Professor Brian Martin discusses a new ‘skeptic’ tactic

Professor Brian Martin holds a PhD in Theoretical Physics and teaches in the Social Sciences Department at the University of Wollongong. Dr Martin has had a nearly 40-year history of involvement in social justice issues and is past-President of Whistleblowers Australia. He is the author of 13 books and hundreds of papers, many of which involve research into issues surrounding the suppression of scientific dissent.

Over the last five years, he has written numerous articles about methods used by the Australian Skeptics and their subsidiary group, Stop the AVN. These organisations, much like similar groups operating in the United States and Europe, have used abuse, harassment, bullying and vexatious complaints to oppose those whose opinions on scientific issues threaten the profits of multi-national corporations.

Dr Martin has noticed a fascinating new tactic being implemented by this group in Australia. It will be interesting to see if this method is repeated by related organisations elsewhere.

This article is reprinted with the permission of the author. The original document can be found at this link.

What SAVN doesn’t want you to readbrianmartin

In 2010, I became involved in the Australian vaccination controversy.

I’m a social scientist. For decades, I’ve been studying scientific controversies such as over nuclear power, pesticides and fluoridation. My view is that it is valuable to be able to hear different perspectives in a controversy, preferably in a respectful way. Members of the public then can make up their own minds. The ideal is deliberation, in which views are carefully considered, discussed and evaluated.

The Australian vaccination controversy had a prominent feature I hadn’t encountered before: a ferocious and sustained attack on a citizens organisation, intended to shut it down. This is the antithesis of deliberation.

Personally, I don’t have strong views about vaccination. However, because of my longstanding commitment to free speech, I intervened in the debate, defending the right of vaccine critics to express their views.

To some, this might seem like becoming a critic of vaccines. Actually, it’s different: I am a critic of censorship, not of vaccination.

I share with SAVN the goal of protecting and improving children’s health. However, I do not support several of the methods used by some SAVNers, such as abusing and censoring critics.

There’s another factor here. I am intrigued by the tactics used in social struggles. Indeed, analysing tactics against injustice has been a key research focus of mine for the past decade. The injustice in this case is censorship.

The Australian vaccination struggle

The Australian Vaccination Network (AVN)[*] was set up in the mid 1990s to present views critical of vaccination and to support parental choice in vaccination decisions. This citizens group was similar to various other vaccine-critical groups in Australia and other parts of the world. In 2009, something new occurred: the formation of Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN), a group whose explicit goal was to shut down the AVN. SAVN’s techniques included online abuse (especially of Meryl Dorey, the AVN’s founder and driving force), complaints to government agencies, and attempts to deter or censor public comment by the AVN or by media covering the AVN.

I soon experienced the standard SAVN techniques myself. I wrote a long article, “Debating vaccination“, describing the vaccination debate and the methods used by SAVN. After it appeared, the SAVN Facebook page was filled with derogatory commentary. Several SAVNers wrote to me, some with disparaging or condescending remarks. I sent a draft of my next article, “When public health debates become abusive“, to Ken McLeod, a key figure in SAVN. He sent it to others in SAVN; their responses included derogatory comments and complaints to my employer, the University of Wollongong. In 2014, I joined Twitter and made a few tweets, and experienced a similar sort of hostile commentary from SAVN tweeters.

I soon came to expect misrepresentation, abusive language and complaints. After one of my articles discussing the vaccination debate, and mentioning SAVN, appeared in an academic journal, someone complained to the editor and publisher, alleging an undeclared conflict of interest on my part. This person had not bothered to contact me. This was a technique I recognised and had written about for decades: complaining to employers or editors but not to the person concerned is a typical feature of what I call suppression of dissent.

However, on a few occasions I noticed a different type of response or rather non-response. Some of my contributions were ignored even though I had expected a furious attack from SAVNers. What was going on?

