Risky Business

Recently the Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network emailed members to announce their change of name to Australian Vaccination-risks Network.

The author of the email took the opportunity to falsely attack Australian Skeptics Inc., thoroughly misrepresent the global Skeptics movement and reinforce baseless fears about the risk benefit ratio of vaccines. The email also misrepresented the circumstances via which the Australian Vaccination Network came to have the word “skeptics” inserted into it’s name. As will become clear below the word “risks” could have been chosen by this anti-vaccine group four to five years ago.

The word “risks” was suggested along with “skeptics” by the NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal as a means by which the group could satisfy a request by the NSW Department of Fair Trading. NSW Fair Trading had written to the AVN referencing;

…an increasing number of requests to have NSW Fair Trading amend the name of the Australian Vaccination Network Inc., based on the contention that the name is misleading and deceptive, and therefore undesirable.

The full letter dated August 28th, 2012 is below.


There were ample histrionics from the AVN. Despite the clarity of the correspondence they claimed only the AMA had complained, “- an industry lobby group who obviously feels threatened by the idea that parents might choose not to vaccinate – costing them money”. This was “anti-competitive behaviour” on the part of NSW Department of Fair Trading. Democracy and truth were threatened. The matter was an “abuse of process”. Skeptic blogs began to report on the issue about one hour before media outlets did. Thus, Meryl Dorey conspiratorially queried;

Is there a direct line of communication between the Australian Skeptics, Stop the AVN (SAVN) and government departments?

Which brings us back to the groups’ most recent email, the very tiring attacks on skeptics and the even more tiring contention that Australian Skeptics Inc. is linked to Stop The AVN. It’s worth noting that because of confusion with the official sounding Australian Vaccination Network, the volunteer citizens group Stop The Australian Vaccination Network had prior to the time of NSW Department of Fair Trading involvement changed their name to Stop The Australian (Anti) Vaccination Network.

Now, above I mentioned attacks and misinformation on the part of the Australian Vaccination-risks Network. Let’s continue to call them the AVN. Below is a snap from their email;

It seems quite clear the connotation of the email is that NSW Fair Trading “forced” the AVN to adopt the noun skeptics as part of their name. Worse the noun skeptic is purposefully misrepresented in the context in which it is used, which leads to such ridiculous name calling as “anti-skeptics”.

Let’s examine the misrepresentation of a very basic definition of the word “skeptic” with the term as it is understood by the Skeptic movement first. Then by examining the evidence that Ms. Dorey discarded the option of “risks” to instead choose “skeptics” after losing an appeal against NSW Department of Fair Trading, we will appreciate the deceptive argument that is laid out.

The noun cited above is a very basic, indeed rather limited understanding of the term. In fact by citing this and then immediately referring to the global skeptic movement Ms. Dorey (whom I have little doubt wrote this unsigned email) confirms she is ignorant of the difference between a skeptic and the Skeptic movement. She has completely ignored the importance of evidence and scientific consensus to the Skeptic movement.

Her view of a skeptic as used to attack genuine scientific skeptics would seem to be someone who doubts reality. I have written about this childish abuse of science and philosophy in addressing her blog The Real Australian Sceptics. At that time – May 2012 – Dorey used the exact same definition of the noun “skeptic” as in the email above. The article examines why Dorey and the AVN are in fact pseudo-skeptics, despite her antagonistic habit of using that term to describe skeptics who request she prevent current, reproducible, peer reviewed evidence.

I imagine the inventive ‘those who do not question accepted opinions and attack those who do’, may well reflect the anti-SAVN work of Brian Martin who was initially contacted and misled about apparent attacks, by Ms. Dorey herself. He then published a number of extremely biased pieces, which laden with conspiracy theory, appear to repeat the same conclusion from various angles. Namely that the SAVN and skeptics have bullied and attacked Ms. Dorey. Yet there is absolutely no mention of Dorey producing convincing evidence.

The Skeptical Movement page hosted at Wikipedia has far more suitable definitions under Scientific Skepticism. Note the importance of evidence as opposed to opinion and ideology.

What skeptical thinking boils down to is the means to construct, and to understand, a reasoned argument and, especially important, to recognize a fallacious or fraudulent argument. The question is not whether we like the conclusion that emerges out of a train of reasoning, but whether the conclusion follows from the premises or starting point and whether that premise is true.

— Carl Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World, 1995, p. 197

Science is […] a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along.

A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.

“Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas—no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position.”

Back to the possible choice of “risks” to add to their name. Verily did the AVN appeal the NSW Department of Fair Trading request after proclaiming in the July 20th, 2012 email “The AVN Asks – What’s In A Name”;

The Australian Vaccination Network has no intention of changing its name and any group or government department that believes it has the right to try and force us to do so will find themselves strenuously opposed.

The AVN lost the appeal [ABC]. The full Administrative Decisions Tribunal finding can be found here.

I’d like to draw your attention to the Introduction of Reasons for Decision. A section of Part 3 has been emphasised;

1) The Australian Vaccination Network Inc (AVN) has been directed to change its name. The main reason the Director General of the Department of Finance and Services gave for making that direction was that the name is likely to mislead the public in relation to the nature, objects or functions of AVN. The Director General found that AVN’s message is anti-vaccination and that the name does not reflect that message. Two other reasons the Director General relied on were that the name is “undesirable” and that it suggests a connection with the Commonwealth government.

2) AVN applied to the Tribunal for a review of that decision. I have decided that the decision to direct AVN to adopt a new name is the correct and preferable decision. But my conclusion is not based on a finding that AVN’s message is exclusively anti-vaccination, that the name suggests a connection with the Commonwealth government or that the name itself is undesirable.

3) AVN’s main object is the dissemination of information and opinions that highlight the risks of vaccinations. AVN is sceptical about vaccinations. The existing name, Australian Vaccination Network Inc, suggests that the association is pro vaccination or, at least, is committed to providing comprehensive information and opinions about the pros and cons of vaccination. The name should be changed so that it is not likely to mislead the public in relation to its main object. Although I do not have to decide this issue, a name that includes the word “risk” or “sceptic” such as Vaccination Risk Awareness Association Inc or Vaccination Sceptics Network Inc would, in my opinion, be acceptable. The name could also include the word “Australia” or “Australian” without suggesting a link to government.

Still the choice made by Ms. Dorey and others was the word “skeptics”. They were not forced to use the term. Far from not wanting to be associated with the Skeptic movement it is more likely, given the online attacks by the AVN toward skeptics, that they enjoyed insisting that a true skeptic doubted everything. Their mistake of course is that members of the Skeptic movement are far more interested in seeking evidence and actively exposing charlatans, fraudsters and those who care little for discarding ideology in place of evidence.

Nonetheless there we have it. One simple email and once again members have been lied to. Unfortunately the group will continue to mislead the same members and readers about the risks of vaccines, which are very minor indeed.

  • Please speak to your GP about any safety concerns regarding immunisation
  • Department of Health – Immunisation