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Deliberate Vaccine Misinformation

Over on my Twitter feed, which veers off-topic a bit more often than this blog, I had a series of tweets the other day about troll/bot accounts. And as fate would have it, that very subject now intersects more closely with a focus on biomedical news. This new paper in the American Journal of Public Health details an interesting (and dismaying) look at Twitter activity around the question of vaccinations. As it turns out, a good deal of it seems to be coming from automated or semiautomated accounts. Since I’ve seen a lot of agitated questions about this (on Twitter and elsewhere), let’s switch to a Q&A format:

Who’s doing this? Are you automatically saying that it’s some Russian plot? No, not automatically. But the accounts that were tweeting out vaccine-related propaganda had already been linked to Russian disinformation efforts in the 2016 elections. Turns out that they had a sideline in posting about this as well.

Are you saying that all the anti-vaccine posts are Twitter are from Russian bots? Not at all. There are plenty of real people who are worried about vaccines. But it appears that a significant amount of the talk about vaccines on the Twitter platform was at least partially driven by such troll accounts (some of which were probably “bots”, that is, totally automated, some of which had humans at the keyboards, and some of which switched between those two modes). As one of the authors of the study put it, by looking at Twitter you’d get the impression that there’s a lot more debate and uncertainty about this issue than there really is.

Why would Russian propaganda accounts be anti-vaccination, then? Well, not all of them were. And that’s the key point: some of these accounts tweeted out anti-vaccine lines, while others tweeted aggressively pro-vaccination ones (stuff like “You can’t fix stupidity. Let them die from measles“) These messages were deliberately sent into the discussions where they would cause the most argument and sow the most doubt and confusion. It’s not that the Russian troll factories were pro-vax or anti-vax: they were pro-discord.

This sort of thing should not surprise anyone who knows about the history of propaganda techniques. It’s just that social media platforms like Twitter allow these strategies to be run far more efficiently and quickly. There were, for example, rumors during the 1980s that HIV was some sort of nefarious biowarfare agent that had escaped from a US facility. And these were amplified by the (then) KGB, just because it was good policy to make their adversary look bad and to spread fear and uncertainty. (And yes, before anyone hops into the comments with the observation that the US has done things like this  as well, we certainly have. But the Russian government are acknowledged as masters in the field).

My tweets earlier this week were about the explicitly political bots and trolls, not these biomedical messages. But the intentions and the approaches are the same. First off, you want to make it look like the authorities are lying to you, keeping the real truth hidden. It doesn’t help that many authorities over the years, political, medical, and otherwise, have tried to do just that about various issues, but neither is it helpful to assume that every single thing you hear from anyone with any expertise is automatically a deception. Second, you want to just spread doubt and confusion about everything, to the point that it wears everyone out, and people are willing to just throw their hands up in the air and believe whatever, or not believe anything much at all. In my political arguments on Twitter, I’ve encountered people – well, probably people – who will say “Well, one source says this, and another says that, and it all depends on where you look, so who can ever know for sure?” But they say this about things like, say, what the 2017 GDP growth rate was, or what the electoral vote count came out to in 2016. Which is insane.

I say that because, as a scientist, I believe that there are facts in this world, and that these facts can be known, and that we can use them as foundations to learn even more facts. We may revise former views as we do so, but that is in the process of getting us an even more complete and more accurate picture of the world. The “Everything You Know Is Wrong; Here Are The Real Secrets” crowd is pretty annoying, but even worse are the nihilist “Nobody Really Knows Anything” folks. Because we do know things. I have devoted a substantial part of my life to knowing things, revising all the time as new information comes in. One of those things I know, by the way, is that vaccines do vastly more good than harm. For example, the MMR vaccine does not, in fact, cause autism, but that skipping it does, in fact, lead to an increase in the number of sick and dead children.

So you can imagine the utter contempt that I hold for people who deliberately and cynically pollute the stream of human knowledge in the way the article above describes. Deliberately amplifying ignorance, confusion, and conflict is a grave sin if there is such any such thing as a grave sin, and doing it by (along the way) encouraging people to put their own children at risk of disease and even death is inhuman. Honi soit qui mal y pense: let evil come to those who think such evil.

88 comments on “Deliberate Vaccine Misinformation”

  1. Ch says:

    Derek, I’ve been reading your blog for a while and I gotta say you should consider refraining from political posts if you want to preserve your image of a critically thinking man. This post is quite reasonable but in general your political opinions harm your image quite a bit.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      I don’t do many of them. But if they really do harm my image, well, so be it.

      1. William Gerber says:

        They don’t harm your image. Not one bit.