SAVN is not a single conscious entity. It is a collection of individuals with a common cause, though not a completely unified position. To attribute agency to SAVN is misplaced. Nevertheless, the collective behaviour of SAVNers can be analysed and understood as an adaptive response, sometimes effective, sometimes not. One of my goals as a social analyst is to understand how participants in scientific controversies operate.

SAVN is a special case, because nothing quite like it seems to exist anywhere else. So I tried to understand the pattern in SAVNers’ responses to my statements and publications, and have come up with two preliminary generalisations. These probably attribute more intent and conscious planning than is warranted, but may be useful nevertheless to stimulate further investigation.

1. As a general approach, SAVNers attempt to shut down visible critics of vaccination. By using derogatory commentary and making complaints to government agencies and the media, they attempt to discourage participation by critics and to discredit them.

2. In some cases, SAVNers instead ignore critics, especially when SAVNers do not want others to hear or read what critics have to say.

Point 2 recognises the possibility of censorship backfire: attempting to censor or discredit a view sometimes can lead to more attention to it than otherwise would occur.

Point 2 is the phenomenon I hadn’t previously recognised. In studying censorship tactics, it’s easy to see abuse and ridicule. However, it’s also possible to learn from what isn’t mocked or even mentioned.

Although I am not a critic of vaccination, SAVNers have treated me like one. Initially they tried abuse and complaints, but on some occasions they have ignored my comments and articles about the debate.

I should also mention that a few SAVNers have been willing to engage in dialogue with me, in the time-honoured approach of exchanging views and seeking to identify points of both agreement and disagreement. I do appreciate this.

My new assessment is that SAVNers – especially the administrators of SAVN’s Facebook page – prefer to ignore some contributions, especially ones that are balanced and well argued. SAVN administrators may not want other SAVNers, or indeed anyone, to read these contributions.

So here is a list of some items that, it seems to me, SAVN does not want you to read. This is a tentative list, open to revision and reconsideration. I welcome your feedback at bmartin@uow.edu.au

April 2014: Medical Observer  Neil Bramwell wrote an article about the vaccination debate that was published in the Medical Observer on 15 April 2014. Bramwell interviewed people with different perspectives, including Patrick Stokes, whose article “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion” has been lauded by many SAVNers. Normally SAVNers would comment on an article like Bramwell’s, but they seem to have ignored it. I think the main reason is that the article is so balanced, presenting various perspectives, not just ones favoured by SAVN.

March 2014: Science & Engineering Ethics  My article “On the suppression of vaccination dissent” was published in the journal Science & Engineering Ethics. In this article, I discussed the phenomenon of suppression of dissent and used several vaccination examples to illustrate ways to evaluate whether suppression has occurred and to compare suppression of citizen campaigners with suppression of researchers and doctors. Although several of my previous articles had triggered a huge discussion by SAVN bloggers, I saw no comments.

March 2014: “Biased reporting”  On 18 March 2014, I posted on my website “Biased reporting: a vaccination case study“. It is a lengthy critique of an article by Rick Morton in The Australian. I first sought comments from Morton, but he did not provide any. Meryl Dorey wrote a blog about my critique; her blogs are scrutinised by some SAVNers, so they would know about my post. Normally I would expect to see some comments from them, not on Dorey’s blog but on the SAVN Facebook page, SAVNer blogs or emails to me, but I did not see any.

September 2012: SAVN and conspiracy theories After my article “Dealing with dilemmas in health controversies” was published in Health Promotion International, SAVN figures Paul Gallagher and Peter Tierney criticised my views in their blogs. Tierney and others defended their claim that the AVN believes vaccination is a global conspiracy to implant mind control chips. Tierney initially allowed me to comment on his blog. I invited him to join with me in submitting our views to independent experts on conspiracy theories. After one of my posts, Tierney removed it and did not make any statement that he had done so. I described all this on my website. My interpretation is that they terminated the interaction to prevent others from seeing their refusal to submit our views to review by experts.

