This blog is a focussed experiment. I wanted to test my ability to publish and produce a taut multi-media blog on something. I attended TAM7 in July. It struck me as the perfect 4-day crash course. The "course" didn't go as well as I hoped, but I learned a lot. I'm continuting to update as I have the opportunity to - eventually I'll have covered the entirety of my experience at the conference.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Anti-Anti-Vax Panel (Get that? I had to read it thrice.)

Presumably, if you are reading this blog you are doing so because you already have an interest in critical thinking and if you already have an interest in critical thinking then you more than likely already know at least a little about the Anti-vaccination movement. It may actually be the most important clearly cut battle that we are fighting today. There are others that are important. I believe that science in education and more specifically evolution as that is where the lines are currently drawn is very important, but I believe we can afford to simply hold our ground for the time being. Religion v. Atheism (very very closely related to the previous one) is an ongoing concern, but that battle will not be won in my lifetime. Global Warming/Climate Change is obviously a big issue that may make the previous one moot in short order, and though it is an issue that is much clearer now than it was even a few years ago there is a lot of clarity yet to be found. It may not be a big issue, but 9/11 Truthers just make me furious... but really, are they killing children through negligence? (No, they are not.) But those fucking Anti-vaccination assholes... we have got to turn that tide, NOW.

I am writing this assuming the reader has a basic level of understanding about the issue. If not, here you go – trusty ol' Wikipedia.

The Anti-Anti-Vax Panel was made up of:

Dr. Steve Novella has in just a few short years as host of Skeptics Guide to the Universe (and other projects) made himself one of the most important skeptics in the world.

Dr. Harriet Hall is the SkepDoc for Skeptic Magazine.

Dr. Joe Albietz – I admit I'd never heard of – is a contributor to the JREFs Swift Blog, and (this just came up in a search as I tried to find info on him) JUST TODAY was announced as a new contributor to Science Based Medicine.

Dr. David Gorski outted himself at TAM – during this very panel – as the infamous medical blogger ORAC.

Michael Goudeau is not a doctor. He's a juggler. He is a father of an autistic child. He writes for the TV show Bullshit! And he thinks Jenny McCarthy and Andrew Wakefield are assholes.

Derek Bartholomaus is also not a doctor but is the creator of the Jenny McCarthy Body Count website.

Dr. Novella spoke first outlining his own experience in becoming aware of the Anti-vax debate. How he researched the background about Andrew Wakefield and the concerns about MMR and by extension Thimerisol. Initially, looking at the earliest evidence he felt that there was a possibility of an actual effect, but as he delved deeper into the published research the claims against it looked weaker and weaker, and by the time he was ready to write an article he was convinced that there was no connection between Thimerisol and autism. The nail in the coffin being that by 2002 Thimerisol had been removed from vaccines and new autism rates were not dropping as logic dictates they would should there be an actual connection. The Anti-vax advocates moved the goal-posts to 2007... still no effect, yet they still fight – indeed they are more vibrant than ever.

Dr. David Gorski was second up. After making a brief professional disclaimer disassociating himself from his statements from his employers opinions he proceeded to let anyone in the room who did not already know (I was amongst the unknowing) that his alter-ego was in fact ORAC as I mentioned above. He commented upon how the anti-vaxxers don't want to be known as anti-vaccination advocates despite being exactly that! What the hell?!? No, the anti-vaxxers will declare that they are not anti-vaccine, they are pro safe-vaccines, they are anti-toxin – all accompanied by wounded righteous indignation. Jenny McCarthy herself rails against how people are indignant about second hand smoke yet are perfectly willing to "inject their children with the second worst neuro-toxin on the planet." Jenny McCarthy has also been known to tout the miracle of Botox. Botox, just in case you don't know or missed it in the inference, is the MOST dangerous neuro-toxin on the planet. The woman, frankly, is a fuck-nut. From there he continued to cite other contradictions and goal-post moving evidenced by the changes in their websites courtesy of the internet archive... funny how people think their past web presence just disappears with a delete button...

Dr. Albeitz focussed his portion of the discussion on why we should care about this issue. That IS of course why this is an important issue and not just cause for amused finger-pointing at fools, like say at Sasquatch advocates. The reason quite simply is children are dying. Small pox – eliminated with vaccines. Polio – very nearly eliminated from the planet forever with vaccines... until the anti-vaccination movement opened a window of opportunity and polio is back on the rise. About two dozen different diseases are vaccinated against. While not all of them were on the ropes yet they were all on the decline. But that war is being lost now because of the anti-vaccination movement. Individual and herd immunity is compromised and children are dying as a direct result of a lack of critical thinking.

Dr. Harriet Hall began her portion by pointing out that the study that began the entire issue, Andrew Wakefield's 1998 Lancet article, was conducted upon a mere twelve kids. Not a sufficient sample size. The article itself even declared that no connection was conclusively proven. Nevertheless Wakefield immediately called a scare-tactic press-conference and publically released his bogus interpretation of the results. It is now known that Wakefield had a conflict of interest – was paid to find evidence against vaccines (not how science is done – looking for a specific result) and manipulated data in order to achieve his ends. The study has been discredited and 10 of his 12 co-authors have retracted their interpretation of the results. She also addressed the contentions about Thimerisol – the mercury-based preservative that came under fire. There are two types of mercury. Methyl mercury – the toxic variety that stays in your system and can cause nerve dysfunction, and ethyl mercury which you body will expel and is non-toxic at the volumes used in Thimerisol. Indeed test show that it is safe at 20000 times the dosage of Thimerisol in vaccines.

Michael Goudeau... I think I'm just going to transcribe what he said...

