Cannabis misinformation and the anti-drug lobby

The most dangerous aspect of drug use is that the chemical becomes the centre of life, leads to physical debilitation after tolerance is reached, and no amount of drug produces the necessary euphoria – only coma or suicide are left

– Herschel Mills Baker (Drug Free Australia)

“Suicide/Schizophrenia: Consequences of acute and chronic cannabis use”

A recent thread on Facebook gave me cause to reflect upon the impact that the anti-drug lobby has had upon community perception of evidence specific to cannabis, its use, abuse and potential.

This perception of course can be traced in part to sensational media headlines following the release of research into the effects of chronic cannabis abuse. Yet the anti-drug lobby has been willingly involved in the perpetuation of self serving and frequently egregious falsehoods that have left inhumane policy sabotage and damaged individuals in their wake. Worse, the very real and well understood problems associated with cannabis abuse have been scattered by the gale of “cannabis psychosis”.

I should stress this is not a pro-drug nor pro-cannabis post. If anything it is a pro-evidence post and I would hope readers can reflect upon the value of evidence in a human rights manner, much as we do in a consumer rights manner. As I suggest under my “About” tab, skeptics make excellent agents of morality because they are agents of evidence. This isn’t to suggest one is endowed with superior morale. Rather, one is bound to reject subjective and predisposed constraints in favour of evidence.

An effective informed policy on cannabis use should not slant only toward the harms caused by its use but also by the harms caused by the social measures/existing policies designed to control or prevent its use. Cannabis is not a hard drug. Cannabis is not a soft drug. Cannabis is a drug, and as such deserves the respect that science and apolitical critiques can bring.

The nonsense above was originally written in 1988 and has been continually polished and rephrased over the years. Its most recent incarnation was Cannabis – suicide, schizophrenia and other ill effects, uproariously tagged “First Edition, March 2009”. Subtitled A research paper on the effects of acute and chronic cannabis use, it is in fact a biased selection of literature. Not research, nor literature review.

Cannabis “potency” is a key driver of fear and a launch pad for ongoing misinformation. This area is fraught with notable disrespect for variables involved. Is “potency” THC content per volume? If so, what strains grown under what conditions provide conclusive answers? Or does one compare the hashish and hash oil of the 1970s and 1980s (at around 20% THC content) with todays plants? If so, what of the famed sinsemilla grown for decades?

DFA choose to refute Australia’s peak illicit drug body, the ANCD, and their “Evidence-based answers to cannabis questions: a review of the literature” (2006), which concluded no significant increase in THC content had occurred. This was challenged by the unqualified lobbyists with a preposterous figure of 30% THC content from an apparent – and unsourced – 1993 Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence claim. Readers were to be very afraid as the equally preposterous and unsourced joint potency from the 1960s was 0.5%

Could this even be true?

In THC content of cannabis in Australia: evidence and implications, Wayne Hall and Wendy Swift reported in 1999:

The major obstacle to testing these claims is that the THC content of cannabis products has not been systematically tested by any Australian police force over the period in which average THC content has been claimed to have increased.

Well, no it appears to be fiction.

So why are DFA misleading the public this way? A primary area of community confusion and angst is the poorly reported association between psychosis and cannabis. The most fallacious is the “puff-puff, go mad” claim. It terrifies parents and this fear can persist in the absence of evidence. I must stress that negative experiences associated with ingesting THC can certainly be exacerbated by ingesting a volume of cannabis that contains more THC than a user is accustomed to. I’m not attempting to refute this possibility. I would add however, that user titration gives control to the cannabis user over the amount ingested. In this light a number of claims pushed by DFA demand criticism.

Primary is that DFA claim that the introduction of hydroponic cannabis (itself a spin-off of prohibition’s failure) brings with it [page 11]:

…a well demonstrated dose-response relationship between cannabis and its related drug-induced psychosis, where the greater amount of cannabis consumed correlates to a higher degree of risk of psychosis any three to fourfold increase is absolutely critical in any assessment of cannabis harms. When it is further considered that changed usage patterns, whereby users smoke only the multiple potent heads of the cannabis plant… the ANCD paper’s approach to potency is of concern.

Again, as we shall see below, this is not backed by evidence. What is drug-induced psychosis in this context? Sure, hydroponic production has provided the equivalent of sinsemilla-type product to users. Yet DFA then go on to cite the ANCD paper which confirms a tripling of THC figures in the USA. Quite correctly there is no reason to suggest this hasn’t occurred here, yet as the paper notes:

…the majority of THC levels in studies of [USA] cannabis seizures have remained under 5%.

So the ANCD conclusion that no evidence exists for huge THC increases in recent decades is valid. If anything users have more of the THC rich component of the plant, and less of the THC poor component. Hydroponics ensures rapid maturation and more flowering (head). Per plant there is more THC rich matter. But that matter is not notably more THC potent.

I hate to excessively mull this over, so to speak, but once again prohibition has placed better drugs for the same price into the hands of Aussie kids.

