On 5 October, Deakin University Lecturer in Philosophy Dr Patrick Stokes published an article over at The Conversation headed ‘No, you’re not entitled to your opinion’. Stokes discussed an episode of Media Watch in which the show’s host, Jonathan Holmes, criticised a WIN News story about a measles outbreak in South-West Sydney.
The WIN News story focused on vaccination, presenting two opposing views on the issue. The first view was that of of a medical doctor, who recommended that children be vaccinated. The other view belonged to Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) spokesperson Meryl Dorey, who claimed that ‘All vaccinations in the medical literature have been linked with the possibility of causing autism, not just the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine’ and that children should not be vaccinated.
Holmes argued that the WIN News story provided false balance. The position put forward by the medical doctor is supported by scientific evidence whereas Meryl Dorey’s position is not, despite her claims to the contrary. What appeared to the average viewer as a difference of opinion about the value of vaccination based on conflicting scientific evidence was really the unsubstantiated opinion of an anti-vaccination group pitted against the orthodox position of the medical community based on the latest scientific research. The two opinions presented in the WIN News story, Holmes argued, were not of equal value.
Dr Stokes’ article defended the idea that opinions should be judged on their merits. Despite the provocative title, Stokes actually argued that you are entitled to an opinion, but that an opinion is worthless unless it can be defended by argument or supported by evidence. In other words, on some issues there are legitimate authorities and illegitimate authorities. In the WIN News story, the medical doctor was the legitimate authority. The latest scientific research supports her ‘opinion’. Meryl Dorey, on the other hand, has no authority because her opinion is not supported by the scientific evidence.
Predictably, due to the contentious nature of the issue, Stokes’ article attracted many comments. Meryl Dorey herself weighed in, arguing that her stance on vaccination is, in fact, supported by scientific research. Here’s a snippet of one of here comments:
What proof did Jonathan Holmes, the current host of Media Watch, provide for his assertions about the quality and veracity of the AVN’s information? Absolutely none. What proof has Patrick Stokes provided on the same question? Absolutely none.
Did either commentator reference any of the peer-reviewed articles linking vaccines with autism and minimal brain damage or mention the cases where courts listened to expert testimony and paid compensation to families whose children developed autism as a result of vaccination? No.
She even provided a ‘small sample of peer-reviewed articles linking vaccines and vaccine-components with the development of autism’. Here are the references, verbatim:
- Do aluminum vaccine adjuvants contribute to the rising prevalence of autism?
- Mechanisms of aluminum adjuvant toxicity and autoimmunity in pediatric populations.
- Influence of pediatric vaccines on amygdala growth and opioid ligand binding in rhesus macaque infants: A pilot study
- Developmental Regression and Mitochondrial Dysfunction in a Child With Autism
- Theoretical aspects of autism: causes–a review.
- Neurotoxic effects of postnatal thimerosal are mouse strain dependent.
- Is autism an autoimmune disease?
- Recent court cases where medical experts deemed that a child’s autism was found to be caused by vaccination
- Landmark ruling in an Italian court has said Valentino Bocca’s autism was provoked by the MMR jab he had at aged nine months
- Vaccines – Litigation: The Hannah Poling Case: Significance For Families Affected By Autism?
- Vaccines – Litigation: Child with PDD-NOS (Autism Spectrum Disorder) Compensated for Damage from the MMR Vaccine
- 83 Cases of Autism Associated with Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensated in Federal Vaccine Court
Failure to properly cite articles aside, when it comes to choosing literature that supports her position, Dorey has poor form. As a 2010 NSW Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) investigation determined, the evidence that Dorey and the AVN have used in the past to claim that parents shouldn’t vaccinate their children has either not supported that claim or has lacked credibility.
In a summary of its investigation, the HCCC stated (p. 22),
The AVN provides information that is misleading for the average reader by inaccurately representing information, selectively reporting information, and giving non-peer reviewed and anecdotal material the same authority as peer-reviewed literature. In all cases of misrepresentation, selective and inaccurate reporting and indiscriminate use of research material, the AVN and Ms Dorey were doing so to maintain an anti-vaccination position.
The AVN challenged the HCCC investigation in the NSW Supreme Court. The Court found that the original complaints about the AVN were invalid because there was no evidence that anybody had acted on the AVN’s advice. The investigation was therefore beyond the powers of the HCCC. As a result, the Commission’s findings have no legal weight, but its claims about the AVN’s misrepresentation of evidence remain true.
Dory and the AVN accuse the mainstream medical and scientific communities of only drawing on literature that suits the pro-vaccination position — of cherry picking their evidence to suit one side of the argument. A fruit picker picks the best fruit — that which suits his or her argument. But that fruit is not representative of all the fruit in the orchard. And if you formed a view about all cherries based only on the picked cherries, it would be unrepresentative. The ANV’s job, as Dorey understands it, is to highlight research that supports the opposing position and bring balance to the debate about vaccination. But, as the HCCC investigation showed, in the past Dorey and the AVN have been the ones doing all the cherry picking. However, they’ve only ever picked rotten cherries. Why? One suspects it’s because rotten cherries were the only ones in the orchard that supported the AVN’s stance on vaccination.
Advocates bring to light evidence that has been ignored in the hope that their cause will gain mainstream credibility or acceptance. The problem with Meryl Dorey and the AVN, however, is that the evidence that they have cited in the past to support their anti-vaccination position has either not done so or has lacked credibility. In the past Meryl Dorey and the AVN have proven to be pretty ordinary cherry pickers. One wonders whether the same is true of the articles they now cite in support of their position. That, however, is an assessment that someone with the relevant expertise and time will have to determine.
Full disclosure, readily packed into a fallacious syllogism
- I am a doctoral researcher at Deakin University.
- Deakin University finances research that may aid the future development of flu, diabetes and HIV vaccines.
- Therefore, I posted this entry challenging the position of the AVN because of my association with Deakin University.
Tom Sidwell, who at the time of the HCCC investigation was an undergraduate science student at Monash University, went to the trouble of reading the previous list of literature that Dorey and the AVN cited in support of their position. He submitted his assessment of whether that literature was credible and/or supported the Dorey-AVN position to the HCCC investigation. His assessments can be found here:
- Sidwell critical analysis #1, 1 March 2010
- Sidwell critical analysis #2, 18 March 2010
- Sidwell critical analysis #3, 7 March 2010
- Sidwell critical analysis #4, 25 March 2010
An overview of his analyses can be found here.