By Grant Jacobs 07/04/2017 17


The University of Otago has allowed an anti-vaccine lobby group[1] to screen former-doctor Andrew Wakefield’s advocacy piece, ‘Vaxxed’ on campus. (Wakefield was struck off for research misconduct.)

Vaxxed has attracted a number of comments in the media, such as Alison Mau’s If you watch Vaxxed, know you’re buying into the manipulation of a disgraced fraud.

I was surprised to learn the university have allowed it to go ahead given the approach the organisers are taking. You get the impression they feel their hand is forced, that they are obliged to host essentially anything (because of current political thinking on freedom of speech).

I think venues should be able to decline.

Just my humble opinion, but I feel the organisers should have been asked to choose between a private screening for their members only at a private venue (i.e. not the university), or an open public event, dropping the secrecy, allowing people to register without giving their email or phone number, reworking the Q&A to include representatives from health/medicine, and allowing open discussion.

Universities should stand for critical thinking, not advocacy or evangelism.

For me, free speech is about that I am able to express my views, even if others may not agree or may even object strongly.

It is not about venues being obliged to host everything that comes their way. Venues should be able to decline if the topic or style of presentation does not suit them or what they represent.

Nor does it mean that someone can express views without being criticised. Part and parcel of publicly expressing a view is that others have the right to express their opinion in reply. True free speech does not suppress or avoid those responses.

Without investigating the legal obligations of NZ universities, I would like to have thought that universities are, or should be, places that encourage open discussion.

If a member of the public or group approaches the university wishing to use a lecture theatre, it should not be a presentation that tries to pre-select or ‘filter’ for a ‘preferred’ audience, recruit attendees in a way that makes others who might attend uncomfortable (i.e. tries to put off “outsiders”), or, even, to restrict their attending. It should be an open public event.

Similarly, discussion should not be constrained to a particular viewpoint.

Put another way, events focused on advocacy or evangelism shouldn’t be hosted at public institutions. Conversely, organisations wanting to do that should use private venues.

‘Controlling’ events is the style of the likes of, say, Scientology, and other ‘closed’ communities.

The anti-vaccine lobby organising these Vaxxed events has gone a fair way in this direction. In a follow-up to my alerting the university of the screening, I wrote to them:

I suspect the university may not want to be seen to be suppressing free speech or discussion. A key point is that this [the anti-vaccine group’s event] should be free speech.

The organisers –

– are withholding the specific location of the venue until 3 hours before the event,

– are ensuring that those wishing to attend must apply only through their anti-vaccine advocacy organisation; this has the effect of screening those attending, and intimidating those outside of their organisation,

– have arranged that the subsequent Q&A answer session be limited to their views, with no input from medical or health science; the event is to advocate their views, rather than educate or genuinely discuss openly

Furthermore, it has been reported that the organiser’s introductory remarks at the Auckland screening included remarks to the effect that “if there was any ‘trouble’ during the movie they had men stationed all around the cinema”[2] — intimidating anyone who might raise concerns about the content.

Universities are public institutions. They should stand for public discussion, not controlled advocacy or evangelism, and they ought to be able to decline events that they don’t think are in the wider public interest.

You can present controversial subjects — if you engage in honest critique of them. This isn’t that.

I would have have given them two options: either open up the event properly, restructuring it to allow open attendance and open critique, or move the event to a private venue where they can run it in their desired (controlling) fashion.

Note that none of this is about the specific content. I haven’t needed to mention it. How events are run matters too. I’m disappointed that the comments to media and memo to university staff[4] does not acknowledge issues with how the event is being run, and I’m left wondering if the those that decided on this were aware of them. (I tried alert them to this.)

There is an EventBrite listing for the event. If you wish to attend, I suggest making up a temporary email you can give them that you can later delete, and not give out your phone number.[3]

The kindest reading of the organisers’ approach that I can make is that a small (and let’s be honest, amateur) group has piled on up a list of things they might do while showing the film, and ended up with a tangled mess where they are both want to show it to “others”, but also want to run it as if it were a private screening for their group.