Let’s consider DFA’s claim that, “users smoke only the multiple potent heads of the cannabis plant”. They are challenging figures from 1970 to 1997. Returning again to Hall and Swift 1999, we see on page 8:

HallandSwift_type of cannabis smoked

So consumption of “skunk” or “super-skunk” that DFA claim is driving kids insane increased as much as leaf in the 14-19 year old group, from 1995-1998. Yet head seems to be the main product. Nonetheless users are not “smoking only multiple potent heads”. Which sounds more scary than just “heads”, one presumes.

Under Changing Patterns of Cannabis Use, Hall and Swift write on page 7:

The media preoccupation with the THC content of cannabis has distracted attention from other causes for concern about changing patterns of cannabis use among Australian adolescents and young adults. These patterns of cannabis use, which may encourage younger users to use more potent forms of cannabis, may also increase their chances of developing problems as a consequence of their cannabis use.

This is of course, exactly the point. By pursuing sensationalism, co-morbid health problems and negative lifestyle changes are frequently ignored. That this has been willingly and eagerly encouraged by groups such as DFA as part of their agenda to encourage blanket illicit drug zero tolerance and the public health damage this brings, is deeply concerning.

In 2009 this manuscript of misinformation was used to lobby independent conservative QLD MP, Peter Wellington to push for the old DFA staple of School Drug Testing. Such tactics are typical of the evangelical crusade waged by this conservative Christian group. The Australian National Council on Drugs concluded in 2007 that SDT was technically unreliable, cost prohibitive, morally and legally problematic, prone to exacerbate problems faced by at-risk children, designed to normalise punitive measures and fraught with false positives.

You can read more here about Drug Free Australia and their campaign against evidence. Or just marvel at a school kid’s drawing of God espousing “be drug free and you’ll be with me”. It isn’t just punitive policies DFA seek but a quite inhumane roll back of Harm Minimisation strategies, particularly those involving harm reduction. Whilst it is unacceptable for young Aussies to be under the impression cannabis is entirely safe, we can see without much effort how a spike in reports on cannabis and psychological harm has been exploited.

Claims that cannabis is supposedly endowed with benign or even beneficial properties because it is “natural” are equally concerning. The notion that if something comes from the earth it’s therefore by default superior to a manufactured pharmaceutical analogue is certainly not backed by evidence.

In fact this point is ripe for confusion about the role of evidence, its import and what might be termed insults from intuitive reasoning. Cannabis use as a recreational drug is defended at times with argument from antiquity. Combined with the “mother earth” line it may sound quite compelling. Like many alternatives to medicine (such as TCM), cannabis is also subject to further defence with argument from antiquity. According to The Mayo Clinic medicinal use can be traced back 5,000 years. Yet a crucial distinction is made here.

Research into the medicinal benefit of cannabinoids or their application as medication is quite different from inhaling cannabis smoke and expecting better health. There is quite a lot of rot about cannabis being medicinally magical. Whilst there is some potential for a rather large range of symptoms and side effects, grasping impact on actual pathologies demands extensive investment in research.

As abundantly hinted at above, perhaps the most alarming and challenging theme I’ve faced in recent years is the media construct that cannabis “causes” psychosis or schizophrenia. The primary reason this created so much angst in the illicit drug policy and discourse deconstruction fields was the immediate negative impact on management of the many known psychological issues. The 2007 meta-analysis by Moore et al published in The Lancet was seized upon as conclusive evidence.

It remains an excellent review, and fortunately drew much needed explanation about the nature of meta-analyses and in particular that of Moore et al. Amidst the frustrating and very disappointing bad science reporting to follow (including one of the worst by Australia’s own Jonica Newby on ABC’s Catalyst), were calmer voices such as that found on Storied Conduct: Resources and News in Psychology.

Correlation, as our basic research theories tell us, can never prove causation. All of the studies examined by Moore et al. (2007) were correlational in nature. Further, the additional use of meta-analytic grouping techniques cannot turn correlational data into experimental data no matter how sophisticated the statistics. This means that, while the trends and the thrust of the data seems to make marijuana a very promising explanatory causal factor in the development of some of the psychoses that these research participants developed, such a link has not been conclusively demonstrated. And, while the gross odds ratio speaks of a 41% increased risk, the authors themselves acknowledge the impact of confounding and other variables in lowering the risk percentage in the studies they examined. Hence, we are left without a good estimate of what the actual increased risk might be.

The number of media articles poorly reporting findings grew steadily over three to four years. Diligently a steady number of D&A workers, bloggers and independent media contributors used a dual method of exposing predetermined agendas and explaining the results in proper context. Generically speaking – and I stress generically – the headline “Cannabis induced psychosis increases 300% in two years scientists find”, might pop up. On examination it reflects that a sample with 0.2% predisposition to psychotic episodes had two years later, under different methodology, been found to present a 0.6% prediction to experience the transient psychosis they are genetically predisposed to, had they continued to smoke cannabis heavily for another decade.

One of the sadder developments was the establishment in 2008 of the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre. The NCPIC. Coined the National Cannabis Propaganda and Infotainment Centre by a contributor to a professional e-list, it regretfully offers themes well documented as not being efficacious in reducing cannabis abuse. In 2009 NCPIC head Jan Copeland was pulled up by the same publication for dodging the need to publish bipartisan research.

