Caught in the vaccination wars

Brian Martin

The Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) has come under sustained attack by supporters of vaccination. I defended the AVN's right to free speech and in turn was subject to attack.


See also Part 2 and Part 3


Contents

Background

McLeod's response

Matters of fact and interpretation

Derogatory comments

Attempted suppression

Conclusion

 

Background

In 2010, I became aware of an ongoing attack on the Australian Vaccination Network, a citizens' group critical of conventional vaccination policy. The attackers have used a variety of methods, including

Personally, I do not have strong views for or against vaccination. However, I am a long-time advocate of free speech. I've studied numerous scientific controversies and documented attacks on dissenting views.

I wrote a long paper titled "Debating vaccination". It surveys ideas about the conduct of scientific controversies, analyses the case against the AVN made by Ken McLeod in a complaint to a government body, and document and analyse some of the attacks made on the AVN.

In early October 2010, I sent Ken McLeod the section of my paper dealing with his complaint, inviting his comments. He did not offer any comments in the following weeks, though he said it would take him "a week or so to write a proper response". In December, I posted the paper on my website and offered McLeod an opportunity to reply. His response was to say that he could send a "long response" spelling out how I had allegedly represented him. However, he didn't do this, but instead requested that I post a critique of Meryl Dorey's statements. I declined, as in my view this did not constitute a response to my paper. (Our 2010 correspondence and subsequent commentary about it are available here.)

In 2011, I wrote a new, much shorter article titled "When public health debates become abusive", intended for an academic journal. On 18 April I sent a copy to McLeod for his comments. I marked the copy "Draft, 17 April 2011, for Ken McLeod only. Please do not quote or circulate." I routinely put such requests on draft papers when sending them to individuals for comment, especially when addressing controversial topics. The new article used examples from the attack on the AVN, but did not mention McLeod.


McLeod's response

Within an hour, McLeod responded. He said that my reference to him in "Debating vaccination" (my first article) was "unethical" but didn't provide any evidence for this claim. He said it was "dishonest" without any evidence of dishonesty. He said I had "completely and deliberately misconstrued" what he had said and his motives but didn't provide any evidence of any misconstruction of what he had said, much less a deliberate misconstruction. He said my approach was "despicable" and warned that I was "sailing very close to a defamation action" but didn't provide any evidence of false statements in my paper. In Australia, truth is a complete defence against a legal action for defamation.

He said because of my treatment of him, he was giving my "document the widest possible distribution". Subsequently, a number of people criticised my work and credibility. Some wrote to me personally; others posted comments on the Facebook page of the group Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN).

For convenience, the responses to my work can be divided into three types: substantive comments about what I said; derogatory comments about me or my work; and an attempt at suppression. I deal with these three types in turn though in practice they are mixed together.


Matters of fact and interpretation

My article "Debating vaccination" is lengthy and it would be surprising if it did not contain a few mistakes. My new article, "When public health debates become abusive", was in draft form when circulated by McLeod. Because it was not in final form, again I expected it to have some weaknesses. However, SAVN commentators have not pointed to any serious flaws in these articles.

Quite a few SAVN commentators pointed to alleged mistakes and abuses by the AVN and Meryl Dorey as justification for their actions against the AVN and as a rebuttal to my articles. This appears to be based on a basic misunderstanding of my stance. I wrote to defend the AVN's ability to exercise free speech. This is not the same as endorsing the AVN's beliefs or methods.

The SAVN Facebook page contains, as part of the basic information about SAVN, the statement that the AVN "believe that vaccines are part of a global conspiracy to implant mind control chips into every man, woman and child and that the 'illuminati' plan a mass cull of humans." In "Debating vaccination" I called this an "unsupported claim" and in "When public health debates become abusive" I said it fitted into the ideal debate type I called the "marketplace of abusive comment".

A few SAVN commentators defended SAVN's claim about the AVN, citing a 2009 post by Meryl Dorey with a link to work by conspiracy theorist David Icke. This is, in my view, extremely flimsy evidence for SAVN's claim. For such a dramatic claim, with its prominence on SAVN's page, I would expect correspondingly strong evidence, for example an endorsement of the global conspiracy view on the AVN's website or resounding results from a survey of the beliefs of AVN members. Given that Meryl Dorey denies a belief in this conspiracy, what remains? Only an inference that a 2009 post and web link indicate the true beliefs of AVN members or the AVN as an organisation. Far more investigation and definitive evidence would be required to take SAVN's claim seriously.

