In the lead up to the Woodford Folk Festival the pros and cons of allowing Meryl Dorey to speak on vaccination received ample coverage.
The concern was quite straight forward. Meryl Dorey has a track record of misleading the public to sway people away from vaccination, a proven record of misappropriating funds and scamming her members, harassing grieving parents of babies deceased from vaccine preventable disease and is the subject of a NSW Health Care Complaints Commission Public Health Warning.
Meryl also refuses to engage her critics and despite being shown in error time and again, continuing to repeat untruths. Lastly, she gives voice to selective and bogus information in order to discredit the science of vaccination. We are in the middle of a serious pertussis epidemic and Meryl has a well rehearsed ditty that confuses people with dodgy figures and blatant untruths.
This was not an issue of free speech, but one of community responsibility. Very serious responsibility.
Despite Meryl’s extraordinary claim that the Australian Skeptics “say we don’t have freedom of speech and you don’t have a right to say no (to vaccination)”, it is a distortion of the facts. A successful 2009 complaint to the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission, submitted by Ken McLeod had posed under item 5 page 6, Is the AVN protected by a right of free speech? After noting the lack of constitutional protection and citing legal precedents it concluded:
So, in Australia, one is entitled to free speech provided that one does not harm an individual or society in general.
Ms. Dorey responded extensively to this in her reply (pages 9 – 12), citing a number of High Court cases involving the running of government. Dorey argued that the AVN was engaged “in ʻpoliticalʼ discussion”, and that “freedom of communication on matters of government and politics”, included material produced by the AVN.
Having awarded herself this spectacular promotion her conclusion did quite naturally, “confirm that the HCCC has a constitutional obligation” not to implement the provisions of the Health Care Complaints Act to the detriment of the AVN. Dorey’s defence was dismissed and the complaint upheld.
This is the genesis of the “they suppress my right to free speech” myth. Mr. McLeod is not a member of any skeptic organisations or groups in Australia. Australian Skeptics have never endorsed in word, deed or by association any notion that could be construed as opposition to free speech. Ms. Dorey has subsequently scurrilously inferred this for malicious intent.
Strikingly, whilst arguing that the AVN holds the same importance as individuals involved in the running of government, Dorey failed to address the key outcome of McLeod’s self imposed query: [That] In Australia one is entitled to free speech, provided that one does not harm an individual or society in general.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. Dorey spent six times as much text unsuccessfully refuting McLeod’s conclusion, as he did formulating it. At no point does she argue that the AVN does not harm an individual or society in general. As a refutation it seeks to argue that the AVN has a constitutionally protected right to speak how it chooses regardless of consequences to aforementioned individuals and society.
As for a chronology of the Australian Skeptics’ genuine involvement in challenging claims made by the AVN, we can look back to issue 2 of The Skeptic 2005, and the article by Ken McLeod: “Anti-Vaccination Ratbaggery”. In March 2009 Toni and David McCaffery lost their 4 week old daughter, Dana, to pertussis. Unaware of the AVN’s existence the McCaffery’s made a public plea for parents to educate themselves on the dangers of vaccine preventable disease. At the same time Meryl Dorey contended that the public was being misled, seeking access to Dana’s medical records and confirmation of cause of death.
On August 5th 2009 Australian Skeptics published a page dedicated to evidence based information on vaccination. On Thursday August 6th, 2009 The Australian ran a full page advertisement funded by Dick Smith Foods criticising the AVN and urging parents to seek reputable information.
By early September 2009 Channel 7’s Sunday Night programme ran two episodes on pertussis and vaccination. The first, A Mother’s Choice looked at the story of the McCaffery’s and featured interviews with Meryl Dorey. In the second, a forum, it was confirmed that the McCafferys had been targetted with hate mail by The AVN. Asked about qualifications, Meryl contended that she “had a brain” and had researched vaccination for 20 years.
Although morally supported in the studio by members of Australian Skeptics, it was the personal and invasive nature of the AVN’s comments toward the McCaffery’s that motivated an individual, Daniel Raffaele, to form a Facebook page called Stop The Australian Vaccination Network. It is not funded by, nor is it a “sub-group” of Australian Skeptics. Whilst popular with some skeptics it is not an exclusively skeptic venture.