The NCPIC is in the habit of presenting the style of faux science we see above from DFA and also using alarming distortion of facts in their supposed quest to “prevent”. The public is seemingly deemed at risk from balanced information which is substituted with bias and deception. In view of the documented harm this approach leads to it is not good enough for a tax payer funded organisation.

One of the best papers I’ve read is Continued cannabis use and the risk of incidence and persistence of psychotic symptoms: 10 year follow up cohort study, by Kuepper et al. This paper controlled very well for baseline incidence (Eg: self medication of psychosis/schizophrenia, supplementation of low cerebral anandamide [thus proposed alleviation of psychotic symptoms] via cannabis, cumulative effect of CBD’s anti-psychotic properties, other drugs, unstable lifestyle, etc.

In doing so, they thus also controlled for the host of suspected [exact cause remains unknown] causes of psychosis (stress, genetic predisposition, changes at puberty, assault, major life changes, biological causes, neuroses etc). This was itself arguably misused by Professor Jan Copeland who we’ve just met.

Wayne Hall and Louisa Degenhardt contributed an excellent review [BMJ 2011;342:d719] at the time. They noted the superior methodology and also that:

In the light of these findings and those of earlier studies, it is likely that cannabis use precipitates schizophrenia in people who are vulnerable because of a personal or family history of schizophrenia… A modelling study suggests that we would need to prevent 2018-4530 young people in the United Kingdom from becoming regular cannabis users to prevent one case of schizophrenia, or to prevent four to five times as many (10,000-23,000) from light cannabis use to achieve the same result.

Of course schizophrenia is a disease with a clear diagnosis. Psychosis is a transient symptom with a much less clear delineation. What’s certain is that the term is misused and frequently in the manner suggesting cannabis use/abuse leads to a permanent state of psychosis.

Copeland is quoted in an article for The Drum by Quentin Dempster:

Professor Jan Copeland, director of the NCPIC  a government-backed preventative agency, told 7.30 NSW that if cannabis was taken out of the picture the incidence of schizophrenia in Australia could be reduced by 8 to 14 per cent. She could not be more specific. That guesstimate was based on overseas studies. There have been no studies in Australia. This is revealing.

I had seen the report and was stunned. Copeland had failed to grasp the import of incident cannabis use to incident psychotic symptoms. More so she had failed to appreciate the basics of the different time periods. What she had messed up re 8% and 14% from the Kuepper et al study came from this line in the Abstract under Results:

The incidence rate of [sub threshold] psychotic symptoms over the period from baseline to T2 was 31% (152) in exposed individuals versus 20% (284) in non-exposed individuals; over the period from T2 to T3 these rates were 14% (108) and 8% (49), respectively.

The paper cited mentions “schizophrenia” twice. Once in describing instruments used to collate data and again under “methodological issues”.

I wrote to Jan and rather comprehensively outlined the incident specific nature of the results, to seek clarification. I received no reply. For the record here is the conclusion from this sterling study.

Cannabis use is a risk factor for the development of incident psychotic symptoms. Continued cannabis use might increase the risk for psychotic disorder by impacting on the persistence of symptoms.

It’s important to realise that this association is emerging as a very small but very significant issue for individuals predisposed to psychotic episodes. “Cannabis induced psychosis” is thus better viewed as schizophrenia. To date new trends and good research has been seized or sabotaged for political gain. There are areas in need of research dollars wherein we should despise bad science or exploitation of good science. Illicit drug policy is one of them.

As I mentioned way above this is not a pro-cannabis post. There are a host of reasons including psychological, physical and social to not use cannabis. Although I note it is Australia’s most popular illicit drug.

Which reminds me. There are no reasons to not use and respect evidence.

Naltrexone implants backed by zealotry but not evidence

Less than a month after Sydney coroner Mary Jerrum referred a provider of naltrexone implants to the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission, the Christian Democrats’ Reverend Fred Nile revealed he wants them used as compulsory treatment for opioid addicts.

Naltrexone implants are not backed by any convincing evidence but the rapid opioid detoxification [ROD], opioid blocking properties they offer appeal greatly to anti-drug crusading Christian evangelists. Long opposed to harm reduction measures and evidence based treatment of addiction, such as methadone maintenance, far right Christians and conservatives see naltrexone implants as a moral masterstroke. Muscling into the action in recent years are the profit-focused, such as Sydney’s Ross Colquhoun, director of Psych ‘n’ Soul.

I’ve previously written about Dr. Stuart Reece, who features in the video below with the same title as this post. His abuse of patients with naltrexone and Jesus saw 25 of them die in 20 months. His career is the epitome of callous faith based pseudoscience which uniquely targets evidence based harm reduction measures. When I posted on a faux “research” paper he had co-authored with other members of Drug Free Australia, I referred to an exchange on an email list hosted by the Alcohol and Drug Council of Australia. It was on this list years ago that I first read Ross Colquhoun defend naltrexone implants as “common sense”. Indeed his evidence free defence of implants led me to conclude that his “common sense” was the equivalent of the religious zealots’ “belief”.

Both individuals are signatories to Drug Free Australia’s so-called position statement which includes funding of naltrexone implants as an “urgent pro-active change to our illicit drug policies”.


