correspondence

A Letter to the Editor of the Sunshine Coast Daily

Accuracy, Clarification and Accreditation

Dear Sunshine Coast Daily,

I am writing to you regarding a piece which was published on the 5th of June online (initially titled, “Viral anti-vaccination meme shocks professionals“, later updated to “Druggie meme set up to enflame vaccination rage”), which appeared in print as, “Anti-jab meme was done in humour”.

The original online version of the article was written without the knowledge that the meme graphic was a parody of anti-vaccination posters – which could have easily enough been discovered by performing a reverse Google Image Search or checking the Something Awful watermark on the original uncropped picture. I left a comment on your website to let you know the origin of the image, with a link to a blog post that I had written explaining the location and context from whence it came.

I checked the online version of the article again when I received email confirmation that you had received my comment and discovered that the article had been updated to include an explanation as to the origin of the image.

The re-write of the first paragraph began,

UPDATE: MEMBERS of the online community have claimed responsibility for an internet meme linking vaccination to drug abuse.”

I would like for it to be clarified that no members of the ‘online community’ have claimed responsibility for the image; it has been on Something Awful’s website for all to see since July 2013. The wording of your article can be read as implying that I may be claiming responsibility – I wish to stress that I have no affiliation with Something Awful, nor the creator of the image. I was made aware of Something Awful’s Photoshop Phriday when it went online, as I am a strong advocate for vaccination and monitor the activity of anti-vaccination groups. Furthermore, I would like to make it clear that I do not endorse the creation, nor sharing of this image.

I was also somewhat surprised when I read the updated article to find that my blog post that I’d given you a link to in the comments had been quoted rather extensively in the article – seven paragraphs, no less. While I am more than happy that you updated your article to improve its accuracy, I would have greatly appreciated being credited for my research and writing. The online copy had an inline link to my blog, which read “A post explaining the meme said:”, while the paper copy merely had this text with no attribution at all. My name, blog name and contact details appear prominently on the blog post from which you took my writing and I would have been pleased to have been quoted for your article, had there been reasonable attribution provided alongside my work.

Also, in the print version, there is a typo. In my post, I wrote “It has been said that some of the most effective satire is nearly impossible to distinguish from the truth.” – the print article has replaced “effective” with “active”. While I agree that this meme was rather active at the time of publishing, this is not what I wrote!

Finally, I would like to note that “Druggie” is a pejorative label for people with substance addictions and that perhaps a different term may have been more appropriate to use in your publication.

Best Regards,
Jo Alabaster
Blogger, evidenceplease.net

UPDATE 12th June 2014, 1:45pm: I have just received an email from the acting editor of the Sunshine Coast Daily newspaper, letting me know that they’ll be publishing my letter (edited for length).

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The AVN’s Hypocritical Culture of Censorship

Last weekend I was reading through some comments on the Australian Vaccination Network’s blog (here), when I noticed the following comment from Meryl Dorey in response to somebody expressing frustration with the difficulty they’ve experienced when trying to engage in a discussion on the AVN’s blog.

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“Comments are only withheld if they are abusive, harassing or for reasons such as those.”

This has not been my experience when I have tried to enter into discourse with others commenting on the AVN’s blog.

Initially, I thought that perhaps Meryl had a policy of not allowing me to comment because she finds what I say here, on Stop the Australian (Anti)Vaccination Network’s Facebook page and on Twitter objectionable.

A few weeks ago, Meryl posted a blog entry titled “Hate, Threats and Cowardice”, in which she attempted to link anonymous abusive emails she had received to SAVN. Despite my expectation that it would be removed, I decided to have a go at posting a short comment questioning whether Meryl’s assertion that you can judge somebody by the company they keep could also be applied to the AVN (who keep some rather dubious company – AIDS deniers, hateful homophobes who attempt to incite violence, those who harass grieving families [1, 2] and the reprehensible Erwin Alber to name but a few).

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To my surprise, not only did Meryl let my comment past moderation, she replied! Frankly, I was pleased – I spend a lot of time reading what the AVN have to say without any means by which to engage, question or ask for clarification. I’m also quite keen on understanding what makes Meryl and her supporters tick and engaging in discussion with them gives me a greater opportunity to do so than just watching from the sidelines.

Encouraged, I replied to another commenter:

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And also to Meryl:

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Alas, neither of these comments were approved for publication.

I have been trying to work out why these two comments were deemed unacceptable. This is why I was most interested when Meryl posted her statement last weekend on her moderation policy. I asked her if she could further clarify her terms, to give me the best possible chance of respectfully engaging with her and her supporters:

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I understand that Meryl was away on a seminar in Canberra last weekend, so I have waited patiently for her return to see whether she would reply to me. It has been almost a week now and I know that she has been online attending to AVN business, as she has posted on the AVN’s Facebook wall. I sent her a polite message on Twitter earlier today letting her know that I was hoping to hear from her and asking whether I should expect a response:

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So far, nothing. I will update this post if my comment is removed from limbo and either published and responded to or deleted.

