2010 This Year In Skepticism – February

January 5, 2011

Here is the second part of my look back at the big skeptic-related news stories from last year. I just reviewed last January here. And here’s February. Hopefully, I’ll cover more than one month of the year in the next installment.

Homeopaths admit their products have no active ingredients – The 10:23 homeopathic overdose campaign has driven the New Zealand Council of Homeopaths to admit that their products do not contain any “material substances”:

Council spokeswoman Mary Glaisyer admitted publicly that “there´s not one molecule of the original substance remaining” in the diluted remedies that form the basis of this multi-million-dollar industry.

Lancet retracts1998 Wakefield study

Motivational speaker James Arthur Ray, guru of The Secret was officially charged with manslaughter – This earns him a nomination for biggest douchebag of the year.

Kevin Trudeau pissed off the wrong judge – This earns him a nomination for biggest douchebag of the year.

The Desiree Jennings case may have been exposed as a fraud, though the damage was already done

Andrew Wakefield booted out of Thoughtful House

The Secular Coalition met with the White House

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Richard Horton now has grounds to sue Mark Blaxill

February 17, 2010

I’ve been a big supporter of the movement to change libel law in the UK, where the burden of proof is unfairly placed on the defendant. However, until it is changed, I see no reason why those defending science should be handicapped and unable to take advantage of it as the cranks have.

Now few pseudoscience movements have been as quick to try and exploit the law to silence their opposition as the anti-vaccine movement. Their prophet Andrew Wakefield tried to censor his opposition in 2004 by suing Journalist Brian Deer for a documentary he made exposing the truth about vaccines. And just two months ago, Barbara Loe Fisher issued a libel suit collectively against Journalist Amy Wallace, Dr. Paul Offit, and Conde Nast in the U.S. simply over Wallace’s inclusion of a quote by Offit stating that Fisher “lies.” Of course, since her case is in the U.S. where the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, in my opinion, Fisher doesn’t have a case and has only opened the door for the defense to dig into her past and freely introduce as evidence any number of instances where her statements did not line up with the facts.

But why do I bring this all up now? Because Age of Autism’s editor, Mark Blaxill was shamelessly given space in USA Today to spout his inane conspiracy theories about medical boogymen out to get our kids and had this to say about Richard Horton:

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, a memorable scene follows the protagonist (working at the satirically named Ministry of Truth) as he rewrites the news to erase a man’s life and work from history. That’s what Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, just attempted when he retracted a case series report by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues at the Royal Free Hospital from the scientific record. Horton should be ashamed of himself, and anyone who believes in the free and open discussion of controversial scientific questions should be concerned about what has happened to our civil discourse in the process.

There’s a lot of name-calling and misinformation swirling around this issue that should stop.

Of course you got to love how internally inconsistent Blaxill is, condemning all the “name-calling” in the very next paragraph after, you know, name-calling.

Now I could go on a rant where I point out how Blaxill abuses Orwell, ironically using the free press provided to him to spout his hysterical criticisms of Big Brother without fear of being disappeared in the night after being ratted out by his neighbor, but I’d rather stick to his potentially libelous accusation.

Now I personally do not consider this minor opinion piece as libel, and in the U.S., it would never hold up in court. However, Richard Horton is not a U.S. citizen. He’s from the UK, where Journalist Simon Singh literally lost the initial ruling in a libel suit against him simply because the judge chose to interpret his use of the word “bogus” as implying intentional deception even though no reputable dictionary associates deliberate deception with the word “bogus.”

So I have got to think that unambiguously calling the editor of one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world a deliberate, willful agent of misinformation in league with Big Brother is an actionable offense in the UK. It’s way worse and more explicit than calling chiropractic “bogus” within a lengthy article that exposes chiropractic to indeed not work. And unlike Singh, Blaxill clearly has a dog in this race. It’s in Blaxill’s best interests to promote a general distrust of any medical authority who disagrees with him, so that shows mens rea, the legal term for criminal intent. And the statement itself can be argued to constitute as actus reus, the legal term that refers to the actual criminal action. Together, theoretically, that’s sufficient for Horton’s attorney to prove a prima facie case, where the plaintiff has enough evidence to begin legal proceedings.

