Debate and public discussions, even when hosted formally, often weigh in favour of the worst representations of fact. ‘Gish Gallops’ of dubious truth demand time and careful attention to verify or refute.
Worse, for every truth, there seems to be several intuitively satisfying falsehoods – each a contender for belief without recourse to evidence. This is all grist for the mill for the Skeptics (capital ‘S’, and a ‘k’), and there’s a lot authored on the topic for the most part I’ll simply defer to.
My interest is in how ‘woo’ manages to hitch a ride on the often legitimate moral anxieties of its victims.
Meryl Dorey, guru of the Australian [Anti-]Vaccination Network (AVN), and purveyor of things not-necessarily true, was booked as a speaker for Queensland’s Woodford Folk Festival to impart ‘information’ about the risks of vaccination. This is worrying. New South Wales’ Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) found in 2010, after an extended investigation, that the AVN actually imparts dis-information, adopts a substantially anti-vaccination position (contrary to claims of impartiality) and was a risk to public health.
The kind of pseudo-science you get bombarded with from anti-vaccination lobbyists is pretty easy to debunk if you have a basic level of science literacy, and a little spare time on your hands (who has that anymore). Silly claims like ‘the vaccine preservative thiomersal contains mercury which will accumulate and make you sick’ – are easily debunked when realising that the mercury containing metabolite introduced to the body from thiomersal – ethylmercury – is known not to bioaccumulate (unlike methylmercury, which some anti-vaccination lobbyists occasionally get it confused with, which does). Thiomersal is safe – it doesn’t do what the ‘anti-vaxxers’ say it does.
Then there’s the gold standard of vaccine denialism; the 1998 Lancet study by disgraced former doctor, Andrew Wakefield. A study with a sample size of twelve children, and which was subject to data manipulation and forgery. This work of fraud (found so by The British General Medical Council – pdf here), is often cited in support of the quack claim that vaccines cause autism.
It’s often at this point in discussions with ‘anti-vaxxers’, that your conversation will take a turn for the X-Files; ‘Big Pharma’ got Wakefield at last; fluoride in the water is polluting our vital bodily fluids; chemical contrails; covert involuntary sterilisations; The Illuminati, and even The Reptile People if you’re lucky enough to be talking to a Ickeist. It’s either endless excuses to dismiss to prospect of having to deal with evidence, or a barrage of even more quack claims.
This is the kind of garbage ‘anti-vaxxers’ spit out, and much of it is the kind of thing one could expect from Meryl Dorey. Perhaps thankfully, she’s had company join her at Woodford since plans were revised; moderation provided by Doctors Without Borders.
I’ll leave matters like Dorey’s track record of the promotion of things that just aren’t true, through to the downright kooky, to the Skeptics.
(Seriously, don’t take my word on the medical details. Go follow Dr Rachie, or ask your GP.)
If you’ve followed the battles between the AVN and its critics, and battles like it, you’ll be familiar with how concepts such as free expression, and other legitimate concerns, are spuriously invoked. Meryl Dorey has been hitting the airwaves in the past few weeks, claiming to be the victim of censorship, and of death threats (which painfully, journalists seem to have a problem asking her to substantiate – what death threats?).
In my books, intimidation and censorship are serious matters, so this is my angle; the moral ecology and politics of this kind of thing. I’m going to be blunt about it because still it needs to be brought further into perspective.
In Freedom Evolves (2003), Daniel Dennett, in the context of the evolution of altruism, outlines the behaviour of ‘cooperators’ and ‘freeloaders’ within a model population. ‘Cooperators’ are those who make sacrifices for their kin, whereas ‘freeloaders’ as their name implies, receive benefits from their ‘cooperator’ kin, while not reciprocating. In the most basic models, the flourishing of the ‘freeloaders’ hits an ‘embarrassing’ equilibrium when there aren’t enough ‘cooperators’ to mooch off of; when the ‘freeloaders’ become more likely to have to interact with their own kind (reciprocated freeloading).
The ‘embarrassing’ equilibrium in the basic models Dennett describes, was embarrassing because it simply didn’t reflect reality very well, so further revisions needed to made; namely the inclusion of a concept of neighbourhood, and importantly, the ability of ‘cooperators’ and ‘freeloaders’ to learn from past experience. This produced interesting results.
‘The inevitability – note the term – of a group being swamped by freeloaders always depended on the assumption that everybody would be oblivious; there would be no capacity of the various individuals to notice what was happening, to raise the alarm, to deplore, to propose sanctions, to form vigilante groups, to brand or punish the freeloaders among them. Once we add simple versions of this reactivity, it ushers in a wave of new complexities. Dire conditions that had seemed inevitable now turn out to be preventable after all, thanks to the timely and well-aimed use of information by group members.‘ – Emphasis added.
(Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves, 2003)
The modelling this far in (which is actually quite stable and self-consistent), or something like it, Dennett states, does not produce something ‘purely moral’, but can be seen as a ‘necessary precondition’ for the emergence of altruistic agents. In a sense, this almost looks like the debate raging between ‘anti-vaxxers’ and pro-medical science advocates.
