Anti-Vaxxers Dox a Child

One particularly vile and unethical way of shutting down opposition is to make public personal information about someone whose ideas oppose yours. Sometimes doxing comes with the presumption that others will then follow up by contacting and harassing that person. Often the defense on the part of the doxer is that the doxee’s information is already available online. However, giving that information to people who are ideologically opposed to someone makes that person a target, and thus doxxing becomes horrible and awful and you should never do it.

So why is it happening to a child? I guess the answer, if you don’t want to read any further, is that anti-vaxxers are narrowly hellbent on defeating anyone who champions vaccines that they don’t see a child as a child, a human, an actual person who should be off limits to harassment. Marco Arturo, whose adorable satirical video purporting to show all the evidence that vaccines cause autism (Spoiler: he reveals an empty folder), has become the target of Levi Quackenboss‘s doxing.*

I’m upset, my friends. And that’s really the motivation behind this post. However, because I don’t want to further the doxing and harassment, I won’t link to the blog post in mine.  But here you have a screenshot:

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In one particularly hypocritical point, “Levi Quackenboss” writes:

So who is Marco?  I’m not going to post his full name out of respect for him and his parents as well as their safety, but they’ve been a little sloppy about making trails to it so they should clean that up. The last names his parents use are not the name that he uses on social media.

Why is this hypocritical, you ask? You will notice that everyone who responds to “Levi Quackenboss” calls her she and her, not he or him–as you would expect with a man named Levi. Guess what. Levi Quackenboss is not the blogger’s real name! Oh shocking! (Or actually not at all.

Although, as a side note, I was irked that “Levi Quackenboss” used one of her pseudonyms to testify in front of a Colorado congressional hearing. Her testimony consisted of showing memes that Voices for Vaccines had made and making false and disparaging remarks about the organization and the Colorado VFV Parent Advisory Board member who was in attendance. She does seem to hide behind fake names to say horrible things.

A second aside, amazeball epidemiologist and awesome guy, Rene Najera points out this Picasso’s full name is Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. So yeah. Marco didn’t use his full name.

“Levi” concludes her doxing piece against a child with this bit a conspiracy paranoia:

One thing is obvious, though: Marco isn’t just some random unknown kid when his parents have connections with the Mexican government and Walgreens is on standby with a celebrity media company to sponsor his pro-vaccine video.

Yes, because children of lobbyists never make videos and don’t have opinions. And Walgreens and Ashton Kutcher are apparently in on the conspiracy–along with the Mexican government–to cover up the vaccine-autism connection championed by such savory characters as Andrew Wakefield. People who believe this are really the same sorts of people who believe that Tupac is still alive and that 9/11 was an inside job.

This entire affair brought to mind an experience I had with a viral blog post and doxing. In December 2013, my organization (Voices for Vaccines) published a piece by Amy Parker titled “Growing Up Unvaccinated.” I actually hadn’t realized it was going viral until our website crashed and I was unable to access my email. Like Marco’s simple and marvelous piece, Amy Parker’s struck a nerve both among pro- and anti-vaxxers.

And the anti-vaxxers immediately pounce in some of the most despicable and horrible ways possible. They began by taking to Google and discovered someone named Amy Parker Fiebekorn who worked at the CDC. They immediately decided that because Amy Parker is such an unusual name that this CDC Amy Parker, and not the one from the UK whose actual biography we gave, was the true author of “Growing Up Unvaccinated.” You know–because if we went to the trouble of tricking people by secretly publishing a piece by someone at the CDC, we wouldn’t bother changing her name. This myth persists to the day and will pop up if you Google “Growing Up Unvaccinated Fake.”

Others were not satisfied and decided that perhaps Amy Parker didn’t work at the CDC. So they tracked her down. They found her profile and her mother’s Facebook profile. Some sent PMs. They found Amy’s cell phone number, and some began texting her. They found a video where she discusses her struggles with mental health issues and posted it publicly, as if to shame her with the stigma of mental illness. In one forum, one woman (who, by the way, makes a living teaching online classes about the dangers of vaccines), discussed paying her a visit:

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Amy Parker (the real one) had to shut down her Facebook page and take down her business page (which included her phone number). To make matters worse, the doxing and harassment came as she welcomed a new baby into her family.