Update: My comment was approved and replied to just before 9am the morning after I published this blog post (17/11/2012). Meryl’s reply can be found here, my reply to her will either be found in the same comment section or over here when Meryl decides whether to approve it or not.

I think that it is quite reasonable to wonder why I’ve bothered to demonstrate that the AVN censor comments on their blog to the degree that they do. Taking a look at their Facebook page, it is apparent that the admins are frequent users of the ban hammer – most long comment threads have at least a few comments missing, the awkward and confusing one-sided conversations and the comment totals that don’t match the number of comments visible are a giveaway. Unofficial figures suggest that people banned from the AVN’s Facebook page are upward of 300 (I suspect that this is a conservative estimate, given the number of people likely banned who either do not know of the Facebook group or are not interested in joining). Even some of the AVN’s supporters are cautiously speaking up:

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And you know, I don’t think that it does matter in and of itself. The AVN have every right to ban and censor whoever they like, be it because they feel threatened or abused, because they simply don’t like what somebody is saying or because they object to someone’s fashion sense (I jest). Likewise, there is no onus on them to be consistent with either the content or individuals that they’re happy to let through moderation on any given day. The AVN’s blog and Facebook page are to do with as they wish.

What does matter to me though, is that the AVN continually represent themselves as champions of free speech, as the underdogs who others (being SAVN and The Australian Skeptics) are trying to censor and suppress. It strikes me as incredibly hypocritical to espouse free speech, transparency and open debate while not allowing it (or admitting to the fact that they don’t) on their own turf, nor giving others the opportunity to participate by stating some house rules and sticking to them.

The AVN do not deserve the anti-censorship mantle they attempt to assume.

If their influence wasn’t so dangerous, I would care a lot less. However, the AVN spread harmful misinformation which can endanger the lives of children. As such, I wish for anybody who is considering what the AVN has to say to take a close look at their conduct.

As is it concealed by it’s very nature, the degree to which the AVN moderates blog comments is an unknown. It is not apparent how often comments are suppressed or whether unpublished comments are genuinely abusive or merely not to the moderator’s taste at any given moment.

In the spirit of shining some light on suppressed comments, I have started up a Facebook group, Denied! Rejected Comments from the AVN’s Blog.

As is probably apparent upon reading the title, Denied! Rejected Comments from the AVN’s Blog is a place for commenters on the AVN’s blog to post screenshots of comments that did not make it past moderation. The AVN’s supporters (and even Meryl herself) are most welcome to participate. I hope for some hearty discussion and also for the public to have the opportunity to see the range of information and points of view that the AVN does not wish to have aired on their blog.

This is criticism, this is not abuse.

A month ago, shortly before the president of the deceptively named anti-vaccination group the Australian Vaccination Network Meryl Dorey and author of anti-vaccination books Greg Beattie were to commence a tour of country New South Wales to hold a series of seminars, I wrote the following letter to the venues these seminars were to be held at (predominantly service and RSL clubs) to alert them to the AVN’s behaviour and my concerns as to the consequences of anti-vaccination misinformation being taken as fact.

Dear XXXXXXX,

I am writing to ask whether yourself and those in your organisation are aware of the nature of the Australian Vaccination Network, who are conducting one of their ‘Vaccination and Health – Your Right to Choose’ seminars at your establishment on the evening of August the XXXXXX.

The AVN promote themselves as being pro-choice on the issue of vaccination, yet all of the information they present is strongly against vaccination and is supported by discredited and/or unscientific studies, anecdotal evidence, out of context quotations and cherry-picked data.

We are currently seeing surges of vaccine preventable diseases throughout the country due to lowered herd immunity and I am greatly concerned that parents misled by the seminar to be held at your premises will endanger the health, and indeed lives, of their children and others in the wider community (in particular, those who cannot be immunised due to illness) by choosing not to have their children immunised.

Respectfully yours,

Jo Alabaster

July 29 2012

I am publishing this here because I stand by my message and my conviction that I was reasonable, fair and not infringing on the rights, safety or civil liberties of anybody in saying it.

In the past few days, the AVN have set up a new section on their website, entitled ‘Dossier of Attacks on the AVN‘, in which they feature myriad claims of attacks, abuse and harassment of the AVN and its members by a ‘mob of abusers’ guilty of ‘cyberbullying’ (the dossier likens their critics’ actions to the recent attacks on Charlotte Dawson). One section is entitled ‘Censorship and Suppression‘ and features two letters, much like my own, to venues that have hosted AVN events in the past.

