Andrew Wakefield and Elle Macpherson – woo attracts woo while we laugh

Andrew Wakefield and Elle Macpherson

Celebrity romances rank with soccer, Game of Thrones, and iPhone vs. Android as the things I couldn’t care less about. I wouldn’t know anything about anyone. But, there are exceptions, like when the USA is actually in the World Cup. When I see stories about Andrew Wakefield and Elle Macpherson, I cannot stop myself. I have to read about it, and I have to make fun of it.

Now, most of us know all about one of the greatest scientific frauds of the past 100 years – Mr. Andrew Wakefield and his false, and ultimately retracted, claims that somehow the MMR vaccine was linked to autism spectrum disorder. Of course, there is a mountain of affirmative evidence that has refuted the claim of a link between the vaccine and autism. That’s settled science, except, of course, in the minds of Wakefield sycophants who believe otherwise.  Continue reading “Andrew Wakefield and Elle Macpherson – woo attracts woo while we laugh”

“Bad Advice” by Paul Offit – a book review by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

Bad Advice

A new book, “Bad Advice: Or Why Celebrities, Politicians, and Activists Aren’t Your Best Source of Health Informationby Dr. Paul Offit, is different from his previous writings in two ways – much of it is autobiographical, with a lot of personal anecdotes, and it is about science communication rather than the actual science.

“Bad Advice” opens with a story of a 1997 TV interview Dr. Offit has, and how he bungled – by his account – a question about which vaccines children get, how many, and when. The story sets the tone for the book – it’s funny, it’s candid about what Dr. Offit did, in his view, wrong, and it offers sound advice for other science communicators.

To a large extent, this book was written for those engaged in science communication, and it is full of tips that can help every current or would-be science communicator.

What gives the book its charms are the anecdotes and the humor sprinkled throughout it, and its accessible and conversational tone, but I don’t think I can mirror that here without spoiling the effect – I think these are best enjoyed in context. So this review describes the content but does not capture what makes “Bad Advice” so much fun.

For full disclosure, I highly admire Dr. Offit, have sought his advice and help on many issues in my writing on and advocacy related to vaccines, and consider him a personal friend. I have also read a draft of the book and provided comments. 

Why Science Communication?

The first three chapters of “Bad Advice” provide important background by explaining why science communication is needed, and some of the obstacles to it. 

The first two chapters of the book set out what science is and what scientists do, and why their training and background make it difficult for them to be effective science communicators. Among the things covered – again, with a lot of humor, humility, and personal anecdotes – are that much of the scientific work is done alone, and much of what it requires makes people less, rather than more, suited to work with people. 

Dr. Offit discusses the fact that the scientific method trains scientists away from using absolute statements, but qualified statements can backfire when communicating about science; the challenge of reducing complex, nuanced reality into sound bites that work in a digital age; and more.

The next chapter analyzes why we need science communication, why people – however smart – may fall for misinformation. It looks at several natural, human features that make us easily wrong on scientific issues. “Bad Advice” also examines our difficulty identifying and assessing risks, the pull of celebrities as authority figures, even though they may not have the background to provide good information, and may, in fact, promote bad information (for example, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.  – revisited later in the book – constantly provides bad information about vaccines  ). The chapter also talks about other limits on the ability of humans to think rationally and the ways we acquire knowledge.

After thus setting the stage for why it’s important to engage in science communication and some of the challenges, Dr. Offit is ready for the next stage.

Good advice vs bad advice

Chapters 4 through 7 offer direct advice on communications through personal anecdotes of things that worked and things that didn’t in Dr. Offit’s over 20 years of doing it.

In chapter 4, Dr. Offit offers “some painful, hard-earned, and occasionally humorous lessons gleaned from personal experience” on communicating with the public. These range from the deeply practical (“be comfortable”) to the content based (“be sympathetic,” in the context of an eleven-year-old diagnosed with AIDS at the time when HIV was a death sentence, and “Don’t panic.

The facts are your safety net.”). But they’re invariably written as amusing anecdotes leading to a useful punchline. In one of the stories, Dr. Offit describes how he arrived at the famous “10,000 vaccines” quote that anti-vaccine activists like to misuse. The punchline? “You are going to say things that, although scientifically accurate, you will regret. It’s unavoidable.”

Chapter five addresses whether it’s appropriate for scientists to debate science deniers, using several examples. Dr. Offit’s recommendation is to avoid it, but he does provide three successful examples of such debates. His conclusion is that he, personally, is too angry and passionate on vaccine issues to successfully participate – because he annually sees children die from preventable diseases, “invariably, .. because parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children. And the reason they had made that choice was that they had read or heard bad information..”