Doxing has real consequences, and an adult shouldn’t have to deal with those consequences, but a child really, really should not have to. The doxing of Marco Arturo is despicable and has to stop now.

All this because a child made a satirical video. Grow up, anti-vaxxers. If you disagree with him, discuss your disagreement. Don’t disparage and harass a child.

*ETA: The doxing included in the Quackenboss post included the names of his stepfather and his mother and some employment information regarding his stepfather. A screenshot of the stepfather’s Facebook page included the name of their hometown. This information not only makes it easy to harass Marco and his family, but collating together could incite that harassment. 

The Conspiracy Theorists Were Right!

The latest episode of the X-Files touches on all the possible favorite anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. This post will contain spoilers, so if you want to watch the episode first, stop reading now.

Of course, the episode is all about the vaccines. It appears that the smallpox vaccine has given the human race the Spartan Virus, a virus which is unleashed by (of course) aluminum in the chemtrails overhead and by microwave radiation transmitted by those nefarious towers everywhere. The reason? The Smoking Man is mad at us about global climate change and wants to depopulate the planet. Fortunately, Agent Scully’s DNA has been altered and contains protective alien DNA. She uses her own genomes to make a vaccine in an attempt to save the human race.

Despite the fact that a vaccine is going to save the human race, the anti-vaxxers love this episode because it reinforces a number of their beliefs–that:

  1. Chemtrails are a thing
  2. The vaccinated spread disease
  3. “The science that we were taught will take us but a distance to the truth.”
  4. Vaccine programs have been “an unprecedented violation of the public trust”
  5. Aluminum is evil
  6. People who believe in climate change have nefarious plans
  7. There is a plot underway to depopulate the planet

All poppycock, of course, but studies have shown that people who are anti-vaccine are also prone to believing all manner of conspiracy theories, such as the moon landing being a hoax, because you are prone to believing that something is being hidden by those who are supposed to protect.

And that is why the topic of the smallpox vaccine being part of a plot to depopulate the planet makes for great science fiction television. The key word being, of course, fiction. I struggled with whether or not to expose what the anti-vaxxers were saying about this episode because it could be construed as mean-spirited, but my intent is rather to show that being anti-vaccine is predicated on believing the most spurious conspiracy theories possible.

In one anti-vaccine Facebook group, a discussion about how this X-Files episode exposed the truth was not limited to vaccines, but that was the basis for one person’s love of this episode: “loved it….chemtrails, vaccines loaded w/? for decades…++++ GREAT show tonite!” However, another commented warned that television like this serves to make people feel dismissive of the Truth:

My hubby reckons it’s just the way media tries to desensitize people to these issues. Then when you bring up the issues (that are very real!) most often times the ‘sheep’ just say things like ‘oh, god…this isn’t a movie you know!’ He’s right I think…
BUT it’s great to see storylines like this, might get some people thinking at least!

One blogger* discusses how the episode underscored everything those in the know have been saying about vaccines for decades:

Everything that has been said about weaponized vaccines leading to pandemics was presented in a telescoped fashion, with the timeline from “Case Zero” to full pandemic seemingly only a few hours: anthrax, bubonic plague, ramped-up influenza…

A simple search for vaccines will turn up all sorts of these conspiracy theories because anti-vaxxers believe that vaccines are a weapon used against people in order to enact all sorts of so-called awful ends, from autism to complete depopulation of the planet a la Plague, Inc.

They believe the conspiracy theories because they have to. Because either the scientists, corporations, and governments of the world are telling the truth that vaccines are safe and save lives or someone along the chain is wrong or stupid. And once one person is wrong or stupid, a bunch of other people have to come along and actively hide their wrongness and stupidness–and the only reason to do that is some sort of evil or greedy plot. Once you believe that you should disbelieve the experts, the next step is to accept that the experts are actively hiding information from you because they are trying to hurt you. And when you believe that, a show like the latest X-Files episode seems less like science fiction and more like your darkest fears being exposed before you.

The problem is two-fold: that’s not how fiction works and that conspiracy theory is untenable.

I can’t dissect the anti-vaccine reaction to the X-Files without digging into my past as an English teacher (my MA is in English literature and writing). One of my favorite units to teach was science fiction because it is a bold and audacious genre. It speaks to us so much about our fears and about what we refuse to see, but it isn’t meant to be a documentary.