"Hi, I'm Michael Goudeau... ummm.... I'm a juggler." Big laugh from the crowd. "...and I'm a writer for Bullshit! And I'm going to tell you that Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy are assholes." Cheers from the crowd. "I'm here because I have a son who has autism, and speaking for people whose families are affected by autism... we're not all crazy. You know sometimes we're just sad about our kids. And I want to tell you also – you people already know this – but tell your friends – don't base your opinions on the 'science' of celebrites." Applause. "And don't base your opinion on the science of jugglers. Read about it. It's all out there. Thank you."

Derek Bartholomaus spoke briefly about his creation of the Jenny McCarthy Body Count website. And how he mentioned it 'only' on Facebook and Twitter yet within the first week it had appeared on the front page of each of Bad Astronomy, Respectful Insolence, Pharyngula and the Swift Blog. Four of the higher hitting skeptical blogs in the world – and all the others followed soon thereafter. "A grand-slam" in Derek's words.

The second half of the panel was the questions section. I've not spoken much about the content of question sections in the speakers presentations as the questions tended to be really far reaching and not always clearly on topic. But for the panels... that is kind of the point. I'm going to try to give each germane question it's due – though I am not actually quoting as it may appear below. I am severely paraphrasing and attributing the answers to the person who fielded it.

Q: Jenny McCarthy (and other parents of autistic children on the anti-vax side) just want someone/thing to blame for their children's problems. Aren't we just making martyrs of them by attacking their emotional position?

SN: We need to remember that in fact we are all on the same side. We all want to protect the children. So no, it doesn't help to call Jenny McCarthy dumb despite the fact that when a claim of hers is debunked she wilfully continues to make the claim. The rank and file anti-vax autism-parent is being victimized by mis-information. We should defer to sympathy for them and try (hard) to get the facts straight with and for them. We all have a horse in this race. We are interpreting the evidence in diametrically opposed ways, we just happen to have the science on our side.

DG: There are those who will use their victim status as a shield against criticism. A very effective shield. But we must still try to reach those who can be reached. Jenny McCarthy cannot be reached, so why be too gentle with her?

Q: Does Oprah know the B.S. that Jenny is slinging?

DG: Oprah giving Jenny a show many have been a step too far. It has received far more criticism than just about anything she has done. We need to hit the advertisers.

Q: What is the demographic info with regards to income levels?

JA: It's an interesting dichotomy. But there are failures on each end of the spectrum and they tend to be for different reasons in each set.

Q: What is the international situation?

SV: The polio resurgence in Nigeria is linked more to rumours that the virus was causing HIV. That has started to turn around and get back on track. The autism scare seems to be linked to more affluent cultures.

HH: There have always been anti-vaccine people. What we are witnessing now is more a matter of magnitude than attitude.

Q: The anti-vax message has done an excellent job of branding itself. Is there anyway that our message is getting out that speaks simply and doesn't sound like it's coming from eggheads, or are we just shouting in an echo-chamber?

MG: I'm willing to show my tits. (Quite possibly the funniest thing said in the main sessions.)

Q: Naturopaths, homeopaths and chiropractors often advocate not vaccinating too without being in precisely the same camp as the typical anti-vaxxers and they add a patina of credibility by dint of being (ahem) doctors. What can we do about this?

SN: There are more fronts to this war, not just the 'Mommy instinct' anti-vaxxers. The alt med movement has all of it's own variations of reasoning and practices which impede vaccination. Improving science literacy is really the only long term solution.

HH: I reported a homeopath to the authorities because he was selling homeopathic remedies for small-pox and anthrax. Working forward from the homeopathic principle of like cures like that would imply that he had and was using small amounts of those viruses. And if he could get it – so could the terrorists.

DG?: Because vaccines are successful, people don't realize how dangerous viruses are. People under fifty have never really witnessed the full-scale effects of a whooping cough epidemic. So they think they are rare and uncommon illnesses. But they are rare and uncommon because of vaccines.

JA: There is also an attitude of "if it's natural it must be better. " So if you get it naturally that's better than injecting yourself with unnatural toxic vaccines.

SN: Many people will cite that people react to vaccines in minor ways, not unlike responding to the disease itself. That is the entire point. To 'catch' a reduced version of the disease – to provoke an immune response before the full-version gets to you.

Q: How can we fight the emotional appeal of the "Mother" card?

DG: Jenny McCarthy will say "nobody knows your child like you do." For most things this is undoubtedly true. But when it comes to medicine the mother-child bond is nothing more than an anecdote. Worse yet, it's an anecdote with a huge amount of emotional baggage.

SN: You can't reason people away from a conclusion that isn't reasonable in the first place. The data is not good on 'changing your mind.'

The panel concluded with each speaker taking a moment to make a final statement. Again, paraphrasing, not quoting directly – except where there are quotes.

DB: What can people do about skeptical activism? Find a cause and address it. Like I did with my website. People ask why I only deal with the US body count – 'why don't you do the entire world?' – I don't read other languages. But other people are certainly welcome to do that.

MG: It's impossible to battle the emotion of a parent who believes their kid got autism from vaccines. You can't yell "I got my kid vaccinated and he didn't get autism!" Hopefully the parents whose children died because of a failure to vaccinate will stand up. They are the only ones with the emotion to really fight the emotion of the other side with effective passion.

HH: "Science rules!"

JA: (Inaudible. Sorry.)

DG: The one outcome that might work that we really don't want to have as the tool of reason is that the return of vaccination preventable diseases causes and uproar that turns the tides back. It would work, but at what cost?

SN: Thanks to the JREF for recognizing the importance of this issue. If there is anything that is going to mitigate this problem it's people like the people in this room. Not just the scientific community but the people who understand the way these issues work and who intersect with the public.

One last thing about vaccinations. There was a pledge drive for vaccinating children in Nevada at TAM. Over 12 thousand dollars was raised.

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