Skepticism

The Australian Vaccination Network’s Much Anticipated Name Change

Just in, an announcement from the Australian Vaccination Network that they are complying with the Administrative Decisions Tribunal’s court order to change their misleading name. Their chosen (and approved) new title: “The Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network”. From the AVN:

As of Friday, March 7th, the Australian Vaccination Network, Inc. will now officially be known as the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network, Inc. We will still have the same domain address (www.avn.org.au ) and will still go by the acronym "AVN".
Full announcement here.

Frankly, this strikes me as incredibly bizarre, but quite in keeping with the AVN’s previously demonstrated thinking. Admins on the AVN’s Facebook page have repeatedly condemned the skeptical movement, referring to skeptics as “Septics” and insisting that we are shills for Big Pharma and the like. At the same time, the AVN have registered the domain australiansceptics.com, an attack site which discredits the skeptical movement and claims that vaccine denialists of their ilk are “The REAL Australian Sceptics”. One wonders why the AVN wishes to co-opt a title which they have treated with such derision – I can only assume that they feel that their attempts to align themselves with skepticism lends them credibility not offered to those honest about their denialism. Presumably, this is why the AVN have been reticent to ever label themselves as anti-vaccination, regardless of the fact that all of the misinformation that they spread is undoubtedly anti-vaccine. Despite their continued attempts to discredit scientific skepticism, they are quite aware that their position is the one lacking credibility.

I would like to note here that scientific skeptics do well to approach the topics that they examine with an awareness of personal bias (and the utmost effort to remove such), apply critical thought and are open to changing their position based on empirical evidence. I would argue that the AVN do not qualify as such, given their dogmatic anti-vaccination position and refusal to accept the overwhelming scientific consensus that vaccination is the safest and most effective means by which we have to prevent people contracting vaccine preventable diseases. The AVN downplay the seriousness of illnesses such as pertussis and measles, spread misinformation regarding the efficacy of vaccination and make claims that the risks associated with vaccination are much higher than evidence shows.

Let us hope that if they are permitted to continue using their new name, the wider public will consider the AVN to be in the same category as “Climate Change Skeptics” – denialists without the integrity to openly admit that they are such.

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Nobody Deserves To Be Lied To

On Twitter last night (or to be honest, very early this morning), I saw a statement which I took umbrage with and would like to address here.

“Isn’t pseudoscience just a tax on stupidity?”

This was retweeted by Simon Singh (with his response, “Do you mean some of my friends/relatives?”).

There are two points that I would like to make in response to the above suggestion.

Firstly, nobody, regardless of their ability to analyse claims made by charlatans and woo-peddlers, deserves to be swindled or to have their health compromised. Nobody deserves to be taken advantage of by liars and thieves. I believe that, barring cases of extreme wilful ignorance, the blame for harm caused by belief in pseudoscience rests squarely on the shoulders of those who propagate it.

Second, to a degree, critical thinking is a learnt skill. We should be mindful of assuming it to be a marker of intelligence, or suggesting that a lack of critical thought denotes a lack of intelligence.

Simon Singh was generous enough to retweet my first point (frankly, I’m honoured – he’s a wise and accomplished person and has put me in some amazing company) and it received a reply from Mark Pentler, who stated,

“that should be the mantra of every skeptic. Educate the masses for the good of the species, not to feel smug”

I agree with Mark’s sentiment. Those of us with the ability to see through deception can use this skill to help others and to take down those who lie and take advantage of the credulous. We can also encourage others to develop the same skills, by which they will be better able to look out for themselves. And while it is satisfying for many reasons to point the finger at a lie and loudly call bullshit, I feel that the greater satisfaction comes from doing good with our faculties, rather than the smugness of being right for it’s own sake.

I am relatively new to skepticism and as such, tend to veer away from making generalised statements regarding such (or, indeed make grand claims regarding my own skepticism – I openly admit to my amateur status), but I’m willing to overlook my hesitation today because I feel that these are points worth making.

Skepticism is a tool. It can be used to protect others and taught to others so that they can protect themselves. The greater the number of people who are empowered by skepticism, the less successful the pushers of pseudoscience will be.

Further Reading/Listening:

The Critical Thinker Academy

The Debunking Handbook

Me on Twitter: @joalabaster