One of the main fears science fiction exposes is how the technology we create will end up destroying us. Think Terminator and Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, for you purists). However, watching Terminator should not make someone go out and destroy all robot technology because it is bound to wage war against us one day. The idea behind science fiction such as these is that as people, we do not want to lose our humanity to our technology. As far as the X-Files, we now fear the things we cannot see (alien DNA, viruses) more than robots, and so we want to make sure that we retain our humanity even as we look to alien technologies to save ourselves. Oh, it’s not a documentary at all.

To the second point, a conspiracy theory to hide the evils of vaccines would never hold. One physicist actually did the calculations showing that a conspiracy concerning vaccines would unravel within 3.2 years:

[E]ven if a small devious cohort of rouge [sic] scientists falsified data for climate change or attempted to cover-up vaccine information, examination by other scientists would fatally undermine the nascent conspiracy. To circumvent this, the vast majority of scientists in a field would have to mutually conspire—a circumstance the model predicts is exceptionally unlikely to be viable. . . .

So where does that leave us? Well, it’s all a matter of taste. If you enjoy the escapism and intellectual intricacies of science fiction, you probably enjoyed this X-Files episode (because, let’s face it, it is a heck of a lot better than that wretched last season we thought ended it all before). And if you are a conspiracy theorist, you probably take the entire thing, wrongly, at face value and there is no hope for you at all.

Vaccine Safety Advocate

It is interesting that hundreds of researchers and scientists work every day to monitor and study the safety of our vaccine program to ensure that it is safe, but “vaccine safety advocate” gets used, without irony, by anti-vaccine activists in order to obscure their true purpose of frightening parents away from vaccines by falsely connecting them to autism.

Words matter, and they matter especially in journalism. Casting people who form coalitions in order to slow the uptake of vaccines and promote misinformation about them as anything other than anti-vaccine is playing into their own public relations and feeding the anti-vaccine delusion.

So why does the Star Tribune keep changing articles and headlines to accommodate the public relations of Minnesota’s wealthiest and most politically connected anti-vaxxer?

On the heels of the Disneyland measles outbreak, Strib reporter wrote this terrible and falsely balanced article discussing how anti-vaccine activists were on the defense (since they were, you know, bringing back measles). Originally, the article began:

Jennifer Larson’s conversion to anti-vaccine started after her infant son got his measles shot in October 2001. Within minutes, she said, he passed out, within hours he stopped making eye contact, within weeks he lost a sense of touch and within months he was found to have severe autism.

The first line, that she was converted to anti-vaccine, is accurate. That the vaccine caused her child’s autism is, of course, refuted by science. But to the point: Jennifer Larson is anti-vaccine. It is her anti-vaccine stance that has led her to bring to Minnesota hearings doctors like Dr. Toni Bark, who is also anti-vaccine and who has a whole movie about the pretend dangers of vaccines. The bill they were testifying against would not have mandated vaccines; it simply would have required parents speak to a doctor before opting their children out of vaccines. Who is against people talking to their doctors about the risks of opting out of vaccines? People who are anti-vaccine.

But Jeremy Olson (or his editors) changed that first line of that awful article so that it read: “Jennifer Larson’s conversion to vaccine skeptic started after her infant son got his measles shot in October 2001″ (emphasis mine). Jennifer Larson, no doubt, did not like being called anti-vaccine because who wants to be against vaccines? Not someone who spreads misinformation about vaccines or keeps parents who have hesitation about them from their doctors. Oh wait.

In any case, the Star Tribune slipped up and called her anti-vaccine again, to report that she was planning, along with her anti-vaccine political party, a local fundraiser for anti-vaccine Libertarian presidential almost-candidate Rand Paul. The article was originally titled, “Head of anti-vaccination group to host Rand Paul fundraiser.” As far as headlines go, it was completely fair. Yet, months later, the headline has changed, and a correction now accompanies the article:

An earlier headline and photo caption with this article did not identify the Canary Party and its president, Jennifer Larson, correctly. Neither she nor the group oppose all vaccinations. Rather, they are raising questions about vaccine safety and federal vaccine research.

