Skirting around the evidence to pick cherries.

Cherry picking, suppressing evidence, or the fallacy of incomplete evidence is the act of pointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.”


Brian Martin is an academic at the University of Wollongong who was trained as a theoretical physicist but now works as professor of social sciences. You may know him better for his PhD student Ms Judy Wilyman whom I have blogged about before.

In recent years Prof Martin has published a bunch of articles on the AVN. Given the number and the approach he has taken, I describe him as sympathetic to their cause. Indeed, he shares a number of common interests with the AVN, as described on his page on Experts Guide including, “..dissent; free speech; whistleblowing; whistleblowers; …repression; fluoridation; origin of AIDS (Dorey is an AIDS denier which is not entirely the same thing); and vaccination.”

Prof Martin’s articles primarily focus on “attacks” on the AVN perpetrated by the Facebook group, Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN)”. His most recent publication, “Online onslaught: Internet–based methods for attacking and defending citizens organisations” was published in the Internet journal, “First Monday” on December 3rd, 2012.

A conflict of interest?

Although Prof Martin has previously admitted to being a financial member of the AVN, he does not declare it in this recent article (or his previous publication). The text describes him as,

“…(a) professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He is the author of 14 books and hundreds of articles on scientific controversies, dissent, war and peace, democracy and other topics.”

He also doesn’t see this lack of declaration of financial support as a conflict of interest, defending his previous aversion to declaring it in a comment on a blog,

In joining the AVN to obtain its magazine, I did not receive any special benefits nor make any commitments restricting my ability to comment as I wish. This is not all that different from the situation of a book reviewer receiving a complimentary copy of a book from the publisher: this small favour does not guarantee a favourable review. COIs are not declared in such circumstances.

I guess we could argue this point until the cows come home, but it doesn’t hurt to declare that you provided financial support (in the form of a membership) to the body you are defending, especially when you are essentially seeking to demonise the attackers and generate sympathy for the AVN. It’s a basic rule of academic publishing so readers can make an informed decision (funny, where have I heard that phrase before..) about where your biases lie in case they may influence your position on any given subject.

Secondly, this also might be a valid argument were it not for the fact that the publication of the AVN, “Living Wisdom” is available via Document Delivery from the UoW library, for free.

In any case, I disagree it it not an issue to declare this COI. Others agree with me, Prof Martin does not. But I digress..

Cherry picking the evidence to support your argument.

I’m trying very hard to be reasonable here, but one section of this article has me puzzled. Under the section describing seven methods used to attack the AVN by critics, Martin cites the Wikipedia entry on the AVN and I will address these claims in two parts.

Attack method 4: Monopolise Wikipedia entries
There is an extensive Wikipedia entry on the AVN, much lengthier than for most organisations of similar size and influence. For example, the Wikipedia entry for Whistleblowers Australia, which has a public profile roughly similar to the AVN’s, is quite brief and incomplete….For example, there is extensive reference to a warning about the AVN from the Health Care Complaints Commission….

Firstly, Wiki is crowd-sourced and crowd edited so if some articles are bigger than others, it’s unlikely an indication of a conspiracy, rather that someone(s) has taken a particular interest in a topic. The entry on the HCCC was an important part in the AVN’s recent history, especially given they won a Supreme Court challenge against them, so I see no reason why it should not constitute an extensive reference.

When opponents take over a Wikipedia entry, one avenue for resistance is counter–editing. Indeed, Wikipedia depends for its accuracy on vigorous engagement in contentious areas. However, SAVNers seem to have the numbers, energy and resources sufficient to overwhelm any attempt by AVN supporters to modify the entry. Another option, seemingly adopted by AVN members, is simply to ignore the Wikipedia entry and to concentrate energies on the online forums it can control, especially its own Web pages.

This comment suggests that because the AVN Wiki entry is not flattering, it must have been overtaken by opponents and therefore it must be wrong. Well not necessarily so. Just because the AVN (and apparently Prof Martin) don’t like the entry, doesn’t make it automatically spurious.

Despite beliefs to the contrary, Wikipedia is actually pretty reliable. A 2005 article from Nature reported it to be on par with Encyclopedia Britannica with respect to serious errors (i.e., minimal). Indeed, Prof Martin himself states,

…Wikipedia depends for its accuracy on vigorous engagement in contentious areas.

And such “vigorous engagement” occurs in the form of editors watching posts and correcting spurious information should it appear. Thus, if people post inaccurate information it can immediately be corrected by those working to keep the article accurate and all this is tracked in the Revision History which is accessible to everyone.

So even if the AVN editors were “overwhelmed” by the SAVNers, the nature of the self correction process predicts that eventually any spurious information would be removed.

Further, evidence suggests that, “42% of damage is repaired almost immediately, i.e., before it can confuse, offend, or mislead anyone…” And if SAVN continued to vadalise the entry, then a lock can be placed on the page to prevent further edits. (Which is conspicuous by its absence, indeed the most recent edit was on December 21, 2012).

Further to the reliability of Wikipedia,

“An early study conducted by IBM researchers in 2003—two years following Wikipedia’s establishment—found that “vandalism is usually repaired extremely quickly — so quickly that most users will never see its effects”and concluded that Wikipedia had “surprisingly effective self-healing capabilities”.

Further and with respect to the opinions of experts on the reliability of Wikipedia;

An empirical study conducted in 2006 involving 55 academics asked to review specific Wikipedia articles that either were in their expert field (group 1) or chosen at random (group 2), concluded that “The experts found Wikipedia’s articles to be more credible than the non–experts...”

Collectively, these data suggest that if SAVN were continually entering spurious information into the AVN entry it would eventually be removed and the troof would rise to the top! Instead the opposite appears to be the case according to the Review History.

Evidence that AVN supporters have attempted to edit the Wiki entry

Another point made my Prof Martin is that the AVN may have chosen to ignore the Wiki entry to concentrate on controlling their own fora. May I state from the outset that they’re not doing a particularly good job of the latter, given evidence showing their own website has been hacked since at least April 2012, and now redirects to Direct Pills dot com.

The other point is that an AVN supporter has tried to edit the page as recent as December 2011. Prof Martin’s article was submitted for consideration for publication on April 7, 2012. Edits were made to the AVN Wiki entry on December 17, 2011 – well before he submitted his manuscript the first time by someone named “Potatomasherjim”. Who is this “Potatomasherjim”? Well a Google search leads to someone called Annie Dorey. Yes, that’s right Meryl Dorey’s daughter.

It’s easy to see the edits made by Potatomasherjim in the “view history” section of the AVN entry but I’ve screen shotted them below.

The first edit was made at 03:46 on December 17th, 2011 and was reversed at 04:04 by Gillyweed, which is consistent with evidence showing 42% of damage is repaired almost immediately.

 

Edits reversed in less than 30 minutes for reasons “Uncited POV pushing”. Click to embiggen.

 

The edit by Potatomasherjim is the addition of the following text;

They believe that “good health comes from proper nutrition, exercise, a loving environment and family and the use of healing from many modalities including allopathic medicine when it is called for.

The next edit was made at 04:29 but was removed by 05:00. Note that it took HiLo48 31 minutes to reverse the edit and explain why (see below),

“No. That makes a fringe POV organisation sound like its mainstream. I laughed when I saw the claim of science in there.”

(For the record I have no idea who HiLo48 or Gillyweed are, so any assertion that they are an “SAVNer” is not confirmed).