      2. Not a bot says:

        Good answer. I don’t always agree with you, but yours is the kind of discourse we need. Keep it up.

        1. Emjeff says:

          Ch might be a Russian bot.

          1. Derek Lowe says:

            No, I think he/she is a legit commenter here. But I think that for whatever reason Ch has a much rosier view of the actions of the Russian government than I do. As long as we’re not on that topic, I would assume that we could have a perfectly reasonable conversation. But unfortunately, that topic has come up.

      3. loupgarous says:

        Nope. Your reputation as a critical thinker is solid, Derek. We’re all entitled to political opinions, and we’re all entitled to express them. I speak as someone whose political opinions don’t always agree with yours or anyone else’s here in the comment space.

        This article’s certainly fair comment on Russian bots and deliberate vaccination misinformation. However, unless someone’s hacked actress Alyssa Milano’s Twitter account and those of quite a few other celebrities,. a lot of the misinformation about vaccination on Twitter is pure domestic American horse hockey. There are a few of us on Twitter who fight the good fight against that.

        1. Derek Lowe says:

          Thanks! And you’re right about the bulk of anti-vax people out there. I suppose that’s one of the things that makes me even more furious – the “regular” anti-vaccination crowd is (I firmly believe) wrong, but they’re expressing their truly held beliefs, no matter that I feel that they are uninformed and/or misguided. This stuff, though, is just unforgivably cynical and callous. “Hey, don’t vaccinate your kids” – giggle, snort, where’s the check.

          1. Hap says:

            I don’t know how much the cynicism matters though – at some point, if you keep repeating stuff that’s not true because you believe it and haven’t bothered to check it, then your motivations don’t matter. If you won’t test your beliefs but trumpet them loudly no matter what, then at some point you know that your beliefs won’t pass a test and yet you still advocate them. You have chosen to dispense lies as truth for the harm of yourself and others. We know that we are easy to fool, and if we don’t try to make sure that we aren’t fooling ourselves, we are not taking sufficient care with our lives or those of others.

            This seems to revolve around our willingness to be fooled if we get what we want to feel. You can’t cure self-delusion if it’s what someone wants. The problem with bots is that it’s easy to make it hard to check your own delusions, and then reason goes nodding off, and then we know where that ends up.

          2. Tran Script says:

            I kind of feel the other way around about anti-vaxxers and Russian trolls. Few things gall me more than the absolute confidence and utter blindness with which these people present their misguided opinions as facts, and for what purpose? For furthering a narrative? For virtue signalling?
            At least the trolls probably recognize there’s something called truth, they just abuse the fact that a large part of the modern crowds have stopped caring about it, but there’s still some sort of rationale, or agenda to latch on to. There’s still a hint of /intellect/, as opposed to people who harbor these opinions because, well, it’s trendy.

        2. Emjeff says:

          And the Russians (I think it was the Russians) have a word for those people: “useful idiots”. Get a bunch of people with no education, but who are famous for how they look to spread your poison. It seems to work pretty well.

          1. Barry says:

            the phrase usually translated as “useful idiots” is Lenin’s

      4. Zombie says:

        Well, you should be okay as long as you don’t tell them you voted for Trump.

      5. Rumblestiltskin says:

        I’ve been reading this blog for 8 years. It always leaves me with a more kneaded opinion, regardless the topic, and especially when I don’t agree.
        Thank you, Derek, for doing things your way.

        1. An Old Chemist says:

          I have been reading Derek’s this blog now for about 15 years. And I read it mainly (only) because it educates me about med chem/chemistry/pharmaceutical industry stuff, which I would otherwise have missed. As much as I like Derek’s write up, I equally like reader’s input. Long live Derek and his readers!

      6. Komm says:

        Your image is still sterling, and just continues to prove you are an incredibly sharp critical thinker. I would like to ask if you’ve seen the greatest twitter bot of all time though, @JupiterMoonPos?

      7. MolInf says:

        Already did. I put you into the classical bucket of American exeptionalists, a form of crazy good Yankee schauvinists.

      8. Great Line:!

        “Deliberately amplifying ignorance, confusion, and conflict is a grave sin if there is such any such thing as a grave sin, and doing it by (along the way) encouraging people to put their own children at risk of disease and even death is inhuman.”

        Honi soit qui mal y pense: let evil come to those who think such evil.

    2. Katherine says:

      You say you’ve been reading Derek for a long time. Well, I’ve been here since Lagniappe, and I disagree that he needs any of us telling him how to run his blog. If his main concern were his “image of a critically thinking man” his writing would be a lot less interesting. His main concern seems to be actual critical thinking, which is an entirely different endeavor.