Oh really? She’s raising questions about vaccine safety? I know she has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to politicians in hopes of getting anti-vaccine misinformation about autism into the congressional record, but has she ever funded research about vaccine safety since she is so concerned about the federal research being done? (And can someone please point out how ridiculous it is to be concerned about “federal vaccine research” when vaccines are researched by governments and universities and non-profits and, yes, corporations across the globe, in lots of countries with lots of government structures?)

But the Star Tribune knows all this. I know they do because I have told them. So the real question remains: why do they keep capitulating to the absurd and inaccurate request by one anti-vaccine activists to be labeled as a “vaccine safety advocate.” Vaccine safety advocates do exist. They are the reason we have safe vaccines that prevent us from getting polio and diphtheria. They aren’t the lone voices repeating snippets of fraudulent, retracted studies.

Vaccination Stories Aren’t Easy (But You Can Still Get Them Right)

As his first year of college was just beginning, South Dakota student Beau Keeter contracted bacterial meningitis and died. The story was covered in papers across the country because the sudden loss of a young life is a tragedy. But we know what happens when the media covers a story about a vaccine-preventable disease.

It seems, though, that editors aren’t fully aware of what the potential blowback when they cover vaccine-related stories. And the editors of South Dakota’s Daily Republic appear to be in that state right now.

Last week, they published an editorial claiming “Vaccination stories aren’t easy.” That’s true, especially since immunology and infectious diseases are complex and the science is nuanced. But that’s not what they meant. They meant that people were displeased with their coverage.

Criticism came from those who advocate for vaccines and want the media to cover the topic in a way that presents the truth rather than needlessly stokes fears. The editors write:

Jim Keeter, the father of 17-year-old Beau Keeter, questioned the effectiveness of the vaccination. That’s when some of our readers became upset with our newspaper, saying that we didn’t do our part to ease the concern that there may be “a bad batch” of vaccinations, as Keeter suggested.

This criticism is fair. While it is understandable that a father would be heartbroken and want answers as to why his child died from a disease he was vaccinated against, floating easily disprovable theories is irresponsible journalism. It would have been easy for the Daily Republic to perform a simple 10-second Google search (as I did) about bad batches of vaccines and to find out that most vaccine recalls of batches or lots occur before the vaccines are sent out because the FDA detects irregularities in the vaccine. A more plausible theory, and one we would never expect a grieving father to answer to, is that his son was either a non-responder to the vaccine (since vaccines are not 100% effective). Another is that his son had a strain of bacterial meningitis not covered in the recommended vaccine, such as meningitis B. Either way, it is not a grieving father’s responsibility to fact check for the paper about why his son was vaccinated and still died.

For their part, however, the Daily Republic believes they did their due diligence in fact checking this point. They are wrong, but they do defend themselves by stating:

In our defense, we attempted to contact the state epidemiologist for the story, but he didn’t immediately return our calls. Then, as soon as we could, we followed up with that medical professional, who told us the meningococcal vaccine has an effectiveness of up to 95 percent within the first year. Within five years of the vaccination, the effectiveness hovers around 75 percent.

In this instance, we reported the opinion of a relevant source and went with what we had at the time. We felt it was a developing story that we could expand on later, and we did.

While attempting to contact the state epidemiologist seems like a reasonable course of action for a journalist, it isn’t. Pitting the theory of a grieving father against the facts as (theoretically since there was no reply) stated by an expert is just another example of false balance. So even if the epidemiologist would have responded, the disprovable theory about bad batches would still have appeared, and we would have been emotionally pulled to it because we all grieve with Jim Keeter for his son. We understand that we would all like there to be a better villain than bacteria for a senseless death.

The paper did, however, include information about the effectiveness of the meningococcal vaccine (assuming that Beau succumbed to serogroups A, C, W, or Y and not B or that he had received both vaccines). However, you will note that they consider this “the opinion of a relevant source.” Sorry, Daily Republic. That’s not how science works. The medical professional in question gave you the data borne through scientific study, not his personal musings on what he believes.

Furthermore, their assertion that they would continue to cover the developing story in the future is a massive failure of their responsibility to the public. Rather than partially informing and mostly misinforming the public, putting forth rumor and innuendo, the story would have been better framed in a thousand different ways.