Handing down scathing findings into three deaths, the coroner recommended that the HCCC consider proceedings against a doctor working at Colquhoun’s Pysch ‘n’ Soul, Dr. Jassim Daood. According to the ABC she noted, “a number of disciplinary cases have already been completed about some of the clinic’s other staff”. The scale of potential problems becomes clear when one considers the implants have never been approved for use, eager staff have little or no training and post-implant support regimes are entirely absent. For over a decade these implants have been available via the TGA’s Special Access Scheme, which is designed to allow patients access to otherwise unavailable drugs to treat conditions deemed potentially fatal in the absence of that drug.

In this case the Scheme is being exploited as a loophole whilst the implant option itself has left in it’s wake a litany of failure and fatalities. Colquhoun is unlicenced to perform ROD but ignored requests from the NSW Health Department in mid 2010. SMH wrote on October 20:

Despite this direction, Colquhoun resumed the treatments while still unlicensed between July and September of that year, only desisting when Grace Yates, a 23-year-old with a five-month-old baby, was given ROD and naltrexone at the clinic on September 29, 2010. She suffered a heart attack and died two months later, having never regained consciousness.

It’s worth considering this failed treatment option is likely to be expanded under a coalition government. As health minister in the Howard Government, Tony Abbott provided the funding for the launch of the evangelical Drug Free Australia from the Tough on Drugs/Assets of Crime kitty. Describing themselves as “Australia’s Peak Drugs Body” they failed to meet the conditions of the funding, choosing instead to sabotage related health policy basics. Without doubt they have proven to be to addiction treatment what the Australian (anti) Vaccination Network is to the management of vaccine preventable disease.

Abbott also sent $50,000 they way of Psych ‘n’ Soul in the same year, showing exceptionally poor judgement. There is little doubt with enemies of Harm Minimisation such as Bronwyn Bishop, Sophie Mirabella and Christopher Pyne on his proposed front bench, Australia’s strong evidence based approach to addiction management would suffer. As the coroner noted:

It appears that a patient only had to present at the clinic to be enthusiastically recommended for rapid opioid detoxification, no matter what their history or situation, without alternatives being discussed or considered or any information given out of the risks involved.

Another death related to the attempts at ROD Psych ‘n’ Soul is now infamous for, involved Michael Poole, 48. He was described as “delirious and delusional” after ROD and died at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney two days later. The third death involved James Unicomb, 23 who died from drug toxicity following a poly-drug overdose, which followed the ROD and occurred whilst an implant remained active. This lack of appropriate follow up of patients is perhaps the most appalling failure related to the practice of ROD and implants.

Rapid detox’ doesn’t treat addiction. It removes cravings and leaves patients open to the possibility of overdose. Often they are dependent upon high doses of benzodiazapines which raises the risk of opioid induced respiratory depression. As addiction is not treated, behaviour cannot be expected to change. It is for this reason follow up should form the most important aspect of rapid detoxification. It is for the same reason that implants have such a high failure rate in “curing” addiction.

One can only imagine the profit made and moral crusading accomplished from treating now dead addicts who were essentially exploited, not treated. Of course, testimonials abound. Whether it’s those who adore Reece for showing them the way to Jesus or Colquhoun’s (third time lucky) performer in the below video, let’s not kid ourselves. The dead cannot speak.

Alex Wodak, director of Sydney’s St. Vincents Hospital Alcohol and Drug Service observed:

How they are allowed to be used for routine purposes in several states in this country beats me. It goes against all the normal regulations and I think the only explanation I can understand is that this is allowed in this case because they’re only drug addicts. […] We really need a national independent inquiry into the regulatory failure, the serious regulatory failure that’s gone on with Naltrexone implants for over a decade.

Indeed we do.

Naltrexone implants backed by zealotry but not evidence

Psych ‘n’ Soul Naltrexone Deaths Inquest Findings

Costing the USA’s failed war on drugs

Thanks to The Online Criminal Justice Degree Project.

Skepgoating: why antivaxxers need to devalue skepticism

Skepgoating: Skepgoating (adj) is derived from the notion of scapegoating. It refers to the practice of falsely accusing (scientific) skepticism, skeptics or other individuals of pursuing predetermined agendas derived from distortions of (scientific) skepticism. Used as both defence and attack it aims to cast the other party as inferior, negative and wrong. Particularly found within or in relation to discourse in which truth can demonstrably be derived from evidence. In this way the accuser seeks to drive onlooker or reader attention away from the lack (or presence) of evidence and evoke an irrational and emotional response toward the individual or organisation being skepgoated.

Claims made in skepgoating are false. Rather than address evidence, attempts are made to malign the other party to such an extent that a Faux Victory is claimed. Eg: “Skeptics worship science and are too close minded to understand”. Or, “Skeptics want to suppress your freedom of speech and your right to choose”. Or, “Skeptics want to do bad things to me, that is why they say words that make me appear stupid”.

Skepgoating is also used by certain cult-like groups to imply skepticism by association, by group members who exhibit independent thinking. In such cases skepgoating may have similar power to the belief in witchcraft leading to swift and disproportionate retribution directed at the skepgoat (n). Banishment of the skepgoat and expunging of their visible history follows in an attempt to convey unity to remaining cult members. Dominant or Alpha skepgoaters decide who will be deemed a skepgoat.

