(Note – this is crossed posted to Radio Freethinker)
It’s been a busy month for skeptical activists in Vancouver. I wanted to write about some of the recent news regarding an anti-vaccination conference that was held at the Simon Fraser University, here in Vancouver.
The anti-vaccination conference was organized by this group: the Vaccine Resistance Movement. When we learned of it, myself and the volunteers at the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver decided to put together an open letter to the president of SFU, Andrew Petter.
We then canvased for signatures from those within CFI but also medical and scientific experts at UBC and SFU who could add their credentials to the letter. We were impressed by how many were willing to sign it. Once the letter was complete, we sent it to the president, and published a press release regarding the conference and letter.
Additionally, the department of health sciences at SFU also issued a strongly worded letter regarding the anti-vaccination group speaking at SFU.
Once news of this started to spread, the story went viral (no pun intended) and I did a number of interviews with the press regarding this issue.
The story appeared in print in The Province newspaper “SFU urged to block anti-vaccine gathering”
Additionally Global BC covered the story, as well I appeared on Sun Media, on the CKNW radio station, BCIT’s radio station, French CBC, and another CBC news story. In short, there was a lot of media interest for this story.
Given all this, I wanted to take some time to discuss some of the finer points of concern we had with SFU renting space to the anti-vaccine group, as well as some of the remarks concerning free speech and academic freedom.
We’ve discussed some of this at length. You can check out recent episodes of Radio Freethinker for more details, including a blog post Don wrote about free speech.
The motivation behind everything we did was our concern that the anti-vaccination movement is dangerous. This is the reason we felt it inappropriate that SFU was renting space to them, this was why we felt it inappropriate to let this event happen without raising our concerns to local media, and this is why we felt it necessary to reach out to the scientific community.
I don’t think I need to convince many readers here of the dangers of the anti-vaccination movement. We are, after all, talking about a medical invention that has saved millions (if not billions) of lives and helped to eradicate dangerous infectious diseases and forms one of the foundational pillars of public health the world over.
Since SFU is a prestigious university with a reputation for science, education and higher learning, their approval of the anti-vaccine conference can lend tacit approval of their message. Essentially, giving space can be seen as SFU saying “these ideas have merit”.
It should come as no surprise that we at CFI took issue with that. There is the added danger that while a scientifically literate person would rightly chalk up the claims made by the anti-vax movement as ludicrous or conspiracy theories of the extreme level. But for a person with no prior scientific background to hear about a conference being held at SFU, they could naturally assume that SFU at least considers these ideas valid and when they see these ideas presented in a university setting, with supposed experts giving talks, it could very easily appear to have the markings of truth.
Vancouver recently had outbreaks of pertussis (whooping cough) and outbreaks of measles has occurred in the Fraser valley. Measles, whooping cough and other infectious diseases have seen outbreaks across North American and several have been located in Canada.
In order for herd immunity to be effective (the process by which a large number of people who are immunized protect those who can’t be) needs to be around 90% for whooping cough. However, in BC, those levels are between 60 – 70% making an outbreak potentially a catastrophic public health risk.
What about free speech?
The defence of free speech was almost immediately brought up by SFU once this story began to make the rounds. Disappointingly, it was also taken up by a number of skeptics as well. Before getting into this, we need to define what free speech is and why this particular case isn’t a free speech issue.
First, the point of free speech is to protect new ideas. The whole point is allow a “free market place” of ideas. By freeing ourselves from censorship, we allow new, potentially revolutionary ideas to be explored. Is the anti-vax movement a new, revolutionary idea?
Unpopular, unpleasant, or controversial claims are protected under free speech because these ideas could spur on new innovations, social change, or improvement. Is there potential for new innovations, social change or improvement brought about by the anti-vax movement?
Free speech is important because the airing of unpopular or controversial ideas is often difficult and can cause trouble for authorities. Therefore, criticism of the government, police, universities, scientists, sports teams etc are protected.
A science controversy vs free speech?
The anti-vax movement is a series of lies or what I call a “manufactured controversy.” Initially, under the guise of science, concerns about the safety of vaccines were brought to light. It turns out that the claims about vaccine safety were unfounded. Worse, the evidence for these claims was revealed to be fraudulent. There were conflict of interests that cast serious doubts into the motives of the people involved. In short, there were no grounds for a scientific controversy.