      1. Hap says:

        I think the appropriate phrase is “I’ll take that under advisement, cowboy”.

        If someone expressing their political opinions is bothersome, you don’t have to read them. There’s not enough time to spend doing stuff that annoys you unless you have to.

        If their opinions make you think less of them, that’s kind of the price of the ticket. Everything I do runs the risk of making people think less of me (sometimes because they should, sometimes not). The internet expands my reach (giving me the opportunity of being stupid to a larger audience) but not being on it doesn’t protect me from people’s judgment. You try not to be obviously stupid (don’t post while drinking, on drugs such as Ambien, or when really angry or in a political derangement syndrome, for example), but everything you do helps make who you are, and helps people to see what you are. At some point, you trust in reasonable people’s judgment and hope that you are as good as you can be. The best you can hope for is that the image people have of you is accurate.

      2. Ch says:

        Check the post and the discussion from March 8th on poisoning in England.

        I believe that thinking that Russia had anything to do with this (especially before the World Cup) is utterly unreasonable to say the least. It’s great to believe that there are good “Us” and bad “them”, but the world is a lot more complex. I am really angry about all this anti-Russian propaganda campaign, especially because people deem someone guilty without any transparent investigations, without any court decisions. They essentially proclaim themselves as judges, yet they have neither full information about the case, not any moral right to judge.

        1. Hap says:

          That the world is complicated does not mean that everything in it is complicated. When you use a weapon that only you have known access to to kill someone after threatening their life publicly, assuming that you likely did it or ordered it done is not a bad supposition. This also comes after killing someone with another weapon of a similar sort that can also be located in your control, and after a variety of tampering in elections that mysteriously seemed to come there. You make your bed, you lie in it.

        2. Chris says:

          At least you’ve displayed that axe you have to grind in an obvious fashion.

        3. loupgarous says:

          The one thing most of us agree on is that the law of parsimony (Occam’s Razor) guides us to favor the explanation for a thing that requires the fewest facts not in evidence.

          Putin threatened the Skripals’ lives. So did his captive news media in Russia. Porton Down, which along with Fort Detrick, is the repository of most of the world’s expertise on Soviet/Russian nerve agents, identified the agent found on the Skripals and a few native Britons as a Novichok-type agent.

          While the synthesis and chemical formulae of the Novichoks supposedly are out there in Miryazanov’s book and other public domain resources, the idea of a “false flag” event by the UK or anyone else is among the more laughable premises uttered in the English language. The available evidence all points to Russia, and Derek was right to say what he did on that subject.

          1. jason says:

            The US Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense 9US SMEs for chemical warfare agents) is located on Aberdeen Proving Grounds, not Fort Detrick. USAMRIID is located on Detrick; their specialty is biological weapons.

          2. Istvan Ujvary says:

            As I have written in connection with the Skripal-case in some twitter messages and elsewhere months ago invoking “the law of parsimony (Occam’s Razor)” in the world of espionage (and warfare) is probably not the best strategy.

          3. me says:

            Occam’s razor is only effective if one has a comprehensive understanding of the context in which it is being applied. Otherwise one fails to understand that things that appear simple or obvious are neither.

            I have no idea who perpetrated Salisbury. I suspect people with access to classified information have a good idea. I doubt those people are talking to the press (who, btw, couldn’t find their ass with both hands on this incident).

          4. loupgarous says:

            @Jason, U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command is domiciled at Ft. Detrick.
            It is the US Army command directly concerned with nerve agent research, and under whose aegis any US Army-sponsored research on nerve agents is published. Development and testing of nerve and other military chemical agents is conducted at Aberdeen, as well as at Dugway Proving Grounds, but the sum of US Army knowledge of such agents is institutionally located at Ft. Detrick (just as Porton Down maintains the records of work done at Gruinard Island and its other field facilities).

          5. loupgarous says:

            The US Army Medical Research Institute for Chemical Defense is located at Aberdeen Proving Ground, so you’re also right, almost all the characterization work on nerve agents is conducted at Aberdeen.

          6. jason says:

            LOL, yes, I’m intimately aware of the location and relationship between MRMC and USAMRICD.

            And yes: characterization of toxicities and medical countermeasures for nerve agents is based out of USAMRICD.

        4. ColinTD says:

          Living just down the road for Salisbury, and regularly going to both the Maltings (where the Skripal’s were found) and the watermeadows park (where the perfume bottle was picked up), I have a direct interest in the question of who brought nevre agent into my nearest city.

