I was going to write about something else this week, but events over the last several days led me to change my mind. The first was the reaction of a pseudonymous antivaccine “warrior” going by the ‘nym Levi Quackenboss to a viral video posted by a 12-year-old boy named Marco Arturo. The second was my learning that other antivaccine “warriors” had resumed abusing the Facebook reporting algorithm to get pro-science advocates supporting vaccines banned from Facebook for periods up to 30 days and thereby silence them. I wrote about this latter tactic a couple of years ago, when the Australian antivaccine group the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), or AVN (which was forced to rename itself the Australian Vaccination Skeptics Network in 2014), started abusing Facebook’s algorithm for reporting harassment and abuse in order to get members of the skeptic group Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN) temporary Facebook bans. It’s a tactic that has continued, with a fresh batch of temporary bans issued by Facebook in response to bogus complaints over the last few days.
I’ve frequently written about how often the preferred tactic of antivaccinationists and others pushing medical pseudoscience is not to answer criticism with evidence, science, and rational argument, but rather to respond with attacks and attempts to intimidate and silence. The reason, of course, is that they do not have any of that to support their beliefs. At some level, I suspect that many of them know it. Be that as it may, those of us who lament how few physicians and scientists, even those sympathetic to scientific skepticism, are willing to publicly speak out and call the quacks to task know that the consequences of doing so are often quite unpleasant: Online attacks, poisoning of one’s Google reputation, attempts to get one banned from Facebook, and, of course, the antivaccinationists’ favorite: Harassment through one’s job by complaining to one’s bosses. To illustrate these hazards, I’ll start with the story of Marco Arturo, before moving on to a more organized effort. (If you read my not-so-super-secret other blog, you’ll have heard of Marco’s story before, but I’ll summarize here as well.) Then I’ll update you on how Facebook continues to allow its reporting algorithms to be abused to silence pro-vaccine voices there. I’ll finish up with examples of what we at SBM have experienced and some thoughts on what can be done.
A 12-year-old boy posts a pro-vaccine video that goes viral
For all the harassment I’ve observed and experienced dished out by antivaccine activists and other believers in pseudoscientific medicine, I had thought that there were limits. One limit—or so I used to think—is that you don’t attack children. I started to learn I was wrong a couple of years ago when antivaccine activists harassed a group of high school students in Carlsbad, CA who had made a pro-vaccine documentary as part of their broadcast class. I thought that was about as low as antivaccinationists would go but should have realized that I was quite mistaken. In fact, just last week I realized just how wrong I had been when I learned about the case of a 12-year-old Mexican boy named Marco Arturo. Arturo, as you might have heard, made this viral video:
This video went viral and now has over 7.5 million views. I love this kid.
Antivaccine “warriors” respond with fantasies of violence
You might think that antivaccinationists might at least try to be a little gentler while addressing Arturo’s wonderfully sarcastic characterization of vaccine-autism pseudoscience. He is, after all, a 12-year-old boy. In the world of adults, it is (or at least should be) considered unseemly to publicly “beat up” on a 12-year-old kid. It’s too much “punching down,” and punching down is generally an indication of weakness. At the very worst it comes across as bullying. Did that stop our intrepid antivaccine “warriors”? Sadly, you probably know the answer to that one. In fact, antivaccinationists have been absolutely losing their mind over Arturo’s video. For example, this meme collects some of the attacks (click to embiggen):
Fantasizing about kicking and punching a 12-year-old boy in the neck, an attack that would have reasonable probability of killing him? Stay classy, antivaccine “warriors.” Stay classy. As a commenter elsewhere put it, antivaccine beliefs must be incredibly fragile if a 12-year-old posting a low tech snarky video (obviously shot on a smartphone or the like) to YouTube can threaten them so much. Most twelve year old kids would likely be intimidated by such a barrage of criticism and hatred, but Arturo handled it well:
You’ve seen 12-yo Marco Arturo’s vaccine video. Now see him completely own a condescending antivaxxer. pic.twitter.com/VXYxW2HOJL
— Doc Bastard (@DocBastard) June 3, 2016
Marco Arturo. Killing it. pic.twitter.com/X9yVAKgw0Z
— Doc Bastard (@DocBastard) June 6, 2016
It’s good to see that Marco Arturo was not intimidated. However, this was hardly the end of the antivaccine “counteroffensive.”