 

Attempted edits to the AVN Wikpedia page by PotatoMasherJim or Annie Dorey

 

So how do I know that “Potatomasherjim” is Annie Dorey? Well I can’t be 100% sure but it’s a pretty unusual pseudonym, unusual enough to pin it down to one person maybe? Well maybe. Indeed, if you Google it, it leads to a Facebook page that belongs to Meryl Dorey’s daughter, Annie.

 

 

In conclusion, SAVN are poopy-heads.

The thesis of Prof Martin’s claims seem to be that SAVN are big meanies who have somehow gained control of the Wiki page to make the AVN look bad. But the evidence that I have presented for the accuracy of Wikipedia and the robustness of the self-correction process make these assertions unlikely. Whilst I recognise some of the names on the revision pages, there are many I don’t, so it’s not possible to say unequivocally that SAVN DID IT! Similarly, Dorey blames her poor WOT rating on SAVN but the majority of us didn’t even know WOT existed before she was complaining that we DID IT!

I have also presented evidence of a recent edit, possibly by Meryl Dorey’s daughter Annie (or someone using her online identity), as an attempt to make the AVN look less like “lunatic fringe dwellers”. No mention of this is made in Prof Martin’s article, but even more importantly the accuracy of the information on the Wiki entry is not challenged. Why not?

Is it because it is accurate? Is it because Prof Martin’s approach was to divert attention from the validity of the entry and direct it to who put it there in an attempt to discredit the page entirely? Did he fall victim to cherry picking evidence to support his thesis that SAVN are big bad meanies? Whatever the reason, it strengthens the case for declaring conflicts of interest when critical evidence is excluded. Because when you know that someone is a sympathiser with an apparent agenda, then you are in a better position to make an informed decision about what you read. And we all know the AVN fully supports that.

NSW Government orders the AVN the change their name or face closure.

Big news in Australia on Friday night as a news article appeared describing an order by the Department of Fair Trading ordering the notorious Australian Vaccination Network to change their name or face deregistration.


See the media release here

The move follows what has been described as “numerous” complaints from both the public and the Australian Medical Association that the name is misleading to the public and confuses parents when searching for reliable information on vaccination.

Several of these instances have been reported publicly including a misunderstanding by The Australian College of Midwives’ who mistakenly sent out invitations for an AVN seminar to all its members. In a story published in Medical Observer magazine, the Executive Officer, Ms Ann Kinnear, said; “Subsequent information that’s come to hand has made me realise it’s a mistake.” She was unaware until her membership informed her that the AVN was an “anti-immunisation lobby”.

 

In a media release in July Dorey said; “It is not up to a third party to say what we can and cannot call ourselves. Will they be coming for our books next?”

 

In 2009, the Australian Skeptics, with sponsorship from Dick Smith, took out an ad in the Australian to warn parents not to look to the AVN for health information. During the flurry of publicity that ensued, Dick Smith said.

They are actually anti-vaccination, and they should put on every bit of their material that they are anti-vaccination in great big words. They have every right for that belief but they should communicate it clearly so people are not misled.”

In 2001, The Minister for Health. The Hon. Geoff Wilson MP, (Qld) and the Qld Chief Health Officer issued a statement about the AVN saying; “… fringe groups like the misleadingly named ‘Australian Vaccination Network’ are wrong to discourage people from getting vaccinated.”

Parents commenting on the Stop the AVN Facebook page share similar stories;

“Dear Meryl, I was attracted to the AVN several years ago because the name suggested that you might be a reputable source of information about vaccination (I was preparing for an overseas trip). I found nothing of the sort on your site (neither did the HCCC, as I recall). I was indeed misled and deceived by your name. And I’m not the only one.”

Of course the AVN have good reason to hide their true agenda. After all, what parents would seek information from the Anti-vaccine Network. But if you scratch the surface of their slick, “pro-choice” website you quickly find an anti-vaccine agenda.

Never has this been more obvious that in the T-shirts they sell emblazoned with “love them, protect them, never inject them ”. Or the book “Melanie’s Marvellous Measles ” which is supposed to educate kids to embrace infectious diseases. I know right….

And then there was this comment from Meryl Dorey just two days ago to her Yahoo list which said:
“…Just like there is no evidence that vaccination prevents most diseases. If there is evidence, I’ve yet to see it.” (December 13th, Y! List).

But in recent years things have changed for the AVN, and the media has been challenging them on their alleged “pro-choice” stance. Listeners may recall a radio segment with the Two Murrays where they suggested Meryl was anti-vaccine and she screeched “I AM NOT!”. Yet, when journalists as the question “so which vaccines would you recommend?” the silence is deafening.

A twelve month investigation by The Health Care Complaints Commission also deemed the AVN website to be anti-vaccine and misleading;

“The Commission’s investigation established that the AVN website:
• provides information that is solely anti-vaccination
• contains information that is incorrect and misleading
• quotes selectively from research to suggest that vaccination may be dangerous.”

Even more recently the AVN has been referring to themselves as “Australia’s vaccine safety watchdog”, which of course they’re not but it certainly makes them sound more credible.

The practice of anti-vaccine groups using misleading names is not new. In the US there is the National Vaccine Information Centre run by Barbara Loe Fisher (NVIC). In New Zealand there is VINE or Vaccination Information Network.

It took Meryl longer than expected to bash out a blog post about this latest “threat to free speech” and “suppression of information”, but she didn’t disapppoint. She suggested that if the AVN were to change their name then why can Greenpeace continue unabated?

Stolen from Reasonable Hank

“Greenpeace is not green, nor do they go around looking for peace, therefore, would the Department tell them to change their name too?”

“And what about the cancer council? Won’t people think they are pro-cancer?”

But in contrast to her usual rabid foaming blog post, today’s just seems defeated and tired. In addition, the AVN recently spent a wad of cash and substantial time migrating their website to WordPress only to have it infected with a CHEAP PILLS hack. Yesterday I was not even able to reach their site as I was being redirected to Direct Pills from three different browsers. This morning the entire site was pinging 403 errors. This also raises issues of privacy as they have a shop and an adverse reaction reporting form, both of which contain personal information.

The cracks are beginning to show for the AVN and Meryl Dorey. The Dept of Fair trading have indicated that they can cancel the AVN’s registration if they do not comply by February 21st, 2012.

But not only does this mean they lose their “incorporated” status, they will also be subject to an audit, their assets seized and distributed as the Commissioner sees fit (and that does not incude to the committee). So this is a very serious matter indeed. The AVN has a right to appeal and a Tweet from Tracey Spicer today indicated that they already have.

However, with the missing financial statements from 2011 and the already suspicious looking ones from years prior to 2010, this could be a very interesting exercise indeed.

In any case it seems Meryl’s fans have missed the point of the reason for the name change – that it is misleading – and have offered some suggestions for a new one,

“Vaccination Troof and Transparency Network”,

“Australian Vaccination Information Network”,

“Australian Vaccination Choice Network”,

“Australian Vaccination Information Network”, and my personal favourite

“telling the truth about things that big pharma whores and useless media will not.

Of course she would do well to retain the acronym “AVN” as a way of keeping her domain name, so I’m suggesting the Anti-Vaccine Network.

Last time Meryl had the government come down on her, she took them on and won. But this time, well things don’t look so cut and dry. Methinks this could be the end for the AVN and I don’t just mean the name.

