It’s a conspiracy – and you’re ALL in on it

An amusing sequel (in a masochistic and depressing kind of way) to my earlier post detailing how I got involved in one of those fruitless anti-vaccine debates over at a thread on the Guardian’s website.
It now appears that all the Nature Network bloggers who have commented there are part of a Dark Conspiracy of Sinister Vested Interests.

You can tell this, of course. Because we blog at Nature Network. We are therefore, I gather, under orders to puff Nature and NPG, and defend its output, presumably in return for inducements.

Now, one normally comes across this kind of argument in the form of the perennial / venerable “Pharma Shill Gambit”. I am not sure what this latest variant should be called. The “Nature Patsy Gambit”, perhaps? The initials are quite catchy. (Warning: that was irony there. Just so you know).

The start of this latest spat was when one of the most limpet-like of the anti-vaccine people, Clifford Miller, wrote:

(comment of 6 Jul 2010, 7:20AM)

“The “Nature” magazine bloggers remain silent – ACElliott, MSFo [Mike Fowler], scww [Stephen Curry]. It is a non “peer reviewed” “Nature” letter which prompted the Guardian’s “Genetics of Autism” “Story Tracker” in the first place. (italics mine)

I felt I had to point our that this wasn’t actually an accurate description of Letters to Nature – see my response at 10.04 am today, July 6th, noting what all scientists know, that such letters are actually peer-reviewed papers.

The response to that came a few hours later, at 12.50.  Among other things, it described me as

“one of Nature’s own bloggers.”

I don’t think it was intended as a compliment.

Now, as I am a polite sort of chap, I felt that I should point out that this was not really accurate, so at 2:11 pm I wrote:

“Nature Network is a blogging platform. Nothing more. Most people who blog there (like Stephen Curry, [Mike Fowler] and I) are not Nature staffers. We receive no money, or any favours in kind at all, from Nature Publishing beyond their hosting the blogs – just like on WordPress, or Blogger. The trade is that NN get to host our content for free.”

And that (or at least an hour later, at 3.13 pm) is when it became apparent that I was part of a Conspiracy. (If I’d only known, I’d have asked for a special pen. Or luncheon vouchers)


There is a much closer relationship with “Nature” magazine than you suggest.

When the “Nature” bloggers’ posts were thought not to be going up on this Guardian forum fast enough, didn’t a “Nature” staffer offer to visit the Guardian offices to make enquiries?

That is not “just like on WordPress, or Blogger”. It is unlike.

And surprise surprise, it was the publication in “Nature” magazine which prompted this Guardian piece on “The Genetics of Autism”.

So a paid employee of “Nature” was so interested in lending a hand? Wholly unknown of course to the general public.

Which of you disclosed their interest in “Nature” when posting comments here then? scww [Stephen Curry] just posted in his profile his link to his blog on “Nature”. Nothing else from the other “Nature” magazine bloggers to disclose any form of relationship with “Nature” magazine.”


I was a bit puzzled by the reference to the “Nature staffer”, so I suggested:

“News to me. Did they offer to fly there in a secret black helicopter?”

At which point the Chief Conspirator was unmasked:

“No. “They” did it on your very own blog:-

“Hmm no still not up, and we have a pretty good connection here at Nature Towers. The Graun is round the corner, maybe I should pop over and ask? :)”

Posted by: Nicolas Fanget Jun 17, 2010


My reply is directly below. However, it is obviously fruitless, as I have been exposed (according to my attackers there) as having a Special Relationship with the Forces of Darkness and Suppression of Truth (namely Nature). Read if you dare.

The sad thing is that this little incident will probably be regarded, on both sides, as quite revealing.

The anti-vaccine people will be convinced – they clearly already are, if you read the comments, which have now reached new heights of vitriol – that it exemplifies once again that they are the victims of dark conspiracies. As one of them put it earlier:

“The Guardian,  Nature, Ben Goldacre and his Badscience forum followers all nice and cosy together.”

Next time they will probably add the NN bloggers too.

* sigh *

And I will, I guess, be taking it as another of those periodic lesson that you cannot pierce peoples’ crazier beliefs. All they hear is the little bits of what you say that can be read as having a meaning they decide on, and one that confirms what they are already sure they know.

The technical term for this is “Confirmation Bias”.

Put another way, people see what they want to see.

Finally, it is all a bit wearisome.

I’m trying to see the funny side of being told you have just been revealed as part of a non-existent conspiracy. For some reason I am reminded of a very famous (and very old) Monty Python joke from my youth. See if you can see the connection.