It was unfair for the public to assume that Jim Keeter was an irresponsible parent who did not vaccinate his son. Reporting on the vaccination status of Beau was responsible. However, the public needs answers about how a vaccinated young adult can go away to college, still contract meningococcal disease, and die. They offered no answers in their reporting, and absent having those answers, they should not have suggested that a “bad batch” of vaccines was to blame.

Normally, I tell journalists that if they must report false information about vaccines (and here, they genuinely did not have to do so), that it is the journalists’ responsibility to correct that misinformation with their own words and not to present an opposing “opinion” from an expert. They are not reporting on the best location for a city park or a new parking law. Scientific reporting has facts. They should use them.

The Daily Republic (like many news outlets) remains defensive about their reporting on immunizations. They end their piece with:

We’ve also had a reader call each of the past few years following annual the flu shot clinic who has told us to stop running photos of kids who looked scared while getting shots. The reader tells us it discourages vaccinations.

Though, we want everyone to know, as we stated in an editorial earlier this year, we’re fully in favor of vaccinations. We know they’re extremely beneficial, as most medical professionals agree.

We know that getting vaccinations can be as simple as a small poke, but we also know vaccinations are a touchy subject of discussion.

Every year, someone tells them that they are stoking fears about vaccines, and it appears that every year they show children afraid of vaccines. But don’t worry. They are in favor of vaccines.

I have little sympathy for journalists who brush off the concerns of a public who are simply asking them to stick with the facts. The public deserves better.

Call Them Anti-Vaccine

What happens when a journalist interviews an anti-vaccine activist and doesn’t even bother with the pretense of balancing the piece with a pro-vaccine voice?

I’m glad you asked that question, as I have a real life example in the form an article published in the Santa Clarita Valley (CA) News. “Local parents rally for a referendum on vaccine bill” is a gleeful romp through anti-vaccine tropes and mythology without a whiff of fact-finding. The article is about activists trying to pass a referendum that would repeal the new California law which eliminates all non-medical exemptions to vaccines.

Of course, false balance is a real issue. No one wants journalists to evenly distribute print space between a pro-vaccine advocate and an anti-vaccine advocate because it gives the impression that both opinions are valid when one side is supported by an avalanche of evidence and the other is supported by 9/11 truthers and those who fear Agenda 21.

False balance would be an improvement on this piece, though, which only mentions the pro-vaccine doctor/legislator who authors this bill but doesn’t actually seek comment or quote him at all. Of course, mentioning Senator Pan is immediately followed up by the perspective of the anti-vaccine brigade:

The bill’s sponsors — Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica — framed the issue as one of public health and safety, saying decreases in vaccination rates endangered not just those who were not vaccinated, but those around them.

Opponents, however, question those claims, saying that those who are vaccinated can still catch diseases.

“Those who are vaccinated can still catch the disease,” is quite the sleight of hand. A child who is unvaccinated against measles and exposed has a 90% chance of catching the disease and can pass it on to 12-18 people without immunity. A fully vaccinated person, on the other hand, has a 97% chance of not catching it, and therefore a minuscule chance of passing it on to anyone else. So if you want to weigh infecting 18 people against infecting 0 people equally and claim that protecting those who cannot be vaccinated is not the responsibility of each person, then have at it. But you probably shouldn’t report it that way if you are a journalist because it flies in the face of fact.

Perhaps, though, this journalist was hoodwinked into believing that those featured in the piece were not anti-vaccine. After all, the article proclaims:

Six Santa Clarita Valley residents involved in the referendum drive sat down for an interview Friday and, during a lengthy conversation, said their position is not one that is anti-common sense, anti-science — or even anti-vaccine.

“I’m not anti-vaccine,” said Valencia resident Courtney Lackey, her hands resting on her petition clipboard. “I’m pro-vaccine safety.”

It’s odd, of course, that those being interviewed are allowed to frame themselves without question. If Donald Trump were to say, “I’m not anti-immigrant” (though it’s doubtful he ever would), a journalist would immediately come back with all the statements he’s made that prove otherwise.

So how odd is it that anti-vaxxers are allowed to assert that they are “pro-vaccine safety” without being questioned about what that means. Are they saying that the scientists who study vaccines in clinical trials to make sure there are no safety concerns regarding vaccines are not pro-vaccine safety? Or the researchers who spend their days analyzing post-licensure information to catch the extremely rare reactions, are they not pro-vaccine safety? It’s a strange way to spend your time studying something that you are against, I’d say.