Come out from behind that bench and KISS*.

How can scientists communicate to the public if they can’t even explain their work to each other?


I recently attended a multi-disciplinary biomedical sciences conference that was designed to encourage collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas. Scientists from a wide variety of disciplines were represented including cancer research, heart disease, MND (that’s me), mental health and, more.

The day was structured around a plenary, short talks and, a poster session with prizes awarded accordingly. I had not attended this conference before but I read a lot of science outside my area of specialty and therefore I like to think I have a fairly good understanding of other areas of biomedical science.

So I was extremely disappointed to find that I had difficulty in following many of the talks because they were too technical or laden with jargon and lacked a big picture explanation. This is not to say they were of a poor standard, I’m fairly sure they were exceptional, it’s just that I could not have walked from the room and given you a synopsis of what was said, because the message was not clear. And I have a PhD in cell biology and more than six years of research under my belt.

So it got me wondering, with all the pressure on scientists to communicate their work to the public and “come out from behind the bench!”, we have a long way to go if our colleagues don’t know what the hell we are going on about. And it seems someone else was on the same page as me since the best student talk was awarded to a presentation which was clear, concise and succinct.

By contrast, another talk delved into the fine details of the methodology, and whilst I’m certain it was very impressive, the outcomes of the research were completely lost in the detail. The thing is, during a ten minute talk at a generalist conference, I don’t want to know the precise details of the primer design, the exact engineering behind the fluorescent microscope, or how many technical officers it took to change the light globes. If I do require these details, I can ask the researcher afterwards or read the paper if the results are published.

 

“What’s the point of research if no one reads it? So it’s sensible to do what you can to let people know about it,” Professor Simon Chapman, Uni Sydney School of Public Health.

 

I’m not suggesting that talks be delivered in layman’s terms or, that the science should be “dumbed down” – I’m suggesting the information should be accessible and that jargon should be kept to a minimum and ideally reserved for specialist conferences.

I’ve been translating complex science into simple language for over eighteen months now in my role as a science communicator, and it is certainly a challenge to do this without misrepresenting the science. Indeed this is the hardest part of the process and why so many of us complain about mainstream journos messing up our work, but it can be done and when it’s done well it’s a win-win for everyone.

With the increasing accessibility of the web, there are now plenty of places where researchers have the opportunity to describe their work for a larger audience. For example blogs (either your own, a guest post on someone else’s or those attached to specialist scientific journals), websites such as Australia’s “The Conversation”, or as an interviewee on one of the many science podcasts, amongst many others.

I agree with Professor Simon Chapman from the University of Sydney School of Public Health who said, “I just can’t see the point of doing research if no one is going to read it”.

He has conducted experiments where he has made several of his publications available to download via Twitter. A book on PSA tests for prostate cancer called “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie” had sold 200 hard copies but was downloaded 7000 times.

“So what?” you might say, why wouldn’t people download a free book? But even a dry, non-peer reviewed manuscript entitled “Policies and Practices of Australian Universities on Competing Interests of Academic Staff” was downloaded 242 times when Tweeted. (This method may not be applicable to published papers as it breaches copyright of the journal in most cases).

Further, Paul Knoefler from Nature News Blog says “Savvy scientists must increasingly engage with blogs and social media. Even if you choose not to blog, you can certainly expect that your papers and ideas will increasingly be blogged about. So there it is — blog or be blogged.” I am acutely aware that many of us have neither the time or the inclination to do so. And that’s perfectly fine. Personally, I enjoy the immediacy of talking and blogging about my work as feedback comes quickly and I reach a much larger audience than I ever would behind the pay-wall of an academic journal.

But if we do find ourselves at a cross-discipline conference, we should be mindful that omitting complex detailed information without detracting from the message is a much more effective way to convey the science. There’s nothing more satisfying than people taking an interest in your work – especially when you’ve slaved behind a bench for years to get that one pretty graph – which they can’t do if they don’t have a clue what you’re saying.

There are multiple pressures on researchers including teaching, supervising students, publishing papers, not to mention months of writing grants and grant rebuttals, it’s a wonder we have time to talk about our work at all. But if we do come out from behind the bench and talk only in jargon, then we’re not reaching anyone and there’s not much point in that.

 

*KISS = keep it simple stupid

 

More hollow legislation from the TGA

Consider this scenario. You’re given a really complicated and challenging assignment to complete that will require a significant investment of time and money. But the chances that you will ever be asked to produce it are approximately 20%. Would you bother to complete it? Would you take the risk?


Such will be the conundrum facing suppliers wanting to sell complementary and alternative therapies (CAM) in Australia if new draft legislation from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA – the equivalent of the FDA) is approved (more on this later).

This is one of several recent proposals which if introduced, could see significant crack-downs in alternative medicine in Australia.

With the recent budget came news of a possible thirty million dollar cut to private health fund rebates for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). On the chopping block are homeopathy, aromatherapy, ear candling, crystal therapy, flower essences, iridology, kinesiology and naturopathy.

Now wait just a second, the government pays for ear candling and crystal therapy?! Well indirectly yes, if your private health fund covers it. Last year private health funds paid ninety million dollars to alternative medicine practitioners with the government kicking in thirty.

This recent announcement follows a leaked statement from the NHMRC on homeopathy which declared “(it is) unethical for health practitioners to treat patients using homeopathy, for the reason that homeopathy…has been shown not to be efficacious”. Well, no surprises there. After 200 years and more than 200 clinical trials, there is still no good data that homeopathy is any better than placebo (see “How does homeopathy work here). And considering that homeopathic principles predict it is just sugar or water we would expect no other outcome.

Perhaps the Australian Government forgot to take their warm and fuzzy pills, because now the TGA has got its cranky pants on about CAM on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG). To understand the significance of this you need to understand the difference between Registered drugs and Listed drugs (bear with me, Dear Reader).

There are two arms to the ARTG, Listed products are considered low risk, are identified with an “AustL” number and include things like complementary medicines (e.g. herbal, mineral, vitamin and homoeopathic products), sunscreens and ear candles.

Registered products are high risk (because they have a known effect), are identified with an “AustR” number and include prescription drugs and painkillers.

Under the current system, you can get your CAM product stamped with an official looking AustL number by simply applying online. You should hold evidence that your product works – but you need not present it upon submission – and this is a critical factor. The story for AustR products is very different since they are considered high risk, simply translated to “they work”.

But now the TGA has drafted a new document that redefines what constitutes evidence for listed products and the CAM industry is crying the end is nigh! Under the proposed changes, applicants must now complete an expert report, consisting of a review of the scientific evidence going back at least ten years and sourced from Medline and at least one other database. According to the draft document; “.. an applicant….must provide an objective report that contains a comprehensive analysis of the data relating to the proposed listable indication…”

The TGA is also not shy about what type of studies they consider acceptable, “Studies with increased methodological rigor (are able) to produce evidence that more closely reflects the health benefits associated with a particular intervention.” And even further, the studies must provide evidence for your specific claim, such that if you are claiming weight loss, studies that describe body reshaping or improved muscle mass are not acceptable. So, “Indications must not, indirectly, or by implication, lead consumers to believe that the medicine will assist in a health benefit that is not explicitly supported by the balance of evidence.”

This is a gargantuan and time-consuming task and testament to this the TGA recommends applicants seek the assistance of a librarian.