PS I also wrote, in one of my comments today, a slightly tongue-in-cheek Conflict of Interest disclosure statement. What do you think?

“I am a University scientist. My job is to think, teach and write about science. I do this in various places, including at Nature Network. I tend to believe scientific explanations of things, supported by scientific evidence. I tend to think scientists and doctors understand science and medicine better than anti-vaccine activists and other pseudoscience types do. I have been known to say this publicly, including on blogs and comments threads.”

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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24 Responses to It’s a conspiracy – and you’re ALL in on it

  1. Åsa Karlström says:

    oh dear. (I thought some more colourful words but… ) That’s just ridiculous.

    And what’s with the “magazine”? Is it to try and imply that Nature and Rolling Stone or Marie Claire are sort of the same? (nothing wrong with RS or MC per se but they’re not peer reviewed for science papers… and one would hope that people recognized the difference).

    I don’t know what to say more honestly. It just makes me more than a bit tired…..

  2. Cath Ennis says:

    Oh, this is brilliant! Thanks for the laugh!

  3. Mike Fowler says:

    I’m with Åsa on this one. While I still commend you for trying to re-educate these numbskulls, or for trying to enlighted anyone without vested interests who might stumble that far down the comments, really, I’ve got better uses of my time than playing their stupid games with highly malleable rules. I can be blindly stubborn plenty of the time, but I’m just too tired with their crap to bother over there. Normal people won’t fall for it.

    Surprised they managed to guess who I was, though. That must have taken two brain cells to rub together. But if they’d actually read my blog, they’d count that I’d blogged about, ummm, zero Nature articles, from what I recall.

    Oh – and did Cliff or John actually ever answer my open question to all commenters about receiving money (via web sites, legal fees, other options…) by spreading misinformation about autism?

  4. Austin Elliott says:

    Mike – I don’t think they did identify you – they used your MSFo username, I’ve just linked it up here as NN people know you as your,er, real self.

    You and Åsa are right about the waste of time. It is also pretty evident from perusing the “like this comment?” ratings that the no-one is still reading but a few anti-vaccine wingnuts.

    I fear it’s probably my own intellectual vanity, and/or desire to have the last word, that keeps me going back there – see the last post on the subject. My Other Half gets cross with me for wasting time there too.

    Anyway, the main thing such arguments do is illustrate the mindset of the anti-vaccine people. If you immediately jump, on such a non-existent basis, to the conclusion that we are all shills for NPG, then of course you think any scientist is a paid minion of Dark Forces. Unless s/he agrees with you, in which case s/he is a Saint. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

    And as to Mike’s final question about the anti-vaccine folk – the answer is “no”, they didn’t answer, need you ask.

  5. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for the update Austin – but it really is rather tiresome trying to deal with people who are so detached from reality. As expected the discussion seems to have become rather pointless. That is a shame, because it is undermining the worth of the Guardian’s Story Tracker idea.

  6. Austin Elliott says:

    Agreed about the derail, Stephen. We have heard very little about what the genetics in the autism study actually mean in the comments thread. It has simply become another of those anti-vaccine “Threadzillas”.

    The same problem has long been apparent with the Guardian’s “Comment is Free”, which is why I gave up commenting there.

    I hope it won’t be a pattern for the Graun’s Story Tracker idea, but I predict with some sadness that it will happen every time they cover any research that mentions autism / vaccines / allergies / ME/CFS

  7. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks for at least trying. I have an idea about this but I’ll message you offline about it.
    Meanwhile – do these same people ever question the independence of the ScienceBlog collective, who are actually paid by a media group?

  8. Austin Elliott says:

    I don’t know if the anti-vaxxers have ever attacked Sb collectively, but they probably have.
    They have recently been trying to “indict” Orac/David Gorski for “undisclosed conflict of interest” – you can read a bit about it here.

    Basically their mindset is that every doctor or scientist that disagrees with them is obviously in the grip of Dark Forces, and thus must have sinister undisclosed CoIs. So when they decide they can see these CoIs – invariably where no-one else can – they congratulate themselves loudly for being proved right and shout about it to anyone who will listen (as in the autism genetics study).

    The exception to this universal CoI, in their inverse reality, is their discredited hero Andrew Wakefield. They see him as having NO CoIs (sic) because he was on their side.

  9. Åsa Karlström says:

    Austin: I’m amazed on how strange arguments can get in order to “prove” their point. I mean, it’s when I get tangled into the small things since I am annoyed about the premisses and therefore the conclusion doesn’t matter since it is based on false statements.

