Just when I thought I was out…

In case you’re wondering where I’ve been (and I’m sure no-one was): apart from grading a few essays, and servicing my growing Twitter addiction, I have done what I regularly swear I won’t and got involved in an argument with the anti-vaccine people.

This time it is in a thread on the Guardian website. The thread is a Story Tracker following the recent Nature paper on autism genetics and the media and blog reaction to it.

Now, you would think that the genetics of autism was relatively uncontroversial, but apparently not. The activists who insist vaccines can cause autism are not keen on other theories of autism causation, including genetic ones (no prizes for working out why).

In particular, they have been making a fuss by accusing the study’s lead author of undisclosed conflict of interest, since he apparently occupies a Chair endowed by GlaxoSmithKline.

(Again, you can try and guess why they insist this is a Conflict Of Interest, or simply click on over to the Guardian.)

The activists are also offended that the Guardian linked a blog which ridiculed their objections.

Which is where I came in. No, the blog wasn’t mine – it belongs to American surgeon/scientist/hyperactive blogger Orac – but I have been, er, debating a couple of the anti-vaccine activists in the comments under the thread. My first comment is at 5.41 pm, and there are more if you read down (You will probably have to hit “Show all Comments” or “Go to latest comment” )

Two things are perhaps notable.

One is that the activists object to the term “anti-vaccine”. One told me it was “libel-labelling” and “pejorative”. I suggested it was a statement of fact. Readers can probably make up their own minds.

The second is the habit the activists have of decrying “ad hominem” attacks and accusing their critics (like me and Orac) of “playing the man, not the ball”. This is usually accompanied by an insistence that they themselves never do this. I might disagree, as you will see from one of my comments.

Anyway, 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, so you can never win. Hence the resolution to keep clear….

…but… …sometimes keeping clear is difficult.

Which is why the title. The quote is:

“Just when I thought I was out – they pull me back in!”

For those that don’t know the source, some clips are here and here.

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.
This entry was posted in Annoyances, Medicine, Pseudoscience, The Interwebz. Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Just when I thought I was out…

  1. Stephen Curry says:

    Austin – I doff my hat to you sir. Heroic work, though perhaps tragic given the nature of your interlocutors.
    I am somehow reminded of Carlito’s Way (another great Al Pacino movie) – similar theme of an inescapable destiny.

  2. Mike Fowler says:

    Heh – it’s just so addictive, explaining why people are wrong.
    The real problem is that they’re often wrong because they’re poorly informed, which means a great investment of time and effort to inform them.
    I originally put that a little more tersely, but it’s toned down for the family website version.

  3. Mike Fowler says:

    Guys – I applaud both of you for your Gruaniad efforts. I’d love to join in, but I’ve already wasted most of this morning just reading through all the other nonsense.
    But it’s soooooo tempting…

  4. Austin Elliott says:

    “The real problem is that they’re often wrong because they’re poorly informed, which means a great investment of time and effort to inform them”

    And is still fruitless with the activists, because any attempt to point out to them that they are poorly informed is met by cries of:

    “Well that’s just an appeal to authority

    …as if knowing more about something somehow made people less qualified to comment on it.

    * Sigh *

  5. Stephen Curry says:

    I did hesitate before commenting Austin but in the end decided to do so, not because I thought it would have any impact on the anti-vaxers, but it might just give other readers pause for thought.

  6. Austin Elliott says:


    Mike is right, I fear. I am addicted.

    Plus wanting to have the last word is one of my failings, as you will see from my latest comment (after I swore not to make any more comments – sigh) over on the Guardian thread.

    I wonder if this is one of those problems I can get vaccinated against?
    Just a thought.

  7. Åsa Karlström says:

    Oh, I need to thank you (and Stephen) for keeping trying to meet the arguments after reading that comment thread. I just don’t know how to stop myself if I start, so therefore I am trying very hard not to start. Also, since I find the technique of taking one sentence out of context and attacking it, then the next one and then the next one, leads to a very hard and non-overview discussion.

    It’s fine for a few points, if someone is saying wackaloon thing, or contridict themselves, but for every post?!

    again, nicely written points and I don’t know how to solve “you’re educated andtherefore now part of the evil authorities who are lying just because that is what they do”

    If it helps (?) that was a lot of heat when grassroot movement environmentalists found out I was studying biotechnology back in the day. “You have already chosen your path” although I was an undergrad and wanted to know what it entailed. With some, you just can’t “win” ^^

  8. Austin Elliott says:

    Thanks Åsa

    As I have probably said somewhere, the depth of the obsession of the anti-vaccine crazies (who strongly resemble the “HIV doesn’t cause AIDS” people) is such that you can never match them. Nor would you want to. Hence the outcome being almost inevitably that you end up with a thread where two or three of them are cackling away to one another.

