About a week and a half ago, the ever-ascerbic Mark Crislip applied his dry and devastating wit to a particularly silly bit of anti-vaccine propaganda from an anti-vaccine website, Medical Voices Vaccine Information Center (MVVIC). Written by a naturopath named David Mihalovic, the anti-vaccine propaganda in question was entitled 9 Questions That Stump Every Pro-Vaccine Advocate and Their Claims. Mihalovic’s article is an incredibly — shall we say? — target-rich environment full of logical fallacies (including straw men built to Burning Man dimensions at which Mihalovic aimed his flamethrower of burning ignorance and let loose with napalm-grade flaming nonsense), misinformation, and cherry picking. Dr. Crislip entitled his rejoinder, appropriately enough, Nine Questions, Nine Answers, and his methodical, oh-so-sarcastically complete deconstruction of Mihalovic’s deceptive and disingenuous “nine questions” showed that these questions stump no one who actually knows what he is talking about when it comes to vaccines. More than that, these “nine questions” also reveal an ignorance of vaccines so deep that a bathysphere probably couldn’t withstand the pressure at that depth. Truly, after reading Dr. Crislip’s post, I had to bow to the master. I may be capable of some fairly awesome insolence at times, but I’m hard-pressed to keep up with Dr. Crislip when he’s firing on all cylinders.
Being the ever-benevolent editor that I am and, as such, very proud of Mark’s effort, I decided that common courtesy would suggest that it would be a good idea to send a friendly note to the people behind Medical Voices, you know, just to let them know that their article had been greatly appreciated for its entertainment value. Well, maybe the e-mail wasn’t so friendly. I do recall using the words “nonsense,” “pseudoscience,” “misinformation,” and “despicable” somewhere in the mix. Antivaccine pseudoscience tends to bring that out in me, and it wasn’t a blog post, at least not on SBM. Be that as it may, over a week went by with no response, and I thought that we were being ignored. Oh, well, I thought, no big deal and nothing unexpected. Then, Monday morning, I found this e-mail in my in box from someone named Nick Haas:
Hello Dr. Gorski,
Would you like to debate on vaccines live and publicly over the Internet? You just need a computer and a headset. We could have two medical doctors on each side. We’ll figure out a moderator together.
A “live” debate. What is it with “live debates”? It seems that cranks always want to challenge those who criticize their misinformation and pseudoscience to “live debates.”
I perused the MVVIC website and quickly figured out who Nick Haas is. He’s listed as the president of something called the International Medical Council on Vaccination, which counts on its board of directors such anti-vaccine luminaries as Sherri Tenpenny, DO; Mayer Eisenstein, MD, JD, MPH; and Harold Buttram, MD, among others. Of note Buttram is the doctor who claims that shaken baby syndrome is a misdiagnosis for vaccine injury. Nick Hass, it turns out has this background:
Nick’s background is in sales and logistics. He is president of Medical Voices Vaccine Information Center. Nick earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Carthage College in 1998, majoring in both business administration and Spanish. Nick became interested in vaccines when he and his wife became pregnant. He was shocked as he learned about the true risks of vaccines, that their efficacy is grossly overstated, and that vaccines in fact are not responsible for disease eradication. After studying thousands of pages on vaccines and deciding he needed to get involved, Nick founded MVVIC, with all medical doctors on its boards. The organization gladly claims responsibility for sparking the interest of physicians and the public alike, leading them to the truth they did not learn in medical school or from their doctor. Nick and his wife Ana are parents of one unvaccinated son and live in southeast Wisconsin. Nick is not a healthcare provider.
Interestingly (to me at least), there was nothing there about Mr. Haas having a child with autism and viewing the autism as due to “vaccine injury,” which is the usual case for activists of this type. Still, it would appear that Mr. Haas is, like Jenny McCarthy, a graduate of the University of Google who thinks his Google knowledge trumps the science, epidemiology, and the knowledge of scientists who have spent their entire professional lives steeped in immunology and vaccine science. In any case, I had a hearty chuckle after reading the above and forwarded Nick’s message to the rest of the SBM crew, proposing a response. While I waited a day or so, apparently Mr. Haas was growing impatient, because a mere 13 or 14 hours after the first e-mail, I found this in my e-mail in box:
I am CCing all of you to respect your privacy. Each of you has contacted International Medical Council on Vaccination apparently because of the request Dr. David Gorski made that you do so in the comments section of an article published at sciencebasedmedicine.org. One of those who contacted us – and who is included on this e-mail – is Dr. David Gorski himself. While we’ve written off past attacks, we feel we have to respond to the direct challenge made (comment by David Gorski on 07 May 2010 at 8:17 am).
