Dangerous Legal Games

Shackling Reason

(Image Pelham Library)

The anti-vaccine community is at it again, launching inane legal assaults in an attempt to gain a foothold in their war against science and reason. This time, Barbara Loe Fisher, infamous founder of the ironically-named National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), has launched a libel suit against Paul Offit, renowned vaccine expert and Chief of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I can only hope some good will come of this idiocy. First, some background.

Barbara Loe Fisher has been at the forefront of the modern anti-vaccine movement in this country since its inception. in 1982, the shockumentary “DTP: Vaccine Roulette” was aired on a local NBC news affiliate, and later picked up on national TV. The show depicted allegedly vaccine-devastated children, and awakened the nation to the hidden evil of vaccines, prompting wide-spread fear not just of the DTP vaccine (against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis), but of vaccines in general. While the early whole-cell DTP vaccine did have problems – it worked, but had many extraneous proteins that produced a high rate of side effects such as fever and irritability – it didn’t cause brain damage. However, “enlightened” by this TV show, Barbara Loe Fisher began the group Determined Parents Together, which later became the NVIC. its true mission seems to be to instill fear into the minds of parents by spreading misinformation, and fomenting mistrust of vaccines. While spouting the oft used defense of “I’m not anti-vaccine, I’m just pro-safe vaccine,” Loe Fisher hides behind the standard anti-vax delusion that she is a righteous crusader for the protection of children and the freedom of parental choice. Of course,  she’s really just anti-vaccine.

Unlike Loe Fisher, Paul Offit is an actual expert on the subject of infectious disease and vaccines. An outstanding scientist and clinician, Dr. Offit is the Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and is also the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology, and a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He is Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a valuable resource for parents and physicians looking for accurate vaccine information. Dr. Offit has devoted his entire career to helping treat and prevent infectious disease in children, and has been active in vaccine research. His development of a vaccine against rotavirus, an infection that kills 2000 children per day around the world, has the potential to do away with a common and serious disease in infants and young children. Still, the anti-vaccine circus has branded Dr. Offit a mouthpiece (and much worse) of Big Pharma, citing the income he received from his University’s sale of its patent on the rotavirus vaccine, and grant funding he received from Merck, as evidence of corporate corruption and evil intent.

Which brings me to this latest, desperate move from the anti-vaccine cult. A classic tactic of this and other pseudo-science and conspiracy-theory groups is to launch personal or legal attacks against those who dare challenge their fervently held beliefs, and hence against the voices of science and reason. You would be correct to think that the best way to challenge a scientific finding or hypothesis would be to hold it up against sound and contradictory scientific data. But the anti-vaccine lobby has no such data. Their beliefs are just that, beliefs, and are thus not based on evidence. Personal assaults, media blitzes, and legal attacks must then serve as their default weapons. This is why groups like Generation Rescue and Age of Autism post derogatory items and block dissent on their websites. Or why the domain name www.pauloffit.com was purchased for the intent of “exposing the truth about the vaccine industry’s most well-paid spokesperson”. What it really does, of course, is regurgitate the same old misinformation about Dr. Offit that we so frequently hear from the anti-vaccine mob. It’s why those who speak out against the anti-vaccine agenda often receive hate mail, and why people like Paul Offit even receive death threats for doing the important work that they do.

So, when journalist Amy Wallace wrote a story for Wired Magazine about the anti-vaccine movement, highlighted by an interview with Paul Offit, the anti-vaccine artillery were wheeled into position with fuses lit. The rabid response from the anti-vax community was predictably loud, and astonishingly twisted (see image below).

AoA Thanksgiving Feast

And then Barbara Loe Fisher sued Paul Offit, Amy Wallace, and Conde Nast (the publisher of Wired) for libel. In her article, which is the best piece of medical journalism I have read in a long time, Wallace quotes Dr. Offit complaining that Loe Fisher “lies” about her characterization of him,

“Kaflooey theories” make him crazy, especially if they catch on. Fisher, who has long been the media’s go-to interview for what some in the autism arena call “parents rights,” makes him particularly nuts, as in “You just want to scream.” The reason? “She lies,” he says flatly.

“Barbara Loe Fisher inflames people against me. And wrongly. I’m in this for the same reason she is. I care about kids. Does she think Merck is paying me to speak about vaccines? Is that the logic?” he asks, exasperated. (Merck is doing no such thing). But when it comes to mandating vaccinations, Offit says, Fisher is right about him: He is an adamant supporter.

This one quote, accusing Barbara Loe Fisher of lying about his motivations and ties to industry, is the legal crux of this case. But is Barbara Loe Fisher filing this suit because she is truly worried that her reputation may be damaged by Offit’s accusation? I doubt that anything – ANYTHING – could damage her reputation in the minds of her followers. This is, once again, a hallmark of the anti-vaccine contingent – absolute, dogmatic, unshakable belief in one’s views, and Loe Fisher is the emblematic leader of the cause. No, she is likely following through with this legal action as her only recourse against the cold, hard facts of science, hoping that the blunt-edged sword of the legal system may enable her to eek out some sort of perverse victory. That outcome seems unlikely, and this lawsuit is but one in a long list of similarly sad attempts by the anti-vaccine cabal to stifle the voices of reason, be it through legal action, media campaigns, or the outright banning of descent on their blogs and websites.

To be sure, Dr. Offit will be inconvenienced by this charade. He will be pulled from the important role he plays everyday, working to help the sickest of children, to fight a tragically ridiculous law suit. Barbara Loe Fisher will likely get her long-sought time in the media limelight, and the “controversy” about vaccine safety will get another two or three sound bites on the evening news. But I predict that this suit, after other, similar first amendment challenges to the voices of science and reason, will produce an outpouring of support for Dr. Offit’s cause. Hopefully this will shine some light on the desperate and empty scare tactics of the anti-vaccine lobby, and in so doing bring the long-overdue attention and respect that real science deserves.

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2 comments to Dangerous Legal Games

  • [...] As usual, Orac has the details. One thing that Orac notes is that Fischer chose to record her fit in Virginia that does not have SLAPP laws, written to forestall lawsuits dictated to overpower critics. So it unequivocally really looks similar to she is suing simply to overpower critics. Others think so too. [...]

  • Blair Donaldson

    It’s extremely ironic that researchers interested in the well-being and health of the community are continually frustrated by idiots such as anti vaxers.

    Of course the anti-vaxers highlight how uninformed and deceitful they are with the extremely deceptive names they use for their organisations. Hopefully, somebody with deep pockets will call their bluff when the anti-vaccine woo merchants initiate a lawsuit – if good science is allowed to be presented in the court case, the anti-vaxers will lose their shirts and any dubious credibility they may have extracted from the naive.

    Anti-vaxers, religious fundies, creationists, altmed loons etc all operate on the same principles, deny science, baffle with BS, play the victim and lie at every opportunity.

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