But the real reason why some CAM sponsors have their knickers firmly in a knot probably lies with the TGAs definition of what constitutes an Expert. “An expert is defined as: a) a tertiary degree (of at least three years duration) in a health profession; and b) at least one of the following i) a course in critical appraisal or biostatistics from a tertiary institution (this could include a short course or a component of a masters); or ii) a PhD in a scientific or health related discipline; or iii) a specialist medical qualification.

So there’s the rub. Not only do you need to compile a thorough report detailing the evidence for your product, but you also need to convince someone with a lot of letters after their name to do it for you. (Mind you, I can name a homeopath and chiropractor whom fit the definition of an Expert and you’ll always find a doctor willing to support quackery, see Dr Joseph Mercola and Dr Oz).

By now you’re probably thinking what a great initiative from the TGA! Considering they’re known as a paper tiger for their lack of enforcement, this is a significant step forward! Until you realize there is one giant gaping hole in this proposal. The Expert report is not required to be submitted with the application for listing. Applicants must state they have it, but they only need to produce it if they are audited and the chances of that are about as great as the number of molecules that remain in a 12 ½ C dilution of homeopathy. Around 20%.

I recently submitted comment on behalf of Australian Skeptics Inc, regarding this obvious omission to what would otherwise be a significant improvement in the regulation of CAM in Australia and we await a response from the TGA.

Hold your breath folks or the paper tiger may blow away.


The wash-up from the AVN judgement – what does it mean?

Yesterday the AVN won their case against the HCCC on a technicality under Section 7 of the Health Care Complaints Act 1993. This is a hollow victory in my opinion. Here’s my (IANAL) summary of what happened.


The AVN were never really bothered by the HCCC public warning issued about them. Meryl refused to post it cause “she didn’t agree with it” and was happy to call the HCCC corrupt and slur their reputation far and wide. What the AVN really wanted from this Supreme Court Case was to be granted certiorari. .

What’s that you say? Put simply, this means the AVN wanted the Supreme Court to declare the actions of the charity watchdog, the Office of Liquor Gaming and Racing (OLGR) in revoking their charity license, illegal.

To assert this, the AVN focused on the OLGR’s reliance on the HCCC public warning arguing that if it was deemed not valid, then it followed that the OLGR actions could be lifted. This indeed was the crux of their case.

Here’s an excerpt from the judgement

– 21 – The plaintiff submitted that its rights were not only directly affected, but also altered, by the HCCC’s decision to issue the Public Warning…It argued that the decision directly exposed it to a new hazard of an adverse exercise of public power (having its fundraising capacity revoked).

But the judge was not convinced

“However, the plaintiff could not point to any provision in the Charitable Fundraising Act 1991 that made the Public Warning a mandatory relevant consideration in the Minister’s decision whether to revoke the authority.”

As a result of this, the judge made the following decision

“Accordingly there is no basis on which I could find that the Minister for Gaming is legally obliged to take into account the Public Warning. For these reasons, certiorari does not lie.”

This is the important bit. Whilst it is true that the OLGR took the HCCC warning into account when making the decision, as the judge pointed out, this was not a legal obligation and the loss of their charity license was for reasons much more serious.

An audit of the AVN by the OLGR found several serious breaches of the Charitable Trusts Act 1993 which have now been referred to the Department of Justice and Attorney General and are awaiting decisions. In revoking the AVN’s charity licence the OLGR cited three reasons; that monies had been raised for specific purposes then spent elsewhere, that monies had not been administered properly, and it was in the public interest as the AVN were dishonest in denying an anti-vaccine agenda. The final point cited the HCCC warning in support, but was concerned with the contents of the AVN website.

Meanwhile in Meryl-land

“…the OLGR had found several errors with the network’s bookkeeping system and some minor problems with the way in which fundraising income was accounted for… errors which any small, volunteer-run organisation can and does make…”

With respect to the AVN website the OLGR said,

“The Organisation’s website is misleading in that it may lead people making donations to believe that they are donating to a cause which promotes vaccination whereas the Organisation adopts an anti-vaccination position.”

(Indeed, the judge even enquired as to why the AVN were so “coy” with respect to their anti-vaccine agenda. Meryl can deny it until she’s blue in the face, but nobody is falling for that one anymore).

Then

“When requested by the HCCC to publish a disclaimer on its website the Organisation failed to do so.”

So as you can see, the OLGR did not rely solely on the HCCC warning when making their decision and as the judge stated, neither did they have any legal obligation to do so.

So as far as I can see, nothing has changed as far as the OLGR issues. The AVN are still in the shit in this regard, and I can’t see any reason why the OLGR would back down now.

The HCCC warning constituted but a small part in support of their actions, indeed as much as being cited as supporting evidence for their website being misleading. But this is by no means the only evidence that the AVN website is full to the brim with anti-vaccine canards. Just ask anyone who knows anything about the anti-vaccine movement (pick me! pick me!).

Now Meryl is not known for her comprehension skills, but even I was a little surprised by her interpretation of what I have just explained to you above. From her victory e-newsletter.

“This (HCCC) warning led to the OLGR revoking our charity authority to fundraise though they were under no legal obligation to do so.

No Meryl. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

Which brings me to another point. Meryl is now claiming that the decision yesterday found the 2 complaints used by the HCCC to investigate the AVN to be invalid. This is absolutely not the case.

The court found that the HCCC investigated the complaints under Section 7 of the Health Care Complaints Act 1993 which allows for an individual to complain about an unregistered health practitioner or service. This was the technicality I was referring to earlier.

The judge asserted that the Ken McLeod complaint needed to provide evidence of a person being directly influenced about their vaccination decision as a direct result of the AVN’s website (the subject of the investigation by the HCCC) in the form of one person who showed they made a decision based on the AVN website. And if not Section 7 did not apply.

From the judgement

“..all I needed to be satisfied of was that at least one person had read the plaintiff’s website and that its contents had affected that person’s decision whether to vaccinate, or have another person  (usually a child) vaccinated. It was not necessary that any particular person be identified. ”

The HCCC lawyers could not provide this evidence, thus the investigation was declared illegal and the public health warning quashed. No judgement was made about the validity of the complaints, nor the information contained within them. The judgement was purely based on the HCCC investigating the complaints under the wrong section of the legislation.

Likewise, there was no discussion about the validity of the HCCC’s conclusions that the AVN’s information is misleading and purely antivax. This still stands. The judge’s ruling was purely based on the HCCC using the wrong section of the legislation to investigate the AVN.

But over in Meryl land;

“I am just so pleased that the Supreme Court agreed with our original contention that the HCCC had no jurisdiction to investigate us based on the complaints which were not valid complaints according to the HCC Act (sic).”

Wrong again. And there’s more on the HCCC having jurisdiction over the AVN below.

So the AVN got off on a technicality. Damn nation you might shout, how can this happen? What the hell is wrong with the HCCC?

Well let me tell you some good things that came out of this case.

When the HCCC first received these complaints they were unsure how to deal with them because in the classical sense, the AVN were not a health care provider. They didn’t openly offer medical advice (but they did do it), they didn’t take blood or massage you, so they fell between the gaps of the HCCC legislation.

Indeed, in the early days, Meryl asserted everywhere she went that the HCCC did not have jurisdiction over the AVN because she was not a health care provider. She said it. Everywhere.

But by suing the HCCC, she has performed an epic foot bullet. She gone done and got herself legally classified as a health care service.