As pseudoscience, anti-science, sham disciplines and conspiracy theories have blossomed with high speed information flow, those with a critical eye have kept pace. Some go on to embrace skepticism (scientific skepticism) with an astute and passionate awareness of critical thought and evidence based decision making. Others take great delight – perhaps comfort – in reading skeptic material. Skeptic social events and presentations (often together) are well attended.

Here’s where an observation is needed. There isn’t necessarily a direct correlation between how active a person is skeptically speaking, and how they identify with organised skepticism. In certain areas of interest to skeptics, the most active are not remotely interested in organised skepticism. Alternatively, active skeptics may well spread their interests across many areas. This might prohibit ongoing activism in one area but produces valuable skill sets in skepticism itself.

Some skeptics are deeply involved in areas that demand all ones skeptical faculties, yet find it absent from skeptical topics. In my case drug law reform and a host of human rights issues spring to mind. Having been around these areas a very long time, my advice to skeptics would be to not involve the skeptic movement in major law reform. Being generally apolitical is a valuable feature of skepticism. Exactly when topics enter mainstream skeptical discourse, in part reflects social evolution.

Perhaps it’s best worth noting that some areas involving research, science, critical thought and ample evidence may at once yield unambiguous themes and needs, yet not suit skepticism. Said differently, some areas of scientific consensus receive the attention that reflects political climate more than scientific veracity. Beliefs change in the wake of evidence and the process cannot be rushed. The sacking of Professor David Nutt by the UK Home Office in 2009, is a powerful example of this.

Nutt was of course, absolutely correct. Yet the skeptic in me can spot the evidence he perhaps should have lingered to consider. No matter how you approach it, the facts about drug related harm appear to trivialise the matter. Politically and emotionally Australia, the UK and the USA still blame the inanimate drug and not the policy that denies us control. Unpalatable for many, yes. Slowly changing, indeed. But a fact no less and one that impacts on conclusions.

Rest assured, I’m not diverging onto that topic. Rather, hoping to point out how this fits with the observation above and offers insight into the intellectual paucity that sustains generalised attacks against skeptics in the form of skepgoating. Labelling skeptics as beholden to predetermined agendas is born of the same in-group type thinking that labels science a belief system.

When it comes to skepgoating, your relationship to skepticism may at times be defined for you, by someone with a need to pigeon hole interlocutors or label critics. Note this recent Facebook comment.

As most here know, the AVN is a strident anti-vaccine group, falsely professing to offer “informed choice”. However, as demonstrated by this comment there is a dominant theme emerging peculiar to taking sides rather than discussing vaccination choices. Both the person addressed, and the topic of that address, are very much fans of the AVN. Apparently if one is out of step it’s “outrageous” and one is a friend to a ‘skeptic’. Yes, those inverted commas are intentional and I’ll get to that.

I conclude this comment is quite representative of the AVN. One notes praise and support for the commenter from the AVN president and her own similar combative monochrome approach used to restrict independent expression. Particularly one notes the absence of tolerance for freedom of expression with the AVN.

Of course this is a very silly comment – albeit important to this post. So, what’s going on? Although the subject being attacked here merely thanked another member for posting something “from the pro side” she has been skepgoated. No praise for vaccination took place, and nothing “outrageous” occurred. No rationale is needed. Just point the finger and intone the magic word.

This comment brings up the need for another observation. Whilst passive deconstruction of pseudoscience, scams and paranormal topics of all manner is as old as skepticism itself the internet radically changed communication about these topics. There are no cigars for spotting that skeptics are known for one primary trait. Requesting and examining evidence to substantiate claims. In this light skeptics tend toward a strong appreciation of the scientific method and the role of science.

It follows quite predictably that scientists, those working in or with a background in science, those with an appreciation of science and scientific education to communities and others who understand science, may gravitate toward skepticism. This is by no means absolute but suffice it to say there is overlap. A cursory search would indicate skeptics feel motivated toward activism and use of modern media to publish critiques of pseudoscience and exposure of scam tactics. Ultimately skeptics value scientific inquiry, the scientific method and tend to seek out and conclusively judge scientific consensus.

This helps to grasp the genesis of the irrationalism in the above comment. In an age in which non evidence based claims are pitched toward the health consumer, skepticism is proving a bitter natural pill to swallow. Regarding vaccination the science and pseudoscience are easily identified. “Pro-vax” is quite meaningless, but has been promoted heavily to falsely qualify conclusive evidence and sustain the illusion of a debate.

There is no “pro-vax” and there is no “informed choice”. There’s fact and mistakes. Vaccine science makes vaccination a no brainer. Misinformation leads to fear, confusion and poor or delayed choices – aka mistakes.

For skeptics however, this topic presents examples of evidence denial, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, conspiracy theory, flawed reasoning, blind belief, belief in the absurd, exhaustive scams and schemes, in-group thinking, cult like features and so on.

A veritable banquet of non critical thought and destructive behaviour, the antivaccination movement is of enormous interest to skepticism. Of course, the notion that someone deemed to not be a “fan” of an antivax group, are therefore friends to skeptics is utterly ridiculous and paranoid. It helps underscore just why these groups attract so much interest from skeptics.

