Vaxxed: From Coverup to Catastrophe to Cancellation to Insignificance

Vaxxed, the anti-vaccine documentary made by a team of anti-vaccine activists (but curiously, no vaccine experts) has come and gone and come again. Other people have written extensively about what happened, some with lots of facts and some with raging, paranoid fantasies. As the movie is likely to disappear into relative obscurity soon, let’s take this chance to explore some lessons learned from the last couple of weeks—some for vaccine opponents, and some for mainstream science and health advocates.

Update: The filmmakers have added Q&A sessions at the 5:45 p.m. shows on April 1 and 2, and the 3:30 p.m. show on April 3. So I can reinstate my recommendation! Go see it. Ask critical, but not disruptive, questions. What data was actually deleted? If the movie omits Thompson’s strong support for vaccination, why? (Remember that Thompson, the guy whose phone calls underlie the whole movie, made a point to declare publicly, “I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits.“) Why rely on a computer scientist instead of an epidemiologist for the science in the movie? Why was Hooker’s study retracted by the journal in which he originally published it, and why did that journal declare that it has “serious concerns about the validity of [Hooker’s] conclusions“? 

The people behind Vaxxed made a movie because their claims wither and die when they’re exposed to actual critical discussion. They want to create the appearance of a discussion, without any of the messy facts. Show up. Provide context for their propaganda. Even one person can make a difference, either by asking questions at the discussion panel or by reporting back on what those questions and answers were.

So if you can attend, please also record the discussion panel afterwards. (Not the movie itself, you’ll get kicked out.) The outside world would love to hear how conspiracy theorists feast on a film like this. The first press conference, before the film even aired, already devolved into “GMOs, chemtrails, and fluoride.” We can’t be there, so we’d love to hear your observations and thoughts!

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An Interview with Andrew Wakefield

Andrew Wakefield and I were both on the ConspiraSea Cruise in January 2016. By the last full day of the cruise, we’d had a few encounters ranging from standing in the same line for coffee to a fairly tense exchange during one of his lectures. I asked Wakefield after that lecture if he would answer a few questions regarding the so-called “CDC Whistleblower.” He consented, and this is the interview that resulted. Wakefield was aware that I was recording and that I am a critic of his position on vaccines and autism; he did not refuse to answer any of my questions.

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Wakefield lecturing on the cruise

This transcript is my own work, and I welcome any corrections. I’ve edited it slightly to make it more readable and remove irrelevant dialog. I have also added parenthetical comments to note where a statement is inaudible on the recording, which is not of high quality, and provide my best guess at what was said in a few places. I have not changed the substance of any question or answer.

Wakefield answered several questions before I turned the recording on. According to my memory and my notes, I asked him questions about the Thompson documents such as what specific deviations there were from the approved study plan (as he had alleged such deviations in two lectures). He referred me generally to his letter of October 2014, written with Brian Hooker and attorney James Moody, and directed to the federal Office of Research Integrity. He indicated both that he had documents from Thompson at the time he wrote that letter, and that Congressman Posey subsequently received additional documents from Thompson. At that point I began the recording.

I am not an expert in the documents Wakefield discussed. So in order to provide context for these answers, we have asked Matt Carey of Left Brain Right Brain to provide commentary. Carey is a published scientist, a parent of an autistic child, and extremely familiar with the Thompson documents. He has written an in-depth analysis of the Thompson documents and was able to provide an important counterpoint to Wakefield’s claims. Please read that excellent analysis prior to this interview if you are not familiar with the affair. The questions and answers will make little sense without context.

My questions are in black, Wakefield’s answers are in red, and Carey’s comments are in green. We welcome your own comments as well.

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ConspiraSea Day 7: I failed.

This is Day Seven, the last in my seven-day series of updates from or about the ConspiraSea Cruise. You can read Day 1 here, Day 2 here , Day 3 here, Day 4 here, Day 5 Part 1 here, Day 5 Part 2 here, Day 6 here, and an explanation for what I was doing here. We’ll have an index page up soon collecting these and future pieces. This is the last of the seven-day series, but not my last post about conspiracy theories. We’ll be posting an exclusive interview with Andrew Wakefield soon, and then I have a number of analytical pieces planned for future updates.