August 2012: dossier of attacks on the AVN On 31 August 2012, Meryl Dorey posted “Dossier of attacks on the AVN” on the AVN website. The dossier contains examples of false claims, abusive comments, threats, sending of pornography and other types of attacks. It names individuals who made the attacks, most of whom have been involved with SAVN. There was an initial flurry of criticism of the dossier by SAVNers, but subsequently they seem to have largely ignored it. It is reasonable to suggest that SAVNers are not keen to draw attention to their own methods of attack.

March 2012: two articles about SAVN In March 2012, I posted two new articles, in preprint form, on my website, and alerted several key SAVNers. These articles described actions by SAVN in making abusive comments, among other things. Based on previous experience, I expected a furious response from SAVNers, including posting of abuse and making complaints to university officials. Instead, to my great surprise, there was hardly any response. In retrospect it was the first indication of an emerging pattern of not responding to contributions that are well written and that SAVNers do not want others – including their supporters – to read. The two articles were later published: “Online onslaught” and (in collaboration with Florencia Peña) “Public mobbing“.

* In 2014, the AVN was required by the Department of Fair Trading to change its name, which it did to Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network, retaining the abbreviation AVN.

Acknowledgements I thank the many individuals who read drafts of this comment and offered valuable feedback, especially Paul Gallagher who helped clarify several points.

19 Responses

  1. Great article. I have often wondered why the SAVN is unique. Is it the sun down there that’s affected them? I live in Canada. I’m not sure of the wording but we have an anti-hate law here and they would never be allowed their vindictive behaviour in this country. We also have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, thanks to Pierre Elliot Trudeau, that prevents anyone injecting anyone against their will. Also, Canadians are far too polite — I’m a British immigrant. Yeah, Canada.

  2. Great article, thanks for this. Brian Martin is the voice of reason. He should be given some air time to make people aware of what’s going on.

  3. [ED: This comment deleted.

    Trolling and internet stalking by a clearly compulsive obsessive member of a forum whose members block discussion but some of whose members for sport in their spare time disrupt other fora on the internet and attack, bully, abuse and harass ordinary people and parents of very sick children wanting to share information. These kinds of groups are organised for just such a purpose on the internet. To quote Dr Ben Goldacre himself commenting on his own BadScience Forum: “The time for talking has passed. I draw the line at kidnapping, incidentally.“. This is on a site owned and operated by Dr Ben Goldacre as a high profile opinion former in the mainstream medical professions].

  4. I am pro-vaccination, however I am also pro questioning the process, and not following blindly. I find that I tend to want to sit on the fence more and more as I follow both groups on facebook. I do not enjoy the nasty, rude, condescending nature of some of the members of SAVN, but I also cringe away when members of the AVN discuss “big pharma” and seem to misrepresent information (when you are calling for more testing and checks, how can you then continue to value a man who seems to have not followed proper protocol to get a preconceived result??)
    Both sides have a lot to answer for, they have transformed into needing to be “right” rather than wanting to do the best for the community.
    I would be interested to understand the time line of how the whole thing developed (I actually believe that originally The AVN was created to present ALL vaccination information, but lost it’s way, but maybe that is me wanting to believe the best of people)
    I agree that freedom of speech and being able to express your own view is important, however purposely and knowingly continuing to present misinformation is not good, and that is where we get into this battle of two sides. SAVN believe that the founders of the AVN are not presenting their personal views, but now intentionally presenting misinformation – and in reaction to the prescriptive nature of the SAVN, the AVN have stopped presenting a balanced discussion and allowed more and more conspiracy type discussion.
    If a reader can be bothered to sift through all the excess ridiculousness (from both sides) then you can get interesting articles and information.

  5. [ED: Unfortunately this person’s comment is deleted as some is not publishable]

  6. I am LOLing at all the comment censoring on an article complaining about censorship.

    Martin’s articles don’t attract discussion on the SAVN Facebook page simply because he’s not worth discussing. He’s irrelevant.