Here’s what the judgement says:

“Vaccination is a matter about health. The provision of information about vaccination is a health education service. It is common ground, and I accept, that the plaintiff is a “health service provider” within the meaning of s 4 of the Act since it provides “health education services”.

What does this mean? Well it means we have precedent and she now opens herself up to a whole lot more litigation as she is now officially a health service provider.

Whoops.

So prior this case, when she had been running around saying the HCCC had no jurisdiction over her? Maybe they didn’t but they absolutely and officially and technically do now.

So whilst the AVN are screaming victory from the rooftops, some of us have bothered to read the judgement and what we see is something of a hollow victory for the AVN. I certainly can’t see any evidence for the OLGR loosening their grip on the AVN’s precious charity license and this is ultimately what the AVN want back.

In closing, there are a couple of other interesting things about this case which are worth mentioning. During the lengthy discussions about whether there was any evidence for the AVN directly influencing someone to not vaccinate, the judge made the following statement

“…the health service has not been shown to “affect the clinical management or care of an individual client”. Although it might have that tendency, and although the plaintiff hopes to have that effect, I do not consider this to be sufficient to establish that it has had that effect.”

Note; “..the plaintiff hopes to have that effect..” In other words, there was no evidence that the 20 years of research and constant campaigning and thousands of Facebook posts and tweets are having any effect on peoples’ decisions about vaccinating. Jeez. That’s a kick in the face to the AVN isn’t it?

And finally, all the reports on this story have referred to the AVN as anti-vaccine, despite Meryl continuing to deny her group is. This has made made one of Meryl’s mates pretty annoyed and she wrote about it this morning (h/t Dave the Happy Singer)

From the AVN Y! Group, from Fran Sheffield of Homeopathy Plus!


“I think almost everyone, supporters and non-supporters, believe the AVN is antivaccine in spite of its protests to the contrary.

How can they do otherwise when 99.9% of information about vaccines released by the AVN is anti or reveals their problems? When there is not explanation why this imbalance exists?

It is possible to be BOTH anti-vaccine and pro-choice but when the anti-vaccine label is denied in the face of evidence to the contrary, it makes us look dishonest – something the judge hinted at with her ‘coy’ statement? It also places our pro-choice position in the back seat, out of people’s minds.

As far as public opinion goes, I don’t think the anti-vaccine position is the problem – they can cope with that.

The problem is that most people, even supporters in secret, now believe the AVN is dishonest and this has caused the AVN more harm than anything else. This is what will take a long time to get over, not any perceived anti-vaccine stance which they can respect even it they don’t agree.

Do we have a blind spot?

If the AVN wants to be perceived as being a truthful organisation then it has to proudly accept the anti-vaccine label or do something that explains (repeatedly) why most of the information it provides about vaccines and vaccine promoters is negative.

Watch out Meryl. Even your mates are seeing through you now.

PS If you are a lawyer and spot any obvious errors in my interpretation of the judgement, please leave a comment below

Please see this recent update from Reasonable Hank where Meryl claims the OLGR based their actions entirely on the HCCC warning. I have no words.


A lesson in “do your research”

I’ll be brief because honestly, I’ve got better things to do.

A few days ago, I received an email via the organisers of a talk I’m giving in Canberra in a few weeks’ time. I’ve decided to publish it here with comments correcting the person’s accusations as I was frankly gobsmacked at their lack of ability to research some very simple claims.

Backgound: The email is from Judy Wilyman who is a PhD student who is being supervised at the University of Wollongong (UoW) in NSW by Dr Prof Brian Martin (yes, THAT Brian Martin).

Ms Wilyman began her PhD at UoW in 2007, then in 2008-2010 she transferred supervision to Murdoch University, WA, where she was supervised by Dr Peter Dingle (who no longer works there, and yes, THAT Peter Dingle). She transferred back to UoW in 2011, to Dr Prof Martin again, where she is completing a project entitled “A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy”.

Phew, so far that’s a long PhD!

It seems she objects to me giving a talk to the Canberra Skeptics on February 15th. I won’t copy paste the entire email, for clarity I’m going to address each claim separately, but there is a copy in full here.

Firstly, she got the date wrong (15.1.12). I’m speaking on 15.2.12.

“…she is regularly observed putting misinformation about vaccination on websites such as ‘The Skeptics Book of Pooh Pooh.”

I like to think I only publish accurate information, so I always check references and sources to the best of my ability before publishing. It would have made it easier for me if Ms Wilyman indicated which information on my site was wrong, because I can’t find any.

Note that she says “regularly” which leads me to think she doesn’t agree with much of what I post here. She also mentions other websites, and perhaps she means the piece I wrote some months back for Mamamia. There was a healthy debate about the info I posted there, mostly from people who don’t agree with vaccination full stop, but the information was very well received. I would have thought if it was an example of my “regular misinformation”, I would have been thoroughly corrected by the health professionals who applauded me for the piece and passed it on to their patients and colleagues.

“She recently received a letter from Murdoch University asking her to remove a poster (presented by myself at the National Health Promotion Conference in Perth in 2009)which she had inaccurately presented on this website”.

Not exactly. I received an email following a very polite phone call from IP lawyer Madeleen Rousseau from Freehills in WA on January 20th, 2012. To say she sounded exasperated on the phone is an understatement. You see it appears she has been given the job of chasing down where Ms Wilyman has misused the Murdoch logo on said poster and without permission. Her job is to try to remove all traces of it from the Internet.

I removed the poster from the above link, sent a confirmation email to Ms Rousseau, she responded with a thank you, that was it. Notice she says in her correspondence, “Murdoch…has spent considerable time and energy in having the poster removed from various (anti vaccination) websites and cannot allow the poster to be used in any format on any website”. She was polite, I co-operated, there were no stand-over lawyer tactics or threatening letters.

As for Judy’s allegation that  I had somehow “..inaccurately presented (the poster) on this website..” I’m not entirely sure what she means by this. On the contrary, it appears that Judy has misused the Murdoch logo which is why their IP lawyers are trawling the Internet and attempting to erase the poster from history.

 

Next she says I was asked to remove derogatory comments about academics. There was no such request in the email I have published in full above. I don’t ever recall being asked this. This is a fabrication as far as I can tell.

Next she says I left derogatory comments about her on my site, incorrectly referring to her as anti-vaccine. I did indeed call her anti-vaccine and for good reason. Let’s see why.

Ms Wilyman has pieces published on well recognised anti-vaccine sites including Whale.to, SaneVax, the AVN blog (whose website was called anti-vaccine by the HCCC), she has given lectures with Meryl Dorey, President of the AVN in Western Australia.

In June 2010, she wrote a letter to the West Australian newspaper which contained the usual anti-vaccine canards and scaremongering we have come to expect from her mates over at the AVN. It was covered in detail over at Second Sight who reported on what she wrote:
“…childhood vaccination schedule is “not based on science”. Vaccines contain toxins. Vaccines are not monitored by doctors. Vaccines are a “known cause of allergies, anaphylaxis and autoimmune diseases”. “There is no proof for the theory of herd immunity”. “Infectious diseases declined by 1950 in Australia due to improvements in sanitation, hygiene and nutrition.”

Even by this short account (and there is much more I don’t have time to cover), Ms Wilyman is anti-vaccine. See Dave The Happy Singer here and here for further information.

