The price of opposing medical pseudoscience

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is a followup to a post from two weeks ago entitled In which Dr. Gorski once again finds himself a target of the “pharma shill” gambit. If you haven’t read that post before, you might want to go back and read it now before proceeding with this post. Please also note the disclaimer.

I want to beg your indulgence this week, hoping that my history as a blogger here on SBM and then as managing editor allows me that. Today’s post will be a little different because last week was really, really, hectic. First and foremost, I was busy writing a preapplication for a Susan J. Komen Foundation grant for a deadline of last Friday. The Komen Foundation, it turns out, has changed its procedures this year so that the preapplication is now evaluated much more rigorously. It’s no longer looked at just to make sure that the proposed project matches the subject matter and criteria for the request for applications (RFA). This year, the preapplication actually matters! Moreover, it’s so long that writing it is practically like writing the entire grant, other than the budget. But I got it done, and it looks pretty good, if I do say so myself. None of that is any guarantee that Komen will invite us to submit a full application, but I’m hopeful because if it does we should have a good shot at the grant.

Then, this weekend I had to pivot on a dime and return to writing the R01 I had been working on with my collaborator. To make the July resubmission deadline, it has to be done, in the can, and submitted by this Friday. In any case, these are the reasons why this post is likely to be uncharacteristically personal in nature.

Oh, those reasons plus a little bit of character assassination launched at me on Monday by Jake Crosby over at the Age of Autism, entitled David Gorski’s Financial Pharma Ties: What He Didn’t Tell You.

So ridiculous were Jake’s charges that I’m not going to bother rebutting them in detail. That is not my purpose, given that I’ve already taken them on preemptively. After all, when Jake first wrote me asking me about my “conflicts of interest” (COIs), I saw what was coming and decided that the best defense is a good offense. That’s why two weeks ago I wrote a rather detailed rebuttal to what I expected to be coming. In my usual inimitable fashion, I entitled my post In which Dr. Gorski once again finds himself a target of the “pharma shill” gambit, because, well, that’s exactly what I saw coming from Jake, a pharma shill-style attack. He didn’t disappoint, although nothing in his post actually shows that I have a COI, nor does it refute anything I wrote in my preemptive rebuttal. Boy, oh, boy, though, did Jake try to make the proverbial mountain out of a molehill! Actually, scratch that. It’s a bad metaphor. Molehills actually exist, in marked contrast to Jake’s imaginary COI.

Jake also provided a new twist so bizarre that I must admit that I hadn’t expected it, if only because it revealed such a shocking ignorance of how science and academia works — nay, how the world works — that I would never have even thought of it. It never would have occurred to me in a million years. Basically, Jake’s argument was that because my university has received grants from Sanofi-Aventis and because I work on receptor in breast cancer that I view as a promising molecular target for therapy that can be targeted with a drug made by Sanofi-Aventis that I’m testing in a small pilot clinical trial, that all means that I’m hopelessly compromised. Why? Because apparently, by Jake’s logic, part of my salary and/or lab startup expenses must be coming from big pharma, so I’m actually a pharma shill who’s hiding his pharma shill nature from the public when I blog. Yes, it’s utter nonsense, and I would point out that by the same reasoning if, for example, J.B. Handley’s investment company handles any pharmaceutical company accounts, then J.B. Handley must be a pharma shill, too, because he would also getting his paycheck from a company that receives money from pharmaceutical companies. Indeed, Jake’s research and reasoning were so sloppy that a professional journalist with whom I correspond expressed utter amazement at Jake’s writings and commented that, if Jake keeps it up, some day he will be sued for libel by someone. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that happen, although I’ll assure Jake right here that it won’t be by me, at least not over this attack. I simply have better things to do, particularly now, given the multiple grants I’m writing and the fact that next weekend I’m going to have to pivot again and finish up my talk for the Science-Based Medicine workshop at TAM8.

As I’ve written before, I’ve been the subject of online attacks on and off for my activities here and under a pseudonym elsewhere. Before I was “outed” multiple times, people would sometimes ask why I blogged under a pseudonym elsewhere. Does anyone need to ask anymore? What happened as a result of Jake’s post should limn very starkly the reasons why many skeptic and supporters of science-based medicine decide to blog pseudonymously or anonymously, and I feel that you, SBM readers, deserve to know what happened. If in describing what happened, I manage to send a friendly little rejoinder to our ideological opponents at AoA, well, far be it from me to pass up such an opportunity

Online attacks against me are nothing new, of course; I’ve even linked to a whole bunch of them in my profile. In fact, they began nearly a decade ago, four solid years before I ever even started my first blog. Those were the days before I became interested in quackery, but I was interested in Holocaust history and active on Usenet in refuting Holocaust denial. As a reward for my efforts countering online denial on Usenet, a Holocaust denier impersonating a man named Kenneth McVay, who has maintained a website dedicated to refuting Holocaust denial (The Nizkor Project) since the 1990s, circulated a list on multiple Usenet newsgroups under the subject header Visit/call them! The NIZKOOK List! In other contexts the list later became known among neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers as the “Nizkor/NAMBLA list.” The anonymous neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers posting this risible list represented it as a list of what it claimed were members of Nizkor who were also members of NAMBLA, and, among many tireless fighters of online Holocaust denial who were also on the list.

