Lobby groups in Australia such as the Australian Skeptics, Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN) and the Friends of Science in Medicine (FSM), are using abuse and ridicule to prevent Australian consumers and professionals from properly debating the use of vaccines. Subscribers of these lobby groups are using the mainstream media and social websites to misrepresent the academic arguments and to attack the messenger. People who question the use of an increasing number of vaccines in the government’s childhood schedule have their reputations attacked on the ‘Anti-Vax Wall of Shame’ and this affects peoples careers and livelihoods. The information used on this site is provided by a subscriber of the Skeptics groups who posts on the blog ‘Reasonable Hank’. This author takes information out of context and misrepresents the arguments to the public using abusive and derisive comments. Professor Brian Martin, my supervisor at the University of Wollongong has written many articles on the strategies that are used by pro-vaccination lobby groups to prevent public debates in Australia. It is also documented that many consumer lobby groups are fronts to promote the interests of industry.
An example of the way in which lobby groups are misrepresenting academic research to the public is the use of anecdotal evidence in promotional campaigns to the public. Anecdotal evidence is the evidence based on a person’s individual experience. This type of evidence is not used to make decisions about public health policy for communities yet families are being used by the Australian media to promote vaccines to the public. An example is the whooping cough vaccine and this strategy was used in 2009 and again in 2015 to increase the use of this vaccine in the population. When I commented in 2012 that medical and government authorities do not use the evidence of one child to make vaccination policies (anecdotal evidence) because it is emotional evidence and not representative of the risk of the disease to the population, subscribers of the Australian Skeptics groups accused me of ‘attacking grieving parents’. This comment was made on the Reasonable Hank blog (a Skeptic subscriber) and used by several journalists in the mainstream media to disparage my reputation. Rachael Dunlop is another subscriber of the Australian Skeptics who has misrepresented my research with false information on her blog titled ‘The Skeptic Book of Pooh Pooh’ yet she is presented in the mainstream media (The Project, channel10) and on the Mamamia website to promote vaccines to the public. Skeptic subscribers are also being allowed to make abusive comments, that disparage my reputation, on my article published on the ABC’s The Drum.
The Australian Skeptics groups were established in 1980 and they have connections with the US Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). This organisation was co-founded in the US by the stage magician, James Randi and it claims to investigate scientific claims, however the subscribers of these groups are not scientists, they come from all professions. The organisation also publishes a magazine in Australia called ‘The Skeptic’ that claims to represent ‘Science and Reason’ but it is not a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The Australian Skeptic’s groups are modelled on the CSI and their main purpose is stated to be advocating for balance and accuracy in scientific issues in the media. In 1996 the CSI set up the Council for Media Integrity in the US focusing on the balanced portrayal of scientific issues. This involved establishing an email database of ‘media watchdogs’ that exert grassroots pressure on media conglomerates in response to non-scientific programming. They also make numerous op-ed submissions to newspapers advocating for a more balanced portrayal of science by the media. In addition, they have created a Media Stock Fund to acquire stock in large media conglomerates to leverage sound scientific programming.
So how much influence do the Australian Skeptics lobby groups and SAVN have in the Australian media and on social media? In 2013 my research on the HPV vaccine was published in the Infectious Agents and Cancer journal and presented at two international conferences (San Francisco and London), yet several journalists refused to publish this research for debate in the mainstream media. This was done by disparaging my qualifications. Another journalist, Rick Morton (The Australian Newspaper) presented misinformation and unsupported comments about this research that mislead the public about its credibility. The journlist, Virgina Trioli, on ABC breakfast, has stated that ‘the science on vaccines has been proven’ and that anti-vaccination arguments have been discredited and expunged from the medical literature yet I am presenting these arguments from the University of Wollongong (UOW). The statements by journalists are false but they are being supported by the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA) on the grounds that it would be ‘false balance’ to present the other side of the vaccination debate. This claim is also being made by Rachael Dunlop, the vice-president of the Australian Skeptics in NSW. Such a claim is contrary to the practice of evidence-based medicine. Scientific theories and evidence must be able to stand up to scrutiny from all stakeholders and all the evidence for a procedure must be debated to determine the weight of evidence for a medical intervention. The argument of ‘false balance’ and the influence of lobby groups in denigrating people’s reputations is allowing selective evidence to be used to promote government vaccination policies and this is endangering public health. If one side of the argument is unquestionably wrong then this needs to be proved and publicly debated, not suppressed under a subjective claim of ‘false balance’.