Forget vaccination for a moment. What if you’re interested in the psychology of quasi-religious bigotry, how leadership dogma drives members to attack, how the need to belong shapes perception of the Self and others, the primal need to identify “enemies” and thus elevate our own importance, and on and on. There’s practically an entire Skepticamp in that one comment.

In this case it goes beyond “If you’re not with us you’re against us”. It’s essentially asserting that if you deviate from arbitrary rules you can be labelled in a manner that defines a great deal about you as a person – including loyalty, belief and motivation. Whether on a micro or macro scale one need not be a skeptic to appreciate how destructive the dictatorial thought process is.

This actual skepgoating comment exists in a thread relating to a major skepgoating article by Mike Adams. In fact the person who published it on Facebook goes to extreme lengths to devalue skepticism almost daily. This is primarily to fill an evidence vacuum and to convince members or observers that skeptics have malignant intentions. Meryl Dorey is that person and first published this article two weeks after it was written – 2, 1/2 years ago.

Then again only days ago.

I’m not convinced Dorey believes very much of this at all. It’s rampant ad hominem generalisation that, presented with no reference to Adams, would appear to be Poe’s Law in action. As noted here before, the pseudo-neoconservative philosophy she peddles flips the argument away from evidence based discussion to a claim of being persecuted. “Thinking” with ones gut yields poor results and this is Dorey’s aim.

As AVN member and coach University of Wollongong lecturer Dr. Brian Martin argues, this allows one to provoke outrage in onlookers with the hope of causing backfire of critics’ evidence based techniques.

Martin reveals in his writings that his grasp of what separates pseudoscience and actual dissent is remarkably poor. Referring to scientific theories as “dominant paradigms” he seems incapable of grasping scientific consensus, the scientific method, the import of evidence, altruism and moral responsibility. A champion of both pseudo’ and anti-science we see that fierce devaluation of demonstrable facts and scientists themselves, pepper his writings.

Depending on the sophistication of your audience, almost any attack will do. Engender outrage. Force backfire. Justify censorship. Divert from evidence. Inhibit thinking. Which brings us back to Dorey’s second posting of Mike Adams at his most absurd. The fact that it’s bogus is kind of cute given that he did some “research”. It includes;

Skeptics believe that many six-month-old infants need antidepressant drugs. In fact, they believe that people of all ages can be safely given an unlimited number of drugs all at the same time… Skeptics believe that the human body has no ability to defend itself against invading microorganism and that the only things that can save people from viral infections are vaccines. Skeptics believe that pregnancy is a disease and childbirth is a medical crisis. (They are opponents of natural childbirth.) Skeptics believe that ALL vaccines are safe and effective (even if they’ve never been tested), that ALL people should be vaccinated, even against their will, and that there is NO LIMIT to the number of vaccines a person can be safely given. Skeptics believe that the SUN has no role in human health other than to cause skin cancer. Skeptics believe that human beings were born deficient in synthetic chemicals and that the role of pharmaceutical companies is to “restore” those deficiencies in humans by convincing them to swallow patented pills…..

Mike claims to have lifted all this from skeptic sites. However, “I’m not going to list those websites here because they don’t deserve the search engine rankings”. Given that not raising the rankings of sites one links to is quite basic, we may conclude Mike invented this silliness.

Okay, so that’s a patently nonsensical article. It’s false and clearly so. Indeed, round two imploded on Meryl Dorey and set the tone for the above comment. As usual most critical comments have been deleted and the members banned. Only “skeptic trolls” would disagree with Mike. The single remaining critical comment has the most “Likes”. I can’t be sure but it may have remained due to the reply below it. The respondent authored the original comment above.

It’s quite unambiguous. Despite attesting to not fancying polarisation it is clear this individual is only there to skepgoat. Now a certain Facebook page is deemed populated by skeptics. It isn’t. Yet evidence based critiques of health scams have become hate speech. Anyway, I think the point is made. This is a decided effort to divert attention from evidence and attack the results of scientific inquiry.

So what then is scientific skepticism? Why attack it so often and so ridiculously? Definitions of scientific skepticism including Wikipedia are worth reading. For our purposes in understanding skepgoating it’s not just skeptical appreciation of evidence and inquiry. Identification of belief and the ease of accepting doubt attracts criticism. Where there is doubt there is… doubt. Pseudoscience is frequently about replacing doubt with fiction or logical fallacies.

In terms of belief consider alternatives to medicine, superstitions, vaccine injury chic, paranormal scams, new age diagnostics and healing, vitamin therapy, wonder foods, etc. The list is practically endless. Appreciating evidence, scientific inquiry and understanding how easily humans are fooled is not what those profitting from cancer cures or removing “vaccine poisons” want widely known.

Mike Adams is a prime example. By attacking modern medicine and modern living he attracts a global demographic that may likely purchase from his multi-million dollar empire selling garbage that purports to repair the damage sustained from modern living. Damage he simply invents. Like Meryl Dorey it’s difficult to be sure where the crafty money making begins and the delusion leaves off.