          Obviously you can’t be certain in cases like this, but given the history of nice Mr Putin’s enemies dying unexpectedly, the literal trail of radioactivity after the similarly public execution of Alexander Litvinenko, and the CCTV purporting to show the Russians who did the poisoning, I think I’m on fairly safe ground believing that the Russian state is behind the current round of deaths.

          Having said that, I can’t prove it.

          On the other hand, fairly simply application of statistical analysis fails to show any plausible link between vaccination and autism. Similarly we haven’t seen a huge surge in brain cancers, which you’d expect if mobile phones were a causal factor.

          When I talk to my kid about why they can’t got to Salisbury park I given them my view on the reason, and who most likely did it, but with a range of caveats. When they ask why we had them vaccinated, I given them the clear evidence, and say that not vaccinating them would have been very similar to driving them round without their seatbelts…

          1. NoniMausa says:

            Referring to the press not being able to find their ass with both hands — as a retired small time reporter, I just have to sigh. You guys are scientists, or at least interested in sciencey things. Put yourself in a reporters shoes.

            Rather than interrogating chemicals or alloys or even wildlife all day, you get to ask questions of people who don’t want you to find things out, read accounting documents day after day trying to find one little discrepancy, and accurately quote people who then declare you’re lying.

            The rightwing voters seem to think that all reporters lie, but then you have to ask, if those reporters go away, then exactly how will voters and taxpayers find out when their representatives start indulging in graft, election rigging, and a host of bad practices?

            Do they think some magic information fairy will sprinkle the populace with accurate data? Yeah, good luck with that.

        5. HowMuchPropagandaDoYouConsume says:

          Suggesting that the Pope, a homeless guy living in San Francisco, or a villager in rural Vietnam were responsible would all be utterly unreasonable. Suggesting a group with a motive, a track record, and the means to do it would be something less than utterly unreasonable, and more towards the probable.

    3. Semichemist says:

      Strongly disagree, and I’ve been a fervent reader for years now. This is a blog about science – by its nature it should be pro-science. This is less of a political post and more of an anti-ignorance post that includes politics.

      Keep crushing, Derek

    4. Aaron C. says:

      I also completely disagree with “Ch.”

      Derek is the voice of one of the most critically thinking public commentators we have. In fact, I believe his rare critiques of policy or politics or propaganda prove that he is capable of fair and honest thought and discussion. I would hope that the scientific community has the courage and wherewithal to push back when social or political interference aims to undermine it. It’s astonishing that “Ch” is taking a pro-propaganda stance here.

    5. Jim Hartley says:

      Pretty obvious that Ch is not of this blog. There are people out there who are paid to monitor discussions of vaccines and throw bombs.

    6. Wavefunction says:

      No they don’t. Derek is as level-headed about his political opinions as he is about his scientific opinions; we also happen to live in interesting times where it’s pretty hard to steer completely clear of politics. You are always free to open a new tab if you don’t want to read his political posts, far and few in between as they are.

    7. Mister B. says:

      Just a copy of what I said on Twitter.

      As a human being, with a right to free speech and having a well-educated mind, Derek’s “political” posts are well-argumented.
      One may disagree with him but none of these posts damage his image. His passion and spirit when it comes to Science and common sens, are key element to get to the point ! But, it may disturb people who are not willing to debate…

      Thanks for blogging ! Keep up this excellent job !!!

    8. Nick K says:

      You are Dr Andrew Wakefield and I claim my 5 pounds!

    9. zero says:

      Critical thinkers can and should have political opinions. Matters of life and death are too often swept under the rug of “political opinion, keep it out of my civil discourse TYVM”.

      This post is clearly not a political opinion. No lines were crossed, no party or individual was endorsed. All I saw here was an attempt to inform people about an insidious effort to sow confusion and dissent around a subject that already sparks debate and has the potential to cause many deaths.

    10. Skeptic says:

      Ch, you could not be more wrong. This post only serves to solidify Derek’s reputation as an honest, conscientious person and scientist.

      Do you think saying some things that some would consider uncomplimentary about the Russian government, but which are wholly consistent with their history and stated doctrine, is controversial? If so, why?

      Or is it his stance of philosophical realism?

    11. Random Person says:

      I’m a bit late to this, but it kept coming back to my mind, and I wanted to post something for closure.

      Ch: The statements “facts exist” and “deliberate disinformation is evil” aren’t political positions, that is blatant mischaracterization (the negations of them are false and amoral, respectively). Your comment is trying to exert pressure on someone who fights for truth to get less involved in whatever can be labeled as politics, which would make politics even more broken. In short, you are advancing extremely similar goals to those that this post highlights as evil (but I bet you already knew that).