We would like to do much better than provide a refutation of one article on our site. I have sent Dr. Gorski an e-mail (see below) asking that he participate in an open debate via Internet. We would provide the forum and it would be open to the audience without charge, using a mediator both parties agree on.
I am sending this e-mail to all of you so as to provide further incentive for Dr. Gorski to acknowledge that we have responded and to further provide incentive that the sciencebasedmedicine.org crew accept the invitation to a public debate. We also ask that sciencebasedmedicine.org immediately post an acknowledgement of this offer in the comments section of the article. Please feel free to e-mail Dr. Gorski (firstname.lastname@example.org) and ask him about his intentions.
International Medical Council on Vaccination
I particularly like the part about wanting to do “much better” than providing a refutation on the MVVIC website. In actuality, the demand for a “public debate” is a favorite ploy of cranks everywhere. In fact, I’ve seen it used by every variety of crank I’ve ever encountered online, including alternative medicine supporters, anti-vaccinationists, HIV/AIDS denialists, Holocaust deniers, 9/11 Truthers, and believers in ghosts and the paranormal. In particular, I remember a woman named Casey Cohen trying to convince me to take part in a debate with Christine Maggiore a couple of years ago and then declaring victory when I declined.
Deborah Lipstadt, the renowned Holocaust expert who was sued for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving back in 2000 for referring to him as a Holocaust denier in her book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, a libel suit that laid bare the U.K.’s excessively plaintiff-friendly libel laws a decade before the libel suit by the British Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh became a cause célèbre. Let me make one thing clear before I proceed: in using the example of Holocaust denial, I am not calling Mr. Haas or anyone associated with MVVIC a Nazi or anti-Semite. However, the techniques of dealing with evidence by anti-vaccinationists so resemble the techniques of Holocaust deniers that the comparison is hard to avoid, although difficult to make because of the toxic nature of even mentioning Holocaust denial. (In fact, I’ll also make a prediction: if Mr. Haas or anyone from MVVIC responds to this post, they’ll willfully misinterpret my use of Holocaust denial as an example of fallacious argumentation and complain that I’m calling them Nazis, bigots, or anti-Semites. I almost guarantee it.) In any case, Professor Lipstadt has stated clearly that she does not debate deniers and used the most apt simile I’ve seen about debating denialists, “Debating a denier is like trying to nail a blob of jelly to the wall.”
So, too, is debating anti-vaccine propagandists.
There are a number of compelling reasons why it is pointless at best and counterproductive at worst to debate a denier, denialist, crank, or whatever you want to call it. For one thing, for a debate to be an intellectually useful exercise, there should be two reasonable points of view being argued, points of view that have a sufficient amount of evidence to support them that it is not unreasonable to hold either view being debated. The evidence doesn’t have to be of equal quantity and quality on each side, of course, but it should at least be somewhere in the same ball park — or on the same planet. This isn’t a rule that is limited to just Holocaust deniers, either. Vaccine denialists (a.k.a. anti-vaxers), evolution denialists (a.k.a. creationists), scientific medicine denialists (a.k.a. alt-med mavens), HIV/AIDS denialists, or 9/11 Truthers, they all fall into this category. All of them desperately crave respectability. As much as they disparage mainstream thought in the disciplines that they attack, be it medicine, vaccines, history, or current events, they desperately crave to be taken seriously by the relevant disciplines. Being seen in the same venue, on the same stage, or on the same media outlet with relevant experts as an apparent equal gives them just what they want.
And some of them are really good at being the jelly that you can’t nail to the wall.
So, with the permission of Steve Novella and Mark Crislip, on Tuesday morning, I responded:
You appear to have misinterpreted my intent. I was not challenging you or your writers to a public debate; I was simply making you aware of an excellent refutation by one of our bloggers of some egregious misinformation that one of your alleged “experts” has published on your website. We do not “debate” anti-vaccinationists. We use our blog to refute their misinformation. That is one reason why Science-Based Medicine exists.