Enter the pseudonymous antivaccine blogger “Levi Quackenboss”
In any case, of all the antivaccinationists who made a run at Marco Arturo, the most odious of all, the one who went farther than any other, the one who isn’t the least bit embarrassed about punching down and trying to harass a child and his family, was the aforementioned pseudonymous antivaccine blogger who goes by the ‘nym Levi Quackenboss. She has a history of going ballistic over pro-vaccine advocacy, such as when she lost it over an uncontroversial and rather bland CDC social media campaign promoting vaccination. More recently, she was blaming the Zika virus outbreak on—wait for it!—vaccines.
Quackenboss couldn’t just let Arturo’s video go. In fact, she couldn’t stand it so much that she tried to dox him. (Doxxing, in case you’re not familiar with it, is the same thing as “outing” a pseudonymous or anonymous commenter or blogger.) Yes, Quackenboss tried to dox a child. First, however, she couldn’t resist lecturing Arturo, in the process laying down a whole heaping helping of antivaccine misinformation first of the sort that we’ve deconstructed here many, many times here, including the “toxins” gambit, the “too many too soon” gambit, false claims that the inactivated polio vaccine doesn’t prevent polio, standard anti-Gardasil misinformation, the myth that polio vaccine contaminated with SV40 has caused an epidemic of cancer, the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory, and even the conspiracy theory promulgated by Kenyan bishops that those evil tetanus vaccine campaigns are rendering Kenyan girls infertile.
Look, clearly you’re a smart kid in your knockoff Polo shirt and your eyeglasses that look like wraparound safety goggles. I trust that one day you’re going to figure out that you’ve been lied to, not only by your parents but by your government and the leaders of this world, and you’re going to look back on this insulting video and say, “God, what a little prick I was.”
And that’s OK, Marco. We’ll be here for you when you do.
Calling a 12-year-old boy a “prick” while making snide comments about him being a nerd? Again, stay classy, Quackenboss. Stay classy. Next up, Quackenboss can’t resist accusing Arturo of being manipulated by his parents, of being nothing more than a puppet:
He’s a smart kid, no doubt, especially for his ability to talk a mile a minute in a second language, and the apparent talent he has for a good rant, although only after it’s heavily edited to take out any downtime. I’m sure he’s even smarter than that, but you have to be a new kind of gullible to believe for one moment that this child is firing off the retorts attributed to his name on his Facebook page.
Think for a second about what you were doing when you were 12. I was catching crawdads in the creek, riding my bike, and maybe once or twice that summer I looked at tadpole eggs under my microscope.
So people, you’re not interacting with Marco. You’re not reading Marco. Even in the video, you’re not truly listening to Marco. His parents have made him into a pawn. They tell him what to believe and what to say, then edited it to make him look like a debate genius. Marco, as you think you know him, does not exist. The only true Marco on Facebook is the one talking about his love of little green lizards.
She also asks, “You know what I wasn’t doing?” after which she expresses extreme incredulity that it is a 12-year-old kid writing the responses to the antivaccine loons attacking him. She can’t imagine that he can use words that big or write as well as he does. Well, I’m sorry Levi Quackenboss wasn’t as intelligent and well-educated when she was 12 as Arturo is, but there are exceptional 12 year olds like Marco Arturo in the world. Why does Quackenboss have trouble believing it? Could it be…racism? After all, she does spend a lot of her incredulity in her posts about Arturo not believing a kid from Mexico could be so smart and implying (heck, outright stating) that he must be being manipulated or serving as nothing more than an actor reading lines written by adults.