The organisers should really have decided which of the two they wanted to do, one or the other. You simply can’t have these two both ways at once. Either run private screenings only for their members, drawing attendees from their internal mailing list. In that case they want to look to private venues as hosts, not public institutions. Or run proper open public events – without the secrecy stuff or trying to ‘encourage” discussion to be limited to their views. Then they might look to public institutions as venues.

There’s also the aspect of a recruitment/marketing drive by asking that attendees give up their email address or phone number.

I’m a bit surprised the university didn’t take the opportunity to encourage the organisers to take the event elsewhere: since the organisers are not disclosing the location until a few hours before the event, it wouldn’t have affected the event to have moved it elsewhere.

I feel venues should be able to take a stance on events they don’t feel comfortable with. Certainly better than releasing statements where they both say they will host an event, and in the same briefing condemn it.

It should be reasonable for the university to take what it said of the event, and decline to host it:

We believe the makers and distributors of this movie are scare-mongering, and behaving in an anti-child manner, showing no regard for the health and well-being of children.

Fair reasons to decline to host an event, I’d have thought. (You could also apply these words to the organisers, too.)

I also can’t help wondering to what extent current fussing over free speech in universities has affected the decision; the response can be read as playing along with current politics.

The current political notion that (some) institutions “must” host anything doesn’t stack up to me. There’s a freedom for people to decline hosting something too. And if an organisation finds no-one wants to host their event, the community has spoken. That’s a freedom too.

A defining point is how something is to be presented. Does it allow for advocacy or evangelism to rule over open critique and critical thinking?

Why can a university not say something like –

We are a public institution, one committed to open discussion. As an academic organisation, open, honest critique lies at the centre of what we do. We cannot accept advocacy groups or evangelism. Please find a private venue.

I understand a number of staff are protesting the decision.

——=+=——

There is much more that could be said. I could cover the movie itself, for example.

It’s already extensively reviewed elsewhere, e.g. Reviewing Andrew Wakefield’s VAXXED: Antivaccine propaganda at its most pernicious. (It’s long; that’s David Gorski’s style. Grab some refreshments, put your feet up, etc.) Vaxxed – a guide to Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent film has a forceful style, but the bullet-point lists offer useful background in a concise way. The Guardian reviewer described it as a ‘conspiracy film’. There are plenty of other criticism of the film to be found.

No-one seems to rate it as a particularly good film. As David Gorski points out, it would probably have long disappeared into oblivion like other conspiracy films if Robert Niro hadn’t tried to force it into the Trifecta Film Festival by using his position to bypass the selection process, and the fuss that created.

(As a lighter aside: In checking out a prospective read—Jasper Fforde’s Lost in a Good Book—I encountered on page 1 the term ‘docuganda’, a portmanteau of documentary and propaganda that might be an appropriate description of Vaxxed.)

I could address points raised by Mark Sainsbury, but perhaps in a later piece. One thing at a time and all. A key point is one I’ve made above: it’s is not just that they be able to have an event, but how they run it, and to give opportunity to venues to decide if they want to be hosts.

Update: A press release is now available on the university website.

Featured image

Public domain. Originally from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (identification number #9400), sourced from wikipedia.

Footnotes

Some of the tips to where the event was to be hosted come from other’s noting comments by the Dunedin organisers in The ConTrail, a forum for people who believe that aircraft vapour trails are chemical sprays governments are poisoning the earth with, conspiracies about electronic and magnetic frequency waves, and a number of similar themes related to health and ‘well-being’. I subsequently found the EventBrite listing for the Dunedin event, which caused concern about how the event was to be run and prompted me to alert Otago University.

My connection with this was learning that the movie was likely to be screened at University of Otago. I alerted the university to this, and was met with a quick response. I subsequently forwarded some suggestions for how they might respond.