I disagree that such letters constitute harassment or abuse and reject them being framed as such. Certainly they are critical of the AVN and challenge both the misinformation that the AVN spreads and the lack of integrity shown by the AVN in rejecting the notion that they’re anti-vaccination, but criticism and challenges do not constitute abuse or harassment. Particularly when the AVN operates in the public arena and particularly when their claims left unchallenged can have a detrimental and tragic effect on public health.

Regarding my repeated claim that the AVN are anti-vaccination rather than pro-choice, I would like to draw your attention to a T-Shirt that the AVN has designed and sells which reads, “Love Them, Protect Them, Never Inject Them“. How much more blatantly anti-vaccination can you get? Well, this much more – here’s a substantial list of examples of the AVN’s anti-vaccination stance.

While I am writing, I would also like to address a straw man which I see the AVN using often when making claims that they are being victimised, that their critics are ‘attacking parents who do not vaccinate’.

Parents who do not vaccinate who make their decision based on the misinformation and scaremongering perpetrated by anti-vaccination groups such as the AVN are one of the main reasons that I feel it is important to challenge, criticise and publicly discredit the anti-vaccination movement. I feel that it is a wretched shame that they have been scared and misled into endangering their children and compromising others in the process. The culprits in this situation are not these parents, but those who spread the misinformation that persuaded them not to vaccinate. Harry Phillips on Stop the Australian (anti)Vaccination Network’s Facebook page says it wonderfully here (or he did, before the screenshot was removed by Facebook following a complaint that it ‘violated community standards’. It can now be viewed here. Harry has also been banned from Facebook for 24 hours as a result of this complaint of rather questionable legitimacy. [10:40am 02/09/2012]).

Unchallenged, the AVN is more likely to seem credible to those it is trying to persuade (which, I assume, is why they have banned over two hundred people from their Facebook page, many of whom criticised them, questioned them or presented information that the AVN did not agree with – how’s that for ‘censorship’?). So I will criticise and I will challenge, in public, as will so many others. This is not abuse or bullying, this is an attempt to protect the public against dangerous lies which threaten our health.

Perhaps the AVN would do well to consider why their claims come under so much scrutiny, why so many are passionate about discrediting them. It isn’t because we’re paid by ‘big pharma’, brainwashed by the media or government, naive, corrupt, bullies or on a bandwagon. It is because, simply, vaccination is the safest and most effective method by which we can protect ourselves and our children from infectious disease. Every parent who is convinced by the AVN not to vaccinate is putting their child at risk of vaccine preventable disease and endangering those most vulnerable in our society who cannot be vaccinated due to age or illness. When enough people are convinced not to vaccinate, herd immunity drops and epidemics occur. No conspiracy, naivety or spitefulness is inherent in criticising the AVN, just the above facts.

NB: Any actual threats or abuse should be referred to the police for investigation. I do not condone such behaviour.

Little Boxes Made of Whicky-Whacky – The Bamboo Charcoal ‘Hei Cube’

My apologies if I’ve just earwormed you with ‘Little Boxes’.

A few weeks ago, I was settling into bed of an evening with some light reading (Organic Gardener Magazine*) to wind down with when I spotted a relatively benign but nonetheless irritating feature in an advertorial. This is the ‘Hei Cube‘.

Hei Cube advertisement, text transcribed below.

The text reads as follows:

“Don’t forget your home-office in the spring-cleaning spree, but let the Hei Cube do the hard work for you. While it won’t dust the desk, it is said to help absorb electomagnetic waves when placed near a computer. Made from bamboo charcoal, it will also soak up unwanted odours and moisture from the room, and is 100 per cent natural and biodegradable. Available for $16.95 per cube, from purebamboo.com.au; 07 XXXX XXXX.”

Rudimentary as my radiation materials science knowledge is, the above struck me as suspicious. It bothered me enough that I went and confirmed that I was correct in my knowledge that the only materials which are capable of shielding electromagnetic fields are metals. Carboniferous material such as bamboo charcoal is completely ineffective at blocking electromagnetic waves when used in a shield. And any material placed in a cube to the side of a device emitting electromagnetic waves is completely irrelevant, electromagnetic waves do not change their direction because they find a little black cube attractive.

More troubling to me though is the suggestion that electromagnetic waves as found in household environments should pose any concern or present any risk to our health. I can understand how electromagnetic fields (EMF) may sound alarming – particularly when the ‘R’ word, radiation, is mentioned. A quick google about safety concerns about EMF brings up pages of links to sites warning of the dangers of exposure, anecdotal evidence of illness and harm abounds and there’s a substantial number of products sold which claim to protect one from the supposedly damaging radiation emanating from our televisions, computers and mobile phones.

A critical eye must be applied and a credible source of information must be found. This being a health concern, I went with the World Health Organisation.