Or are they saying they would be for vaccines if they were proven safe? That cannot be true, since vaccines have been proven safe, according to an Institute of Medicine review of one thousand studies. Also, if they are pro-vaccine safety, they surely must endorse some vaccines that they think are safe, but they do not. They don’t endorse any vaccines, despite evidence that they are safe, because they are not pro-vaccine safety.

They are anti-vaccine. They are against vaccines. They do not want to give their children vaccines, and they want others to do the same so that they feel camaraderie in their choices, community health be damned. And we know this because the article quotes parent Landee Martin saying, “People would leave California before they put their kids at risk.” The risk here is not leaving them vulnerable to diseases that historically have maimed and killed children in the United States. No, the risk is getting a very safe vaccine, something supported by nearly every pediatrician, family physician, nurse, researcher, and public health official.

At some point, I wanted to cut this journalist some slack. After all, how does someone report on political action (the referendum to overturn immunization legislation) or resistance to vaccination without actually interviewing anti-vaxxers and printing their words?

However, the last paragraph is the takeaway of any news article. It can also betray a journalist’s hidden bias. And this article ends:

Whether they agree with SB 277 or not, some referendum proponents said, allowing more time to review the issue and giving residents the ability to vote would be a positive thing.

The way one could summarize this article is that some concerned citizens who just want vaccines to be safe and to protect parent rights are working to help the public by giving the new legislation some time to be reviewed. It’s a good thing.

In reality, what we have here is a journalist who was, possibly willingly, hoodwinked. The anti-vaxxers were allowed to define themselves as agents for public good instead of those who present a threat to public health. Their statements were left unchecked by the journalist–or even by the bad journalistic practice of false balance. (And, yes, false balance would have been an improvement.) And finally, the bill was spun as a threat to freedom and rights while the actions of the referendum-seekers was spun as “a positive thing.”

Some would say that the referendum and the anti-vaccine actions should not have even been reported on, but I think it should have been reported on more responsibly. Here are my editorial suggestions, for what they are worth:

  • Do not allow anti-vaccine activists to define themselves as pro-vaccine safety without a challenge. At minimum add a sentence about how vaccines are safe, but preferably just call them anti-vaccine.
  • Include quotes from those involved in passing the original legislation (SB277) and their response to the anti-vaccine backlash.
  • Include background information, such as information about the Disneyland measles outbreak and the very low immunization rates in various California communities.
  • Correct anti-vaccine misstatements about the “risk” involved in vaccinating. Note: this correction is the journalist’s responsibility and should not be part of a quote coming from an expert.
  • Frame this referendum alongside other referendums Californians are hoping to pass, perhaps the referendum to make California a sovereign country, in order to help the public understand the legitimacy of ballot measures versus legislation.

That’s not really too much to ask, is it?

Photo Courtesty of The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Stop the Reduction of Science into Shouting Matches

When news becomes entertainment, it often devolves into shouting matches, and I don’t know about ratings or advertisers, but I suspect that these shouting matches are good for both. Bring together two people who staunchly support opposing positions, and–bam!–shouting match entertainment. But you know what they aren’t good for? Facts, and scientific facts in particular.

So inviting both Dr. Corey Hebert from Louisiana State University and Christina Hildebrand of A Voice for Choice on The Ed Show on MSNBC last month did absolutely nothing to further science. The discussion, which was supposed to center on Carly Fiorina’s statements about so-called parental choice and vaccines quickly devolved into hashtag-driven accusations about the horrors of vaccines and the impossible task of trying to refute these simplistic falsehoods by explaining complex science in mere seconds. Take a look:

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Of course, something that could have been a discussion about the balancing of rights when it comes to vaccine mandates became a discussion about vaccines and autism. When you invite an anti-vaccine activist onto your show, be aware that they only have two rabbits in their hat: vaccines cause autism (they don’t) and the CDC is evil (because evil).

The media is culpable, of course, because being salacious rather than sticking with the facts leads to outbreaks and perpetuates myths. And false balance is a real problem when it comes to science reporting, but especially journalism concerned about vaccines.

There is no clearer way to say it then this: vaccines do not cause autism, and there is no debate about concerning it. There are not two sides to vaccines and the science is not a political issue. The media need to keep this in mind when framing their stories.