A couple of correspondents said that they had been blocked from the AVN's online discussions and thought I should address this as a form of censorship. It is a type of exclusion, to be sure, but does it count as censorship? Private organisations routinely restrict discussions on internal forums. The AVN was not restricting the free speech of SAVN members in public forums.

One correspondent (18 April) wrote "I confess to ample offence at your labelling of the likes of Meryl Dorey as a whistleblower involved in a debate." However, I have never referred to her as a whistleblower, but rather as a dissenter.

Maureen Chuck posted this comment.


Dr Brian Martin quote . "Critics attribute the large reduction in mortality from infectious disease in rich countries to public health measures such as clean water supplies, improvements in hygiene, and higher incomes." MMR vaccine became available in the late 60s, polio in the late 50s. How much has hygiene, clean water supplies, public health measure improved since the late 50s? Incidentally, vaccinations are part of those improved public health measures.


The passage that Chuck quotes is part of my summary of the position critical of vaccination - not my position. (I also summarised the pro-vaccination position.) She hasn't shown any problem with my position.

On 18 April, Ilijas Milisic posted this comment.


Does anyone think that it's utterly idiotic of a Professor of Sociology to think that putting "that" mask on a photo in parody of a person somehow constitutes authoritarianism?


Actually, in my article I said, concerning the mask image and following comments, "This commentary fits into the marketplace of abusive comment." This is quite different from my category of authoritarianism. Milisic appears to have misread my article and then criticised me on the basis of his misreading.

On 21 April, an extract from my 1999 article "Suppression of dissent in science" was posted, with some of the text underlined in red, where I used vaccination as an example. One underlined passage states "If all experts say, for example, that continents drift, that bridges are well designed, or that vaccinations are beneficial, then opposition to these views, if it exists, can be dismissed as uninformed." I then said that "Unanimous expert support helps bring rewards for certain groups", giving various examples, including the following underlined passage: "researchers, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies with a stake in vaccination programs."

I'm not sure what posting this extract is intended to prove, given that in it I do not argue for or against vaccination. If anything, my comments might be taken as supportive of vaccination, given that I grouped support for vaccination with support for continental drift and the safety of bridges.

In summary, none of the SAVN commentators has pointed to any substantive flaws in my articles. Some of them appear to believe they have shown that I support the AVN's position on vaccination; this is a misreading of my position.


Derogatory comments

Graeme Hanigan posted the following on SAVN's Facebook page (18 April) and also emailed it to me.


I will keep this short. Ken McLeod has shared your draft article with me and I must say, for a person with such impressive qualifications, it's a mystery to me as to how your capable of producing a piece of slack jawed intellectualism that is indistinguishable from complete and utter rubbish. You pretend to be a dissident whistle blower, but have chosen do no more than read the script provided by the quacks and fanatics that make up the anti vaccination lobby and will no doubt dismiss my comments as being a part of your favourite new world order conspiracy theory de jour.


In response, Dave Singer posted "I LOL'd". Ilijas Milisic added "Academic sloppiness at its worst".

On 18 April, Rohan James Gaiswinkler posted "I would like to nominate Professor Brian Martin for the 2011 Bent Spoon Award", awarded annually by the Australian Skeptics to "the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle". He later posted: "Just so people know I have decided to delay nomination until after I get access to his draft. I will include my review of his previous laughable nonsense on the AVN ["Debating vaccination"] as well."

Dave Singer, referring to my assessment of the weakness of SAVN's claims about the AVN's belief in a global conspiracy, commented on 19 April "I'd be embarrassed for a schoolkid that lazy or stupid. For a professional scholar, it's gobsmacking. What a moron."

Martin Smith commented on 19 April


It's terrifying to think that such intellectual sloppiness could come from a professor of humanities. He is supposed to be teaching the next generations of sociologists. ... Hmm I don't know about terrifying but certainly not unexpected. He's an idiot.


On 20 April Graeme Finsen, commenting on Maureen Chuck's post (above), wrote


Given that Mr. Martin has drunk deeply of the "lack-of-evidence-needed" Kool-Aid of AIDS denialism - I'm not surprised that he drinks deeply of any forms of denialism. Once one removes the inconvienient requirement for _evidence_ from the equation, it makes the belief in nonsense so much palatable


(It is not clear why Finsen incorrectly attributes me with a belief in "AIDS denialism".)