After that, predictably, Quackenboss’ next move is to insinuate conspiracy—and to go further in trying to dox Marco Arturo in a post asking “Is Marco Arturo the prodigy a hoax?” In this post, she latched on to a seeming anomaly in the date on the article by A Plus Media featuring Arturo’s video that fueled its ascent into viral awesomeness. That article is dated May 27, three days after Arturo’s video was posted on Facebook. The Google search dated that A Plus article to May 24, although more recent Google searches date the article as having been last updated on May 27, agreeing with the publication date. Quackenboss’ conspiracy theory? That A Plus Media had already written a post about Marco Arturo on May 24 that was ready to go live as soon as Arturo posted his video. Of course, that leaves out the fact that the video was posted on a popular science Facebook page, A Science Enthusiast, and that the A+ post credited A Science Enthusiast with bringing the video to Lisa Winter’s attention. Basically, Quackenboss labeled this as evidence that Marco Arturo is a tool of…someone. His parents? A+ Media? Who knows? Someone, however. Quackenboss just knows it. So does Forest Moready, who produced this video:
It’s nothing but the same conspiracy mongering that Quackenboss is pushing, inspired as it was by her “investigation.” It’s rather interesting, though, that in the face of criticism and some followup, Moready backed off a bit from his claims the other day on his Facebook page in a post entitled “12-Year-Old Vaccine Boy Update/Partial Retraction“:
Here are his retractions:
Here are my partial retractions:
- I don’t believe the Vaccine video was shot on a professional camera anymore. I believe it was shot on an iPad. I did some eye-alignment tests using the front-facing camera on my iPad Air (shot in Landscape mode with front-facing camera on my left), and looking at the right of the screen to align a paper I was holding produced similar eyelines as the kid. I also noticed the exposure changing whenever he brought in and out the paper- something that a professional camera would likely not do (pro camera operators don’t use auto-exposure very often).
- I don’t believe the APlus media writer knew about the video before it went up. I spoke at length with her, twice over the past two days and she has convinced me she found the post organically through a Facebook group she follows (not a member of) called A Science Enthusiast. She is an avowed Believer, I realize. She could be lying to protect an elaborate PR set up, but I think she is telling me the truth.
The second point is the most important of the two. Unless Lisa Winters was lying to Moready and to various others who have contacted her, both pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine, then there is no conspiracy. By her own account, she wrote her post after having seen Arturo’s video on the Facebook page of A Science Enthusiast. None of this stops Moready from thinking that “something” must still have been going on.
Even Moready’s partial retraction doesn’t stop Quackenboss from doubling down with a post she claimed to be “The last word on Marco Arturo“, in which she seeks to cast more doubt:
Do I think that Marco made his vaccine video on his phone? No, I don’t, but he said yesterday in a comment on his page that he used his iPad, which I think he now said might be broken, I’m not really sure, but it was his excuse for not hopping on Periscope and answering questions live. Hey bud, you can do Periscope with your phone.
Anyway, on the topic of where the heck he was looking each time he held up his magic folder, it’s possible with an iPad that he would appear to look way off camera to see the edge of the folder he’s holding, as brought up in the video I shared yesterday.
Do I think Marco knows how to edit video in iMovie? Yes, I do.
I’m sure Marco Arturo also knows how to use Periscope. So what? Why should he answer questions live from the likes of someone like Quackenboss, who is too cowardly to ask him under her real name and so hypocritical that she just spent five posts trying to dox Marco and his parents while hiding behind a pseudonym? Arturo doesn’t answer to her. If he’s smart (and we all know he is), he will continue to ignore her request, as he has thus far.
If attacking Marco Arturo doesn’t work, leave it to Quackenboss to try to cast doubt on whether Arturo’s video was all that popular. The contortions she makes to try to accomplish this are deliciously stupid and desperate, for example:
Do I think Marco’s video has been watched 7,500,000 times? Don’t be ridiculous. Facebook’s default setting is to autoplay and they count a play as 3 seconds. So, make of that what you will but when it was claimed that it already had a half million views by May 27th when A Plus picked it up, there is no way on God’s green Earth that half a million people watched the video– and a media site like Babble should know better than to make that claim.
Maybe half a million people said, “What the hell?” and moved on after 3 seconds but Facebook counted it as a play. If the video appeared in your feed 15 times in a day, Facebook will count you as having watched it 15 times if you didn’t move on in two seconds. Facebook’s embedded video feature is a business tool and Marco (or his admin/s) knows exactly how many people watched the video to 95% completion, so maybe he’ll screeenshot that and share it with us.