    Which is why one should steer clear, really… but as we’ve said before, once in a while the automatic tendency to want to correct anti-science conspiracy theory and disinformation gets the better of you. Or at least it does me.

  9. Mike Fowler says:

    I really want to point out the obvious logical error the “alternative view”[1] make by criticising you for “appealing to authority”, then continuously citing (secret) US government documents, Bernadine Healy and Francis Collins.

    But it’s pointless over there. Weight of commenting does not equal weight of evidence. And there are some turgid comments there.

    Stephen, I expect your latest comment to get the same mindless criticism.

    fn1. I also really want to call them “wackos” or worse, but that just diverts the whole conversation, to their advantage.

  10. Nicolas Fanget says:

    The comments seem to have disappeared from the Guardian website, maybe a temporary glitch?

  11. Austin Elliott says:

    @Nicolas: Comments are sometimes slow to load there. Often you have to try a couple of times, esp. on a slow connection.

    @Mike: Yes, quite. Authority figures are OK as long as they are agreeing with them. See here for some less “temperate” commentary on this, including specifically on Healy. I am debating whether to respond again at the Graun. Quitting is so difficult..!

  12. Nicolas Fanget says:

    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? 🙂

  13. Austin Elliott says:

    They are up for me, Nicolas. Latest comment by the indefatigably tedious John Stone, probably the UK’s most internet-prolific anti-vaccine activist, at 12.22 pm. He is accusing Stephen of

    “engaging in trivial semantic and logical point scoring”

    – which I suspect is the translation into conspiracy-ese of

    “re-stating the key points that the deluge of anti-vaccine obfuscation verbiage is designed to obscure”

  14. Stephen Curry says:

    I responded – with as even a tone as I could muster. It’s probably pointless (though Stone’s comment had a micro-concession embedded within it) but, just in case one or two undecideds stumble that far down in the comment thread my words might carry a bit of weight.

    I was amused that a fragment following Stone’s comment, obviously a typo, had attracted several “Recommended” clicks. Though perhaps that is a glitch in the Guardian system?

  15. Austin Elliott says:

    Stephen’s last comment (timed 1.39 pm) is very good and a real tribute to his even temperament..!! Of course, it plays into the hands of the anti-vaccine mob if you lose your rag, as Mike alluded to above, though it is very tempting.

  16. Nicolas Fanget says:

    Ah still can’t get it, I guess problem is between chair and keyboard. Thanks guys for putting up with the nonsense and debating this rationally in a public forum, it is much needed!

  17. Stephen Curry says:

    Apparently I keep trying to pull rank – though it was Stone who ‘outed’ me as a Professor at Imperial College. And Stone who happened to mention that he has a couple of papers in Pubmed (surely not an appeal to authority).

  18. Åsa Karlström says:

    Stephen> I’m in awe for not just… I don’t know, imploding?

    Nicolas>It took awhile for the comments to appear, had to reload the page a few times as well as click spcifically on a comment link in the right feed – didn’t have to do that yesterday.

    Austin> Joke aside, it is very hard to argue/have a discussion with someone who doesn’t want it. And, as you stated, some people just don’t want anything but to get you to loose your temper so they can point and go “oh, look, now they are upset since we are exposing their evil scheme”

    I still haven’t figured out why I would argue for pharma (just for the sake of it) since they don’t pay me a dime, but I guess I’m just evil since I am a trained scientisit in infectious diseases… nothing to do with benefits vs risks when it comes to nasty viral diseases? duh.

  19. Mike Fowler says:

    Well, I just vaccinated my 3 month old son this morning. Not MMR, but if he doesn’t succumb to the Governmentconspiracy anectoditis syndrome post haste, I shall be sending letters of complaint to the relevant lack of authorities.
    Yours, monstrously,

  20. Mike Fowler says:

    Damn you all. I couldn’t resist…

  21. Austin Elliott says:

    For some reason the “link to this individual comment” facility on the Guardian’s site almost never works – I wonder if the links are too long to “parse”, or whatever the phrase is.

    Usually the best thing to do is simply go to the page, scroll down to the comments, and then click “See latest comments”. Or you could try this generic link to the most recent comments, which was working just now.

  22. Mike Fowler says:

    Heh! And the Grauniad even allows you to “Recommend” your own posts! How generous.

  23. Åsa Karlström says:

    Mike: I think it is really interesting that the first comment after yours (I think it is your anyway) state “Gosh, you scientists are big on rhetoric!” I’m so tempted to write “no, simply logic reasoning” since there is way more “if A, then B, then not D” but … somehow I don’t think it works?