These game-theoretical models have embedded in them (being based on the Prisoner’s Dilemma), the concept of the fake-altruist (the ‘bluffer’), forming a the basis for an ‘arms-race’ between the means of bluffing altruism by ‘freeloaders’, and the means of bluff-detection by ‘cooperators’. It can get quite multi-layered, and this is before even considering environmental factors such as language and culture!
Whatever the truth of the matter may be in our evolutionary past, the moral arms-race between the bluffing/bluff detection of modern ‘freeloaders’ and ‘cooperators’ seems to play out on a cultural level as well – particularly in the ecology of the kinds of public debates we’re discussing.
‘Freeloaders’ develop a new bluff which enables the exploitation of ‘cooperators’, who in response find a means to detect the bluff by highlighting hypocrisy, inconsistency, or cruelty – all before the cycle repeats as new ‘bluffs’ are found. It’s an ongoing battle. I’d like to think whatever the cost, it produces an accumulation of moral wisdom, that we increase our knowledge of what is real and what is fake concern over time.
You may possibly see where I’m going with this already; Meryl Dorey, in claiming to inform, and educate, and to stand for freedom of choice, and freedom of expression, and in casting her critics as responsible for death threats, is acting the ‘bluffer’. The broader task of her critics then, in addition to the countering of dubious factual claims, is one of constantly informing ‘cooperators’ in the updated means of moral ‘bluff detection’.
Is Meryl Dorey sincere about freedom of expression? I’m not convinced.
I’d expect if Dorey were as ideologically wedded to liberalism as she pretends, she’d be better acquainted with John Stuart Mill’s injunction against the incitement of mobs against corn sellers, or would at least show some familiarity with the oft-cited idea of not shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. The idea that free expression has limits has been around since the dawn of liberalism, and the deciding criteria has been harm – something entirely relevant given the subject matter.
This is not to say that I think Meryl Dorey should be absolutely suppressed, rather I’m questioning the absolutism of her convictions, and I’m suggesting that she’s not in fact entitled to every platform that comes along. At the very least her right to spread such propaganda, given the question of its veracity and safety, is not beyond scrutiny.
Meryl Dorey claims to want to help people make informed choices by exposing them to ‘both sides of the debate’. (There is no ‘debate’).
How does one make morally meaningful choices when ill-informed? How can people be reliably informed when information is confounded by misinformation – when fact shares the stage with complete bullshit?
Did I mention that Meryl Dorey has given lip service to AIDS denialism? (I’ll get back to this).
Of course, it’s not just Meryl who’s doing this; the entire ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement is an exercise in bluffing concern in a non-existent moral crisis, and it’s not just the values of free-speech, or choice, that are subject to exploitation.
In defense of Oprah Winfrey, who had been criticised in Newsweek for promoting dangerous ‘alternative medicine’ practices on her show, Shipman and Kay wrote at HuffPo…
‘That photo was just in horribly bad taste. Picking a photo of Oprah to make her literally look crazy, with a banner headline about wacky cures? Was the point to make her look like a nutty witch doctor? In fact it felt not only misogynistic, but racist. I could almost hear the voodoo drumbeats (sic) in the background.‘ – Emphasis added.
(Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, 2009)
The article criticised what really are ‘wacky cures’, so a ‘wacky’ photo isn’t automatically out of the question. What exactly would Shipman and Kay have had Newsweek do?
Racism isn’t what Shipman and Kay are interested in; they’re explicitly defending the anti-vaccination movement from scrutiny. Shipman and Kay are ‘bluffing’ and perhaps they believe their own bluff (self-deception is par for the course in this kind of thing).
(For a moment, on the matter of racism, with either Shipman or Kay admitting that when they see an African-American, they almost hear Voodoo drum beats – this has me wondering who the racists are, exactly. Next will they be telling us that when they see Italian men, they hear the Super Mario Bros. theme?)
Shipman and Kay hold virtue hostage; they exploit the moral concerns of their readers (‘cooperators’) by claiming racism and misogyny without actually demonstrating how these concerns play out in the case in question.
This can be easy to pull-off when people are overly suspicious about rationalism; when they need overt displays of emotional committment in order to give trust, instead of needing valid syllogisms, and the signs of hard, scholarly work. Many of the readers of HuffPo seem ripe for this kind of faux-moral exploitation.
Indeed, the history of the Hollywood media seems likely to be found to a veritable Burgess Shale of ‘bluffers’ by anyone willing to do the digging. However, I want to highlight an example of bluffing, using much the same allusions as Shipman and Kay, albeit resulting in considerably more destruction and human suffering. The following is why ‘bluff-detection’ is important.