Medical science is not decided by “public debates.” It is decided by evidence, experiments, and clinical trials. Fortunately, the vast preponderance of evidence is against the contentions that vaccines cause autism, that vaccines are somehow more dangerous than the diseases they prevent, that vaccines are loaded with “toxins,” or that they are ineffective, all arguments your “expert” made. Certainly your website does not provide any scientifically compelling evidence to refute what our blogger Dr. Crislip wrote. Even if we at SBM found publicly “debating” anti-vaccinationists to be anything other than a complete waste of our time, I have to be honest here: If your writer Mr. Mihalovic can’t even get some very basic scientific facts correct (or even find easily locatable studies using PubMed, as Dr. Crislip so amusingly showed), a “debate” with him would be even more pointless than usual attempts to debate anti-vaccinationists. (Google ‘Gish Gallop’ for one reason why.)
You or Mr. Mihalovic are, of course, more than welcome to respond in the comments of Dr. Crislip’s post or to try to refute him with evidence on your own website. We do not, however, feel obligated to give his views additional credence by doing an online debate.
David Gorski, MD, PhD
Managing Editor, Science-Based Medicine
Cc: Steve Novella, Mark Crislip
Mr. Haas was not pleased, and later on Tuesday I received this e-mail, again apparently sent to some sort of MVVIC mailing list and cc’d to Steve, Mark, and me:
Greetings: I have BCCed those of you who contacted International Medical Council on Vaccination regarding the Nine Questions article. Sciencebasedmedicine.org has declined giving us the opportunity to defend their attack via an open debate.
We consider ourselves to have done better than their and your request for a response. They have not done as much as acknowledge our reply where they have the article posted. They tell security to not let the other team in the arena and then pronounce themselves the winner to the fans.
This issue is closed; hence, for us. I won’t be replying to anything other than an acceptance on sciencebasedmedicine.org’s part — an acceptance that will never come — to debate the science live, open and fairly.
Thank you for having contacted International Medical Council on Vaccination.
Bottom line: We denied Mr. Haas his preferred forum, and, because he can’t refute what Mark wrote, he and his merry band of anti-vaccine propagandists retreated in a most ignominious fashion. However, being the ever-benevolent editor that I am, I thought I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Mr. Haas’s reply where Mark’s article was posted, which is exactly what I’m doing now by writing this post. I’m acknowledging his “offer.” I’m also pointing out that his excuse not to respond to Dr. Crislip’s refutation of their propaganda piece is transparently obvious:
When science reared its ugly head, MVVIC bravely turned its tail and fled, although no doubt Mr. Haas will try to spin it as SBM running away.
The issue of whether to debate cranks like anti-vaccine propagandists is a question that comes up perennially in skeptical circles. I personally come down on the side that it is a pointless, no-win exercise for skeptics, although some, even those who mostly agree with the contention that it is pointless to debate pseudoscientists, sometimes relent because a lot of pressure is put on them. Even so, accepting is a bad idea the vast majority of the time, and most skeptics who have participated in such “debates” (pseudodebates, actually) usually have at least an inkling that it’s a bad idea when they agree to do them. Some skeptics agree to such debates, but these are generally the ones so good at public speaking and debate that they are not troubled overmuch by the Gish Gallop (although I would point out that even the most seasoned debater can be put on the defensive with this technique). Truly, though, these are the elite skeptics, speakers, and debaters. Disagreements over tactics aside, as Steve Novella pointed out in our e-mail exchanges, live debates are a terrible forum for science. Written discussions are much better.