Yes, the first online defamation campaign against me came from Holocaust deniers trying to smear me as a pedophile. Lovely. Obviously I was appalled. Still, in a moment of gallows humor, I must admit that one particularly hilarious aspect of the list was that it had a listing for me at two different addresses, one in Chicago and one in New Jersey. Apparently I had a really long commute to work. The explanation, of course, was that at the time the list first surfaced I been at my first academic job (which happened to be in New Jersey) about a year, after having finished a fellowship at the University of Chicago. Fortunately for me, the Holocaust denier circulating the list was too clueless to have figured out that I didn’t live in Chicago anymore. He also got the wrong David Gorski in Chicago and apparently had no idea that I’ve never had any association with Nizkor, although I did and do have an association with The Holocaust History Project.

I suppose I should have taken it as a mark of honor that my efforts against Holocaust deniers were successful to be smeared as a pedophile by neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, but somehow I didn’t see it that way at the time.

There were no online attacks after that for years, although I remained active on Usenet. Then I started my first blog in late 2004. In April 2005, a certain Canadian by the name of William P. O’Neill of the Canadian Cancer Research Group first discovered my identity and sent e-mails threatening to sue me because I had linked to some of Australian skeptic Peter Bowditch’s posts, apparently because O’Neill really, really hates Bowditch. Fortunately, my then department chair, division chief, and cancer center director recognized O’Neill immediately for the crank he is. From then on out, whenever a new O’Neill threat arrived, I would politely respond with an offer to put him in touch with my lawyer, cc’ing my response, of course, to my aforementioned department chair, division chief, and cancer center director. To some extent it was a bluff, because back then I didn’t actually have a lawyer, but if O’Neill ever took me up on it I had no doubt that I could find one. Over the five years since then, I’ve had anti-vaccine activists take periodic shots at me, HIV/AIDS denialists trying to get me into “debates,” and the odd crank or quack express extreme unhappiness with me. Last year, I even had someone who read an attack on me by J.B. Handley posted to AoA write to my cancer center director. I suppose I should be grateful that no one dug up the old neo-Nazi pedophile smear, although I have no doubt that they will at some point.

The response of AoA commenters after Jake’s post about me took the attacks to another level, far beyond the mere poisoning my Google reputation that certain bloggers excel at. In the comments, a commenter by the ‘nym of MAKE AUTISM STOP posted my work address and e-mail addresses. Then a commenter going by the ‘nym sos posted a link to the contact information for the board of directors of my university. MAKE AUTISM STOP then made it even more explicit by posting a list of their e-mail addresses, the implication clearly being that anti-vaccine activists were launching a campaign to try to get me fired. This got to the point where a commenter by the name of Craig Willoughby, someone who detests me enough to have dedicated a fair number of posts on his blog to attacking me, complained:

Come on, guys. I despise Dorkski as much as the rest of you, but is it necessary to post information about his place of employment? I know he’s a megalomoniacal douche-bag, but calling his place of work to try to get him fired is petty, people. That’s bringing yourselves down to his level.

Craig even made it clearer on his own blog.

Of course, I’ve never tried to get anyone fired for blogging or posting anti-vaccine screeds or even for not having their children vaccinated, nor encouraged anyone to do so. But I’ll let that pass. At least Craig realizes that there was no rational justification for writing and calling the board of directors of my university. Despite his extreme dislike — hatred, even — for me, he recognized a line and knew when “his side” was crossing it. That is very much to his credit. What were the responses to Craig’s reasonable complaint? Lots of disagreement and rants about how I need to be taken down by “any means necessary.” A commenter named Julie made this explicit:

Yes Craig, it is necessary. By any means necessary.

The cancer scam and the autism scam. The more I read the more I see the similarities. If there is a silver lining to my son’s illness it is that both he and I are DONE with mainstream medicine.

They come up with a drug, then try to find a disease for it? Hello? And they call homeopathy witchcraft?

Actually, I call homeopathy sympathetic magic, which is what its concepts appear to be based on. But enough of examples of the level of vitriol directed at me. I may be harsh in my assessment of the pseudoscience behind the anti-vaccine movement and the “autism biomed” quackery movement, but if there’s one thing I try never to do: Attack parents who have been frightened of vaccines by the anti-vaccine movement. What I do do is to criticize the leaders of the anti-vaccine movement, using science and medicine to back up my criticisms. Be that as it may, what SBM readers are probably most interested in knowing is what the fallout of this campaign was.

