrome and more.

The use of so-called experts who argue in opposition to established knowledge is spread across a diverse field in the case of vaccine denial. Micropalaentologist Viera Scheibner makes much of her title of “doctor”, deceitfully selling herself as a natural scientist who worked for a state authority. A host of chiropractors already in denial of science based medicine see fit to both parrot the standard anti-vaccine rhetoric whilst arguing the immune system can be specifically modulated by chiropractic.

Anti-vaccine groups pay great attention to scam artists such as Dr. Joe Mercola, Mike Adams and Barbara Loe Fisher of the official sounding National Vaccine Information Center. Father and son team Mark and David Geier promote both the belief vaccines cause autism and an abusive hormonal ‘treatment’. They have authored and co-authored a number of papers attempting to link vaccines to autism. Mark Geier has lost his licence to practice in at least 10 USA states.

Sites such as SaneVax or Age of Autism with Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill seek to continue the attack on reputable scientists and research. In Australia the new AVN president Greg Beattie describes himself as an author having produced bogus claims, misleading data and irrelevant mortality graphs whilst the universally condemned Melanie’s Marvellous Measles was written by anti-health zealot, Stephanie Messenger. Any of these, or similar identities along with the nonsense they write may be produced by anti-vaccine lobbyists to ‘refute’ genuine evidence-based knowledge on vaccination.

Cherry Picking or Selectivity is a practice the anti-vaccination lobby relies heavily on. Sadly, their harvest is so woeful that we are continually treated to Andrew Wakefield’s discredited and withdrawn Lancet paper, from which the fallacious association with autism is fuelled. Additionally an unproven handful of purported dishonesty levelled at his most effective critics or their careers hovers about regularly “vindicating” Wakefield. This by extension proves vaccines do cause autism, a conspiracy rages against Wakefield and the fake experts have been right all along.

Of course selective use of material and events can have enormous impact. Imagine the magazine Mothers For Moonbeams publishes a piece on the W.A. Fluvax episode and the impact on Saba Button presented selectively with concerns about the increase in the number of childhood vaccinations. Add the type of nonsense written by Natasha Bita in August 2012 falsely “linking” ten deaths to Australia’s influenza vaccine, to “PhD candidate” Judy Wilyman’s claim that vaccines are full of lethal “toxins”, and readers’ confidence in influenza vaccination can fall.

We constantly hear of vaccine-injury compensation cases involving autism-like symptoms, misrepresentation of the Bailey Banks case or a finding from an obscure Italian court as evidence vaccines really do cause autism. Similar selections can be made for a range of conditions unrelated to vaccination.

Similarly, alternatives to medicine used to “boost immunity” rely on sparse and often irrelevant research into (for example) St. John’s Wort or vitamin deficiency. It will come as no surprise to those familiar with vaccine denialists that Diethelm and McKee note that the towering isolation of the denialists position does not perturb them. Rather they see this as reason to liken themselves to Galileo.

Impossible Expectations from research are used often to create the illusion of doubt or bias. The infamous cry for a study of unvaccinated vs vaccinated children both suggests the efficacy of vaccines has never been properly established, whilst hinting that the unvaccinated are healthier due to the absence of artificial immunity and vaccine toxins. Not only is this absurd from an ethical viewpoint, methodologically it is nonsensical.

In order to correct for the variable of herd immunity, the unvaccinated sample would need to be isolated. In doing so the sample is rendered entirely unrepresentative of the qualities that supposedly need to be tested. More so this research need not be done. The impact of mass vaccination is clear – particularly with the return of diseases following a drop in vaccine uptake.

Gradually the ‘demand’ that vaccines show a 100% rate of safety and efficacy has emerged in more unreasonable quarters. Combined with the inability to acknowledge that as herd immunity drops, both vaccinated and unvaccinated are at increased risk, this impossible expectation ensures the anti-vaccine lobby can ignore basic community responsibility.

Again with alternatives to medicine or seemingly magical ways to fight disease and boost immunity, it is expected that science – or better yet, quantum science – will explain the mechanism behind promises and testimonials.

Finally Misrepresentation and Logical Fallacies are essential tools of the denialist. A very simple, yet highly effective means of misrepresenting the irresponsibility of vaccine denial has been use of the term “pro-vaccinators”. This conveys the impression that not only does a legitimate debate exist but that those unburdened by the delusion vaccination is harmful, may be motivated by ideology or some other non-evidence based reason.

Meryl Dorey of Australia’s AVN frequently insists to have a database listing death and disability from vaccine injury. This same theme of having a vaccine-injured child is presented by individuals both as a reason to attack vaccination and unleash abuse on those who accept vaccine safety. Indeed the correlation as causation fallacy is a primary of the anti-vaccination movement.

Slippery slope, appeal to authority, straw man arguments, inconsistency and more. Logical fallacies abound. Reductio ad absurdum is favoured commonly in explaining that conventional scientists or medical practitioners will defend vaccination because of their position and not the efficacy and safety of vaccines. On the other hand as Judy Wilyman argues, because areas of some affluence may have low vaccination rates this is proof that doctors do not vaccinate their children. Therefore, they are withholding information.

An example of misrepresentation through inconsistency and non-sequiter is the claim that vaccine preventable diseases were under control before mass vaccination. Heavily doctored graphs using the variable of mortality – not incidence or morbidity – peddle the falsehood that vaccines had no effect on disease whilst improved living standards led to their demise.

Bereft of evidence, vaccine denialists place significant energy in convincing their unfortunate devotees that the very fabric of democracy and the right to “health freedom” is under threat. Donate enough money to the AVN and you can save free speech and ensure looming mandatory vaccination is kept at bay. Evoking anger, disgust and suspicion toward those who challenge vaccine denial is a staple of anti-vaccine groups.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

It takes little work to find anti-vaccine articles or identities that present all five aspects of denial in the one argument. Conspiracy theories and fake experts have carved out their own canyon sized themes over the years. Meryl Dorey’s obsession with “real scepticism” and her website aiming to mock scientific skepticism reinforces how effective evidence based deconstruction of her denialism has been.

Ultimately, understanding these tactics and how denialists use them reinforces the argument that accepting to debate a certain topic can be counterproductive. The debater who holds to evidence and argues within the constraints of the scientific method or present consensus, must face an opponent with no regard for truth, logic or bipartisan discourse.

Rather than focus on the topic at hand an effective technique would be to expose the tactics used in vaccine denial. Those engaged in denialism do not deal in evidence or seek to bring about a greater good through the application of truth.

Therefore it’s important that scientific skeptics and health professionals continue to expose vaccine denial for what it is.

As for budding ‘researchers’. They can be rightly satisfied with skills that lead one to reputable source material.

The anti-vaccination lobby’s long history

Hat tip to @BadScienceWatch.

From Jenner to Wakefield: The long shadow of the anti-vaccination movement

From YouTube Description:

In 1998 a medical furore broke out when The Lancet published an article by Andrew Wakefield questioning the benefits of the MMR vaccination which was being given unquestioningly to children throughout the UK.

Coming 202 years after the first vaccination by Edward Jenner, which led to the eradication of smallpox throughout the world, this recent incident is only the latest in a long history of questioning the benefits of vaccination.

From early irrational fears born of outdated medical understanding through to the latest medical research and findings, Professor Gareth Williams traces the history of the anti-vaccination movement and its long tail, reviewing the social settings in which the fears were found and offering a balanced assessment of vaccination as we find it today.

The transcript and downloadable versions of the lecture are available from the on the Gresham College website:

Gresham College has been giving free public lectures since 1597. This tradition continues today with all of our five or so public lectures a week being made available for free download from our website.


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