This is the most difficult of the ConspiraSea articles I’ve written. I have to confess a very personal and frustrating failure. I made just one serious attempt to persuade someone on the cruise to reject some very bad and dangerous advice. This was contrary to my “do not interfere” policy, but I couldn’t just stand by and watch someone’s future ruined by charlatans. And unlike many attendees, whose minds were made up before they ever boarded the boat, this person claimed to be persuadable and actively sought out my advice. I don’t know for certain whether I could have changed their mind, only that I didn’t. I hope this piece and the news in it reach that person, and I hope it’s not too late.

I can’t give you any details about the person I’m writing this for. I promised them anonymity, and I seriously considered not writing this at all. But if I don’t, then I have no way to reach them and give them an important update. And it’s important to show how dangerous some conspiracy theories can be; I have some responsibility to the people like this person who might be persuaded to make safer, better decisions. I’ll call that person Q, to protect their privacy while still telling a coherent story. Because this piece isn’t just for Q, but anyone in the same situation or who’s just curious about whether pseudolaw is as dangerous as pseudoscience or pseudomedicine.

As far as everyone but the two of us are concerned, this is what Q looks like:

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Q

Q’s age, race, gender, nationality, profession, education, marital status, shoe size, politics, military service—all of that is irrelevant. All you need to know is that Q is a human being. And Q’s future is in real danger because of the advice two pseudolegal gurus were selling on the ConspiraSea Cruise. Specifically, Q took advice from a dangerously incompetent and ignorant “attorney in law,” Sean David Morton. A man whom Q trusted. A man who never told Q that not long before the cruise began, he’d been indicted on serious criminal charges. Q probably has no idea that he was arrested by the IRS Criminal Investigation Division as soon as he got off the boat, or that he’s now facing over six hundred years of jail time for doing the same sort of things he advised his audiences to try for themselves.

Indictment
You don’t ever want to see your name on a header like this. I’ve concealed the name of his co-defendant; it’s a matter of public record, but it’s also irrelevant to this message.

 

I don’t know Q’s full name and I don’t have any way to make contact. And I’m sure there are other people from the cruise who are in the same situation, about to implement some of the horrible ideas they got from Morton. So I’ve asked the ConspiraSea Cruise organizers to notify attendees of these developments. I think they need to know that one of the lecturers who gave them legal advice is facing enormous criminal liability for taking his own medicine. I suggested they simply send out a request for prayers and good thoughts on Morton’s behalf in light of his recent legal issues. I thought that would be a decent compromise because people like Q would be put on alert, and cruise organizers wouldn’t have to explicitly criticize one of their guests. They’ve refused. The person I wrote to, whom I believe to be a personal friend of the guru in question, responded only, “I have no comment to make about Sean David Morton.”

I do. I hope it reaches you, Q.

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ConspiraSea Day Six: You know who exposes real conspiracies? The media.

This is Day Six in my seven-day series of updates from or about the ConspiraSea Cruise. You can read Day 1 here, Day 2 here , Day 3 here, Day 4 here, Day 5 Part 1 here, Day 5 Part 2 here, and an explanation for what I was doing here. We’ll have an index page up soon collecting these and future pieces.

Day Six was tough for me personally. The main reason is something I’ll write about for Day Seven, but it didn’t help that the seas were particularly high. I’d become seasick on a small-boat excursion the day before (thanks to Michael Badnarik who offered good advice for dealing with it) and even though the cruise ship was mostly very stable, my memories of the Saturday lectures feel like they’re covered with a thin, greasy film.