    Martin is an undeclared member of the AVSN and acts as their academic PR agent. He writes positive stories about them under his university title, providing them with a tantalising hint of the thing all crackpots crave: mainstream respectability.

    In return, the AVSN distributes his writing to their credulous membership and give Martin something he can’t get anywhere else: readers.

    It’s a happy little partnership that’s completely ignored by the rest of Australia. The efforts of SAVN are paying off: antivax groups like the AVSN and their mascot Martin are now being recognised as such by the media and public alike. Their claims are being questioned, challenged and seen clearly as not only lacking any scientific evidence, but are outright falsehoods. As a result, lives are being saved that would otherwise be lost to vaccine-preventable diseases.

    [ED: Thanks “Sydney Yuppie” for your contribution. We too smiled at having the opportunity to delete the usual comment from the usual obsessive compulsive troll. Sweet irony.

    And also thanks again for a comment pointing out that what Professor Brian Martin writes is not worth commenting on. Again, sweet irony. He who LOLs last LOLs loudest peut-être?

    And thanks also for a comment which makes the point about people like you. Sweet irony again. You come here to post one of the types of comment that the article is about and from one of the types of people it is about. In fact we are surprised you can spell “science” let alone understand what it means.

    Either “Sydney Yuppie” has entertaining parents with a sense of humor or that name is a sock puppet.]

  7. No one responded to his latest diatribe because no one read it. He has become irrelevant.

    What is interesting is he doesn’t post about the death threats, the abuse, and pornography, the letters to employers, that members of the AVN have sent to medical professionals and scientists who dare question the antics of the AVN.

    It seems every story has two sides, except the story of the AVN as told by members of the AVN (of which failed theoretical physicist brain martin is one)

    [ED: Felicity we perhaps should point out to readers that you have produced no evidence to support your allegations of the “death threats, the abuse, and pornography, the letters to employers, that members of the AVN have sent to medical professionals and scientists“. It looks a little like being defamatory to make such allegations so we perhaps should point out to readers there is no such evidence and that perhaps the claims lack veracity?]

  8. [ED: This comment deleted.

    Trolling and internet stalking by a clearly compulsive obsessive member of a forum whose members block discussion but some of whose members for sport in their spare time disrupt other fora on the internet and attack, bully, abuse and harass ordinary people and parents of very sick children wanting to share information. These kinds of groups are organised for just such a purpose on the internet. To quote Dr Ben Goldacre himself commenting on his own BadScience Forum: “The time for talking has passed. I draw the line at kidnapping, incidentally.“. This is on a site owned and operated by Dr Ben Goldacre as a high profile opinion former in the mainstream medical professions].

  9. [ED: This comment deleted.

    Trolling and internet stalking by a clearly compulsive obsessive member of a forum whose members block discussion but some of whose members for sport in their spare time disrupt other fora on the internet and attack, bully, abuse and harass ordinary people and parents of very sick children wanting to share information. These kinds of groups are organised for just such a purpose on the internet. To quote Dr Ben Goldacre himself commenting on his own BadScience Forum: “The time for talking has passed. I draw the line at kidnapping, incidentally.“. This is on a site owned and operated by Dr Ben Goldacre as a high profile opinion former in the mainstream medical professions].

  10. Sydney Yuppie is very amusing. They claim Brian Martin is not worth discussing and irrelevant, yet here they are busy discussing him.
    Also they seem to think Professor Martin needs the AVSN to get ‘readers’. Maybe they didn’t bother to visit his website and read his extensive list of publications.http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/supp.html.

    [ED: For making us laugh you get the CHS Star of The Day Award.]

  11. Kim, who is this “man who seems to have not followed proper protocol to get a preconceived result” that you talk about?

  12. The bigger issue is moral, vaccines kill people with adverse reactions. We are saying it is ok to kill dozens of children yearly for the greater good of reducing the spread of infectious disease; this is not a sound argument.