Even if all that is true, over 7.5 million views (going on 8 million) is damned impressive. It’s far more impressive a reach than anything I’ve ever written, and I’d bet serious money that Quackenboss has never come close to that for anything she’s ever written. One can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a hint of envy that a 12-year-old nerdy science geek can have more influence than she can.
After having “outed” Marco and his family, Quackenboss took a lot of heat. Apparently, though, she’s feeling it, because she finishes with a classic “notpology”:
So Marco, I’m sorry if I made you or your parents feel unsafe by posting their names that you do not use and sharing information they made public on their own. However, I have to qualify that with the fact that you gave an interview to Mexican media that broadcasted your full name and the name of your relatively small town, so it does seem that you and your parents are eager for you to become famous and not concerned about your own safety in the least.
And I hope that you do become famous, Marco, but for far better things than insulting vaccine injured children.
So Quackenboss is sorry that she might have made Arturo or her parents “feel unsafe” by obsessively searching Google to find public information. Her intention couldn’t be any more clear. She dug and dug and dug to find what she could about Arturo and his parents in order to publicize that information and intimidate Marco into silence or to alarm Marco’s parents to the point where they tell him to stop, all the while hiding behind her own pseudonym. No, the very purpose of her “digging” was to make Arturo’s family “feel unsafe” to the point of shutting him down. I can’t help but make an observation here. If Quackenboss wants to know how low she’s gone, she should consider that not even Mike Adams has piled on. I checked yesterday. Let’s just put it this way, if Mike Adams won’t go as far as you, you’ve really hit rock bottom.
Fortunately, she’s failed. However, it’s not infrequently that these tactics succeed even when directed at adults.
Antivaccinationists abuse Facebook’s deficient harassment reporting algorithm
If there’s one thing that’s changed massively over the last five years in the social media landscape, it’s the rise of Facebook. Back in the day, when a post here at SBM or my not-so-super secret other blog went viral, it was because a large blog or two linked to it. Now it’s all Facebook all the time. Usually when a post goes viral, it’s because a popular Facebook page has picked it up, and from there it gets shared among many. It isn’t even close, as science fiction writer John Scalzi recently noted. The point is, Facebook is a very, very big deal today; it’s an essential tool for getting out a message. Unfortunately, the antivaccine movement knows that as well. It has been very successful with innumerable Facebook pages dedicated to demonizing vaccines, sometimes with violent rhetoric and imagery. A small cadre of antivaccinationists have also been very successful at harassing pro-vaccine advocates by co-opting Facebook’s reporting algorithm.
No one of whom I’m aware has suffered from this tactic more than Alison Hagood, who co-authored the book Your Baby’s Best Shot: Why Vaccines Are Safe and Save Lives with Stacy Mintzer Herlihy and a foreword by Paul Offit, MD. I first learned about this from a post by Dorit Reiss (and, of course, from my activity on various Facebook pages). The harassment against Hagood has included:
- Starting an online petition to Ms. Hagood’s employer requesting disciplinary action or termination.
- Repeatedly reporting Allison to her school for her online activities, trying to get her fired.
- Posting her private address online.
- Emailing people she knows.
- Creating a web site, the purpose of which is solely to harass Ms. Hagood.
- Repeatedly sending her insulting or threatening messages.
These are, of course, run-of-the-mill tactics. I’ve experienced them myself with the exception of one, although, quite frankly, not as badly as Hagood has, which is odd given that I’m at least as “strident” as she is.
But back to abusing Facebook’s reporting algorithm. If you want an idea of how messed up Facebook is, consider this example. Antivaccine “warriors” created a photo in which they Photoshopped a Hagood’s face onto the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, with the caption “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!” Hagood reposted the image as an example of the sort of abuse she puts up with—and received a 30 day ban from Facebook because an antivaccinationist named Heather Ann Murray reported her for abuse. Antivaccinationists even bragged about it on one of their Facebook groups:
Anti-vaccine activist #1: Actually A hag’s (sic – the anti’s nickname for Allison) main account is about to come off a 30 day suspension, and I have just the comment to report that will extend it another 30 day
Anti-vaccine activist #2: [image of laughing squirrel with HAHAHA]
Anti-vaccine activist #3: Dahahahaa
Anti-vaccine activist #4: Go for it!