      Derek: Posts like this one would be a benefit to any online community, period. As for your reply to Ch, I am sure you have your reasons for responding as if he was arguing in good faith, but even this single comment of his makes it hard to justify “benefit of the doubt”. I’m not convinced, given what we now know about state-sponsored troll farms, that it wouldn’t be better to follow the “if it looks like a duck…” rule.

    12. Aly says:

      I would agree this post hurts Derek in my mind, because it questions his ability to think critically about the situation instead of jumping to conspiracy-theory-esque levels. Why would he choose a hypothesis of “desire for discord by KGB” rather than “there’s a company that hires out bots centered in Russia and people with these opinions pay for use of these.”

      1. loupgarous says:

        Because the preponderance of the facts favors any organization disseminating disinformation from a police state like Russia being, in fact, authorized at some level to do that.

        If Russian government were truly “shocked, shocked, I tell you!” that disinformation campaigns were emanating from Russian soil (and harming its relations with the United States Congress, which is exactly what is happening), they would act as energetically as they would at a Pussy Riot video shoot.

  2. MALLAM says:

    I disagree with Ch. The vaccine deniers along augmentation by foreign interventionists along with science deniers are increasingly becoming national threats and need to countered through all channels possible.

  3. Peter Ellis says:

    I’m not certain the goal is simply to sow discord – it could be at least as much about building trust and gaining access to particular echo chambers.

    “This person agrees with me about vaccines, therefore I trust their political judgement when they say Senator X is a big meanie and I shouldn’t vote for them”

  4. The fermented one says:

    I just want to chime in that I’ve been reading this blog for just about as long as it’s been around, as far as I can tell. I found it as I was looking for a replacement for Dylan Stiles Tenderbutton blog after he shut it down, and I’m not going anywhere. Keep on keeping on Derek!

  5. John Wayne says:

    I’ve been trying to sort out some definitions for myself when it comes to how people communicate with each other, and converge on agreement. Take a look at the following and comment if you will:

    Discussion: two or more people discussing a topic with the goal of coming to a compromise on a best course of action.

    Politics: a discussion that includes the use of tactics that are designed to obtain the desired result. These tactics are of mixed ethics, and do not always drive the discussion towards compromise. This form of discussion includes all forms of consumer marketing.

    Partisan: an expression of politics that is polarized towards the view that one political party (US or elsewhere) is to be supported.

    I started building this model when I noticed the many occasions wherein I was trying to have a discussion with folks, but there were pursuing the conversation with alternate goals and alternate means. I think of it sorta like an escalation syndrome. I like to stay at the base level, and I think Derek does as well. This post isn’t political at all, but some of the comments are.

    1. tangent says:

      This form of discussion includes all forms of consumer marketing.

      To file that under “politics” is clever and perhaps insightful but perhaps a roundabout step towards convergence of agreement?

      You’re not wrong that they’re the same. I’d say “sales” though.

  6. pv=nrt says:

    Ch might not be a Russian troll, they could be an educated citizen or ex pat who has been taken in by official propaganda. As a post doc, I worked with two PhD russian ex pats who really thought that the US stole Alaska from Russia. Putin is popular even among educated Russians, and they would not like to believe that Russia is operating troll factories or poisoning ex spies.

  7. Jake says:

    The actual paper is behind a paywall and I didn’t see it in the abstract so the obvious questions I have are how many bots there were, how many tweets they made, and how many people saw the tweets.

  8. me says:

    Disclaimer: I realize the irony of posting this comment anonymously.

    I think we need to start reevaluating privacy in the digital era. There is value in being able to engage in civic discussions without the fear of persecution or harassment. When the extent of anonymous discussion was posting a physical letter on a physical bulletin board there was very little downside.

    Modern tribalism will only get worse (and probably accelerate) the longer this goes on.

    I don’t think most people will be willing to give up their online anonymity (and any extremist groups will obviously hold onto their tool dearly). Instead, I think there needs to be a technological solution. There has to be a way to verify that everyone in a discussion is a real person. Better yet would be if you could verify the person’s (very) rough location. These things have to be known while the exact identity should be able to remain anonymous.

    I don’t think this verification can be done by any central institution (government or private like Twitter). If it’s centralized there will inevitably be people who distrust the whole system and there will be risks of corruption. It should be decentralized in some way, maybe using some sort of blockchain technology.

    This all sounds a bit Orwellian as I type it, but I think the future is very grim if public discussion carries on with current trends.

    -A genuine human US citizen on the east coast of the US

    1. Hap says:

      We believe in anonymity in voting, though, and have good reasons to do so. A way to verify someone’s identity (or at least narrow it down) seems like a tool that would rather quickly be abused by governments – while troll armies are a new phenomenon, people in power abusing it is not.

