This is something I wrote about in December – original article appended – occasioned by Emily Willingham’s attempt to respond in Forbes to the Brian Hooker/Shot of Truth’s press release a few days ago . The question I pose is what would actually happen if government officials ever had to answer questions. I guess it might look something like Coleen Boyle of the Centers for Disease Control trying to fend off questions for five minutes from Congressman Posey in November 2012 . What, of course, we actually get in this instance is Emily Willingham, a person with no responsibility for the policy and no grasp of the scientific issues, trying to sow confusion. For Willingham the right answer is just the usual bureaucratic stitch-up masquerading as hard science. The last thing she wants is people rummaging around in the CDC’s cupboards. Re-challenged by Hooker you get the same answer all over again. But, of course, the point is that it does not ultimately matter what Willingham says because she is not accountable and nor are the rag, tag and bobtail crew of characters that hang around on her website and elsewhere.
The system is about non-accountability. The pharmaceutical companies are unsuable, the bureaucrats unanswerable and make claims for the products that the companies themselves would never risk. People like Willingam and Dorit Reiss – the public vaccine compliance lady who cannot make up her mind whether she is simply a concerned mother or a nationally ambitious tort lawyer – are surrogates for the people who might have to answer. As I remarked in my original piece Reiss made her debut in the field when she was conveniently slipped in protecting bioethicist Art Caplan from having to answer awkward questions from Mary Holland in Harvard Law Journal. What this system deserves above all is our blistering contempt.
This post first ran on 12/20/13:
By John Stone
One of the problems that the phenomenon of Dorit Reiss points to is the fundamental lack of solidity of vaccine science: we are not talking about something like the laws of thermodynamics, the periodic table, the theory of relativity – instead it is something that has to be defended by a sequence of dodgy manoeuvres and obfuscations. The claims for the vaccine program which are being made are politically absolutist but there is no unchallengeable super-theory behind any of it, only a multitude of industrially manufactured products which may be neither as effective or as safe as their advocates claim, have usually not been as well tested as they should have been, and can only be defended by a bulwark unbalanced legislation backed up by endless institutional malfeasance. Pubmed, the index of peer review medical studies, is testament to this: even if there are many studies which are favourable to products it does not make anything about their findings immutable evidence, or proof of anything. They can only be provisional.
Nor is the quality of all that evidence necessarily high despite sentiment that vaccines are a good thing. The 2005 Cochrane Review of MMR vaccine safety, concluded after having sifted 5,000 studies :
“The design and reporting of safety outcomes in MMR vaccine studies, both pre- and post-marketing, are largely inadequate. The evidence of adverse events following immunisation with MMR cannot be separated from its role in preventing the target diseases.”
Indeed, this body of evidence was so poor that it was not even clear how most of the final 31 studies admitted to the review met the inclusion criteria.
There is a fundamental problem with vaccines, that although great claims are made for their effectiveness their harms are apparently instantly deniable, and there is no logic to this imbalance. If something does go wrong you will not only be met with immediate professional indifference and denial, the only recourse in establishing it is to take legal action. But such is the institutional bias that this is a vain hope in most countries, and even in the US where awards are made in the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program with some frequency they usually end up by being “no-fault” concessions by the government.
And this is also the problem of Reiss: reality can be stage-managed in the mainstream media but the evidence of hundreds and thousands of wrecked lives are harder to suppress in the social media: there is no one – apart from usual medical spokespeople spouting the conventional wisdom – who can be more authoritative. There are no underlying scientific principles, only a morass of flawed, limited studies and a host of bureaucratic decisions masking the legal reality that vaccines are “unavoidably unsafe” . Despite her grand debut as a vaccine advocate in Harvard Law Review (standing in for Art Caplan) barely six months ago Reiss has ended up scrambling from one blog to another trying to block out the ever peeping reality that these products cause unaccountable injury and death. Caplan, confronted by Mary Holland, disappeared – if Caplan played a false move while in open debate it could have serious consequences, but Reiss is expendable (though also apparently, in retrospect, inexhaustible). If she has a somewhat uncertain professional status as a lawyer, as has been suggested, this may be part of the story too.
As it is her defence of vaccines often rests on the rants of David Gorski or the blog of Liz Ditz, and if she tends to play her hand courteously (at least superficially) she is surrounded by a ragbag of supporters and associates who do anything but. This week found her in trouble defending flu mandates for young children in New York on the comment page of the John Gambling Show and resorting to anonymous Facebook page “notes/chillin-out-vaxin-relaxin-all-cool/flu-shots-for-kids-two-year-yes they are effective”.
But it got worse. She also cited the “Poxes” blog of “Reuben Gaines”, known as well for his “Edward Jenner” Facebook page. As I pointed out Gaines had made fraudulent claims in Age of Autism to be a professor of epidemiology working at the Department of Health in Washington DC while naming Johns Hopkins as his academic institution. He has also demonstrated only very little knowledge or competence in epidemiology. Even more excruciatingly on a Reiss blog in the Time of Israel a couple of months ago he admitted to trolling me, remarking:
Reiss tried to distract from the issue by misrepresenting the point of what was being said while engaging in blatant innuendo:
“As I said before, I don't take a passing comment on an internet thread as something more serious than a passing comment on an internet thread, and I'd admit I find that one a lot milder than is usual for the discussion of these issues (unfortunately). Mr. Gaines has not tried to stalk you to your place of work, send threatening or insulting emails or attack you directly and constantly.”
But, of course, it was not a passing remark, it was an admission of what he does (probably under a variety of names).
By this stage “Gaines/Jenner” was also hopping around the Gambling blog trying to limit the damage, culminating in this exchange:
John Stone · Top Commenter : “Edward Jenner Please show me any official sites which establish the presence of Prof Reuben Gaines at (1) Johns Hopkins University and (2) Deparment of Health Wahington DC”
Edward Jenner · Top Commenter · Johns Hopkins University: “Get your facts straight, John. I went to Hopkins for my MPH in the 90s. I teach at a completely different institution. Stop lying. It's not that hard to do.”
John Stone · Top Commenter: “So, at what institution are you a professor?”
Edward Jenner • Top Commenter · Johns Hopkins University
“At none anymore. I've left my job at DC DOH and am moving to a bigger city on the East Coast. That's all you get, honey bunches. I don't want calls to my new employer this time.”
But in Reiss’s world Gaines is an authority.
It points to two things: her confidence in vaccine science is not based on genuine knowledge – in fact she seems oddly naive. And the real professionals know too much to stick their necks out in public debate.
John Stone is UK Editor for Age of Autism.