Ms Wilyman, you can claim you’re not anti-vaccine all you like, but your writings contain well known anti-vaccine canards and are published on high profile anti-vaccine websites. If you can show me evidence to the contrary I will look at it and remove my classification of you as anti-vaccine if I am satisfied you have changed your stance. At the moment, I’m not.

Update: Whilst Judy Wilyman claims not to be anti-vaccine, this recording suggests otherwise.

Next “and her derogatory remarks about the ABC’s policies are offensive to the community who would like an academic debate on this important topic”.

The community wants a debate on the ABC’s policies? That’s a first to me.

“She is openly spreading misinformation about the vaccination topic and yet your organization has invited her to speak about vaccination and the misinformation on Dr. Google?”

Below is the description of my talk sent to the organisers

Firstly, she hasn’t cited the apparent misinformation I am spreading and secondly my talk is about health information on the Internet with vaccination as an example. This does not mean the entire talk will be about vaccination. And is she saying that conspiracies and chemtrails are not misinformation? Curious.

Ms Wilyman is a PhD student, approximately 4/5 years into her project. She seems to know my blog/website quite well. As a research student one would have thought she would be able to do one of two things: 1) click the “About/contact” button on my website – I get plenty of email via this method; 2) Google my email address as the organisers of the talk did to forward me her email. Perhaps she didn’t contact me directly because she was attempting to tarnish my reputation with the organisers hoping they would cancel my talk? Pure speculation of course…

No, you’re not an “independent researcher”, you’re a PhD student. And why do I need to contact you to find out your views about vaccines? They’re pasted everywhere on the internet on lots of anti-vax sites.

“Please could you also inform me of the qualifications that Rachael Dunlop has to speak on the topic of vaccination as my understanding is that her specialization is heart research”.

My qualifications are easy to find Ms Wilyman. And if you are, as you claim an independent researcher you could have done some, you know research, and found out that my specialty is not heart disease.

Are you really too lazy to look further than the name of my employer (The Heart Research Institute)? This shows your complete lack of research ability. You see there are lots of research groups under the roof of HRI. Some work directly in heart disease, some work on diabetes, some work on nutrition. Me? I’m a cell biologist who happens to work on ageing and MND. You could have found that it you went to PubMed. Or even Google (chortle). Or even my Twitter bio. Fail.

As for my qualifications? You know she just might have me on this one. Given that the theme of my talk is Dr Google I can think on someone who is better qualified than me to talk about this issue, Wilyman’s mate Meryl Dorey. She’s had more than 20 years of education on Dr Google.

But there’s one thing that I have that Ms Dorey doesn’t have and that’s the ability to critically analyse information, whether it be a scientific study or a news article or a website.

You see, I have a PhD already (sorry to rub it in Judy) and more than 6 years of research experience which includes writing, reviewing and critically analysing scientific information. So my BS meter is pretty finely tuned. Thus, I can confidently say I’m more than qualified to sift between fact and fiction on the Internet. And given that I’ve been studying the tactics of the anti-vax movement for more than 3 years, this is a bonus. One might say, a desirable but not essential qualification.

Finally. “I will copy this across to the community as it is important that the public is aware of the credibility of the information they are receiving”.

And I will also copy this critique of your lack of ability to do your research across the community.

You’re welcome and thanks for trying.
—-

 

UPDATE: It seems Ms Wilyman has been alerting a lot of people to my talk. This just in

—-

Another update: Judy Wilyman has again written to Canberra Skeptics and the email has been published on Meryl Dorey’s blog. You can see the text in full on Reasonable Hank’s blog here. Contains the text that because I’m on the editorial board of a CAM journal I’m somehow a Big Pharma Shill. It’s worth a look. You will LOL.

 

Watered down science being taught in Aussie universities

Did you think homeopathy was not publicly funded in Australia? It is.

There has been lots of talk recently in the Australian media about CAM in universities. A new lobby group known as Friend of Science in Medicine was recently established to get the discussion going about whether this is a good thing. (Full disclosure, I recently added my name to the 400-long list of doctors, scientists and concerned citizens who are worried about pseudoscience creeping into universities).

The discussion has ruffled some feathers and I think this is a good thing. As I said in a comment on The Conversation, what is wrong with us looking at these courses and determining if what they are teaching is evidence-based? If we find there is nothing wrong, then we can carry on our merry way.

Yet, some CAM peeps don’t seem to see it this way. Some have been behaving as if they are being persecuted. Some are claiming that taking CAM out of unis puts the public at risk as practitioners are more likely exposed to shonky teaching (I haven’t seen any evidence for this, but as usual I’m willing to look at it if it’s true).

But this misses the point that it doesn’t matter where you teach it, if it’s nonsense outside of a university it remains nonsense when taught in one. Teaching homoeopathy or tactile therapy in a university environment won’t make it work. To see how homeopathy works, go here.

The argument got rather heated on Twitter recently with Prof Kerryn Phelps jumping in the mix. I had quite a long conversation with her, which remained mostly civil (if not a little strained) until I suggested we weed out the stuff we know doesn’t work or exist, such as subluxations in chiropractic and homeopathy.

The response I got was odd to say the least and I’m still unsure exactly what she was getting at. See the screen shot below (read from bottom up).

Some people suggested this was an example of the No True Scotsman fallacy, which I kinda agree with. More simply, it appears to say “don’t mention homoeopathy, even we’re embarrassed by that”. If you have another idea, please leave a comment.

Someone else called “SkepNurse” also posed the question to Prof Phelps regarding which CAM she would unequivocally say was not worth pursuing any more, either because it can never work or has been proven not to. She posted these tweets on Jan 26th and is still awaiting a direct answer.

Anyway, I’d been poking around for information on whether homeopathy was taught in universities as a stand alone course, and I hadn’t found any evidence. CAM practitioners had confirmed this as well, pointing out that it was a requirement to enter Bachelor of Health Science (Complementary Medicine) at Charles Sturt University but was not taught as a separate subject.

Well, they were wrong.

Homeopathy is taught as a stand alone course subject at a publicly funded university in NSW as part of Southern Cross University’s Bachelor of Clinical Sciences. They offer introductory homeopathy and clinical homeopathy. It is also offered as a service in the health clinic

 

There is even a prize offered at SCU.

The Warren Brauer Memorial Prize – Homoeopath Dispensary to the value of $500

Awarded to the Naturopathy award graduate who has exhibited a high level of proficiency in the understanding and application of homeopathy.
Donated by Brauer Natural Medicine Pty Ltd

SCU is a publicly funded university who received $32 million of federal funding in 2011. Thus, public funding is going towards the teaching of nonsense in Australian Universities.

When I’ve previously written about public funding for homeopathy in Australia the most I could do was speculate about how much it might cost the tax payer. It’s complicated because our public health system does not directly fund homeopathy as health care, but it does supplement private health funds (which do cover homoeopathy) and also some doctors/gps will prescribe recommend it.

This is the first evidence I have found that tax payers funds directly fund this nonsense. And what a waste of money it is.

I’ve written to SCU to ask for their course outlines for both classes. Let’s hope I get them so I can get a better idea of exactly what they teach.

With continued pressure from FSM, this conversation will likely continue for some time. I would like to see the first casualty be these courses at SCU.