Anti-vaccine activist #5: Go for it!
There have been many other examples of abuse that I will not chronicle here, such as Photoshopped images of Hagood as Adolf Hitler. As I said, that sort of harassment is run-of-the-mill, par-for-the-course. What I was more interested in was how Murray and her buddies accomplished these bans. Fortunately for us, antivaccinationists can’t resist bragging on public forums.
How Facebook allows antivaccine activists to silence their opponents
Heather Murray and others have successfully gamed Facebook reporting algorithms intended to report abuse in order to silence pro-science bloggers. Basically, they take advantage of the automatic reporting algorithm that Facebook uses to screen complaints for true violations of its “community standards,” which often issues temporary bans in response to complaints about violations of various “community standards” violated that are unclear and difficult to avoid. For instance, apparently directly mentioning someone by name in a disparaging fashion (or even in a non-disparaging fashion) can, if complained about, result in a ban. The bottom line is that Facebook’s banning algorithms are the ultimate black box. They might as well be in the center of a black hole, given how impenetrable they are and how difficult it is to shine any light on them.
The clear intent of this tactic is to silence pro-vaccine voices on Facebook. These bans can last anywhere from a day to 30 days and basically prevent the person victimized from posting to Facebook for the length of the ban. Once a ban is in place, there is basically no appeal. For one thing, it’s damned near impossible to get a hold of an actual human being at Facebook to review and reconsider spurious complaints that trigger such bans. For another thing, the level of complaint that triggers a ban seems to get lower with each successive successful complaint resulting in a ban. This has allowed antivaccine activists to keep hitting their pro-science targets over and over with new bans almost as soon as an existing ban expires, resulting in their being locked out of Facebook for long periods of time and, when they get back on Facebook, being forced to be very careful about what they say and constantly look over their shoulder for potential attacks. If one of your outlets as a pro-science activist is Facebook, these attacks can essentially shut you down by taking you offline intermittently and making you a lot more measured in what you say. It also—intentionally—discourages pro-science activists from calling out the antivaccine misinformation promoted by those who use this tactic.
A couple of months ago, Ms. Murray became quite chatty and bragged about how she targets pro-science advocates. Unfortunately for her, a series of comments by her from a super-secret closed Facebook group have found their way into the “wrong” hands (i.e., ours). First up:
In case you’re curious about why Ms. Murray was nicknamed “Frau Heather,” it’s because of her propensity to post Holocaust denial tropes and anti-Semitism, for instance:
I could go into explaining how the Murray’s claims about the Holocaust are dead wrong, nothing more than Holocaust denial of the sort that I cut my skeptical teeth on learning to debunk back in the late 1990s, but I’ll refrain for the moment because this post is not about the Holocaust. As vile as Ms. Murray is, I’ll give her credit for opening a Facebook profile named Frau Heather as being mildly amusing. Whether that was what let her succeed at shutting down Ms. Hagood and others again, who knows? Next up, Ms. Murray explains how mocking memes will get you banned:
Note that “AVWoS” stands for Antivaccine Wall of Shame.
Now, this is a rule that seems to be very inconsistently applied, because I see mocking memes about people on Facebook all the time, and I know for a fact that pro-science advocates have complained to Facebook about memes made to mock them. As an experiment, I complained to Facebook about a couple of memes I saw mocking me—without success, I might add. Heck, there’s a whole Facebook page dedicated to harassing me that I’ve tried complaining about multiple times without success. Apparently persistence is required, and I’m not persistent enough.
Finally, we have this:
In this post, Ms. Murray spells out exactly what she recommends and brags about how many members of AVWoS she’s gotten banned. Of course, once it was known how she was succeeding in getting Facebook to issue temporary bans to so many pro-science advocates, her old tactics wouldn’t work anymore.