  1. How they are described in wikipedia. Some refer to themselves as ‘pro safe vaccine’, but I’ve very rarely seen them advocate for vaccines despite that it’s trivial to offer a long list of vaccines with excellent safety records. (Some do want monovalent vaccines be used, but not on the basis of sound science.) The word game appears silly. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the university found out after the group was presenting the event well after they registered the use of a lecture theatre.
  2. From an attendee at the Auckland event, written in NZ Skeptics, Closed Group. Used with permission. UPDATE: a transcript has that portion of the introduction as being: “I also want to warn people in the audience that if you want to make trouble, we have people at posts stationed throughout the theatre. Big strong people.”
  3. I suspect it’s actually illegal to force people to disclose emails in order to subscribe to an event in NZ.
  4. Memo to university staff – will be added if/once I get a clearing from the University of Otago. (They released a copy to me, but with no accompanying statement as to if it was available for wider distribution.)

17 Responses to “Vaxxed at University of Otago: venues should be able to decline”

  • Shortly after posting this I learned that Dr. Lance O’Sullivan has voiced concerns, criticising the need for secrecy: http://community.scoop.co.nz/2017/04/anti-vaccination-film-secrecy-upsets-top-community-doctor/

    “I would really like to know what it is they need to hide,” Dr O’Sullivan said. “Is it the fact that the director of the film is a discredited scientist?”

    He also notes that the organisation which “which describes itself as a charitable organisation, is not a registered charity”. (They write this on the EventBrite listing for the event.)

  • Even it were advertised early and widely, I would counsel against public health staff engaging them at the venue. All it does is raise their argument and stature, and decrease yours.

    • I think that’s more how you reply than if you do. A key is to remember that you’re not replying to the organisers as such, but for the audience. It would take some fairly level-headed and confident, though, and ideally someone who has that knack of brief, clear replies. (If they’ll forgive me, something I think few academics are particularly good at, as almost all are schooled in detail, rather than public engagement.)

  • Regarding the screening of Vaxxed and the freedom of expression/speech excuse. This fails when balanced against the responsibility “for the protection…of public health”.

    From Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), sub section 3b

    “3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided
    a) for respect of the reputation or rights of others
    b) for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.”

    The University is not upholding its responsibilities by allowing this screening of demonstrably false health information to go ahead.

    • Simon, have you seen the movie? I’m guessing not – so how do you know the content is “demonstrably false health information”?
      It’s ironic that you think that the film should not be shown to protect public health, when it appears some of the movie content deals with an important public health issue ie: Dr William Thompson and the decision that he and his co-workers at the CDC made to ‘omit relevant findings in a particular study for a particular sub­group for a particular vaccine.’ It seems strange to me that no one is concerned about this?

      • have you seen the movie? I’m guessing not – so how do you know the content is “demonstrably false health information”?

        There are plenty of in-depth reviews of the movie by people who have the skills to assess the claims made there, and what is presented as science there. I linked to several in my piece. I’d encourage you to check them, linked here again for convenience:

        https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/andrew-wakefields-vaxxed-antivaccine-propaganda-at-its-most-pernicious/

        http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/vaxxed-guide-wakefield-fraudulent-film/

        ie: Dr William Thompson and the decision that he and his co-workers at the CDC made to ‘omit relevant findings in a particular study for a particular sub­group for a particular vaccine.’ It seems strange to me that no one is concerned about this?

        It is easy to repeat claims made on the WWW. What is harder to check that the claims are correct.

        In this case, this has been looked at in depth for a good number of years now, and as others point out it’s resoundingly false.

        With that in mind, I would encourage you to stop repeating things that are false. Doing that does no good for anyone.

        IF something is correct, it might be worth noting but if it’s incorrect passing it around is (literally) muddying the water with ‘fake news’. (I hate the phrase, but it’s appropriate here.)

        This aspect is covered in deep in David Gorski’s piece that I linked to, and earlier writing by Gorski and others. One point is that instead of the data being omitted, it was actually presented in the original paper!