This comment on The Conversation has really summed up this debate for me so far. It’s from Didier Nave, an ex-herbalist of 25 years and the following excerpt speaks volumes;

Time to face the facts. The data is coming in and its not looking good. It’s clearly showing that what we do is not much better than placebo. So the question is do we have the humility to accept the evidence and dump these theories. I doubt it….Have i seen the industry contest or reject its own stupidities like live blood analysis or “detoxing” when it can’t name one toxin that its methods supposedly detox? No, it embraces them instead.”

=====

To see how The Dean of the School of Health, Professor Iain Graham, defends woo in his uni, see Mick Vagg’s post here.

There’s more info on woo in public and non-public facilities here.

Thanks to Loretta Marron for assisting with research.

More interesting reading on the current debate (and for healthy discussion in comments) see two recent articles from The Conversation;

Alternative Medicine Can Be Sientific Say Besieged Academics

Pointing The Bone At Chiropractic Quackery Lessons From the UK

To see the investigation of woo in universities from The Skeptic magazine (and written by Tim Mendham with research from Jo Benhamu) go here (pdf).

Australian Gov: vaccinate or lose benefits.

I’ve been in a combination of jet-lag/virus induced haze for the last week and a half which has left me lethargic and finding it difficult to concentrate.

But this morning I had reason to leap out of bed at the ungodly hour of 05:30 to hit the computer and report on some very good news.

Our government has gone done something good and given that this doesn’t happen very often, I reckon it’s worthy of a pre-dawn blog post.

The news, which was brought to my attention by Fuzztwin on Twitter, reports on changes to the current childhood immunisation schedule to include three new vaccines and increase the incentives for parents who complete the schedule, effective 2013.

From http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/more-news/inject-children-or-lose-money/story-fn7x8me2-1226205382138

Chickenpox or varicella which as not previously been covered by the schedule (and hence was an out-of-pocket expense for parents wanting to vaccinate against chickenpox) will now be included.

Also new is vaccinations for meningococcal C and pneumococcal.

The new schedule brings the number of infectious diseases covered by the schedule to twelve.

Importantly, reports indicate that the number of shots kids will be required to get will actually be reduced however, since there will be new combination vaccines used.

According to a report in The Herald Sun a new combination vaccine will cover measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox in one shot and will be administered at 18 months replacing the previous MMR given at 4 years. The number of visits will increase however, owing to the new scheduled shot at 18 months.

There are also changes to the incentive scheme for parents and this is where it gets interesting (well, for nerds of legislation like me).

Under the current maternity immunisation allowance scheme introduced in 1997, parents receive two one-off payments totalling $258 if they complete the vaccination schedule. This will be scrapped under the new system and replaced with three payments of $726 each, paid at one, three and five years. If kids are not fully vaccinated, then the $2100 will be withheld. (This is part of the current family tax benefit part A end-of-year supplement so it’s not an entirely new benefit).

 

From http://www.smh.com.au/national/tax-threat-to-parents-who-dont-have-their-children-immunised-20111124-1nwwx.html

 

Health Minister Nicola Roxon said: “We know that immunisation is fundamental to a child’s lifelong health and that’s why we want to make sure that children are immunised at the right time.

“We want all Australian kids to grow up healthy, and immunisation is essential to that.”

What is not mentioned in any of the news stories is whether this effects the current options for conscientious objectors. Under the current system, you can still get the maternity immunisation allowance even if you don’t vaccinate, if you identify as a conscientious objector (CO). Excerpt from the Centrelink website which administers the payment:

a recognised immunisation provider (e.g. your doctor) signs a letter or form saying that:

• they have told you about the benefits and risks of immunising your child and you have a conscientious objection to immunising your child (your provider should complete a Health Insurance Commission Immu-12 form),

• immunising your child with a particular vaccine is medically contraindicated (your provider should use the Health Insurance Commission Immu-11 form),

• the child has a natural immunity to the disease, or

• the vaccine is not available,

• you or your partner are a member of the Church of Christ, Scientist and you have a letter from an official of the Church advising that you are a practising member of the Church.

This is certainly going to be the bit the anti-vaxers are interested in. The news stories appeared overnight (at least one was published at 12:00) so we have yet to see a reaction from Meryl and her buddies. But you can expect some major *head asplosions* on this one, guaranteed. Particularly since Meryl had previously claimed she has some sort of influence when it comes to vaccination policy. It seems she might have missed this one.

This is not the only piece of good news in this story either. Reports also detail a new pertussis awareness campaign in the form of mail-outs to warn parents about the dangers of the current epidemic and advise on ways to protect their kids.

This is a direct response to campaigning by the McCaffery family who lost their baby Dana in 2009 at 4 weeks of age in the grips of a pertussis epidemic. The family was never warned about the risks of pertussis or that they needed, as parents and carers, to get boosters, since the effectiveness of the vaccines wanes over time.

From the Age:

Ms Roxon said the aim of the whooping cough campaign was to raise awareness, particularly among parents planning pregnancies and others to be aware of the dangers to infants and the need to have vaccinations at two months, four months and six months after birth.
.

But the vaccinations do not provide lifelong protection from whooping cough and children should have booster shots at age four and then during teenage years, Ms Roxon said.

.

”Whooping cough is not just a childhood disease, as adolescents and adults can account for half the cases in the community.”

Overall, this is a step in the right direction by the Australian Government and I applaud Nicola Roxon for (finally) taking action. The introduction of the chickenpox vaccine is also a welcome addition to the schedule, since it costs as much to get as the current maternity immunisation allowance (~$200) making the incentive seem moot.

It’s still early in Australia, and since this story only broke overnight, I wait with interest for the response of the anti-vaxers. I’ve also searched, but to no avail, for a government media release, as I’m keen to find out if any changes have been made to the CO conditions.

One suspects they will remain in place, at least in some form, since they are necessary for kids with genuine medical reasons for not vaccinating, but given that the maternity immunisation allowance scheme is to be scrapped, it appears they will at least need to be migrated, if not re-drafted.

I await with interest.


Update: the government statement about changes can be found here

Transparency, the TGA way.

This was posted on Twitter this morning by journalist Rada Rouse, and I simply had to share.

The document was released by the TGA in response to an FOI for Infringement Notices and Enforceable Undertakings issued by the TGA against sponsors on the ARTG.

In other words, someone was trying to find out which companies who have products on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods and have been issued with infringement notices for unspecified breaches.

In April this year the TGA began a transparency review so consumers would be better informed about their practices. If this is the result then they’re doing it wrong.

I lold.

Download a copy of the form here.

As someone on Twitter said

ABC Science don’t need no stinkin’ science

Several weeks ago, I submitted a  complaint to ABC Audience & Consumer Affairs regarding a story that ABC Science had run on the HPV vaccine.

The story concerned a study in progress from well known anti-vaxer Judy Wilyman (for more background see Dave the Happy Singer’s blog post).

ABC Science presented her views in a completely credulous fashion omitting any context that she has lectured with the sometimes-president of the AVN Meryl Dorey and has close affiliation with the AVN. (In response to my complaint about this lack of disclosure, the ABC apparently asked Ms Wilyman if she was affiliated with the AVN and when she said no, they were satisfied with her response).

As you’ll see below, they have also taken out of context my complaint that her views should have been reported along with a declaration that she does have anti-vaccine affiliations to say I don’t think her views should have been reported at all. This was not what I was trying to say and I don’t think my complaint conveys this (it’s reproduced below so you can decide for yourself – let me know in the comments if you think it does).