That is what Mark Crislip did by writing his excellent detailed, question-by-question response to each of Mihalovic’s “nine questions” that supposedly “stump” everyone. That is how the published scientific literature works. Either Mr. Mihalovic, Haas, or any of the members of MVVIC are, of course, free to respond in writing as well, either in the comments of Mark’s original post or on the MVVIC website — or whatever website they desire. In fact, this very point reminds me of something. It’s not just debates that are a no-win situation for skeptics; it’s the very challenge to debate that is a no-win situation, and cranks know it. That’s why they do it! Consider: Why did Mr. Haas, upon receiving my somewhat snarky e-mail that had no challenge to a debate in it but rather contained a link to Mark’s post, along with some text taking MVVIC to task for publishing gross misinformation, leap immediately to “challenging” us to a debate? He didn’t even preface it by saying, “I think you’re wrong and here’s why” or something similar. No! He immediately issued a challenge to a “public debate” because it’s a tactic for trying to put the critic on the defensive without having to defend the tripe on his website with evidence. This tactic is effective at putting its victim into the aforementioned no-win situation, and very few of us are James T. Kirk beating the no-win Kobayashi Maru situation. If the skeptic refuses, cranks will crow that the supporter of science is “afraid” to debate. If the skeptic accepts, the cranks almost automatically win, because (1) they are seen in a forum as equals with scientists and skeptics and (2) they can do the Gish Gallop and few skeptics can effectively counter that. That’s why to me the lesser of two evils is to decline such “invitations,” be very clear about why, and be even more clear that we are happy to take Mr. Haas or his designees on in written form. That puts the ball back in their court. It won’t stop them from spinning this as us being afraid of them, but it helps.
I’ll finish by reiterating and expanding a bit on what I wrote in my e-mail to Mr. Haas: We do not “debate” pseudoscientists, anti-vaccinationists, and purveyors of dubious medical treatments. We use our blog to refute their misinformation and hopefully educate the public. That is one reason why Science-Based Medicine exists. Another reason is (sometimes, at least) to entertain while we educate. Of course, it’s fun, too, particularly e-mail exchanges with readers like Mr. Haas. Who knows? Maybe he or one of his “experts” will now take a crack at refuting Mark’s post. In the meantime, I’ve encouraged my fellow SBM bloggers to pick an article from the collection of pseudoscientific articles on the MVVIC website and give it the Mark Crislip treatment. Perhaps this despicable–oops, there I go again!–article by Harold Buttram presenting the pseudoscientific claim that shaken baby syndrome is in reality vaccine injury or this hilarious article by David Ayoub claiming that the AAP knows that vaccines cause autism.
ADDENDUM: It’s been pointed out in the comments that I forgot an excellent source that argues essentially the same thing I did, namely Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid podcast episode Should Science Debate Pseudoscience? I even remember listening to that episode! There are some great quotes there, too. Here’s one example:
The primary reason I oppose debates is that a debate, by definition, allows two competing views to be explored and compared, and arguments presented for each. The audience is expected to weigh these arguments and hopefully decide which one they found more compelling. The very nature of a debate presents science as if it is merely a competing opinion. When we agree to a debate, we are agreeing to drag science down to the level of a view that competes with pseudoscience. Simply by agreeing to the debate, we present the scientific method as being vulnerable to disassembly by fallacious pseudoscientific arguments. That’s the message we send: Science is not fact, science is merely opinion; and it’s as weak as any other.
Preach it, Brother Brian! Here’s another:
Going to debate at an event sponsored by the pseudoscience group is always a ridiculous waste of your time. You serve merely as a masturbation enabler for them. Next time, send them a stack of dirty magazines instead.
It has been argued that scientists have a huge advantage in debates because we have the facts on our side. Well, so we do, but that’s not an advantage at all. Rather, it’s a limitation. The audience members who are not scientists can rarely discriminate between facts and pseudofacts. The pseudoscientist has an unlimited supply of sources and claims and validations. He can say whatever he wants. If compelling rhetoric would benefit from any given argument, he can always make that argument. Pseudosciences have typically been designed around compelling rhetorical arguments. The facts of science, on the other hand, rarely happen to coincide with the best possible logic argument. Having the facts on your side is not an advantage, it’s a limitation; and it’s a limitation that’s very dangerous to the cause of science should you throw it onto the debate floor.
Brian’s exactly right. The problem with “debates” like this is that pseudoscience supporters are not limited by facts, science, clinical trials, and data. They can claim what they want, and then it’s up to the skeptic to try to shoot it down. If they cite some obscure, cherry picked study, for example, even experts in the field may not be aware of the study. If they’re aware of it, they may not be familiar enough with it to point out its flaws or why the data do not support its conclusions. Worse, pseudoscientists inevitably have huge quantities of factoids and obscure studies that they can pull out of their back pockets to throw skeptics off guard.