Just something to think about, Horton.

But before I end this piece, I’d like to take a minute to answer Blaxill’s challenge:

Anyone convinced that Wakefield is the problem should ask a simple question: Can you name a single instance of fraud or misconduct by Wakefield, describe it simply without deferring to the authority of some faceless tribunal and defend the evidence to an informed skeptic? You won’t succeed. Why? Because the evidence clearly shows there was neither fraud nor misconduct.

How about from Wakefield himself? He a good enough source for you?

Yeah, for future note, it’s never a good idea to tell a room full of total strangers about your medical misconduct. You never know who might be recording it to expose the bogus information provided by those trying to sweep your crimes under the rug.

And just for fun, here’s the complete GMC ruling on Wakefield, detailing his medical misconduct and here’s Brian Deer’s investigative report exposing Wakefield’s fraud.


Lancet retracts Wakefield’s 1998 study

February 3, 2010

After twelve years of solid debunking, the Lancet, a leading UK professional medical research journal, has finally decided to officially retract Andrew Wakefield’s disastrous fake study that is almost single-handedly responsible for the modern anti-vaccination movement and for a massive decline in MMR vaccinations as well as all other vaccinations.

From the BBC:

The medical journal which originally published the discredited research linking autism and MMR has now issued a full retraction of the paper.

The Lancet said it now accepted claims made by the researchers were “false”. It comes after Dr Andrew Wakefield, the lead researcher in the 1998 paper, was ruled last week to have broken research rules by the General Medical Council.

The publication caused vaccination rates to plummet, resulting in a rise in measles.

…Last week, the GMC ruled Dr Wakefield had shown a “callous disregard” for children and acted “dishonestly” while he carried out his research. It will decide later whether to strike him off the medical register.

And from the Lancet editorial itself:

Following the judgment of the UK General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practise Panel on Jan 28, 2010, it has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al. are incorrect, contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation. In particular, the claims in the original paper that children were “consecutively referred” and that investigations were “approved” by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record.

Of course the anti-vaccinationists over at Age of Autism such as David Kirby, are insisting the retraction means nothing as they continue to focus their efforts EXCLUSIVELY on defending their messiah. Apparently, news that’s actually related to autism isn’t important enough to warrant coverage during The Martyrdom of St. Andy, as Orac put it. Kirby even uses the George W. Bush mantra of declaring that while disgraced now, Wakefield will be more warmly received by future generations. Yeah, keep dreaming, David.

You know, at the very beginning of January, in light of Barbara Loe Fisher’s horribly ill-conceived libel suit against Amy Wallace, Paul Offit, and Conde Nast, I expressed my feelings that it was beginning to look like the anti-vaccine movement has peeked and is finally going to begin a decline as they’ve continued to make bad decisions and the media has begun to catch onto just how crazy they are. January has been a devastating month for them and now February has already proven far worse. Now I’m not about to say it’s all over yet, but like with $cientology, lately all the relevant news has been squarely against them. So yeah, I think they’re in trouble. As much as they want to continue to preach Wakefield’s innocence, the fact is that he’s in so deep that he’ll never clear his name. And while he should be able to make a decent living out of giving lectures to fellow anti-vaccinationists and maybe even a few organizations that failed to do the proper research before agreeing to let him speak, let’s face it. No real hospital would hire someone with his reputation. His medical career (at least as far as real medicine is concerned) is officially over.

Add that to our continuing understanding of the genetic nature of autism, the possible collapse of the Australian Vaccination Network,   and the almost inevitable Dover-like outcome of Barbara Loe Fisher’s libel suit (too bad she couldn’t sue in the UK), and we’ve got a critical mass of negative publicity coming their way.So yeah, I think there’s good reason for critics of the anti-vaccine movement to look forward to the coming year.


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