Overall, I am extremely dissatisfied with this response. I wouldn’t care if her piece was presented as opinion – but it was presented as science with comments from Prof Booy (one wonders why he keeps getting quoted in such articles – it only serves to boost the legitimacy of the anti-vaxer and does nothing for his reputation).

It also comes off as rather patronising in my opinion, beginning with addressing me as “Ms” when my correspondence was from “Dr”. You’ll also note below that ABC neglected to address my comment about an internal ABC memo which stated that any material or interviews which involve the AVN or affiliates must be published in context so that readers are aware the information is not based on evidence.

I think this was a rather important point which the ABC decided to gloss over.

There is much more to say on this, but I am currently at a conference which has been going for 12 hrs so far today and I haven’t had dinner yet. I’ll get back to this later.

Thanks to Ken and Carol for the tip-off to this poster. I’ve annotated it for the ABC just so they can understand.

 

 

To: Audience & Consumer Affairs
From: Rachael Dunlop
Subject: ABC Science HPV story
Date: 14/10/11 17:20

Below is the result of your feedback form. It was submitted by Rachael Dunlop
—————————————————————————
ABC program: ABC Science

Response required: true

Date of program: 131011

Contact type: Complaint

Location: NSW

Subject: ABC Science HPV story

Comments: Yesterday ABC Science online published an article questioning the safety of the HPV vaccine.

The PhD student interviewed is a well known anti-vaccine campaigner who is affiliated with the Australian Vaccination Network.

The AVN was investigated by the HCCC in 2010 who issued a public warning about their website here

In short: The Commission?s investigation established that the AVN website:

• provides information that is solely anti-vaccination
• contains information that is incorrect and misleading
• quotes selectively from research to suggest that vaccination may be dangerous.

Indeed the ABC issued a warning to staff in July 2010 stating that “it’s vital that programs provide adequate context to ensure listeners clearly understand the AVN is a lobby group”.

Why were the affiliations of Wilyman not made clear? A declaration should have been published stating she is an anti-vaccine lobbyist.

Perhaps a better headline for this story would have been “Evidence for HPV vaccination questioned by anti-vaccine campaigner”. That this anti-vaccine nonsense was published on an ABC science website is a disgrace.

Network – ABC Online
RecipientName – Audience & Consumer Affairs
Referer – Complaint
—————————————————————————

My comments in bold (more comments to come)

Dear Ms Dunlop

That’s Dr to you thanks

Thank you for your emails regarding the ABC Science story ‘Evidence for HPV vaccination questioned’, published on 13 October.

In accordance with the ABC’s complaint handling procedures, your correspondence was referred to Audience & Consumer Affairs, a unit which is separate to and independent of program making areas within the ABC. The role of Audience & Consumer Affairs is to investigate complaints alleging that ABC content has breached the ABC’s editorial standards (available here: http://abc.net.au/corp/pubs/edpols.htm).

Yeah, thanks for that, but that was where I sent my email you dolts. See
To: Audience & Consumer Affairs
From: Rachael Dunlop
Subject: ABC Science HPV story
Date: 14/10/11 17:20

I also want to add here that our initial complaints were made on Twitter to @ABCScience and the editor of the latter, @ScienceNewsGeek (Darren Osborne).

 

I did this (a copy of my email to Darren can be found here), I also made a direct complaint to Audience and Consumer Affairs which is addressed in this post.

Contrary to what Darren said about “a few days” I did not hear back regarding my direct email to him. I tweeted to him a few days later to enquire about the status of my direct complaint and was told that apparently all complaints had now been sent on. This was despite the fact that I had already complained to ABC Audience Liaison. I received this (unsatisfactory) response from Darren when enquiring further about this;

Anyway, on with the “defence” of this nonsense by Audience and Consumer Affairs.

I understand you believe the story should have disclosed the affiliations of Judy Wilyman, one of the interviewees whose views it reported, and that she is an “anti-vaccine lobbyist”.

In addition, I understand you believe it was irresponsible and disgraceful for the story to report her views.

—-

Taking my comments out of context much? Yeah I see what you did there clever Consumer Affairs Peeps.

In context, I said presenting her “anti-vaccine nonsense” as if it were science with no disclaimer to indicate she has an anti-vax agenda was “totally irresponsible” and “absolutely disgraceful” particularly in the context of a recent resurgence of vaccine preventable diseases. I think I made this quite clear.

Judy Wilyman can say what she likes when it presented as opinion but you presented it as science when it was a purely a grab bag of anti-vax canards thinly disguised as science.

This was clear as day to anyone who has done their research, which apparently ABC Science has not (and is not willing to do so, beyond asking Judy Wilyman herself – see below).

Oh wait! But someone in the comments has. They Googled “Judy Wilyman” and “Meryl Dorey”and got a link to an Australian Vaccination Network blog post describing when they gave talks together. Actually the same link I provided you in my original complaint. Did you not see it?


The ABC Editorial Policies do not contain a specific standard requiring disclosure of information about interviewees.

Maybe not, but there was this memo which YOU distributed to YOUR own staff in July 2010 following the public warning about the AVN issued by the HCCC

Excerpt from internal ABC memo sent July 28th 2010 following the HCCC public warning

However, the manner in which factual content – including information about interviewees – is presented is subject to the accuracy standards set out in section 2 of the Editorial Policies:

“2.1 Make reasonable efforts to ensure that material facts are accurate and presented in context.

This was kinda my point – you didn’t do this

2.2 Do not present factual content in a way that will materially mislead the audience. In some cases, this may require appropriate labels or other explanatory information.”

^^^ ummmm this?

In light of your concerns, Audience & Consumer Affairs has reviewed the story, considered information provided by ABC Innovation (the division responsible for the ABC Science website), and assessed whether these editorial standards were met in the presentation of information about Ms Wilyman.

Ms Wilyman was described in the story as someone “who is completing a PhD on the Australian government’s vaccination policy at the University of Wollongong” and “who has a Master of Science in population health”. These descriptions were accurate. As well as quoting from and paraphrasing Ms Wilyman’s views, the story included a direct link to the paper in which her views were outlined in detail.

I note your view that Ms Wilyman is an anti-vaccine campaigner and is affiliated with the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN). Audience & Consumer Affairs has found no evidence indicating that Ms Wilyman has particular affiliations which needed to be disclosed in the story in order for readers to make their own judgements about her claims. We have found no evidence indicating that Ms Wilyman is a member of the AVN, and ABC Innovation has advised that Ms Wilyman has denied being a member of or having any affiliation with this group. (translation – are you anti-vaccination? No? Okay then, thanks!)

In our view, readers were provided with sufficient information about Ms Wilyman to form their own conclusions, and the manner in which she was presented was not materially misleading.

Nonsense.

While we are satisfied that the relevant editorial standards were met, please be assured that your comments about Ms Wilyman and the AVN, and your view that it was irresponsible for ABC Science to report her view…

Again, it was irresponsible to report her views without context and since when has science been about “views” and not evidence. ABC Science – WE DON’T NEED NO STICKIN’ SCIENCE!111),

…have been noted and conveyed to ABC Innovation management. Thank you for bringing your concerns to the ABC’s attention.

Yours sincerely

Simon Melkman
ABC Audience & Consumer Affairs

 

Do some stinkin’ research ABC. Cause this nonsense make ABC Science seem like an oxymoron.