It also didn’t help that the first session of the day was listening to Winston Shrout give well-meaning people really terrible advice about how to handle their mortgages. That definitely added to my queasiness. I don’t know much about real estate, but I’m pretty sure that the Vatican hasn’t just released the necessary money to pay off everyone’s mortgages. And I’m pretty sure that Winston Shrout wasn’t involved in a multi-trillion dollar transaction that would have done the same thing if HSBC hadn’t sabotaged him. And I’m pretty sure that referring people to NESARA is, at best, a waste of their time. But more about pseudo-law on Day 7. Continue reading

ConspiraSea Cruise Day 5 Part 2: I Took The Bait

Colin here, taking over the job Jennifer’s graciously been doing by editing and posting my own writing. I’m no longer on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. Now I’m home (briefly) and writing up my experiences. This is a fuller explanation of what happened on the fifth day. You can read Day 1 here, Day 2 here , Day 3 here, Day 4 here, Day 5 Part 1 here, and an explanation for what I was doing here

I have just one more full day to go, then a very personal post about the very last morning of the cruise. I want to move forward quickly because we aren’t done after that. In the future I’ll write in more detail about individual presentations and my thoughts about what the conference has to teach us about irrational ideologies and the debates around those beliefs.

In the last post, I explained how I wound up as the primary audience of a long, angry lecture by Andy Wakefield. Here’s a much more detailed explanation of what happened, and some thoughts on why it happened and why it matters.

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And I apologize in advance for the fishing puns. Honestly, I tried to stop.

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A skeptic on the ConspiraSea cruise, day 5: I Just Can’t Do Another Nautical Pun

Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the fifth day’s report. You can read Day 1 here, Day 2 here , Day 3 here, Day 4 here, day 5 (part 2) here , and an explanation for what he is doing here.  If you would like to give him questions or advice, please comment on this post–I’ll make sure he sees it. –Jennifer

So that was the state of affairs going into Friday. I was generally aware of what happened, as were a lot of people on the boat; the reporters made it pretty clear that Thursday’s events were bizarre and alarming. As I’ve said, I haven’t ever felt unsafe on this ship. But I also haven’t been ambushed in any sessions, had anyone pop up by surprise, or been singled out and yelled at. (With one exception, which we’ll come to—and even that wasn’t in a threatening context.) I know the journalists have asked organizers whether they’ll be safe, and there’s been some discussion of having security available if it happens again. I would be surprised if it were necessary—but not quite as surprised as I would have been on Wednesday. Continue reading

Troubled Waters: ConspiraSea Cruise Day 4(ish)

Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the fourth day’s report. You can read Day 1 here, Day 2 here , Day 3 here, day 5 (part 1) here, day 5 (part 2) here , and an explanation for what he is doing here.  If you would like to give him questions or advice, please comment on this post–I’ll make sure he sees it. –Jennifer

When I started this project, many (many many) people warned me to be careful and that I might be in danger. I didn’t take that possibility seriously then, and I don’t take it seriously now—I personally have never felt unsafe at this conference. But I am not the only writer here. And the others, who unlike me are professional journalists, will tell their stories eventually. Until then I’d like to share the events of the last couple of days. This is a story about a long series events taking place at a confusing and busy event; it’s going to be long and busy and confusing at times. Sorry.  (Note: Colin emailed me two days’ worth of material in a single batch, and I split them up by day to make this post more manageable. You can read part 2 here.–Jennifer). You want clear and concise and comprehensible stories, read about a conference that doesn’t feature an antivaccine guru, a pistol-packing presidential candidate, a self-employed and self-declared “international judge” and an alchemist all on the same boat. What I’ve got is what they gave me. Continue reading

Nothing to fear: ConspiraSea cruise day 3

Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the third day’s report. You can find the first day’s report here, the second day’s report here, the fourth day’s report here, the fifth day’s report (part 1) here, day 5 (part 2) here , and an explanation for what he is doing here. If you would like to give him questions or advice, please comment on this post–I’ll make sure he sees it. –Jennifer