Bad Advice ends with a recommendation that “debating the undebatable is worthwhile,” if, and only if, scientists can see the discussion as a teachable moment, and not focus on the people they are debating or the others in the room.

I’m not sure I agree, at least in terms of a televised debate. I think Dr. David Gorski said it well when he wrote:

…debating cranks doesn’t sway anyone, sharing the stage with a real scientist does unduly elevate the crank in the eyes of the public. Besides, whatever the seeming outcome of the debate, you can count on the crank to declare victory and his believers to agree. In any event, science isn’t decided by the metrics used to judge who “wins” a public debate, which rely more on rhetoric and cleverness rather than science to decide the outcome. Finally, such debates are not without risks. Although Julian Whitaker, for example, was terrible at it, other cranks are adept at the Gish Gallop, and an unprepared skeptic or scientist can be made to appear clueless in front of a crowd that is almost always packed with supporters of the crank, not the skeptic.

I think I agree with Dr. Offit’s initial position that agreeing to a debate is a bad idea.

Chapter six looks at the role of comedians in combating misinformation about science, focusing on vaccines – covering the Penn and Teller episode, Jimmy Kimmel, the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. And I’m really going to let you read that by yourselves. It’s fun.

Chapter seven looks at the ways the cinema helps or harms science communication. It opens by comparing two films about outbreaks – “Contagion,” that got the science right, and “Outbreak,” that did not. To give a flavor, when talking about “Outbreak,” Dr. Offit describes how a monkey carrying the harmful virus was caught, and the movie scientists had to “determine which antibodies are neutralizing the mutant virus, synthesize those antibodies, and make several liters of life-saving antisera. Assuming everything goes well, Hoffman’s task should take about a year. Cuba Gooding Jr. does it in a little less than a minute. (Now I understand why people are angry that we still don’t have an AIDS vaccine.).”

Nonetheless, Dr. Offit sees an important role for movies in science communications, and urge scientists to work with filmmakers to get it right.

Science communication in action – confronting the anti-vaccine movement:

The last part of the book uses the anti-vaccine movement as a story of the pitfalls and successes of science communication.

Chapter 8 of “Bad Advice” looks at how charismatic figures can promote anti-science misinformation. Although it covers several examples, the heart of the chapter is the case of Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who promoted misinformation about MMR. Dr. Offit tells the dramatic story of Wakefield’s rise, the scientific literature that showed him wrong, and the discovery of his misdeeds, that led to his fall. He describes Wakefield’s situation today – thoroughly discredited, on par with other conspiracy theorists – through his participation in the infamous Conspirasea Cruise.  The end of the chapter examines different explanations for why Wakefield sticks to his original claims, years after they’ve been thoroughly disproven. I’ll let you find out yourselves. It’s not exactly flattering to Wakefield, though. 

Chapter 9 looks at the role of politicians in promoting anti-science misinformation, focusing on Dan Burton’s hearings that tried to make a case that vaccines cause autism (YouTube snippets of the hearings, out of context, are still used by anti-vaccine activists. Dr. Offit will give you a more comprehensive view). Dr. Offit also tells of his own experience in the hearing, and what he sees as errors committed because of his naiveté and inexperience. It’s half sad and half comical to read through both his preparation for the hearing, and the actual experience of Mr. Burton, who came into the hearing with a set conclusion and a set role he wanted Dr. Offit to play, trying to delegitimize him. 

Chapter 10 warns science communicators to expect a campaign of personal delegitimization and attacks, drawing on Dr. Offit’s own extensive experiences with anti-vaccine efforts to attack him. It goes from hateful emails, through lawsuits, to death threats. It’s painful but incredibly important for people who go into these areas to be prepared for the ugly reaction from misguided but passionate people on the other side, in all its extreme forms. 

Chapter 11 goes more deeply into Dr. Offit’s own reasons for entering the fray. It is very autobiographical (some of the events in it were described in some of Dr. Offit’s other books, but many will be new to readers), telling his career story – again, with lots of humor, more than a few lumps. This is to explain what motivates him to speak up, and to some degree, to counter the claims accusing him of having a conflict of interests because of his involvement in the creation of the rotavirus vaccine. It’s a powerful chapter.

Chapter 12 ends on an optimistic note, pointing out things that have improved in the war for science – the rise of science bloggers, the better attitude of the media. And in the epilogue, Dr. Offit ends with the March of Science, as an embodiment of the willingness of science supporters to fight back.

Takeaway

In this very autobiographical, often humorous, extremely candid and full of good advice book, Dr. Offit does a service to science communicators by telling them what worked, what didn’t, and some thoughts on what comes next. You may not always agree with his advice, but you are very likely to agree with large parts of it, think about much of it, and enjoy the way it’s delivered. It’s a very fast read, and worth reading and probably rereading. And rereading.