  13. Reblogged this on dianedraytonbuckland and commented:
    As the mother of an only child vaccine injured 26 years ago I am horrified that our rights, our freedom of choice, our health rights freedom, our rights to informed consent to ‘any treatment’ are under sustained attack. The conflicts of interests/corruption in these big industries is sickening and a threat to us all.

    I will include this one section below also:-

    STOP FLUORIDE DISEASES BY ROBERT C. OLNEY, M.D. REMOVE FLUORIDES FROM FOOD, WATER, AIR AND DRUGS Extract: Fluorine is known as a powerful enzyme inhibitor and a poison, thus gradually destroying enzymatic function. This is the same process by which all vital organs are slowly and seriously damaged. The more vital the organ, the more serious the damage. Fluorine is such a powerful, destructive force that it takes only a minute amount to do great damage. This damage is then permanent to the person, and becomes gradually worse due to the accumulation of fluorine in the enzymes. Fluorine appears to be the cause of many mental and physical defects in the newborn.
    From the “Archives of Environmental Health” (published by A.M.A.), February 1961, there is an interesting article compiled from authorities all over the world showing the amount of fluorides in diseased tissues. This shows that in some diseased tissues, such as aorta, tumor, cataract, etc., there are fluorides from 39 to 158 PPM compared with adjoining tissues having from 0.0 to 6.9 PPM. This is evidence that fluorine is an important factor in the cause of these diseases.
    Doctors Alfred and Nell Taylor, working in the University of Texas and reporting on the effect of fluorine as a cause of cancer, made the following statement: “The terrifying conclusion of the studies was that fluorine greatly induced cancer tumor growth. If doctors and the public can be made aware of this catastrophe, fluoridation shall quickly end. It will some day be recognized as the most lethal and stupid ‘Health Program’ ever conceived by the mind of man, with doctors and bloodletters not excepted.”
    Full document: http://www.rethinkingcancer.org/resources/magazine-articles/12_11-12/stop-fluoride-diseases.php

  14. When many of us post information about vaccination and /or fluoridation, the abuse, ridicule, insults, name calling, and in some cases violent threats come from the pros – it is appalling and a scourge in what is supposed to be ‘a democratic country’ – as our freedoms and rights to choose and health rights freedoms are bastardised by these pro extremists.

    As the mother of an only child who nearly died from violent reactions to the toxic/neurotoxic chemical cocktails in vaccinations – whose life has been consumed with severe behavioural disorders ‘with many labels’, illness, allergies, chemical sensitivities, this made me ‘wise up’ and question everything.

    I would like to remind everyone of INFORMED CONSENT TO TREATMENT and the rights of each and every individual to such Informed Consent and Health Rights Freedom. The Right of Refusal of any treatments.

    So many people (like we did many years ago sadly for us and our only child) failed to performed independent and unbiased research – we listened, trusted and believed everything doctors told us.

    The Conflicts of Interests alone are abhorrent…………. do your research on the ‘ingredients’ from unbiased/independent websites (free of vaccine industries influence and control) and you will surely be shocked to think that this is being injected into our babies, children (and adults………….pets….)

    I saw the pictures and the horrific threats that was sent to the AVN by these extremist SAVN people – how they are not in jail for these most disturbing threats and images of horrific scenes sent to the AVN is in itself a disgrace and shows there is no justice.
    Never must the Australian people allow any more of our freedoms of choice to be bastardised or we have lost everything.

    People are becoming more aware and doing independent research, hence we have the Government and their interests forcing ‘vaccinations’ – God help us all when our Rights have been trampled to this extent.

    We cannot blindly trust ‘mainstream medicine’ as we cannot blindly trust and follow anything – research, and research again and maintain our freedom of choice and health rights’ freedoms.

    Also doctors missed a shocking sore on my husband’s husband which ended up being cancerous, ending with extensive plastic surgeries and months of recovery and rehabilitation and having to get his hand/arm working again – months of no earning also – waiting game to see if he can work properly again.