Ben Goldacre, writing of Matthias Rath’s exploits in Mbeki’s South Africa, in the formerly excised portion of Bad Science (2009), tells us…
‘The answer to the AIDS epidemic is here,’ he proclaimed. Anti-retroviral drugs were poisonous, and a conspiracy to kill patients and make money. ‘Stop AIDS Genocide by the Drugs Cartel’ said one headline. ‘Why should South Africans continue to be poisoned with AZT? There is a natural answer to AIDS.’ The answer came in the form of vitamin pills. ‘Multivitamin treatment is more effective than any toxic AIDS drug.’ ‘Multivitamins cut the risk of developing AIDS in half.’
‘So this [the South African AIDS epidemic] was the situation into which the vitamin-pill entrepreneur Matthias Rath inserted himself, prominently and expensively, with the wealth he had amassed from Europe and America, exploiting anti-colonial anxieties with no sense of irony, although he was a white man offering pills made in a factory abroad.’ – Emphasis added.
(Ben Goldacre, 2009)
…and of the political context, Goldacre informs us that…
‘President Mbeki sent a letter to world leaders comparing the struggle of the ‘AIDS dissidents’ to the struggle against apartheid. The Washington Post described the reaction at the White House: ‘So stunned were some officials by the letter’s tone and timing – during final preparations for July’s conference in Durban – that at least two of them, according to diplomatic sources, felt obliged to check whether it was genuine.’ Hundreds of delegates walked out of Mbeki’s address to the [2000 International AIDS] conference in disgust, but many more described themselves as dazed and confused.’ – Emphasis added.
(Ben Goldacre, 2009)
It’s worth repeating that Meryl Dorey has herself expressed AIDS denial, but more to the point of the ‘bluff’ in focus, has recently begun peddling anti-vaccination disinformation on Indigenous Australian radio. Just how dangerous can medical disinformation become when sold via bluff amongst a vulnerable population?
Thanks to a range of obstructionist policies in Mbeki’s South Africa, including the blocking of freely donated anti-retroviral medications that wouldn’t have cost the nation a cent…
‘More than 330,000 lives or approximately 2.2 million person-years were lost because a feasible and timely ARV treatment program was not implemented in South Africa. Thirty-five thousand babies were born with HIV, resulting in 1.6 million person-years lost by not implementing a mother-to-child transmission prophylaxis program using nevirapine. The total lost benefits of ARVs are at least 3.8 million person-years for the period 2000–2005.’
(Chigwedere, et al., 2008)
And dying from opportunistic infections isn’t a nice way to go either – just ask anyone who’s lost loved ones to AIDS.
Thankfully Meryl Dorey is no President Mbeki, nor is she a Matthias Rath, nor thankfully is she in a position to be. Yet her paranoid cod-philosophy civics belong to the same class of dangerous, faux-moral campaigning, the same bluffing, while the social acceptance of such bunk relies on the same old category of moral complacency (failed bluff-detection).
It doesn’t require any paranoia at all to envisage a scenario where Dorey’s ignorance could lead to a reduction in herd immunity amongst regional Aboriginal Australian communities, leading to a potentially lethal outbreak of pertussis (here’s what it looks like*).
And for what? New-age feel-goodism? Just another excuse for people to stop and pat themselves on the back for supposedly being ‘live and let live’ (ironic given the consequences)?
I don’t find the prospect of sacrificing children at the altar of middle-class indulgence to be morally desirable.
Which brings us back to the Woodford Folk Festival.
People will be going to have a good time of course, but these events are rarely ever purely about entertainment. You only need look at the history and themes of folk music to realise that concerned citizens will be in attendance.
I don’t fault anyone for wanting to be a good person, and I bristle at the phrase ‘do-gooder’ – it’s not unrealistic to expect that there are things in this world that can be improved. But good intentions are a finite resource that like any other, need to be guarded responsibly against exploitation by ‘freeloaders’.
There are a hundred and one things that could probably make this easier; better science and civics education in schools; better public health education; less unpaid overtime and a raft of other social justice reforms making doing good, and knowing how to do good, more attainable. All I can suggest at this point, especially to those who have attended the Woodford Folk Festival, is that they hone their moral bluff-detection as best they can.
Aside from the matters of fact, which the Skeptics have very well sewn-up, activists like Meryl Dorey aren’t necessarily the best proponents and practitioners of the values they espouse. If there’s a sign that will convince me we are successful in dealing this as a society, it’ll be that point when we not only view dubious medical claims as factually wrong, but also that we view the indulgences of middle-class medical cults less as spiritual, and more akin to potential trading in conflict diamonds.
Consider the high price paid by South Africa when anyone tells you modern medical science is anything approaching colonialism, and remember this whenever anyone tries to prescribe unqualified medical advice on any such basis. This is a moral issue every bit as much as it is about medical fact, and people’s critical thinking needs to reflect this, in order to catch the ‘bluff’.
* This is hard to watch. It needs pointing out, that children can be too young for, or can for other reasons not be able to have vaccination. This is why herd immunity is important; to help prevent the transmission of diseases to those who can’t legitimately be vaccinated. Sadly, low herd immunity was how Dana McCaffery, who was too young to be vaccinated, contracted pertussis, passing away at the age of only four weeks.