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Vaccines and autism – science says they are unrelated

vaccines and autism

Vaccines and autism are not linked or related according to real science, published in real scientific journals written by top scientists and physicians.

But this false claim is in the news again. Probably as a result of reports that more and more children are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. So let’s take a look at the science.

On 26 April 2018, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that new data showed a continued rise in the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is considered to be a disorder of neural development, usually appearing before the age of 3 years, characterized by impaired social interaction and verbal and non-verbal communication, and by restricted, repetitive or stereotyped behavior.

Predictably, the anti-vaccine community jumped on this information (despite their hatred of the CDC) to make unfounded claims, not backed by science, that this was all the fault of vaccines. Of course.

Continue reading “Vaccines and autism – science says they are unrelated”

20th anniversary of the Andrew Wakefield vaccine fraud – no celebrations

andrew wakefield

I’m a couple of months late with this article because of life and reasons, but a bit over 20 years ago, in February 1998, Andrew Wakefield published his infamous article in Lancet, which was eventually retracted in 2010. He stated that “onset of behavioural symptoms was associated, by the parents, with measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination in eight of the 12 children.” Because Wakefield claimed that most of the behavioral problems were autism, that became the rallying cry of the anti-vaccine religion for the past 20 years – the MMR vaccine, if not all vaccines, cause autism.

I actually remember getting that particular issue of Lancet 20 years ago, and I ran across that article. My first thought was, “why in hell would Lancet publish such a troublesome article with just 12 freaking (not the word I used) data points.” Then I wondered who that Wakefield character was – was he an expert on vaccines and childhood behavioral issues? Well, the internet in 1998 didn’t have search engines like we do today, so finding out anything about Andrew Wakefield was difficult at best. I just assumed that if the Lancet, one of the top medical journals in the world, published it, Wakefield must have some level of respect.

Even though the internet was as much a bastion of pseudoscience and conspiracists as it is now, you would never “do your research” on the internet. But our local newspaper had a blurb about the Wakefield study in a Sunday health section, and my wife read the article. She got panicked that our two young daughters, who were having upcoming MMR vaccines, would become autistic. That was my first experience in having to defend vaccines against nonsense (don’t tell my wife I called her worries were nonsense).

My daughters eventually got that vaccine (and received all subsequent vaccines up to and including the HPV vaccine), although even I monitored my children for a few weeks for any behavioral changes. Knowing what I know now, I should have just a fun dad, but I admit to worrying.

Let’s remind everyone about the frauds and lies of Andrew Wakefield because it has led to the return of vaccine-preventable diseases. Continue reading “20th anniversary of the Andrew Wakefield vaccine fraud – no celebrations”

Once more about Andrew Wakefield fraud extraordinaire

For the handful of you who don’t know him, MrAndrew Wakefield fraudulently alleged a connection between the MMR vaccine, for measles, mumps and rubella) and autism – this has had the effect of suppressing vaccination rates in many countries. His claims were published in a now retracted paper published in the Lancet, a mostly respected medical journal who seemed to have forgotten how to do proper peer review back in the late 1990’s. This is a quick review of the Andrew Wakefield fraud.

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss – Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA) – is a frequent contributor to this blog. She had posted an article that debunks the myth that Andrew Wakefield is probably innocent of all charges made against him by the UK’s General Medical Council (GMC). Basically, some of the antivaccination crowd believes that because Wakefield’s partner in the fraud, Professor John Walker-Smith, had his own decision by the GMC overturned, it is considered evidence that Andrew Wakefield was wronged when the GMC found Wakefield, too, guilty of serious ethical violations. But that would be an incorrect interpretation of the facts. Continue reading “Once more about Andrew Wakefield fraud extraordinaire”

Why do I call it the “anti-vaccine religion”? Let me explain

anti-vaccine religion

A few months ago, I started characterizing the anti-vaxxer fanatics as being members of the “anti-vaccine religion.” It wasn’t an important point to me, because as I constantly stress, the only thing that matters is scientific evidence – the vast bulk of which supports the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

In fact, I know a lot of pro-vaccine people, many of whom are leaders in pointing out the flaws of the anti-vaccine religion, are themselves religious. I am an atheist, but I do not decide who are my friends on social media or real life, based on their religious beliefs. Since almost every major religion in the world supports vaccination, and in almost every case, strongly so,  it’s clear that organized religion and vaccines are not in conflict.

For me, “anti-vaccine religion” was a throwaway line almost tongue-in-cheek, because, from my standpoint, the group acts as if it were a religious cult. In fact, some people I know, who loathe the anti-vaccine zealots, do classify them as a cult. Anyway, of all the things I represent, my obvious pejorative use of religion ranked near the bottom of my “care” list.