      It also seems like the problem is our willingness to believe what we want to and our desire to force others to believe it, too. You can’t make people not be stupid (especially if it’s in their interest to be so) without making them not be. If you don’t want to be stupid, then having some checks on your beliefs might help. Encouraging stupidity as a way to get what you want also seems like a bad idea, and people can change that if they want.

      1. me says:

        Yes, whatever method is used for verification it cannot be centralized.

        I think people are still underestimating the effect these disinformation campaigns will have. There are literally millions of young people (mostly angry young men) being irreversibly swept up in conspiratorial thinking promoted by a few thousand unverifiable anonymous accounts.

        1. tangent says:

          The disturbing thing is, it’s not apparent that public discourse is better with more identification. Facebook is more Real Names (I know not 100% by any means) and doesn’t seem improved by it. People are happy to say the damnedest things under their own perfectly public personae.

          But it’s possible that synthetic identities are a vector for getting all that stuff in to the general population of great-uncles. Maybe clarifying those identities would help. But at some point enough people have to give a shit or we’re all screwed.

  9. luysii says:

    The Russians have an extensive experience with lack of vaccination — from Science vol. 267 pp. 1416 – 1417 (1995). Apparently, the population, afraid of infection with contaminated needles (a real and rational fear at the time) has avoided immunization of all sorts. The result — 80,000 cases of Diphtheria and 2,000 deaths.

    [ Arch. Neurol. vol. 58 p. 1438 – 1442 (2001) ]. The epidemic had 125,000 cases with 4,000 deaths, of which 97,000/2,500 were in Russia proper. Neurologists are interested in Diphtheria because a neuropathy is sometimes associated with it (15% in the Latvian epidemic of ’94 – ’96).

  10. Chris Phoenix says:

    Yes, there is truth. But unless you have a truthful infrastructure of information, the truth is not accessible.

    Ever since Stuxnet, Derek does not know for certain how fast his lab centrifuge is going.

    Ever since the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, the bin Laden vaccine scam, etc., both Americans and non-Americans cannot trust that the US government is providing the health care it says it is.

    Misinformation can be careless, also: My wife brought home a textbook from her high school which stated that neutral pH is 6. She teaches AP math, but she didn’t seem to realize how horrifying this was; I’m sure it will go uncorrected in 99% of those books, perhaps even for multiple editions.

    And experts can also be wrong in public pronouncements in their own field – Richard Smalley, Nobel prize winning chemist, publicly claimed (during the Drexler/Smalley debate) that enzymes need water to function, when in fact some enzymes are used without water industrially.

    It’s said that the famous New York Times story about Kitty Genovese was largely fabricated – the assault took place out of sight, and several people did call the police. Is this true, or revisionist? How would I know? And when I tried to determine whether Governor Reagan actually said, “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement” about American protesters, the answer came up: probably, but not definitely.

    So, yes, objective truth exists, and is worth seeking… but the maintenance of the ability to find objective truth depends on a large infrastructure of people and institutions which support it. It only takes a few deliberately deceptive people to make it literally impossible for non-experts to know for sure. Honi soit qui mal y pense, indeed.

    1. AVS-600 says:

      Unless Derek’s lab centrifuges work significantly differently from normal ones, they don’t have connections to the internet or ports for flash drives, and would be difficult to target with a computer virus.

      Also, the US government by and large doesn’t directly provide health care to its citizens so… hooray?

      1. sgcox says:

        Last year we updated our centrifuges park and yes, they do…

      2. stux says:

        “Unless Derek’s lab centrifuges work significantly differently from normal ones, they don’t have connections to the internet or ports for flash drives, and would be difficult to target with a computer virus.”

        Someone doesn’t know their stuxnet:

        1. AVS-600 says:

          stux: Read my whole comment; “or ports for flash drives”. ; )

          sgcox: It looks like I stand corrected on that count. We don’t have those in any lab I’ve been in, but I guess they do exist for some reason! I think it’s still pretty unlikely that a foreign government is going to try to sabotage the centrifuges in a medicinal chemistry department though…

          1. sgcox says:

            Very handy for accounting in a centralized departmental facility. More importantly, makes people be very careful to clean up after themselves…
            Otherwise, same machines.

    2. Nate says:

      So where do you fit, are you the deliberately deceptive or unintentionally? Because that’s some top-notch uninformed yet authoritative-sounding lies you’re slinging.

  11. t says:

    For those interested in analyzing the Russian bot network used during the election, check this out there’s a link to the data itself to do your own analysis. Wonder how much intersects with this latest attack on vaccines.

