Dealing with the Brian Martin dilemma

Recently Brian Martin a Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong, published an article in Health Promotion International.

Dealing with dilemmas in health campaigning appears to be a bipartisan analysis of social dynamics and some areas of public health. However whilst Martin relies upon science and methods employed by the scientific community to sustain his argument he demonstrates his signature ignorance of the scientific method and the import of evidence.

In short Martin has continued his campaign to elevate supporters and perpetrators of scientific fraud, pseudoscience, censorship, personal vitriol, calculated deception and dangerous scams to the status of legitimacy. Rather than admit his role in supporting and coaching Australia’s premier anti-vaccination lobby, Martin hides this affiliation behind:

I give a few examples, especially from the vaccination controversy in Australia.

I selected the dilemmas discussed here based on my studies of a large number of public controversies, including informal conversations with prominent as well as lower-profile campaigners. […]

A key aim of this paper is to make these dilemmas explicit so they can be given the scrutiny they deserve.

Health campaigners today face intractable ideological devotion manifesting as evidence denial. The resistance of certain scientifically durable realities that play important roles in the maintenance of public health, is commonly presented as “the other side”. In fact cursory examination reveals malignant intent, bogus information, illegal pursuits, frequent monetary scams and outright fraud.

Certain areas have become key targets of a persistent opposition that uses pseudoscience, conspiracy theory, evocation of public fear and the exploitation of scientific ignorance in an attempt to mask ideological persuasion as legitimate science. Whilst the intellectual paucity of these proposals are immediately apparent to scientists, and consequently dismissed out of hand, the mechanisms behind why this is so are not apparent to the lay reader.

As such, scientists face a dilemma in managing, preventing or containing what may be a disproportionately negative effect on public confidence in crucial areas of health policy. The problem with engaging vested interests that promote pseudoscience and scientific denial is that the risk of lending legitimacy to demonstrably false contention, is significantly heightened when recognised scientists (or health authorities) respond.

On the one hand the public have a right to expect reputable authorities address falsehoods in a transparent manner. On the other hand, notions such as the scientific method, scientific consensus, the impact of evidence and abuse of statistics is poorly understood by the general public. Understanding risk-benefit is a skill the largely scientific illiterate public in developed nations lack. Poor, and at times, irresponsible reporting by media outlets compounds this problem.

Recently a bogus claim by Natasha Bita of The Australian drew immediate condemnation from Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration. Influenza vaccination has been conclusively linked to no deaths in Australia. However Bita misused information from the Database of Adverse Event Notifications, to insinuate ten deaths were “linked to anti-flu vaccine”. Meryl Dorey, president of the anti-vaccination group Martin is a member of has been continually pushing the falsehood launched by Bita.

Interestingly in another of his articles, Suppressing Research Data: Methods, Context, Accountability, and Responses Brian Martin offers an excellent account of Dorey’s conduct:

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 he’s referring to publishers, the above paragraph adequately describes how Dorey conducts herself. In Dealing with dilemmas in health campaigning, Martin raises the prospect that not engaging anti-science proponents such as anti-vaccination lobbyists may have a negative effect on public perception. Yet the complex reality of how adverse reactions are reported, accepted, documented and how they must be interpreted would be lost on the bulk of the public. The catchy, but false, ten deaths linked to anti-flu vaccine would have an impact.

More so, placing a callous, dishonest, unqualified opportunist such as Dorey alongside a genuine health authority creates the illusion that there actually is a debate to be had. Worse is that the individual lies and tricks of the anti-science identity by extension gain credibility. As I note below new research reinforces that opponents to public health and even the myths they create are best ignored when seeking to address they mess they’ve created.

Consequently, engaging such extreme minority views can be detrimental to public confidence and rather than removing respect for ideological falsehoods may well create an impression of legitimacy. Given his affiliations it is almost certain Brian Martin seeks to do exactly this in his article.

In fact the above quote splendidly describes Martin’s own generalised distortion of data. A suitable example follows. Rather than tackle the disparity between anti-vaccination propaganda and say, the risk of flying, driving, overseas travel or any day to day task he writes:

Supporters of vaccination emphasize the large benefits from being vaccinated, notably a reduction in disease, including associated deaths and disabilities. They also emphasize the social benefits, due to herd immunity, from high levels of vaccination (Andre et al., 2008). That is straightforward. But is it wise to mention that a small number of individuals will have adverse reactions, including death and permanent disability?

The advantage of sticking to positives and not admitting shortcomings is that the message is much more powerful. ‘Vaccines are safe’ is far more reassuring than ‘Vaccines are nearly always safe’. ‘Vaccines are safe’ is also clear and uncomplicated and hence far easier to sell. Furthermore, any admission of weakness is likely to be seized upon by opponents and trumpeted far and wide.

Unsurprisingly the second paragraph is without citation. What Martin is doing is constructing a faux dilemma that resonates with poor appreciation of risk-benefit. The fact is vaccines are safe. They are monumentally safe and to use such a vague term as “nearly always safe” conveys a risk-benefit somewhat more dangerous than riding high speed motorcycles on city streets.

To then suggest without breaking stride the proper description of vaccine safety makes them “far easier to sell”, is simply outrageous. This is exactly the sort of bogus information I mentioned above. It is the perpetuation of the malignant untruth that vaccines need a market and supporters of vaccines will pursue this. At one point we read an equally outrageous slur on scientists:

The most common way to deal with vested interests on one’s own side is not to mention them, relying on the belief held by scientists that they are objective, so it does not matter if corporations offer research funding and perks.

