Article and photo by Colin
Thanks to Jenny McCarthy and Megan of Living Whole for proving the point: anti-vaxers are lying to parents. Jenny McCarthy is in the news lately with an op-ed that starts with a whopper: “I am not ‘anti-vaccine.’” This is absolutely not true; McCarthy has worked hard for years to scare parents away from vaccinations. The root of her campaign is her insistence that vaccines cause autism, despite the conclusion of the community of experts that there is no evidence of such a link.
It’s absurd for her to claim now that she only wants “safe” vaccinations, since the dangers she complains about are primarily in her head. Vaccines, like any medicine, can’t ever be 100% safe, but they’re “among the most safe and effective public health interventions to prevent serious disease and death.” Science can’t make a vaccine “safer” if the problems she wants fixed don’t exist. It’s as if she was telling parents not to fly until Boeing finds a way to keep gremlins off their planes. They can’t do it because gremlins, like a vaccine-autism connection, don’t exist. Nevertheless McCarthy uses those false fears to drive a wedge between parents and their doctors, depressing vaccination rates while still shamelessly claiming she’s not “anti-vaccine.”
McCarthy has been lying for years about the dangers of vaccines. If the effect of those lies is to stop parents from vaccinating, then yes, she is an anti-vaxer. But she’s not stupid; she knows that people give more credibility to voices that claim to be “in the middle” or “just asking questions.” So she lies. She claims that she’s not an anti-vaxer, even though her goal and effect is to reduce childhood vaccinations, because she’s a more credible and effective anti-vaxer if she can persuade parents she’s just asking questions about the safety of the vaccination schedule. Since those questions have long since been answered, the only reason she’s still asking them is to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about some of the safest medical products available, her pretense at a balanced stance is false and misleading.
It’s common for anti-vaxers to lie to enhance their credibility. It’s one of the only ways the movement can make progress, since the community of experts disagrees with their conclusions so fervently. One way is to claim false equivalence, as McCarthy does. But we recently saw a good example of an even bolder lie, courtesy of Megan at Living Whole.
When the Dear Parents piece went up, a number of people spammed the comments with links to a rebuttal at a blog called “Living Whole.” (Since Megan, the author there, has silently revised her piece at least twice already, you may want to use the cached copy.) Megan is very upset at the charge that anti-vaxers are lying to parents, and she tries to flip the accusation by claiming that the Dear Parents piece is dishonest. She fails. But she fails in an instructive way: unable to make her point honestly, she proves Dr. Raff’s.
There are many substantive problems with that piece, including cherry-picked data and logical fallacies. The simplest and most ironic flaw is the fact that she blatantly lies to parents in an attempt to promote the anti-vax message. Normally I’m very reluctant to accuse someone of lying; it’s really only appropriate when it’s quite clear that someone is intentionally deceptive. Here, the shoe fits. Even if Megan’s original misleading statements were honest mistakes, her conduct afterwards demonstrates that her intent is to mislead her readers.
These are not the biggest lies out there. They’re not even the most important deceptions in the Living Whole piece. But they’re so clean and clear as examples that I think it’s worth following the chain of events. The article originally claimed that “the vaccine court has rule [sic] that evidence of a causal relationship between autism and MMR exists” and that “vaccine inserts, and countless court cases have confirmed this link.” These three claims—about the vaccine court, the inserts, and “countless court cases” are each objectively false.
It’s obvious why Megan might make these claims. She’s a layperson and anti-vaxer responding to a scientist who has solid research supporting the safety and efficacy of vaccines. She needs to establish that credible, neutral third parties have looked at the evidence and agree with her position. Her story is that the courts have done so, and that even the vaccine makers themselves had to admit it. But she’s lying.
The vaccine court has never ruled that such a link exists. In fact, the omnibus proceedings it used to test the theory came out definitively the other way—the court found the anti-vaxers’ evidence and witnesses were not credible. Far from “countless court cases” agreeing with her, Megan hasn’t been able to point to even one. (I’m aware of just one, a local Italian court from the same system that convicted geologists of failing to predict an earthquake.) Nor is she correct about vaccine product inserts. No vaccine insert I’ve ever seen acknowledges a causative link to autism. I’ve seen one that states that autism has been reported as an adverse event, but such VAERS reports are not confirmation of a causative link. VAERS specifically asks for reports even where the reporter doubts causation.
The author later added a link to a vaccine court ruling, attempting to persuade readers that it supported her claim. I can’t believe that any lawyer (which she claims to be) could read that case and think it “ruled that evidence of a causal relationship between autism and MMR exists.” That court never ruled at all on the question of causation; for technical reasons it was off the table in that case. (I can’t link to the case because the author reverted the article when I pointed this deception out, but you can read my legal criticism there.) Megan was therefore throwing up a piece of legalese she must have known was irrelevant to her claims. She equally must have known most of her readers wouldn’t examine it or understand it, so would believe that it supported what she’d said.
You won’t find much discussion of these problems, or Megan’s revisionary editing, at Living Whole. When I attempted to leave comments explaining why I thought her statements were wrong and requesting citations in case I was mistaken, the author blocked them. Apparently I wasn’t the only one; other people have reported here that Living Whole censored their contributions as well. She allowed one general critique, but declined to support her claims, correct them, or permit a discussion of them. That makes sense from a certain unethical perspective: if she allowed a conversation about the facts to take place under her article, it would be hard for her to justify leaving up false statements she can’t support. Contrast this fearful conduct with Dr. Raff’s policies, which request rather than forbid substantive comments—only one of these authors is confident about the truth of her position.