  12. Rich Rostrom says:

    Derek: thank you for raising this issue. It’s an interesting tactic. I don’t know that Russians are particularly expert in this area (disruptive infiltration). I do know that the USSR worked on it extensively, and that it was part of the KGB’s toolkit. Putin and most of his cronies are ex-KGB; so their regime would have inherited this capacity.

    The idea of issuing uncivil, provocative statements on both sides of a discussion is clever and very dangerous.

  13. d says:

    I often disagree with, and am quite annoyed by, Derek’s political posts. Which is why I always read them. If he argued in bad faith, it would be a different matter, but he argues thoughtfully in good faith.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Reminds me of Kingsley Amis: “If you can’t annoy someone, there is little point in writing”

      1. Me says:

        I see your point, but if your mentor for outrage generation is Kingsley Amis you may have the entire female population to worry about.

  14. eugene says:

    All these eggheads did was label anti-vaxxers as ‘Russian trolls’, which is what the label is for any automated twitter account that you don’t like, but there is a 40% chance it’s run by one of the US intelligence services who set it up seven years ago to help spy on someone they didn’t like, but now it’s a runaway Frankenstein monster. Sometimes it’s real people who live in the States and are banned by Twitter. Those are particularly hilarious.

    The antivax movement started with the British (Lancet) and is now as American as apple pie with Americans being the big proponents and evangelists around the world, with constant outbreaks of measles in California and the Pacific Northwest. Another thing that is as American as apple pie these days: conspiratorial thinking. It’s probably one of the big factors that causes the Middle East to be as dysfunctional as it is. I welcome the Americans to the same clusterf*ck. Russians believe in vaccines a lot more as the younger generation is not as crazy as the old one from the 80s and 90s, or the current American one.

    1. Anon says:

      California moved fast to increase the vaccine rate, demolishing the personal belief exemptions which factored into the outbreak. And I’ve seen one data discussion about the vaccine rate dramatically changing since the outbreak. On a personal anecdote my kids were certainly impacted (to keep them in day care required vaccine or Dr. permission (allergy, …), no more personal exemption).

      2017 saw a measles outbreak in Minnesota, which you’re certain to get a number of perspectives about when you keyword search in your favorite search engine.

      One recent article I read was about the principle of bovine excrement, it takes 10x the effort to dispel as it does to spew it. And there are different viewpoints – focus on the excrement, or focus on the spewer. Harry S. Frankfurt for more keywords.

      Trolls, automated or otherwise lead to the problems stated above (10x effort, disengagement, …).

  15. a says:

    Derek has the privilege of working in a field where truth, or at least accuracy, is both expected and – to some extent – effectively enforced. Yes, there are plenty of junk science and fake papers out there to snare the unwary, but the vast majority of papers published in reputable scientific journals can be considered honest and they’re backed up by hard data – and where the data is suspect or the conclusion is extraordinary, the experiment can be repeated (and sometimes is). Likewise, entry into his particular professional circle requires no small amount of specialized knowledge and experience, making it easy to spot frauds.

    This is a far cry from politics, where lies and spin are de rigeur. As it turns out, there are few if any sources of reliable information about politics – or for that matter, world events. The widespread beliefs that Russian agents working under Putin influenced the 2016 presidential election or that Trump is a Russian asset have never been substantiated, for example, and supposedly-reliable institutions like the New York Times have been guilty of spreading misinformation to support this bullshit narrative – and yet people have been conditioned to believe that anyone doubting the “official” narrative coming from such unreliable organs is a Russian agent or dupe themselves, and not to be trusted. I sense that Derek falls somewhere within this dogmatic sphere; if so, it’s a strange place for a scientist to stand.

    In any case, if attempts to sow confusion and doubt that anything can be known are a Russian propaganda effort, the Russians have certainly been aided by the willingness of Western (particularly American and British) mainstream media to shatter its own credibility, and by social media astroturfing bought and paid for by people connected to Hillary’s campaign (and probably others). Critical thinking practically demands we assume that anything we hear could be bullshit when we are surrounded on all sides by professional liars.

  16. Eugene Fisher says:

    All media is corruptable, all media is corrupted in some way, From lone bloggers to botnets originating in Russia, from Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, CNN, FOX, ABC, NBC, CBS, New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, NPR and even Science Translational Medicine. What is getting more and more difficult is determining the motives and filtering out the truth. If you know the originators agenda and motives this gives you a framework for gauging the truthfulness of any particular assertion that is made. In recent years the media has demonstrated it’s incompetence and that it cannot be trusted. The line between reporting and editorial has been blurred or eradicated altogether.