One could make the case about the validity of discussing public policy and how best to require vaccines for school. However, that discussion is never going to happen meaningfully with an anti-vaccine activist because of those two rabbits I mentioned earlier. They only agree to media interviews so that they can perpetuate their long-disproven myths. They aren’t there for policy discussions. They are there to scare parents away from vaccines.

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And this is where everyone else in the world comes in. There are too many new journalists always coming into the industry who have immunization stories thrust at them even though they have no background in science reporting. False balance will always be an issue unless we do something.

I know how much we feel pulled to answer interview requests because we want to explain how safe and effective vaccines are to the public. It is a public service to go on television and make sure the news gets it right. But if we share space on the page or on TV with an anti-vaccine activist, we are only helping to give them the opportunity to sell their myths and we legitimize them by making their ideas seem equivalent with the science we are presenting. I put that in bold because if you read nothing else, I want you to understand that.

We need to stop agreeing to interviews when anti-vaxxers are being interviewed for the same story.

And I have done this. I am minor and easily replaceable, but it is a matter of principle. A minor cable news channel called and asked me for an on-camera interview. I asked immediately who else was being interviewed and found out they were also interviewing an anti-vaccine activist. So I said no. As luck would have it, they immediately called a friend of mine who told me about the request, and I was able to share with her what I’d learned. She, too, turned down the interview. What did they do? After watching the interview, it appears they stopped some random person in the parking lot and asked his opinion. Instead of the anti-vaxxer being given equal weight with a non-profit director, she was given the weight of a random guy from the parking lot. I wasn’t thrilled she was interviewed, but she didn’t seem as legitimate as she might have.

No matter who you are: a doctor, a public health official, a parent, etc., if someone calls and asks to interview you for a media story, the first words out of your mouth should be, “Who else are you interviewing?” If they are interviewing an anti-vaxxer, just say no. They might find someone else to interview, unless we all agree to stop being complicit in perpetuating false balance. But I hope, over time, they will just stop calling the anti-vaxxers and realize that the real battle is against preventable disease and not a cage match involving opposing sets of facts.

Sanctimonious Anti-Vaccine Woopreneur is Back on the Circuit

Do you remember cardiologist and supplement peddler Dr. Jack Wolfson? Part of his schtick is convincing parents that vaccines are bad and disease is good–a schtick that gets him quite a bit of publicity.

For example, during the Disneyland measles outbreak he told the Arizona Republic: “We should be getting measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, these are the rights of our children to get it.” Why would a doctor want your children to get sick? After all, most pediatricians try to prevent illness, and therefore suffering and potential complications, in their young patients. But Wolfson is not a pediatrician; he is a cardiologist-turned-supplement salesman. He is not without conflicts of interest.

When asked about children who cannot be vaccinated and who might be particularly vulnerable to diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox, he told a Phoenix news station:

It’s not my responsibility to inject my child with chemicals in order for [another child] to be supposedly healthy…I’m not going to sacrifice the well-being of my child. My child is pure. It’s not my responsibility to be protecting their child.

Not only does he think it is your child’s right to be sick, but he also thinks it is not your responsibility to contribute to community health.

After spouting off about the glories and disease and the pretend dangers of vaccines, Wolfson went silent, perhaps in part because he was under investigation by the medical board. What a relief that was!

Our reprieve was short-lived, though, because he is back. In a in a poorly written article chock-full of false balance, Wolfson is given a platform where he weighs in about vaccines against a doctor who is for them. The article focuses on the vaccine “debate,” framing it as a debate between scientists even though practically every doctor and scientist working in a field related to immunization agrees that vaccines are generally safe and effective.

In the article, Wolfson claims that “Zero is the number of randomized, placebo controlled vaccine trials,” casting doubt that vaccines have been studied. Granted, they have been studied, but Wolfson wants them studied in a way that would divide a group of children in two, giving half of the children vaccines and half the children a placebo, revealing to no one who has been immunized and who has not, and setting them free into their communities to potentially contract and disseminate diseases.

What sort of parent would agree to that study? Would an anti-vaccine parent agree to possibly having their child vaccinated without their knowledge? Would a pro-vaccine parent agree to leaving their children vulnerable without their knowledge. Of course not, but that doesn’t matter. Such a study is completely unethical.