Later that year the Australian Skeptics awarded Ms. Dorey the 2009 Bent Spoon Award for the traditional annual celebration of the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle. The honour table presently reads:
2009: Meryl Dorey and the deceptively named Australian Vaccination Network, who spread fear and misinformation about vaccines
The McCaffery’s received the first Fred Thornett Award for the “promotion of reason”. The following year the Fred went to Ken McLeod and Wendy Wilkinson who had contributed to Stop The AVN in individual ways, realising unique outcomes. Namely the NSW HCCC public health warning against the AVN and the NSW OLGR revoking the AVN’s Charitable fundraising licence. The Skeptic Of The Year award, went to Stop The AVN itself.
It is likely that around September 2009 that the AVN turret swung in the direction of Australian Skeptics. Certainly the 2009 Merit Awards (particularly the Bent Spoon), a number of articles in The Skeptic over 2010, and the 2010 Merit Awards themselves galvanised AVN opposition to all things skeptical. Since then salvos of misinformation which attempt to portray Stop The AVN and Ms. Dorey’s individual critics as “a sub-group” of Australian Skeptics, who are also accused of being antidemocratic, have continued unabated.
But blaming “the skeptics”, Australian Skeptics or continually claiming (as in the audio below) that Stop The AVN is funded by “the mother ship”, Australian Skeptics does nothing but divert attention away from the real issue. Meryl wants to be seen as persecuted, as silenced by unseen forces, and aware of your enemy. That way she must be right because they are so very wrong. Evidence need not come into it. Action can be initiated by invoking assumed malignant motives attached to the word “skeptic”.
By linking suppression of free speech to Skeptics and repeating gems such as “They [Skeptics] say people aren’t smart enough to hear both sides of the argument”, it creates an entirely false dynamic that suggests there is another side to proper health care and the scientifically literate are hiding it. It’s the vaccine equivalent of tacitly urging people to cut off their nose to spite their face.
Individuals who may speak or write as part of their professional life, and also happen to comment or offer advice on the Stop The AVN Facebook page are targetted for their views and awarded “membership” of Australian Skeptics by Ms. Dorey. You may ask why. The answer is quite simple. By convincing potential supporters an enemy is mobilising forces against them – terms Dorey actually uses fictitiously against “the skeptics” and SAVN – it is easier to rally support or motivate people to act without thinking critically.
Let’s take one recent example. A physician wrote a piece on the topic of patient health choice vs risk. Vaccination was not mentioned. Health authorities know that with the success of medical science rare adverse events are now more common than the diseases and problems that filled cemeteries with young mothers, infants and children only half a century ago. Yet this piece had a poll. A poll on choice. Dorey wanted to influence that poll. So, here’s what she wrote to her members:
[Redacted] is a member of both Stop the AVN and the Australian Skeptics. She has just written an article for the [redacted] which I believe is free online (text below), there is also a poll asking whether doctors should support a patient’s health choice even if they disagree with it. At the present time, 50% of those who have answered say no! That is frightening! i (sic) think if this poll is representative of most doctors, they should have a refresher course in what it means to be a health advisor rather than a health dictator.
Some nastiness on AVN’s Facebook page accompanied this. More so quite some assumption is being made. Not only is the article open to the public (anyone can vote) many doctors who defend conventional medicine also strenuously defend a patients right to choose. Ethics is perhaps not Meryl’s best subject. Eventually this was brought to the attention of the physician who, clearly not ruffled, went through the motions of seeking clarification:
Ms Dorey, I am not, and have never been a “member of Australian Skeptics.” I await your correction and apology. (Unless, of course, you were talking about somebody else, rather than just misspelling my name).
Apart from individuals there are many blog posts and Facebook diatribes attacking “Australian Skeptics” or just “skeptics” for suppressing free speech, to not being actual skeptics, to being “pathological skeptics” for not seriously accepting the possibility of aliens. This silliness espouses ignorance of skeptics. It is not the existence of aliens that skeptics find difficult to accept. It is the quality of the current evidence for the existence and activities of aliens that has been proven unworthy time and again.
Much like that being exhumed over and again to challenge vaccine safety.
