“Declare Your Agenda!”
Posted by Ethan Clow on May 20, 2011
As we mentioned on Radio Freethinker 115 in our skeptical highlights, there was an interesting talk in Vancouver called “Vaccination Science and Politics: What Should We Believe?” I attended this talk along with some local skeptics. We weren’t sure what to expect but we thought we were ready for the worst.
I don’t think we brought enough tin hats, sadly.
The evening started off on a odd note. I arrived early to the Unitarian Church, where the event was taking place. However when I asked the staff where the talk was happening, they didn’t know anything about it. In fact they even wondered if I had the wrong church. I showed them the ad in the Georgia Straight and they said they would look into it.
Even the speaker for the event, Lucija Tomljenovic, didn’t know where the talk was taking place. However once that was sorted out the small room quickly started to fill up.
The event was hosted by the World Federalist Movement, which if you read their website, is a non-profit membership based group that advocates for world democratic governments. From their website:
World Federalists support
- strengthening international law,
- an effective International Criminal Court,
- reforming the UN to make it a more effective peacekeeper,
- reforming the operations of the WTO to create democratic input and accountability,
- creation of appropriate global parliamentary assemblies for the WTO and the UN,
- and the design and implementation of treaties, eg.,
- the landmines treaty,
- disarmament treaties,
- arms trading restrictions,
- ecological environmental treaties,
- and treaties to protect diversity and local authority.
Sounds reasonable. However, after the three or four hosts who came up to talk about the group and their mandate, I began to get skeptical. The language they used when talking about their goals and initiatives is very similar to the way people talk about conspiracy theories like a new world order or the illuminati or something.
I was equally skeptical of the speaker Lucija Tomljenovic, she’s a member of Chris Shaw’s lab at UBC. For listeners that remember, we had Dr. Shaw on the show to debate the H1N1 Vaccine with Dr. Rob Tarzwell. Unfortunately that episode coincided with a technical error at CiTR and we weren’t able to podcast it.
Shaw has been referred to in a number of dubious anti-vaccine articles for the Georgia Straight, including “Vaccines show sinister side” and “What’s in your H1N1 flu vaccine?” he’s also done a number of talks and articles about the toxins in vaccines, which you can find on your own. Now, aside from the repeated science fails that the Georgia Straight seems to trod out on a regular basis, Shaw is a crank in my opinion. Most, if not all of his claims about vaccines have been debunked ages ago and with some diligent work, anyone can learn about them. I suggest starting with Science Based Medicine, What’s the Harm and Respectful Insolence.
Perhaps Tomljenovic would provide some reasonable evidence and this would actually be a very good talk. No such luck.
She hit on all of Shaw’s main points. Aluminum in vaccines, just because a scientist says something doesn’t make it true (she should take her own advice), why are there no animal tests, what about sudden infant death after vaccines, and on and on.
At every point when I or another skeptic in the audience raised a question, she would immediately say she was going to address that exact claim and then proceeded to do a gish-gallop presenting studies and graphs that “proved” her point. In reality, she showed only the titles of these studies, and only quoted from the abstracts and even then, only selected points completely out of context. If she had wanted to suggest that her research is supported by the scientific evidence, she should have focused on one or two studies and gone in-depth with them.
A few times we caught her making gross exaggerations. At one point she complained that a new vaccine was being tested against another vaccine and not an inactive placebo. What she repeatedly failed to grasp is that the study wasn’t trying to determine if the vaccine being tested was having any effect (in such a case an inactive placebo would be used) but rather that it was being tested to see how effective it was COMPARED to a tried and trusted vaccine.
She also completely failed to grasp why in a safety study of vaccines, people who had adverse reactions to the vaccine immediately after taking it were excluded. The answer is because many people are allergic to ingredients that go into vaccines, eggs for instance. These people require specially prepared vaccines or else they could go into anaphylactic shock from taking one that has an allergen in them. In order to get a clear control group for determining adverse reaction, people who are allergic to the ingredients must be excluded. After all, it’s not the vaccine that’s causing their adverse reactions, in order to figure out what is, you need a group where people were taking the vaccine long enough to study.
However, the audience didn’t appreciate these points being raised. One person loudly demanded that we “declare our agenda”, this was followed by a chorus of agreement. One fellow wanted to know who was funding us.