Even though Wolfson suggests that unethical studies be performed on children, he has the gall to say, “Our children are not an experiment.” I call bologna. Those who perform actual studies that are both rigorous and ethical on immunizations know that they are studied more than any other pharmaceutical before they are given to our children and are continuously monitored unlike any other medication. Vaccinating children is not treating them like an experiment. Suggesting that disease is good and then turning around and selling unregulated supplements is treating children like an experiment.

Making unsupported, ridiculous statements about vaccines and then turning around and selling supplements seems to be a hallmark of anti-vaccine doctors. They are immune to being reasoned with or even shamed as long as their marketing scheme of frightening parents away from vaccines and into the loving embrace of their online stores keep working. We can work on those parents and give them good information about vaccines before they encounter the grifters and their sleight of hand. I fear, though, that nothing can stop these doctors except shutting down their online stores. In the meantime, as loudmouths like Wolfson continue hawking their wares under the guise of answering questions about immunization, we might have to be louder in our response.

The Most Egregious Example of False Balance

Discussions about vaccines are not debates, and the science behind vaccines does not have two sides any more than the science behind the roundness of the Earth does. So why are journalists still trying to balance their reporting about immunization with “the other side”?

I am somewhat sympathetic to journalists. Sometimes, when people in a community are making noise about their vaccine denialism, a journalist might have a hard time ignoring their noise in a story, even if their noise, while loud, represents a micro-minority of the community.

Today, however, I found one article about which I can muster no sympathy. It was a story about a boy out of Ft. Myers, Florida who had undergone a liver transplant due to cancer and then caught chickenpox from an unvaccinated child. Predictably, because of his compromised immune system, chickenpox nearly cost him his life.

It started off so promising, and it is really important for people in a community to be able to put faces to the abstract idea of “immunocompromised” and understand that real children need the real protection from community immunity. Our vaccines protect our friends and neighbors, too, after all.

In this very important story about a child who was already sick and whose community failed to protect him, the journalist included this quote from a chiropractor with no expertise in vaccines, immunology, or infectious diseases:

So, NBC2 spoke with Doctor Brienne Gindele.

She’s a family chiropractor in Fort Myers who does not believe in vaccinating young children.

‘The risks do not outweigh any benefits as far as I’m concerned, the neurological changes it makes to on especially an infant,” Dr. Gindele explained.

Gindele does believe it is the parents [sic] responsibility to make sure their children are immune to certain viruses though, whether a vaccine is used or not.

“If people choose to immunize then they need to be educated enough to understand that they need to get their children’s immunity checked,” Dr. Gindele told NBC2.

Dr. Gindele can believe all the livelong day anything she wants, but her beliefs are not supported by science, and they certainly are not newsworthy any more than the beliefs of a person who doesn’t like how seatbelts wrinkle his clothing would be relevant in a story about a near-fatal car accident. In fact, some of Dr. Gindele’s beliefs are factually wrong. Vaccines do not make neurological changes on an infant (and yes, that is code for autism).

Furthermore, this poor boy’s parents did not need to get his immunity checked. His parents knew he was completely vulnerable to chickenpox because he had undergone treatment for cancer and an organ transplant. They knew they were relying on the community to protect him. The community failed, and one chiropractor who uses fear of vaccines to sell her own services and is making excuses for this failure is completely irrelevant to this boy’s plight.

The journalist ends the piece with a quote from the parents, but she introduces it this way:

But, the Bells believe differently.

I can’t speak for the Bells, but their perspective is not about beliefs. As a matter of evidence and reality, their child actually suffered from a disease that he caught because charlatans continue to promote the idea that vaccines cause autism–something they (insultingly and incorrectly) frame as a fate worse than death. In a community where parents fell prey to this misinformation and endangered the life of a boy who deserved protecting, one journalist decided to continue to make the world a dangerous place by giving the purveyors of misinformation another platform.

Avoiding false balance isn’t just about being accurate. It’s also about not creating a world that endangers the lives of children.

UPDATE: If you tried clicking on the hyperlink to the article in question, you will notice that it has been taken down after numerous people emailed the producers at NBC-2 in Ft. Myers and Tweeted to the journalist in question. I have archived the article here. Together, we can eliminate false balance in media stories about vaccines.