On 21 April, a video was posted on YouTube with the following comment.


A quick look at recent lies, plagiarism and deception we've come to know and love from Meryl Dorey of antivaccination lobbyist fame. Meryl has attracted the interest of conspiracy theorist and non-health-faculty sociologist, Mr. Brian Martin. Brian is a doctor on paper yet seems intent on plunging from the window sill of academic integrity. One awaits the University of Wollongong to assuage the concerns of parents, families and Australian Government health authorities that such unconscionable conduct at the hand of dreamer Martin, is not the norm for this university.



Attempted suppression

On 18 April, Carol Calderwood sent an email to Gerard Sutton, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wollongong - where I work - and Richard Howson, head of my school at the university. She did not send a copy to me. She made various criticisms about my draft paper "When health debates become abusive", claiming that it was "highly offensive" because I had used her name without seeking permission or attempting to contact her. She claimed I was not qualified to make any comment about the AVN. She concluded by saying she trusted that they - the Vice-Chancellor and my head of school - would reprimand me over my "offensive document".

Richard Howson showed me the letter and invited my response. Here it is:


Hi Richard,

Thanks for letting me know about Carol Calderwood's complaint and giving me an opportunity to comment.

On Monday morning, I sent my draft article "When health debates become abusive" to Ken McLeod for comment. I asked him not to circulate it further but said I would be pleased to send copies to others he might recommend. This has long been my standard practice when writing on contentious topics, because I prefer that drafts not be widely circulated. However, Ken McLeod disregarded my request and my offer, and shortly after receiving my paper sent copies to various others.

Mrs Calderwood objects to being quoted without permission. Her comments are in the public domain, on a Facebook discussion that is open to anyone whether they are members of the Facebook group or not. (I am not.) Therefore, as is standard in academic work, it is quite acceptable to quote such material, so long as it is not misrepresented.

My articles "Debating vaccination" (http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/11LivingWisdom.pdf) and "When health debates become abusive" deal primarily with the form of the debate over vaccination, not with the substance. Mrs Calderwood's comments about the Australian Vaccination Network are not relevant to my purposes; to be more precise, they are the sorts of comments that I analyse.

Mrs Calderwood says my reference to the first issue of Living Wisdom for 2011 is "completely false". My paper is a draft. Publication by a scholarly journal is at least six months hence and likely much longer, in which case the first issue of Living Wisdom will have been published - or, if not, I can change the text before publication. That is what drafts are all about.

Mrs Calderwood claims that naming individuals "for criticism" without their "express permission" opens me and the university to "criticism, scrutiny and defamation actions". Of course the university and I are always open to criticism and scrutiny. As for defamation, Mrs Calderwood has not pointed to any false statements in what I wrote in relation to her or other individuals.

For the record, I do not take a strong view about vaccination. I have approached the vaccination debate from the point of view of supporting free speech. My position is spelled out in greater length in "Debating vaccination".

Regards,
Brian


Conclusion

My articles deal with the attack on the Australian Vaccination Network. I support free speech, including for those I think are wrong. I oppose attacks on the AVN because they are an attempt to suppress the sort of public discussion I believe is vital to an open society.

In response to my articles, quite a number of members of Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN) made criticisms. There are a few matters of fact and interpretation in this criticism but few with any substance. I was able to extract a few useful comments for revising my draft article, and thanked those correspondents.

Then there were the criticisms of me personally. This is exactly the sort of response I described in my article "Debating vaccination". I outlined how those who do something others could perceive as unjust may use various techniques that minimise outrage, including devaluing the target and using intimidation. Those who attack the AVN have used devaluation and intimidation extensively. Because I challenged the goal and methods used by the attackers, some members of SAVN have also tried those very same techniques against me. Others can judge whether these tactics have been effective.


This text is my responsibility and does not necessarily represent the views, policies or opinions of the University of Wollongong. This applies to all my research and writing, and should go without saying, but it seems necessary to spell it out given complaints made to university officials.


Go to

Brian Martin's publications on scientific controversies

Brian Martin's publications on suppression of dissent

Brian Martin's website


Text last updated 28 April 2011; link updated 29 October 2013