Then there’s the plain whacky skepgoating characters like Martin Walker. Skeptics are “the global corporate science lobby group”. His Health Fascism in Australia is priceless:

To quote Orac. “‘Health Fascism’ in Australia? The anti-vaccine loons think so”. Walker is one bizarre piece of work. His rambling attack on sinister fascist skeptics includes:

The sinister Skeptics group, agents of what used to be CSICOP now the  Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) organised from the US and linked to the major corporate lobby groups, American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) and American Council Against Health Fraud (ACAHF), which is in turn linked to the Australian CAHF) are making ground in Australia.

Supported by authoritarian ideological influences in government and Big Pharma, the Skeptics are running constant attacks on homeopathy, natural cancer treatments, those who question vaccination and those who support any form of alternative medicine.

With the present world fiscal crisis, all those linked to Big Pharma and Science are fighting a bitter battle to preserve drug company competitiveness. But where fascist influences in government and health with most force come together is in attacking anyone who speaks out about freedom of choice and expression in relation to vaccination.

Over the last year the international corporate lobby Skeptics, have been behind a campaign against the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN). […]

Yes. The “campaign” one retired bloke sent off in a complaint. Nice work it was, but “campaign” by an international corporate lobby? NURSE!

Dorey tried this approach herself blaming skeptics for Friends of Science in Medicine:

There is an organisation in Australia which hates every natural therapy. They hate the healthcare practitioners and they hate the healthcare consumers who ‘turn their backs’ on Western medicine in favour of a range of other modalities which put no money in their pockets and take away their prestige. Worst of all, they hate anyone who chooses not to use vaccines! That is the ultimate heresy, as far as they are concerned.

But it’s OK – because they have a plan and they have the money and media backing, they think, to bring this plan to fruition.

This group, the Australian Skeptics, has been instrumental in setting up the organisation, Stop the AVN.

Now, they are working on a new initiative – and this one is more ambitious then just stopping a small, parent-run community support group. Now, their goal is to stop anyone in Australia (today Australia – tomorrow the world as far as this bunch of ratbags is concerned) from learning about or using natural therapies. Their mad campaign is getting plenty of publicity too!

They have just set up a new front group called Friends of Science in Medicine (FSM) which is behind the new effort to outlaw the teaching of any natural medicine course in University. […]

It’s widely known SAVN is a Facebook page set up by a non-skeptic. It’s a Facebook page, not an organisation. FSM was quite capable of launching themselves. Yet Dorey’s skepgoating is clear. Whilst Australian Skeptics employ a total of one person to ensure a decent magazine appears each quarter the above paints them almost as powerful as a small country.

My little definition of skepgoating up top includes “other individuals” because, well even skeptics can’t do everything. Just make it seem that way.

I explained how crucial it is for Dorey particularly to tar all critics with one brush. Not with the AVN? Then must be a skeptic actively working against the AVN. This next example speaks for itself.

An article today in The Telegraph notes vaccine conscientious objectors (perhaps having grown under her guidance) continue to secure government immunisation incentives. It also ran in other online publications.

They ran a poll asking “Should anti-vaccine parents get paid?”. The results are quite in line with national vaccine rates. In fact they err toward more fully vaccinated Aussies supporting the payment for vaccine objectors.

Nonetheless this is Meryl Dorey’s response:

[Note – see update at end]

Despite most skeptics in Australia not bothering with such unscientific nonsense as a dodgy self reporting poll, Dorey still plays that card. It gets sillier when one notes she has asked her own members to visit the poll and vote. Nonetheless it’s a great example of skepgoating and raises my promise to elaborate on those inverted commas within the initial comment.

You see scientific skeptics aren’t skeptics but pseudo-skeptics according to Meryl. No doubt this is intended to provoke the odd skeptic but it’s bizarre given the definition of pseudoskepticism. Marcello Truzini coined the term. He wrote in On Pseudo-Skepticism in 1987:

In science, the burden of proof falls upon the claimant; and the more extraordinary a claim, the heavier is the burden of proof demanded. The true skeptic takes an agnostic position, one that says the claim is not proved rather than disproved. He asserts that the claimant has not borne the burden of proof and that science must continue to build its cognitive map of reality without incorporating the extraordinary claim as a new “fact.” Since the true skeptic does not assert a claim, he has no burden to prove anything. He just goes on using the established theories of “conventional science” as usual. But if a critic asserts that there is evidence for disproof, that he has a negative hypothesis—saying, for instance, that a seeming psi result was actually due to an artifact—he is making a claim and therefore also has to bear a burden of proof.

I’ve dealt with Dorey’s obsession with laying claim to skepticism before, including that appallingly offensive blog abusing the name of Australian Skeptics. She seems to have muddled Hume’s true skepticism (philosophy) with evidence denial. This prompts her to argue that belief is actual skepticism. As in be so skeptical deny reality as well.

Where this fails utterly is that in promoting belief, she unwittingly concludes that is a final contention. You may know this position as “science can’t explain everything”. Dorey, and pseudoscience take it further. “If science is limited this way then anything is possible – especially what I allege”. It’s here where the agnostic (if you like) or acceptance of doubt in science that skeptics are at home with kicks in. Belief does not change. Scientific skepticism accepts that change is always likely but what may eventuate is a matter for inquiry. Certainly not conjecture or at worst, rank conjuring.