Megan wants people to believe that vaccines cause autism. One way to persuade skeptics that she’s right about that is to tell them that neutral arbiters, like the courts, has looked at all the evidence and agrees with her. Another way is to tell them that vaccine makers admit it in their package inserts. But these aren’t true facts. Megan may have honestly believed these things were true when she wrote the piece; she doesn’t seem terribly well educated on the issue, so she could easily have assumed the facts supported her preferred beliefs. But she obviously realized quickly that she couldn’t support those statements, and that they aren’t true.
What matters most is what she did after writing her piece. Once commenters tried to point the problems out to her, she refused to acknowledge the problem or correct her piece—steps that would have shown that her priority was giving her readers accurate information. Instead she concealed the conflicting information from her readers and shoehorned in an irrelevant document, evidently in an attempt to conceal her earlier misleading statements with more dishonesty.
It’s impossible to say with any certainty why Living Whole published these lies. The easy answer is that anti-vaxers have an ideology and they want people to share it. They would use solid facts to promote their beliefs if they could, but when the facts don’t cooperate unscrupulous believers often create a story that does. Megan wants to create that story for her readers—vaccines are scary and awful and wrong, and even the courts and the vaccine makers have admitted it.
That’s probably not the complete answer. Megan is very proud of her lifestyle, which rejects all non-“natural” medicines, not just vaccines. That lifestyle is easier to maintain, and more righteous, if vaccines are actually unreasonably dangerous. It must be fiercely tempting to believe that vaccines are so dangerous, even if the facts don’t support that story. Or maybe it has something to do with her credentials as a “Doctor of Naturopathy” and “Certified Natural Health Educator.” The time and effort she’s invested in developing these alternative medicine credentials was better spent, and the credentials themselves more meaningful, if science-based medicine can’t be trusted. Again, this provides a powerful motivation to disbelieve and even distort facts that are inconsistent with what she prefers to be true. Although it’s beyond the scope of this piece, I suspect Megan is being rationally irrational, a fascinating economic model of human behavior I’m working on for a book. Obviously this is all just speculation. We can’t really know Megan’s beliefs or motives, because we can’t see inside her head (or, obviously, trust her representations on this score).
Why Should I Care?
It was easy for the Living Whole author to lie to parents. From her perspective all she did was tell a little lie and delete some comments. It’s much harder to show that she was lying; it took a long, complicated writeup and a platform to publish it on. It still won’t persuade many people. I can say with nearly absolute certainty that we and/or Megan will get commenters saying that of course she’s telling the truth, or that the lies don’t matter so we must be mean Big Pharma shills to call her out in the first place.
Worse, people who read her lies (or who fed them to her in the first place) will go from this place and lie some more. For a long time to come, commenters around the internet will drop into vaccine-related articles and blithely, obliviously, falsely say just what Megan wants them to believe: courts and the product inserts admit that vaccines cause autism. We can’t stop that by refuting one blogger’s iteration of the fable.
Despite that, I don’t think this writeup is futile. A lot of commenters on the Dear Parents piece chided Dr. Raff as being too combative. They apparently didn’t read the title of the blog and have never seen her left hook. Those commenters weren’t necessarily wrong—strong, direct language like in the Dear Parents piece and this one won’t persuade committed anti-vaxers. Megan is more likely to become defensive and intractable than to come clean.
But we were never going to reach Megan, no matter our tactics. That was never the point. She’s committed to a lifestyle that strongly biases her towards the anti-vax movement. Admitting that she’s wrong, that the movement is wrong, would require thinking critically about whether she’s made the best choices for her kids, and that would be a miserably difficult process for her. At this point it would even require admitting her own dishonesty. Few people have the strength for such brutal honesty, and we can’t expect it from her now. It gets harder, not easier, the more time and effort and heartache she invests in those beliefs.
The point is to reach the undecided parents who are nervous about vaccines but haven’t yet consigned their kids to the mercy of measles. We’ve seen plenty of them in the comments here. I’ve thought extensively about the best way to reach such parents, and the most important lessons are empathy, honesty, and good information. Nothing about that precludes calling a lie a lie.
In fact, it’s an important step. Anti-vaxers’ greatest weapon may be their claim to false equivalence. People want to believe that there are two sides to every story. All that Megan or Jenny McCarthy have to do is make a claim boldly to make it true to someone who doesn’t already know better. If that person later hears another version of events—like, say, “The courts looked at the evidence and rejected the anti-vaxers’ theories” or “the childhood vaccination schedule has been investigated and found to be safe”—then it just sounds like there are two competing voices. A lot of people, in that situation, won’t know which side to choose, so try not to rule out either side. Consequently dishonest anti-vaxers preserve their credibility by telling bold lies. Identifying those lies when we see them, even if you know it won’t make a difference to the liar, makes it easier for those on the fence to see which voices they should discount.
That does require that when we call out a lie, we do so (a) credibly, with good and verifiable information, (b) calmly, since angry or bitter responses reinforce the perception that it’s all just a spat between equal sides, and (c) truthfully, without overstating our case or making unwarranted assumptions. (And as a corollary, when we make mistakes—which we certainly will—owning up to them.) But none of that precludes us from doing it firmly, straightforwardly and forcefully.
Dr. Raff was right. Parents are being lied to, by Jenny McCarthy and Living Whole and a host of other anti-vaxers. There’s no easy solution, but the first step is calling a lie a lie.