The effects of electromagnetic radiation have been widely studied for many years now and scientific knowledge in this area is highly extensive. A recent extensive WHO review of available scientific literature concludes that based on current evidence, there are no health conditions which have been linked to exposure to low level electromagnetic radiation.

To summarise, the Hei Cube claims to protect you from electromagnetic waves which are not known to cause any harm by not affecting the electromagnetic field in any way.

As for the other claim made, that bamboo charcoal can absorb moisture and odours, there is perhaps some truth to it. Bamboo charcoal is a form of activated carbon and activated carbon is notably porous and it’s high surface area makes it capable of binding to a range of chemicals when used as an air or water filter. Whether the efficacy of a stationary cube of bamboo charcoal is noteworthy enough to make it worth $16.95 is debatable, but the claim that it will work as a desiccant (a substance which absorbs moisture) and deodoriser is at least relatively plausible. And I suppose some people may find it more aesthetically pleasing than a small bowl of bicarbonate of soda, which will also act as a desiccant and deodoriser at around a fiftieth of the price.

Note that the copy from the magazine uses language which avoids directly making a factual claim about the EMF blocking properties of the Hei Cube – “it is said to help absorb electromagnetic waves”. I do wonder how deliberate this was, whether the copy writer was aware that the claim was based on pseudoscience and worded the text accordingly, either to create room for doubt or to avoid making a false claim. Either way, I did leave a message on the magazine’s Facebook page. I received a cordial reply from the editor a few days later in which he assured me that he’d taken my message on board and let me know where to find more information on the watermelon frame I’d mentioned.

I’m planning on growing some lovely watermelons this year, an heirloom variety called ‘Moon and Stars’. And I will be growing them by exposing them to the most familiar form of electromagnetic radiation that we all encounter, sunlight!

Further reading:
What are electromagnetic fields? WHO
The Skeptic’s Dictionary – EMF

* I intend on conducting and writing up some critical assessment of the appeal organic home food production methods hold for me. Until then, I’d like to quickly state my position – I am not outright opposed to GMO (I believe that it has the potential for a great deal of good), I am far from chemophobic and I want to stress that the label ‘organic’ is not a literal one – it originated from the view of the garden as a single organism, rather than the now common interpretation that organic gardening is the exclusive use of organic compounds. Oh, and my thoughts on biodynamics? A whole lot of woo which can result in some non-magical but often delicious produce. Nom.

An Open Letter to the AVN

Below is an open letter to members of the Australian Vaccination Network, an anti-vaccination group here in New South Wales. I posted it on their Facebook wall in mid-July 2012, as I had participated in an exchange of comments on one of their threads in which I stated that I was troubled by the AVN’s actions and expected to be banned for such, so I figured I had little to lose and may as well make an attempt to communicate something which had been playing on my mind. It was deleted and I have been banned from commenting on their page again.

I still feel that it is a worthy sentiment and wish for it to be in the public domain. It’s been noted that the similar questions can be asked of those who hold other beliefs incongruous with the current conclusions of the scientific majority – for example, those who deny the existence of anthropomorphic climate change or those who deny that human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

I do genuinely want to understand how it is that people are able to find such fallacies so convincing in the face of not only the evidence which states otherwise, but the dedication and integrity of those who study and work in the field. I suspect that my best opportunity to comprehend it is to read the work of those who have studied it, and I am, but I still wish to ask the questions below directly to those it applies to.

It’s a fairly emotive attempt at an appeal to reason, but I feel that that is appropriate for the message I was trying to convey.

a screencap, transcribed below

As I am facing the possibility of being banned from commenting and posting on this page after having stated my strong concern about the AVN in previous comments, I would like to take this opportunity to say my piece.

I genuinely feel saddened that some people evidently hold so little faith in humanity that they believe that there are these great cover-ups and malicious attempts to cause illness or hold back safe treatments which may cure of alleviate the suffering of the ailing. To believe that mainstream science and medicine are corrupt is to believe that a high percentage of scientists and medical professionals who have devoted themselves to advancing our understanding of the universe and/or improving the wellbeing of humankind are either naive or corruptible. Certainly some people can be misled, have an improper understanding of data and statistics (particularly laypeople), become dogmatic and abandon critical thought or be greedy or desperate enough to behave without conscience, but it must be a dreadful and sad world view to hold to believe that the majority of medical professionals and scientists (and the employees of the agencies who regulate them) behaved in this manner.

I don’t believe that you’re all awful people. I feel that you believe that you’re acting in the best interest of your families, your communities, the world at large. I just don’t understand why it is that you find what you’re reading and discussing to be so much more convincing and compelling than the possibility that the majority of scientists and medical professionals are ethical, well informed and trustworthy.

I’m pleased to have started blogging – thank you for reading and I hope that you’ll bear with me while I become accustomed to WordPress and make myself at home.