Of course science doesn’t “know” everything. But assuming it thus truthfully knows nothing, is a recipe for intellectual disaster. This gives us vaccine denial, AIDS denial, conspiracies, UFO assertion and other false contentions that lead to attacks on modern medicine and the growth of sham industries.

SCEPCOP do exactly the same. Claiming to be the Scientific Committee to Evaluate Pseudo Skeptical Criticism Of the Paranormal, they also lay claim to being actual skeptics. It’s pretty cringe-worthy. Dorey’s use and abuse of both “skepticism” and “pseudoskepticism” is identical to SCEPCOP. There’s also Skeptical Investigations and plenty of others like them. These groups spawn individuals who associate covertly with skeptic groups only to compile negative evaluations about skeptic interests.

Child Health Safety is another antivax site with a long record of attacking skeptics, and presupposing the intent of discourse based on identity. From Dorey’s blog.

Wow. Um is there a point you wanted to make? As you can see dear reader, skepgoating frequently involves attacks with no substance, no context and actually no relevance. All we see over and again is the need to devalue genuine agents of evidence.

Rational Wiki describe pseudoskepticism as if describing these groups and the AVN. By projecting their own pseudoskepticism they seek to devalue critics and label evidence based criticism unfounded. The important point is that it has two common usages at present. 1.) To further devalue scientific skepticism by laying claim to the title (but not process) of skepticism. This is abuse of the term and includes Meryl Dorey’s use.

2.) As a substitute for “denial” it may be used to describe those who pimp and preen as skeptics, make a few convincing noises but hold to a predetermined agenda. They will ignore any evidence that challenges them. Despite holding a PhD in physics and strutting as an academic, our radical sociologist antivaxxer Dr. Brian Martin is a genuine pseudoskeptic. A fraud. I can be no kinder.

I should stress that skeptics themselves must be aware of slipping into pseudoskepticism. Fortunately skeptics are rather good at keeping each other honest. This may sound strange but I’m yet to find a better defender of Dorey than skeptics. Not because they accept her piffle for a moment. But because tolerating generalisations or making assumptions about the AVN without evidence is intolerable.

As I mentioned earlier communication influences present day skepticism. In this way skeptics and those with good critical thinking abilities have made genuine long lasting inroads into debunking scams. People are getting ripped off, made ill and at times dying. Often, they are ripped off while dying and being made more ill by some shonky scam. Skeptic movements have a particular distaste for such “health freedom choices”. They are only too happy to inform governments how poorly existing legislation is. So, if skepticism has changed what can we identify?

Skepticism might be viewed as existing at the centre of four inroads. Evidence, human rights, consumer rights and moral or legal obligation. Each inroad is not exclusive. They may accommodate portions of each other or highlight qualities we value as a society. Such as education, free speech, rationalism, reason, truth, democratic freedom, progressive policy design, equality and so on.

I’ve left out specifying paranormal investigation, enduring themes (like perpetual energy and religious experience) exhaustively examined and respectfully considered by skeptics. I couldn’t possibly do justification to legendary visionaries like Nigerian skeptic Leo Igwe and his struggle to fight superstition and brutal irrationalism with reason and education. No doubt this article could be pages long and include almost every division of pseudoscience and superstition.

One thing I should stress is that skeptics do identify those who have been misled as opposed to those who mislead. The result is an even stronger conviction to prevent charlatans from scheming and scamming the vulnerable. From sabotaging education and indoctrinating with dogma. In turn those who measure profit by victim count, don’t cope terribly well with a skeptic critique.

Presently it’s practically standing room only for the enemies of reason. From creationism to cancer cures they are easy to find. So too is a critical response to these impossible claims. Depending upon ones background, education, experience and social circle individuals pick up fairly quickly on the patterns that resonate with them.

Skepticism is tearing down the walls of illusion and that is why pseudoscience is so keen to attack skeptics and skepticism. Arguments, much less legal or legislative challenges, cannot be won by scam artists on merit. To them it’s imperative that those who seek to hold them to account be devalued, falsely maligned, abused, accused and worse.

If there is one thing this article lacks it is a full representation of the outrageous, scurrilous, blame filled and nauseating attacks on skeptics. Skepgoating.

Ultimately the more skepgoating there is, the better the job skeptics seem to be doing.

July 16th – Update on newspaper poll. Another copy to run a similar piece was the Courier Mail. Providing a shorter piece, they worded their poll differently. “Are vaccinations worth the risk”? I know, I know. Given one is more likely to become a billionaire than experience anaphylactic shock it’s a stupid and loaded question. Still here’s the poll results as of early afternoon the following day.

So with a general vaccination rate of 95% plus, over 20% of us don’t reckon it’s worth the risk! Pseudo-skeptic vote bot, Pseudo-skeptic vote bot. Where for art thou Pseudo-skeptic vote bot? Pathetic effort.

However, gracious in defeat I doff me cap to the anti-vax flying monkeys.

Global Commission on Drug Policy: HIV Report


On Tuesday June 26th the report’s release was streamed live