    (Like you write about this: “The exception to this universal CoI, in their inverse reality, is their discredited hero Andrew Wakefield. They see him as having no CoIs (sic) because he was on their side.” and the opposite is of course true then; that no scientist can be trusted because we are on the other side … nevermind valid arguments etc. As you see, I get too upset and angry focusing on the smaller points and therefore just what they want, not to talk about the issue at hand (vaccines) but rather trying to explain that I am a good person… who knows how to build an argument.

    I guess this is why I am glad you and the others try and keep reason and sanity in that discussion – and I hope that there will be no backlash with the name publishing and other things they state about you.*)

    *another thing I detest in this, the implicit threat about “I’ll tell the world about you” when it’s fairly obvious to most people that all you are is… a scientist.

  10. Mike Fowler says:


    I’m amazed on how strange arguments can get in order to “prove” their point. I mean, it’s when I get tangled into the small things since I am annoyed about the premisses and therefore the conclusion doesn’t matter since it is based on false statements.

    Dealing with the conspiracy cranks reminds me of our old, incontinent golden retriever. You spend all your time running round after them cleaning up their crap, before you can have any fun with them. Correcting the glaring factual errors, and pointing out their glaring logical fallacies.

    The latter point is particularly nauseating, as most of the cranks are überquick to point out logical fallacies in other people’s statements – whether they’re relevant to the discussion or not.

  11. Austin Elliott says:

    The Guardian comment thread is still expanding. Latest figures:

    – 931 comments in total

    – last 12 all by limpet-like anti-vaccine types

    – last eight (sic) all by Clifford G Miller

    I know one shouldn’t really quote oneself, but….

    “I know I should leave vaccine-related threads alone. This is partly because the main tactic of the anti-vaccine activists is to outlast you, and then declare victory when you are so bored that you give up. And they are always more obsessed than you are…”

    Me, a few weeks ago

  12. Henry Gee says:

    I am a Nature staffer. I have a black helicopter and a golden retriever with open bowels, and my mission in life is to fly around dropping doo-doos on anti-vexers from a great height. This is a secret, of course, don’t tell a soul. Shhhhh.

  13. Austin Elliott says:

    Heh. Careful, Henry, I think we have conclusively established that the anti-vax gang have no sense of humour.

    There is one rather funny occasional commenter on Orac’s blog who satirises some of the madder New World Order fantasies, including of the anti-vaccine nuts, under the byline “Lord Draconis Zeneca”. A recent-ish example can be found here.

  14. Richard P. Grant says:

    Oh dear. Tainted with the same brush.
    I guess I better leave NN and go independent then.

  15. Åsa Karlström says:

    Mike> exactly. very annyoing and you never get to have any fun… ( said with a sad voice ) 😉

    Austin> I’m sure you could technically point them to the fact that you are blogging on NN and not SB, which now has a PepsiCo blog… I don’t really know the background of that, but in the light of the “attachments to industry” it might be more an argument. THen again, I guess it really doesn’t matter since if “they” were interested in actually having a discussion it (we) wouldn’t be where it (we) are right now.

    I wonder if I should print those business cards with scientist – inherently evil , might be more catchy than my present one 😉

  16. Alejandro Correa says:

    Silence, Richard G. is dangerous your commentary.

  17. Richard P. Grant says:


  18. Alejandro Correa says:

    Yes. Richard among us, you have remain silent hermetic, do not tell anyone I told you is really dangerous. You remember our dear friend Wilson Hackett suddenly disappeared, I believe that it should be displeased by something someone have said, I get the impression that they have attacked highly toxic snakes. Hey! and you do not get involved at me.

  19. Cath Ennis says:

    Yeah, Richard. What Alejandro said.

  20. Richard P. Grant says:

    Oh yes, where *is* Wilson these days? I doubt that he’d leave because of something we said. You reckon it was snakes?
    I’ll remain hermetic.

  21. Alejandro Correa says:

    There was a superimposition of data, sorry.
    There exist many snakes that are on the prowl and have no pity for the neighbor, Richard, you have to be careful.
    Wilson is a victim of these insane snakes.
    But I insist, must remain silent, Richard.

  22. Wilson Hackett says:

    Hello Richard
    I am pleased to report that I have not been eaten by snakes, hermetic or otherwise.
    Thank you for your concern, Alejandro. I hope I didn’t distress you too much!

  23. Richard P. Grant says:

    Glad to hear it, Wilson.

  24. Alejandro Correa says:

    Wilson: I invite you to keep participating in Nature Network. Glad to hear.

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