Fortunately, not much bad and quite a bit more quite good.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d be lying if I said that when I started finding out about these e-mails to the board of directors at my university I wasn’t disturbed and quite concerned. After all, the vaccine wars are not widely known among academics, and the issues involved can appear puzzling to an outsider unfamiliar with them. I had no way of knowing how the administration would react to an e-mail campaign orchestrated by commenters on AoA. Many of these people are easily identified as cranks, but others are not, at least not to people unfamiliar with the issues involved, and I had no way of knowing whether the university or my cancer center would shut down my blogging activity. As the campaign continued, other bloggers offered to try to get their readers to write e-mails of support. With gratitude I accepted their offers, although also with uncertainty. I honestly didn’t know whether such e-mails would make the situation better or worse.

So when I got a phone call from one of my bosses asking me just what the heck was going on, I admit that there was quite a bit of trepidation involved as I explained the situation. Fortunately, all the administration seemed to be concerned with was whether I actually had an undisclosed COI. Was I being funded by Sanofi-Aventis and not disclosing it? When I showed the administration definitive evidence in the form of my grants and the clinical trial protocol that I’m running demonstrating conclusively that I do not receive one red cent from Sanofi-Aventis for my research — or anything else for that matter — the questions disappeared, and the administration pivoted from information gathering mode to support mode, reassuring me that I have its support on the basis of free speech and academic freedom.

In the end, the only bad things that happened to me were the agita that I suffered after learning of the e-mail campaign and the time I wasted having to gather the information necessary to show my administration that there was nothing of substance to Jake’s charges. This latter problem was not entirely minor, either, given that I was in the midst of trying to get together the Komen preapplication that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Far outweighing the bad was the good, though. For example, I learned that Wayne State University and the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute are even better places to work as an academic physician than I had appreciated before this campaign began. I also learned that the administration of the Wayne State University School of Medicine was actually concerned about my safety, which implied to me that the level of vitriol in some of the e-mails must have been intense indeed, making me wonder if I should be concerned. Fortunately, given that no one ever actually threatened me during this campaign, either by phone, e-mail, or letter, I doubt I have definite reason to be worried. At least not this time. But I do wonder. Be that as it may, what I do know now is that the campaign against me backfired spectacularly, and that is a very good thing indeed.

I also learned a little bit about the price for standing up for science-based medicine. Prior to last week, it hadn’t been brought home with quite such drama. Now it has. Yes, I had suffered the slings and arrows of online criticism and the odd e-mail to my bosses over the last five years, but nothing, for example, to compare with the death threats and frivolous lawsuits endured by Paul Offit, the misogynistic attacks launched against Amy Wallace, attempts by quacks to silence various bloggers such as Andy Lewis, or the frivolous subpoena targeting Kathleen Seidel. Even so and even with the attempt to get me fired from my job, I don’t feel right putting myself into quite the same category as other skeptics who have suffered repercussions for their activities. After all, what are three days of agita and worry about my job compared to Simon Singh’s being placed in danger of bankruptcy and ruin by the the British Chiropractic Association’s lawsuit against him, Paul Offit’s having to endure death threats and threats against his family, or what animal researchers Edythe London or Dario Ringach had to endure at the hands of animal rights zealots?

But I think I understand at least a little bit better now.

Unfortunately, I’m under no illusion that this sort of thing won’t happen again some day, probably when I least expect it or am least prepared, like this time. Failing to win on science, evidence, or reason, lashing out against their critics in manners like this is all that the forces of anti-science can seemingly do. I also don’t blame Jake himself quite so much for the attempts to get me fired as I do adults commenting on his post who really should know better and who, ironically enough, for all the complaints about my using a pseudonym elsewhere, post under pseudonyms or their first names themselves. I only hope that Jake figures out just how misguided and wrong he’s been before the time comes for him to look for a job and join the world as a productive member of society. Youth only works as an excuse for such behavior for so long, and, besides, Jake may have inadvertently done me a great favor. I didn’t know how my administration would react if the anti-vaccine movement made a run at me. Now I do, and I know that there isn’t a problem. It may have been a bit embarrassing, but that embarrassment was transient, a price I now see as worth paying for freedom from fear.

In the meantime, I soldier on, shorn of any illusion of online invincibility but comforted by the new knowledge that I have support where I would not previously have counted on support and also realizing that the support of my administration will no doubt be viewed by the orchestrators of the campaign against me as “evidence” that they were right all along and that my university is protecting me because of my value to pharma.

Posted in: Medical Academia, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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