From a woman who likens court ordered vaccination to rape with full penetration, labelling vaccines “instruments of death” and claims that trusting ones doctor is “like telling a hen to trust a fox or like telling a five-year-old to trust a paedophile”, it would seem rational discourse is far from an option. Particularly when she then fictitiously claims on air to be bipartisan, and says, “we advise people to go to their doctors”.
Yet, I’m not really interested in these not infrequent outbursts at present. It is the calculated hammering of Australian Skeptics as being involved in the removal of choice, or suppression of free speech. These accusations are of course, untrue. Skeptics may seek to change minds with evidence. Yet using abusive or oppressive means of argument (evidence based or not) will drive people away, not leave them thinking.
Many requests for transparency on this point have been sent to Ms. Dorey. Most SAVN members and administrators are not associated with Australian Skeptics or the skeptic movement. Today it may function like a small organisation but time is given voluntarily and funding is from the pockets of a core group of members. SAVN does not accept any funds or readily collect donations despite claims to the contrary from Ms. Dorey:
The big question is why put so much focus on persecution? Surely the way to silence critics is just to knuckle down and get to work. Produce this “medical literature” that supports rejection of vaccine efficacy and safety. Yet there is none. Therein lies the problem. Challenging Meryl Dorey with hard evidence and arguments that undermine her claims will always be met with silence.
It is far better for her to define her apparent worth by inventing malignant intent in others. This is exactly what we saw in the lead up to Woodford. Time and again this specter of a well funded sub-group of Australian Skeptics who insist Aussies have no right to free speech was raised.
As critics of George W. Bush learned the hard way, calls for evidence and reason fall on many deaf ears when supporters are convinced an enemy is working toward obscure ends. The claim that Australian Skeptics invest significantly in opposing the AVN as part of a larger plan to impose skeptical views upon society and remove individual choice, serves admirably to draw attention away from the reality.
As for defamation, that does pose a fascinating intellectual exercise. Defamation in Australia focuses upon the individual:
You can defame someone if you say something false about them which spoils their good reputation, which makes people want to avoid them or which hurts them in their work or their profession.
Under the old system of individual state laws, almost anyone or any organisation or company could bring an action for defamation. However, under the Uniform Defamation Law, corporations with 10 or more employees cannot sue. However, be warned that individuals or groups of individuals employed by or associated with that corporation – such as company directors, CEOs or managers – can still sue if they are identified by the publication.
Not-for-profit organisations can still sue for defamation, no matter how many employees or members they have.
Perhaps Meryl Dorey had the foresight to sketch out her defence against being defamatory long ago. From page 10 of the AVN reply to the HCCC, is this part of her reply to Mr. McLeod’s query on free speech:
The High Court has determined that any common law or statutory remedy for defamation may not be granted if its exercise would infringe upon the freedom to discuss government and political matters that the Constitution impliedly requires.
Further, the courts have found that a statute that diminishes the rights or remedies of persons defamed and correspondingly enlarges the freedom to discuss government and political matters is not contrary to this constitutional implication. The common law rights of persons defamed may be diminished by statute but they cannot be enlarged so as to restrict the freedom required by the Constitution.
This means that all statutes (whether state or commonwealth) that purport to define the law of defamation are construed so that they conform with the Constitution. Where such provisions are inconsistent with the Constitution, they are invalid to the extent of that inconsistency.
The ego is breath taking is it not? From so important as to lord over the law of the land to so persecuted the nasty skeptics seek to stop her speaking. Dorey manages it all.
So, the “why” is rather clear. Inventing persecution at the hands of “the skeptics” makes this an emotional issue. It fires up other people who aren’t aware of all the facts. It fills valuable time during which Dorey may be questioned about evidence. It draws conspiracy theorists like Tiga Bayles and Helen Lobato out of the woodwork, eager for a sample. Wonderfully, it gives them someone to blame.
It gives false credence and a reason to hearing her speak. It eliminates her having to explain a massive litany of misconduct and financial mismanagement to her members. It gives a senseless reason to members to run to her rallying call. It breaks down critical thought in followers and propagates simple reaction. They need not know why they are acting, only who they are acting against. And that requires very little effort on Dorey’s part.
“The skeptics say white. Go forth and say ______”.
- Audio out-take from 3CR with Helen Lobato December 2011.
- Let’s Talk with Tiga Bayles, December 19th 2011.
- December 29th 2012 at Woodford.