    I have limited time so will include this little section I wrote previously..

    Many allege that the Centers for Disease Creation has about as much ethics and credibility as an Armed Robber seeking employment in a Bank ………..

    With regard to the CDC, Water fluoridation/pollution with hazardous waste is not safe and not effective – CDC I’m going to say that you have long ago lost respect, credibility, morality, professionalism and ethics particularly for allowing the Fluoridation Fraud/Web of Deception to continue and you must urgently call an immediate and irrevocable ban on all water fluoridation pollution and close those revolving doors from industries to Government………….

    People allegedly are absolutely disgusted and sick of those revolving doors between industries and government and the political donation$ from those with ‘agendas to secure’ – take this one example, ‘CDC “recommendations” like these are worth their weight in gold to Big Pharma companies like Merck, and one of the persons making those recommendations was Julie Gerberding, CDC Director from 2002 to 2009. Gerberding resigned her government post and – after a mandatory delay of a year and a day – became President of Merck’s Vaccine Division in January 2010. Before going through the BigPharma/CDC revolving door, however, her “Report to Congress ‘Prevention of Genital Human Papillomavirus [HPV] Infection’ paved the way for eventual approval of Merck’s Gardasil vaccine, guaranteeing billions in profits for her future employer. Perhaps the vaccine presidency is Julie’s reward for cementing the relationship between government and Merck via the CDC, the agency that behaves as the de facto marketing arm of the vaccine industry. Another gift to Merck under Gerberding’s management has been the CDC’s continual denial that there is any link between the mercury-based preservative, thimerosal, and autism on the small scale; and vaccinations and autism on the large scale. Recent CDC reports place the incidence of autism at 1 in 110 children, four times higher than previous estimates. A major key to the viability of future vaccines in the pipeline is the tacit denial of any link of autism to the heavy metal, or vaccines in general, now or in the future.”
http://ironboltbruce.com/2011/11/04/cdc-director-gerberding-gives-green-light-to-gardasil-then-goes-to-work-for-merck-g1a2d0049c1/ ‘

    Some information on vaccine ingredients: http://www.vaccination.inoz.com/ingredie.html

    http://www.vaccinationdecisions.net/lobby-groups.php

    ~~
    http://fluorideinformationaustralia.wordpress.com/fia-report-archives/

  15. So here we have a great example of both sides of an argument becoming distracted from the original article and commencing arguments based upon the perceived tone of the preceding commentator. In this short dialogue, both sides have resorted to name calling, character questioning, distraction and evading answers.

    The original author may well be correct in his two generalisations of how organisations seek to quieten their rivals. What is evident in the subsequent commentary, and what the “ED” has perhaps failed to recognise is that both sides seem equally adept at using these techniques.

    [ED: When in foreign territory one must learn the local language, and in this case of those whose scientific education is Googlewik University and the blogs and fora of Drs David Gorski and Ben Goldacre.

    That being said, it is really not clear what the evidence is for your observation.]

  16. Hmm, intriguing analysis of the SAVN tactics….. Maybe a reluctant acknowledgement from them that there are indeed well-written and convincing articles and info out there!!

  17. The problem is the AVN tells out right lies. Not just bad science, or an different interpretation of the studies, but outright lies. These lies endanger children.

    Prof martin supervises Judy Wilyman who also publishes the worst sort of distortions and myths about vaccinarion.

    It is interesting that prof martin says dissent and questioning is OK, except when it his own issues and ideals being questioned. For some reason no I e is allowed to blow the whistle on the whistle blower.

    Why is that?

    [ED: Felicity we perhaps should point out to readers that you have produced no evidence to support your allegations of the “outright lies” that “endanger children” nor of “worst sort of distortions and myths about vaccinarion”. It looks a little like being defamatory to make such allegations so we perhaps should point out to readers there is no such evidence and that perhaps the claims lack veracity?]

  18. […] Professor Brian Martin discusses a new ‘skeptic’ tactic […]

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