Recent research into debunking myths has underscored the perils of not only engaging proponents of evidence denial, but of simply repeating the myth itself. This material may help explain why, on the topic of scientific dissent, Brian Martin continues to give unjustified credence not only to soundly scientifically refuted notions (fluoride in drinking water, vaccination, conspiracy theory put forward as “vested interests” and even HIV/AIDS denialism), but also to the view that a “debate” may be legitimate.

Indeed not only are terms such as “debate” entirely inaccurate in a scientific sense, they at once distract from the true dynamics at play and arguably with tragic consequences, lend even more false legitimacy to what is essentially pseudoscience, abuse of science and denial of evidence.

Martin continues to place anti-science lobby groups on equal footing with public health authorities or refer to unqualified saboteurs of public confidence as “citizen campaigners” seemingly simply raising legitimate concerns. This fails to acknowledge scientific consensus, its import and value to community health, and its dependence upon the rigours of the scientific method.

In short Martin demonstrates an alarming ignorance of the scientific method and its ability to expunge in totality such ill conceived ideas that “debate” rightly applies to numerous areas of outright denial of evidence. Martin is a financial member and published supporter of Meryl Dorey’s anti-vaccination group and the PhD supervisor of radical anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist, Judy Wilyman. Yet again he has labelled volunteers who deconstruct the harmful messages of Meryl Dorey to suit himself.

Thus it is right and just to call into question Brian Martin’s acceptance or not of moral responsibility. Prior to this article he was furnished with ample facts that he’s chosen to ignore despite claiming to have been in discussion with participants. Clear demonstration of the bogus claims of the AVN that impact heavily on his subject material have been omitted. Impartiality is clearly irrelevant if not inconvenient to Brian Martin.

Amusingly he again raises the silliness of Dorey’s obsession with global conspiracies as an apparent fiction invented by her critics. After a frustrating exchange of emails over a year ago I demonstrated that yes, in their own words the AVN do believe in vaccine delivered microchips and global culling. I’m quite surprised he saw fit to republish such a ridiculously irrelevant aspect to this ongoing saga.

More seriously, the scientific community would quite rightly be justified to review reference to the bulk of scientific methodology and accepted consensus as “the dominant paradigm” or “the dominant epistemological position” in dismissive terms. Whilst it is true that scientific findings remain always open to further inquiry and challenge, this process cannot be jump-started by suggesting evidence denial constitutes scientific “debate” or that the very methods and practices that led to The Enlightenment constitute a “paradigm”.

It can be far more adequately argued that proponents of pseudoscientific beliefs and evidence denial have not, over the entire course of their existence, altered scientific consensus as it pertains to their chosen ideology. This is especially true of anti-vaccination, anti-fluoridation, alternatives to medicine and the denial of HIV/AIDS.

In this light we can see such groups as disempowered and effectively divorced from scientific and genuine skeptical inquiry. With no evidence to further their belief structure or force their ideology into reality we witness a constant recycling of well documented falsehood. This is backed by predictable contrariness that is more and more prone to argue their evidence is not flawed, but suppressed or censored by a covert conspiracy. Needless to say this has never been demonstrated.

Alienated, irrelevant and left to defend overwhelmingly debunked and thoroughly refuted notions, those incapable of accepting this reality predictably lash out and attack conventional science in an increasingly extremist fashion. Clearly these groups crave acceptance by the scientific community as they continue to use scientific terminology and mimic scientific research, discussion and reasoning.

However since their inception they have never once produced material that is accepted as genuine research or conclusive evidence. Their modus operandi is to shirk genuine research and produce bogus reviews they falsely label as “critiques”. These are carefully produced selections of cherry picked data presented with a false argument.

In addition they rely overwhelmingly on the alarmist and pseudoscientific work of a small number of faux professionals, whose greatest skill is the abuse of science – not its application.

This impasse has been manifestly apparent for many years. Thus far from accepting these groups have any legitimate contribution to make it should be stressed that the areas they continue to challenge are indeed settled scientifically. Yet Martin writes:

Supporters of the dominant position often say that the existing research base is more than sufficient to conclusively support their stand. Sticking with this claim has the advantage of not admitting weakness. It also can have an economic justification: unnecessary research is avoided.

The disadvantage of rejecting calls for more research is that the critics have a continual source of complaint. When critics have little capacity to undertake their own research—at least research requiring substantial funding—they can portray the defenders of orthodoxy as stonewalling in the face of legitimate doubt.

Again this is manufacturing a dilemma. With respect to vaccination health authorities have gone to extreme lengths researching, and continue to research, every possible adverse reaction or problem with vaccines. The research called for is today unethical and methodologically impossible. Other research demanded has already been conducted. Yet the goal posts are continually moved.

Consequently it is regrettable that certain authors appear to go to extreme lengths to cast denial as genuine dissent whilst insinuating that science has, and will, progress from those who consistently attack the process that does not produce the results they seek.

It should be noted Martin’s article has clearly been firmly edited away from his usual obvious slant in praise of scientific dissent. Its overall tone is seemingly reasonable. Nonetheless that’s not the real point.

Brian Martin has again shown he will be deceptive in the pursuit of his own interests.

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About @advodiaboli
I'm not really a cast iron flying pig.

2 Responses to Dealing with the Brian Martin dilemma

  1. Ken McLeod says:

    I would go further than the above. Two years ago, Martin sent to me a draft of an article critical of me that he intended to publish, and asked for my comments. I saw that the article was in need of major corrections and advised him I would get back to him with comments and corrections.

    He then published without waiting for my response. In doing so, he demonstrated quite clearly that he was hypocritical and dishonest.

    His persistence in claiming that we untruthfully assert that Meryl Dorey engages in conspiracy theories involving aliens, after we have given him the proof, shows that he is a liar.

  2. Pingback: What SAVN doesn’t want you to read, reviewed | Losing In The Lucky Country

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