Today’s post will be relatively short, for a few reasons. Primarily it’s because even though I’m on a cruise ship, this is exhausting! Everything starts around 8 am and ends around 10 pm. The ship is full of amenities—bars, restaurants, minigolf, swimming pools, hot tubs, saunas, a library, coffee shops, massages, shopping, comedy shows, movie theaters, and god know what else. I don’t, because I haven’t used any of those things except a couple of restaurants, a coffee shop, and the treadmill. I’m not complaining, though, because the important stuff is here. I’m meeting fascinating people, and that’s not a euphemism. For the most part, the people here are pleasant and engaging and well worth getting to know. Continue reading

Reverse the Constitutional Polarity of the Baryonic Trustee Matrix: Legal Gibberish on the ConspiraSea Cruise (Day 2)

Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the second day’s report. You can find the first day’s report here, day 3 here, day 4 here, day 5 (part 1) here, day 5 (part 2) here and an explanation for what he is doing here. If you would like to give him questions or advice, please comment on this post–I’ll make sure he sees it. –Jennifer

This is Jennifer’s blog, and Jennifer is a scientist. So most of the posts here are about science in one way or another. And I love that, because I love science—the idea of it, the practice of it, and the success of it. So when we talk about irrationality and pseudoscience, it’s only natural that we’re mostly focused on pseudoarchaeology, pseudogenetics, anti-vaccine and anti-GMO irrationality. There’s plenty of that on this boat and I’m going to write about it, but so far it’s nothing new.

This post isn’t about pseudoscience. Not about anti-vaxers or GMO fearmongering. Lots of our readers come here for those topics, but don’t turn away just yet. I want to talk about something most of you have barely thought about, but something that may be more important than anti-vaccine pseudoscience—at least for its victims.

As much as I love science, I’m not a scientist. I’m a lawyer. I graduated from Harvard Law School, served as a staff clerk for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and clerked for a very respected federal judge in Texas. Before I left the practice I spent years litigating cases for an international law firm, doing things like suing a hedge fund for committing fraud in the securitization of esoteric financial instruments. I don’t say any of this stuff to put on airs. It never once got me a date when I was single. I just want to establish that while I’m not a famous legal scholar or law school professor or distinguished expert, I know more than a little something about how courts and laws work. That’s why this post isn’t about pseudoscience but pseudolaw.

And it matters. Pseudolaw isn’t harmless. It ruins lives. It sends people to prison. People die behind this, as you’ve seen happen in Oregon. The pseudolaw that’s happening on the boat is tame by comparison, but still has the potential to wreck the lives of well-meaning people. It’s important to take a break from pseudoscience to see how this slow-motion disaster is happening in front of our eyes, and then we’ll take a look at how it’s affecting the anti-vaccine movement.

This is a harsher post than I expected to write, and much harsher than I’ll be writing about the rest of the cruise. If you’re on the cruise with me and reading this, please do it with an open mind. This is what it means to seek the truth, which is what the cruise is supposed to be helping us all do. Continue reading

A skeptic on the Conspira-Sea Cruise: Day 1

Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the first day’s report. You can find day 2 here, day 3 here, day 4 here, day 5 (part 1) here, and day 5 (part 2) here –Jennifer

Welcome to the first daily update on the ConspiraSea Cruise! This is the first full day of the cruise and we’re well underway. (That is a boat joke. I will make more. None of them will be very funny. That is how boat jokes work.) I’m going to try to write an update for every day of the cruise, with some final and more polished observations after I’m home. These updates will be relatively short given how much is happening simply because there’s not that much time to write. It’s well after midnight now, and since we cross a time zone and lose an hour tonight I’m not expecting much sleep. That’s OK, this isn’t a vacation!

 

Economy Cabin
The ship is luxurious. The cabin is not.

If you aren’t familiar with the ConspiraSea Cruise, the organizers still have their promotional site up here. I’m sure they’ll take it down eventually though, so for archival purposes you can check out my GoFundMe page or our prior coverage at Violent Metaphors. And before we go any further, THANK YOU to all the GoFundMe supporters! Your interest in the culture of conspiracy theories not only made this trip possible, it’s inspirational as I continue to make slow but steady progress on my book about the dissemination of and debate over irrational ideas. Continue reading