In the same sense there are no grounds for a scientific controversy over evolution, a flat earth or climate change.
However, through lies, fraudulent research and ethically dubious methods, a controversy was presented to the public built on foundations of misinformation.
Science, unlike other arenas of public discourse, is not a free democracy of ideas. Something is true or it isn’t. Gravity exists or it doesn’t. You evolved or you didn’t. Vaccines work or they don’t work.
Unlike other social issues where there is often two sides of a problem, science isn’t structured this way. There are not two sides to the theory of gravity for example.
The term “academic freedom” has been used in the past by creationists trying to teach creationism and/or remove the teaching of evolution in public classrooms. This tactic relies on the misunderstanding that science is like other issues where there are two sides and to not air all opinions amounts to censorship. Of course this view ignores the fact that its unethical to present incorrect information as though it were true.
Censorship occurs when free speech is stifled or suppressed. For example, if the Harper government were to have me arrested for speaking about climate change, or revoke resources from scientists for speaking out about climate change.
However there are certain circumstances were we except censorship. The often used example is shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre. And yes, that’s actually happened. In Canada, we also have hate speech laws that restrict what you can say (these laws are controversial obviously, but important to point out as they set legal precedent)
Most of us are willing to accept some limitations on free speech that directly contributes to public harm. If you think about it logically, some restrictions make sense, phoning up 911 for chit-chat, yelling fire in a crowded area, bullying, harassment etc.
However, the anti-vaccination moment, in my opinion, does not fall into the category of censorship of speech at all. And in fact, we weren’t calling on them to be “censored” anyway.
Keeping in mind what I wrote about scientific controversies vs manufactured controversies, we can see how the anti-vaccination movement is making claims. Specific, testable, claims about vaccines and public health. In much the same way that Health Canada of the FDA would prevent drug companies from lying about what their medications can cure, so to should the anti-vaccation movement be limited in the medical claims they can make.
No one would deny that its important cigarette companies are prevented from lying and saying smoking will make you healthy or that fast food companies are prevented from lying about the health benefits of burgers and fries.
If I started telling people that drinking paint would cure cancer, should I not be held responsible for my opinions? Should there not be consequences for lying to the public and endangering public health?
Of course, the “limitations” I’m suggesting are mitigated by the circumstances of such claims. If someone wishes to use snake oil medications, that’s their call. We don’t want to ban homoeopathy, only have honest descriptions of what the product is.
With the case of the anti-vaccination movement, using SFU as a venue is a similar situation. SFU is like the bottle the snake oil comes in. It provides the legitimacy and the veneer of scientific credibility. And this is why we were so disappointed and concerned. Had SFU reviewed the request for a room booking and decided (on the grounds I listed above, that this is presenting a manufactured medical controversy and is unethical) to turn down the group, we would have no issue.
Why Not Protest
Some people asked us why we weren’t protesting this event as we’ve done for other pseudoscience events like when Deepak Chopra came to Vancouver.
In our experience of doing this sort of “protest” we’ve learned a few things as to what factors can make them successful. And in this case, it doesn’t look like such a “protest” would work.
Choice of venue is really important for such an event. Since the venue is inside the university, we would immediately be shown out once we start annoying the attendees. We’d only be allowed on the sidewalk, which is far away from the entrance and people would just walk around us.
Given that they had extra security there, we expected they would be looking for trouble. Also, the anti-vaccination people can be a very hostile bunch and its likely loud aggressive arguments would break out. This actually happened to me the last time I was at an anti-vaccination event.
The other problem is confronting attendees with counter information will likely only entrench them deeper in their conspiracies. Generally speaking, the goal of such a protest would be to encourage critical thinking in fence sitters, people who haven’t made up their minds. Yet, the people likely to be attending this conference don’t fall into this demographic.
Any such protest needs to be carefully planned with a strict understanding of what the goals and objectives are. In this particular case, we really couldn’t guarantee any of our objectives would be met, and if anything, we might just hurt our cause in the process.
Overall I’m very happy with the way things turned out. There was some concern that we would be giving the anti-vaccination movement free publicity but after watching and listening to media that covered the event, I realize that they did an excellent job of showcasing the harm of the anti-vax community.
I think that shining a light on the dangers of pseudo science is a major objective for the skeptic community. If more people are made aware of the potential harm that anti-vaccination propaganda can do, they might be a little safer.