Then, this:

Now that Daniel Goldman has thrown down the gauntlet, I guess I’m going to have to fully explain my impeccable (or not) logic. Because from any perspective, the anti-vaccine religion functions like a religion, in some ways, an organized one. Let me explain. Continue reading “Why do I call it the “anti-vaccine religion”? Let me explain”

Andrew Wakefield discredited – a collection of his attacks on vaccines

Andrew Wakefield discredited

Between Dorit Rubinstein Reiss and I, we have written over 100 articles about that cunning fraud, Andrew Wakefield. Are you going to find anything positive about him in any of those +100 articles? No way. Is Andrew Wakefield discredited as a physician, scientist, and vaccine expert? You bet.

Why are we so obsessed with pointing out that he has been discredited? Because he has become, through media manipulation and many anti-vaccine acolytes and sycophants, the face of the “vaccines cause autism” meme. Note to the casual reader – there is absolutely no evidence that vaccines cause autism.

Is Andrew Wakefield discredited? Damn straight he is.

Mr. Wakefield is no doctor. He has been stricken off the list of physicians in the UK which is tantamount to having his license to practice medicine revoked. Because he is no longer a physician, he can no longer be found in the Royal College of Surgeons.

And let’s not forget that Wakefield’s article, that made him a hero to the anti-vaccine crowd, in the Lancet was disowned by his coauthors and eventually retracted by the journal. Interesting little bit of trivia – the very first article (other than a welcome-test article) I ever wrote on here was about Wakefield.

Just to make life easier for those of you researching Andrew Wakefield and his various frauds, I’ve organized many of my posts into categories, so that you can find the Andrew Wakefield article that meets your needs. Continue reading “Andrew Wakefield discredited – a collection of his attacks on vaccines”

Andrew Wakefield, the discredited anti-vaccine fraud, enters Texas politics

Sorry for the clickbait headline (see Note 1), because the cunning fraud, Andrew Wakefield, isn’t exactly entering Texas politics. He’s getting involved with an election in a Republican primary for Texas House of Representatives District 134, by using his influence to support Susanna Dokupil against Republican incumbent Sarah Davis.

What did Ms. Davis do to offend the Wakefield sycophants? Well, it doesn’t take much, just support vaccines. Davis angered anti-vaccine groups, who prefer euphemisms like “vaccine choice” or “medical freedom,” when she pushed to mandate HPV vaccines for foster children. I haven’t ever voted for a Republican in my long life, but I’d probably vote for Davis in the open Republican primary if I lived in Texas House District 134.  Continue reading “Andrew Wakefield, the discredited anti-vaccine fraud, enters Texas politics”

Jenny McCarthy, with help from Oprah Winfrey, lies about vaccines

jenny mccarthy vaccines

Jenny McCarthy was once the MTV drunk college dating game hostess and former “journalist” on The View. I remember when she joined The View – there was widespread condemnation of her hiring from scientists, journalists, and yours truly because of her loud and annoying antivaccine rhetoric. Clearly, no one of any note supported her being hired on the View, except for websites like the Age of Pushing Nonsense To Harm Children. Continue reading “Jenny McCarthy, with help from Oprah Winfrey, lies about vaccines”

Senator Richard Pan responds calmly to anti-vaccine radical

Senator Richard Pan

California State Senator Richard Pan is a physician who was instrumental in leading the charge for SB277, the law that eliminated personal belief exemptions to vaccinations by California school age children. Senator or Dr. Pan, your choice I presume, has been dedicated to the health of children in the state of California, sponsoring bills that attempt to improve the healthcare of children across the state.

Unless you’re a vaccine denier, SB277 has been an unmitigated success. Vaccination rates have skyrocketed across the state, meaning more children are protected from deadly vaccine-preventable diseases. Dr. Pan deserves a statue in the Hall of Vaccine Heroes, which should include Edward Jenner, Paul Offit, Jonas Salk, and Maurice Hilleman. He’s probably too modest to accept such an honor.

Unfortunately, Senator Richard Pan has been the target of violent hateful racism and withering personal attacks across social media. He seems to either ignore it, or like many of us, just stand up to these attacks with reasoned, evidence-based arguments. Not that the vaccine deniers are capable of listening to reason or evidence.

Recently, Dr. Pan was accosted by an anti-vaccine crackpot at an airport in Orange County, CA. She videoed the encounter, despite being asked by Dr. Pan to not do so. Well, let’s look at the video, especially Dr. Pan’s responses, which were calm, professional, and accurate. Continue reading “Senator Richard Pan responds calmly to anti-vaccine radical”



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