    However, I do find the actual articles involved in the tracking story – genetics of autism – an interesting question and will go an read more of those articles. I guess there could be some kind of intriguing future, if it ‘s a genetic disposition and if there will be testing for it…. (another one of these genetic tests, which I am not all that crazy about) Then again, I guess we can always make it the fault of authorities and scientists and come back to the same conclusion? (bitter? me? nah. just a tad bit tired.)

  24. Mike Fowler says:

    Yes, Åsa, it was me. And no, accusing someone of using rhetoric isn’t always a very sensible approach. Empty rhetoric, on the other hand, is an all too common approach of internet tin foil hat wearers.
    The Guardian links actually provide a very nice list of resources, including stating quite plainly and clearly that there is no current evidence of a link between MMR vaccines and autism.
    Oh, and my wee man is still behaving normally. Crying, feeding, pooing and smiling.

  25. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I guess many people who comment have no interest in being persuaded, so in some ways it’s pointless to even try. It is distressing to be distrusted automatically solely because you are a scientist, and not despite it. For me, this is more telling than anything else that the thread reveals.

  26. Mike Fowler says:

    Yep, I’m sorely tempted to go back and state that I’ve passed my Associated Boards Grade 5 theory music exam, toured North and South America playing violin with an orchestra, won a World Championship as a drummer and I’m a lapsed viola player. Maybe that would persuade the musicologist that I’m qualified to comment on autism research on a newspaper discussion forum.
    But I’m swaying towards Jennifer’s idea that it’s just pointless in some cases. I have a job and family that are much more enjoyable uses of my time.

  27. Bob O'Hara says:

    “It’s probably pointless but, just in case one or two undecideds stumble that far down in the comment thread my words might carry a bit of weight.”

    For me, this is the reason to answer these guys – to win over the undecideds. I used to get involved with IDers for this reason. But now I do it for the less noble reason that I enjoy tweaking them.

  28. Mike Fowler says:

    Yeah – I was also considering to ask if there were any undecideds still loitering, but I suspect they left days ago.

  29. Austin Elliott says:

    I think that is pretty much a certainty, Mike.

    Orac has a line that he repeats whenever the anti-vaccine crazies are making ringing statements about “conflicts of interest” or “environmental toxic burden” or “vaccine safety” (recently often re-badged by the anti-vaccine movement as “Greening Our Vaccines”). The line is:

    “It’s all about the vaccines.”

    To which I would like to add an emphatic:


    Whatever the anti-vaccine people purport to be complaining about at this particular moment, what it really comes down to, at least in my experience of debating them, is their visceral fear/loathing of vaccines and – dare I say it? – conspiracy theories about all of modern medicine and science being an Illuminati plot.

    In which connection, I see from Clifford Miller’s latest response on the Guardian thread (timed at 5.11 am) that we finally have a clear statement of where he is coming from.

  30. Mike Fowler says:

    I guess the only intriguing thing about dealing with these interweb crank types in my mind is the question of whether they actually believe what they’re saying is genuinely true, or whether they believe that obfuscation, name calling and outright lies are justified methods to bring people round to the cause.

    Doing so on internet forums is tiresome at best, but it does get interesting when it’s done in legal proceedings – as in the Freshwater cases that Richard B Hoppe has done an excellent job of reporting on, over at the Panda’s Thumb.

  31. Austin Elliott says:

    The Guardian comments thread is now closing in on 400 comments…!

    I’ve posted a couple of recent ones but, as I say there, trying to debate the anti-vaccine nuts is like wrestling a blancmange.

  32. Austin Elliott says:

    Four hundred up.

    I got the 399th comment, but someone else notched the 400th one. Bother.

    At least my comment number 399 wasn’t about vaccines (for once) and actually included something vaguely science-y about the role of genetics in post-traumatic stress.

  33. Mike Fowler says:

    I actually went to the bother of reading CliffordGMiller’s ‘Peer Reviewed’ article, on why the Cochrane report must not be believed, therefore global conspiracy blah blah blah…, which appears in the right wing, fringe, paranoid, lunatic, racist ummm, demonstrably right wing, fringe, paranoid, lunatic, racist propaganda pamphlet, JPANDS.

    I thought about writing a review of it, and adding that to the Guardian comments, but honestly, there seems to be something wrong in every sentence. And I don’t think anyone who is genuinely concerned about the health of their children will be making it down through all that guff before they get to my review.

    Perhaps I will put it up on me own blog some day, and welcome the nutcases into my comment thread. 400 odd comments wouldn’t be bad for me!

  34. Mike Fowler says:

    When will NN decide whether they want MT4, html or textile formatting for the comments?
    JPANDS (which I linked to in ye olde fashioned html above) can be found at http://www.jpands.org/
    Just goes to show I probably shouldn’t have bothered with the courtesy link. Travel there at your own peril. Don’t forget to pack your sense of humour.

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