It quickly became apparent that the crowd was just as conspiracy laden as we thought. Throughout the talk, dirty words were “The World Health Organization“, “Paul Offit“, “FDA” and more. Shocked? Didn’t you know that the World Health Organization (the WHO) are secretly trying to poison the world? Of course they are!
But it also dawned on me how negligent Tomljenovic was in her science. It’s a damning condemnation on the University of British Columbia when their researchers are this misinformed. She showed a series of graphs to indicated how vaccines weren’t effective at saving lives. What she did was show the death rates of diseases: polio, measles etc, and then when the vaccine was licensed and when it was released. What she didn’t do, most likely on purpose since I can’t imagine any scientist being so utterly incompetent, was combine various vaccines like MMR, which came out well after the original measles vaccine. We of course made this known and what a surprise, when taken into account the drop in cases of polio started to exponentially decline right when the original vaccine was released and not the updated combination version came out.
At one point the presenter was talking about the WHO and I tried to explain why the WHO might overact to the H1N1 scare. My argument was that they are charged with being prudent. If they think a risk might happen, they should raise red flags to prevent it. If they don’t, and a disaster happens, everyone would be saying “why didn’t the WHO warn us?” This of course didn’t go over well. I then got into a protracted debate about how a virus evolves. Before I could finish my thought, a woman in the back yelled out that the H1N1 was created in a lab and was genetically engineered.
At this point Tomljenovic, reluctantly, admitted that virus’ do evolve BUT that doesn’t mean they can’t be genetically engineered. (Again, cheers to the UBC on such great researchers)
But getting back to the crowd. At several points they grew uneasy with our skeptical questions and this resulted in one of the organizers actually having to step up and inform the audience that we were allowed to ask questions and belligerence against us wouldn’t be tolerated.
After the talk I spoke with the organizer about this, I was amazed when he told me that it was common for dissenting views to cause trouble. Occasionally they’ve had to call the police because things have gotten so heated. I remarked that they should consider re-wording the name of the event to something other than “forum” because what we experience in there was hardly an open discussion.
Afterwards several of the audience members came up to us to essentially say how they couldn’t understand our skepticism. The woman who claimed that H1N1 was made in a lab accosted me and essentially accused me of being a shill for big pharma. At this point, I didn’t care and replied “you’re right, I am in the pocket of big pharma, I drive a Ferrari and everything.”
I’ve come to learn a few things about the anti-vaccination movement and what sets them apart from other such groups.
Anti-vaxers typically rely on a gish-gallop method in debates. They try to overwhelm you with “evidence” which in this case were studies only showing the titles and selected quotes from the abstracts. This is designed to give the impression of having lots of evidence at your disposal, but the reason you “gallop” through it is that it’s not good evidence at all and your opponents have to wade through it all to show how worthless it is.
Anti-vaxers typically have some “grudge” story about drug companies or something. Maybe their funding was cut off or they couldn’t get grants. From my experience talking with doctors and scientists in the skeptical movement, this “screw off” attitude to drug companies is very common, especially among young doctors working their way through school, they want to “fight the system” and such. Sometimes they grow out of it.
Anti-vaxers typically see conspiracies everywhere. During her talk, Tomljenovic listed a bunch of reasons why anti-vax studies don’t get published. What she neglected to say is that every one of those reasons is a legitimate objection to a study (in any science) the vast majority of studies don’t get published for these reasons, which is why the peer-review method is effective at weeding out the bad science from the good science.
Anti-vaxers typically depend on having a vocal core of supporters who have bought into their conspiracy theories hook, line and sinker. These supporters won’t bat an eyelash at sending death threats to pro-vaccine scientists or using methods of intimidation to silence skepticism.
Of course, the crazy didn’t end there. At one point Tomljenovic cited a paper by Andrew Wakefield. Yes, the guy who’s being charged with negligence and is being stripped of all his medical credentials for being a public health menace.
Tomljenovic also was sympathetic to the use of homeopathic vaccines and alternative medicine as well. Although she didn’t actually endorse them, someone in the audience brought it up and she didn’t indicate any objection to them. Perhaps she should watch more CBC Marketplace…