  17. J Severs says:

    Derek can write about whatever he wants. Viewers who disagree with his choice of topics can start their own weblogs.

  18. Rhodium says:

    I have repeatedly said those who fail to vaccinate their children are engaging in biological warfare against the rest of us.

    1. Scott says:

      Not to mention felony injury to any child not able to be vaccinated due to allergies (etc) that becomes sick after their precious darling infects half the class…

      And these are the same people that wouldn’t send their kids to school with a peanut butter sandwich because some kid at school might be allergic.

  19. MoMo says:

    The Internet is a cesspool and anyone in it stands the chance of being infected. Information or disinformation it’s up to the fittest to interpret and to survive.

    When WW3 happens because of it we’ll all rise up and stick technocrats in cages and parade them through town so the populace can poke them with sharp sticks and thrown objects.

    Until then you are on your own.

  20. Silverlake bodhisattva says:

    One more up vote for Derick, and one more down vote for “Ch” and trollers in general.

  21. sgcox says:

    Did the Russia elected Italian government ?
    Earnestly. This debate about Russian trolls , however true, misses the real point.

  22. kjk says:

    “It’s not that the Russian troll factories were pro-vax or anti-vax: they were pro-discord”
    This. Most highly politicized people wouldn’t say something like this, instead they would point to enemy trolls and say “see, Russia is trolling me, I am the victim”.

    But Dereks point is a powerful one: Lobbying, kickbacks, and other forms of persuading a government toward a special interest are nothing new (cue the 100 year old standard oil octopus cartoon). But Russia is trying to weaken us, which is a new threat that adds to the deadweight cost of pork-barreling we are used to. AI experts to this new battlefield!

    1. eugene says:

      Don’t worry, until our AI experts get set up to fight our eternal rootless cosmopolitan enemy, we’ll get Theranos to monitor your precious bodily fluids for proper levels of antibodies with just one blood drop.

  23. John says:

    A truth finder such as Derick will never always be correct. What Derick has established is a record of honesty iand integrity searching for the truth. That is about the best anyone can hope to achieve. Derick, you have earned a lot of good will and trust. Keep it up. I, personally, need your counsel.

  24. Lestat Rett says:

    Of course the Wakefield paper was garbage. The guy was gutter garbage of the worst kind. Didn’t he even go round paying kids for blood samples at a kid’s birthday party?

    And of course the conducting invasive internal examinations of autistic young children which Wakefield never intended to have the least chance of actually benefiting the child subjects in question. Last I heard of him, he screwed the pooch and did a runner from the country (the UK) after being, rightfully, made a pariah. Went over to join forces with Autism Speaks, and is as despised a pariah as AutSqueaks are.

    Besides, if vaccines DID cause autism, surely we’d see a lot of parents trying to get their children every vaccine ever made, even those for diseases such as smallpox which effectively, no longer exist.

    If I knew I could guarantee that my kids would turn out autistic, I’d feel terribly guilty if failed them by not getting them the best neurotype I could, bar selective associative mating with only autistic partners to vastly increase the probability via inheritance alone. If more could be done, some sort of prenatal selective embryo testing and implantation, that would be a wonderful boon for the world.

    1. loupgarous says:

      CBS is obviously promoting the spread of autism by, in The Big Bang Theory having the show’s characters Dr. Sheldon Cooper and Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, as nice a pair of poster kids for Asperger’s Syndrome as you could want to see, marry. (insert tag as appropriate)

  25. You’re entitled to having opinions & the balls to express them. In the main we’re probably mature enough to know the difference between a fact & a view.

  26. Carl says:

    > MMR vaccine does not, in fact, cause autism,

    Can you show me a single piece of credible scientific literature that unequivocally conclude that “MMR vaccine does not, in fact, cause autism”. It should explicitly state it. Not that the “evidence favours”, or “we could not find”, or nothing like that.

    And if no scientific literature dares to conclude that, is it right for droves of people (and people like you) to go out and declare that “VACCINES.DO.NOT.CAUSE.AUTISM” with such conviction that even science does not have?

    Also, what is the reliability of the entire medical research machinery? the whole process from that spans from making an observation to establishing a consensus? How reliable is it? Does it often turn out to be wrong? More importantly, how often does it come out and admit that it was wrong?

    How much confidence does we require for a study/studies to have, that we base an action that can subtly damage generations and generations of global population if the study/studies turned out to be wrong?

    So even when a number of medical researches cannot find a causal link between a vaccine and autism, while acute correlations continue to be observed, how much confidence can we assign to the research that says “Vaccines cannot cause autism” (assuming that there is a study that unequivocally conclude it). Is it enough to meet the the aforementioned criteria?

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