The antivaccine campaign on Facebook evolves
Unfortunately, Ms. Murray and her fellow antivaccine “warriors” were only temporarily stymied. Thanks to the holes in Facebook’s rules and reporting algorithms, it wasn’t long until they figured out a new tactic, which someone announced on yet another antivaccine Facebook page:
Along with a helpful tactic to make it difficult to find these fake accounts:
Yes, you read that right. Antivaccine activists are setting up fake Facebook accounts using words that might be used to criticize them, keeping these accounts “underground” (i.e., inactivated) like a sleeper cell, and then using them to get pro-vaccine activists banned from Facebook using Facebook’s ridiculous reporting algorithm and rules that automatically ban someone for addressing another Facebook user directly in a disparaging manner.
If all that succeeded in doing were to inconvenience a few bloggers and writers, it might not be such a big deal. The problem is that Facebook is such an enormous platform that to be banned from Facebook is to lose access to a major means of getting one’s message out. That’s obviously the intent behind these tactics. Clearly, the real problem is that Facebook allows this to happen. Unless there is a mass exodus from Facebook because of its automated complaint algorithms or stories like that of Allison Hagood generate publicity that’s so bad that even Mark Zuckerberg has to take notice, Facebook is unlikely to take any significant action to fix its badly broken abuse reporting system so that it can’t be so easily used to harass and silence.
The last time I wrote about Murray, over on my not-so-super-secret other blog, she was very displeased and tried to contact me on Facebook. (What, no bans?) Of course, I didn’t notice because she’s not one of my Facebook friends, and her messages were placed in the “request to contact me” queue, which I rarely, if ever, check. (Word to the wise: Messenging me on Facebook is not the best way to get a hold of me, nor is messenging me on Twitter.) When I finally did notice weeks later, I was amused:
It’s very unfortunate that Facebook facilitates the activities of a woman like Ms. Murray. It is, however, fortunate that she and those on her side can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to gloating over and bragging about what they are doing. Ms. Murray is, of course, welcome to comment here. Her first comment will go to moderation, as all first time commenters do, but we’ll approve it and then she can comment freely. Somehow I doubt she will.
Harassment and SBM
Unfortunately, we at SBM have not been immune to harassment either, be it in the form of online attacks, attacks at our jobs, or even lawsuits. For example, our fearless leader Steve Novella and the Society for Science-Based Medicine (of which I’m chair of the board) were sued by Edward Tobinick over a post Steve wrote that was critical of his use of Enbrel to treat strokes and Alzheimer’s disease. For good measure, Tobinick named Yale University in his suit on the very tenuous rationale that Steve works there and his post was an attempt to attack a “competitor.” Ultimately justice prevailed, but in the path from lawsuit to outcome, countless hours that could have been used to do what Steve and SfSBM do best were wasted defending this suit. That doesn’t even count the money needed to defend, the possibility of causing tension between Steve and the leadership of his place of employment, and just the pure agita due to being sued if you’re not someone in a business where lawsuits are common.
Longtime readers know that I myself have been subject to online harassment by antivaccine “crusaders.” For example, in 2010, Jake Crosby wrote a deeply dishonest post about me for Age of Autism that insinuated a conflict of interest. (There was none.) The result of that was an e-mail and phone campaign in which antivaccinationists contacted my dean, my department chair, and even Wayne State University’s board of governors in order to complain and demand my firing. Fortunately, my dean stood by me, and the campaign eventually blew over. More recently, I wrote a post critical of “atavistic oncology” as delivered by Frank Arguello. As a result, Arguello sent numerous e-mails to one of my deans, to my department chair, and to the director of the Karmanos Cancer Center. He still sends me obnoxious e-mails every now and then. (In fact, he just sent me one yesterday.)
Most recently, in April and May, as a result of posts I wrote elsewhere about Robert De Niro and the antivaccine movie by Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree (VAXXED: From Cover-up to Catastrophe), Mike Adams, who runs the one of the most trafficked alternative medicine (and conspiracy theory) websites on the internet proceeded to launch a campaign of slime against me. Adams, as you might recall, gained notoriety for his Monsanto collaborators website, which read basically like a hit list. In any case, since April 18, Adams has posted 22 articles accusing me of all manner of horrors (you can go to Adams’ website and search if you’re really interested, as I refuse to link to him here), from the aforementioned conflict of interest that Crosby accused me of to having worked with Dr. Farid Fata, an oncologist convicted of Medicare and Medicaid fraud to the tune of tens of millions of dollars for administering chemotherapy to patients who didn’t need it, some of whom didn’t even have cancer. He is someone I despise. Adams has also posted fake unflattering patient reviews and openly asked if I was brain damaged from too many vaccines. Worse, there has been an intentional effort to attack my cancer center, an obvious tactic to harass me at work and get my cancer center to tell me to knock it off. Fortunately, that hasn’t worked. (Indeed, this week my promotion to full professor was announced. Maybe I’ll send a copy of the certificate to Mr. Adams.)
Imagine, though, if I were not working in a university setting, where freedom of speech and academic freedom are highly prized. If I were working for a private company or part of a private practice, I could well be faced with a choice of either shutting up or risking my job and livelihood. Moreover, his torrent of libelous abuse left me with a horrible choice: sue for libel, with the attendant expense and the certain Streisand effect suing would entail, with not a great chance of winning against someone with deep pockets who, like a pig in mud, would enjoy the wrestling, or let it slide. Even in my relatively privileged position as faculty at a university, explaining who Mike Adams is to my cancer center director (and to the occasional colleague who came across one of Adams’ posts) was not a fun task. Fortunately, Adams made it easier by being unable to restrain the crazy in his posts. The next time, I might not be so lucky in who tries to attack.
What you can do
I hate to end on a down note, but it has to be acknowledged and anyone who wants to advocate publicly for science has to go in with his or her eyes open. Harassment is a potential risk that all of us who put ourselves out there to advocate for science face. It’s not limited to publicly advocating for vaccines or SBM, either. I haven’t even mentioned, for example, Kevin Folta and Michael Mann, who have both endured unrelenting harassment for their science advocacy for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and climate science, respectively. Indeed, I haven’t even mentioned another form of harassment, namely abuse of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), harassment to which Folta has been subjected, courtesy of US Right to Know (USRTK), a nonprofit group that is in essence the lobbying arm of the Organic Consumers Association. It’s harassment that continues to this day, most recently due to a harassing FOIA request from Vani Hari, a.k.a. The Food Babe, or, as I like to call her, the Jenny McCarthy of food.
When considering these people, I find it useful to divide them into two main groups. Most antivaccinationists and believers in quackery tend to be true believers. They believe fervently that, for example, vaccines injured their children and are causing all sorts of damage or that, for instance, various forms of cancer quackery are all that stands between death and a loved one—or even themselves. They really do view “us” as an enemy trying to take away the only thing keeping them or their loved ones alive or trying to impose “dangerous” vaccines on their children. I tend to have more empathy for them and tend to hold my fire more and adopt a less combative, contemptuous tone. Just read some of my analyses of various alternative cancer cure testimonials if you don’t believe me. Then there are the quacks making money off of what I view as fraudulent practices. They attack because pro-science advocates threaten their income source. That’s how I view, for instance, Mike Adams. There is no need to be empathetic or diplomatic dealing with them. Finally, there are hybrids (e.g., The Food Babe) who are both: True believers and “entrepreneurs.” I tend to discuss them the same way as I discuss quacks because, in a way, they are more dangerous than scammers because they are more persuasive.
Unfortunately, this is the world we live in. If you’re going to advocate for science publicly, you will face the risk of drawing the attention of someone like Mike Adams or The Food Babe, and the risk will increase with your prominence and effectiveness. I hate to say it, but if you don’t think you can handle it, you probably should find other ways to advocate for science than publicly writing and speaking.
That being said, I refuse to finish on a down note, which is why I will point out that, fortunately, there are many ways you can advocate for science and push back against pseudoscience and quackery. You can donate to organizations that advocate for science and skepticism. You can join such organizations and work behind the scenes. You can write your legislators when bills such as naturopathic licensing bills are being considered. You can arm yourself with information such as what we try to provide, in order to persuade your family, friends, and people within your social circle.
There are many ways to advocate for SBM and science. You just have to pick the one you’re most comfortable with and do it. As you gain confidence, you might even decide to add to or change your role. We at SBM hope to provide you with the materials to do so for medicine.