        A copy of the relevant table from the paper can be seen here (the “omitted” data highlighted): https://lbrbblog.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/destefano_table_4-highlighted.png

        (Wakefield uses different terms/words for what is essentially the same data. Also worth mentioning is that Hooker’s paper that claims )

        There’s more to this: I suggest reading David Gorski’s piece, and the bullet-points under The “CDC Whistleblower” manufactroversy in Vaxxed – a guide to Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent film as a starting point (linked early in this comment).

        In the bullet points you’ll find a link to a piece comparing the claims in Wakefield’s movie and the actual transcripts of what what said (Matt Carey’s analysis indicates that the movie has cut and spliced to present a different story than what happened). You’d also learn that the movie leaves out things Thompson has said, e.g.

        I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits.

        and (in a different setting, a summary statement to Member of Congress Bill Posey),

        The fact that we found a strong statistically significant finding among black males does not mean that there was a true association between the MMR vaccine and autism-like features in this subpopulation.

        (Raw data can’t make final conclusions without checking for confounding effects, sample size issues, etc., and data like this cannot imply cause, only a possible (as in ‘could prove to be wrong’) correlation. [This is the same problem with Fiona Lynch’s comments on another post.])

        Both the autism and ‘vaccine concern’ communities deserve far better than claims that have already been looked at and cleared being passed around yet again. (It’s a human thing to have concerns but repeating falsehoods isn’t helping anyone, especially those with concerns. I touched on one aspect of this in my latest post Some vaccine resources Please don’t share vaccine “concern” posts. [Updated to point to the right post.])

        Much, much better to move forward and positively investigate.

        Research checking possible links between vaccines and autism has been done. In spades – i.e. many times over. No substantive link has been found.

        There is a lot of work trying to uncover the actual causes of autism. Far better to be following what is going on there that repeat claims that have already been investigated and cleared.

  • If a member of the public or group approaches the university wishing to use a lecture theatre, it should not be a presentation that tries to pre-select or ‘filter’ for a ‘preferred’ audience, recruit attendees in a way that makes others who might attend uncomfortable (i.e. tries to put off “outsiders”), or, even, to restrict their attending. It should be an open public event.
    This. Otherwise the University is condoning the blocking of free speech; it certainly isn’t promoting it.

  • Jenny Drew, organiser of the Dunedin event, says she was upfront with the Uni about what film they were showing.She’s almost gloating about the venue. “I was right upfront with the fact that it was a controversial movie,and gave them a handout but initially I don’t think the people concerned were aware yet of just how controversial! Most were not fazed to begin with. We are using the university here and apparently the decision to accept us has gone to the top level – i.e. the vice-chancellor herself. Some universities have been attacked lately for cutting back on freedom of speech, and Otago decided to allow the screening despite being against the content of the film. We were a bit stunned with their article on Stuff, as we are supposed to keep the venue secret. However there are many lecture rooms on campus. They provide a technician and security so hopefully all should be well. It is a relief to have their seal of approval and know we’re not going to be kicked out at the last minute, as they have in some venues.”

    • “It is a relief to have their seal of approval”

      They have no such thing. Perhaps she’s not writing clearly? The university was quite clear in not giving approval to their event. She says so earlier in the same paragraph, “despite being against the content of the film”.

      One thing I didn’t write, but meant to, was that past experience has seen anti-vaccine lobby groups refer to events they’ve managed to have hosted at universities as having the approval of the university – even when the university has explicitly said otherwise.

      I’m also a bit skeptical about them having genuinely made it clear what the content was. My own impression was that they were quite surprised it was being shown at their campus.

      “as we are supposed to keep the venue secret”

      Who is directing them to do that? The distributors of the film? Perhaps she’s being unclear again, and means the anti-vaccine lobby group, and by “we” she means her and whoever is helping her in Dunedin?

      “They provide a technician and security so hopefully all should be well.”

      Campus security is for protecting students and staff, not for hiding venues!

      “we’re not going to be kicked out at the last minute, as they have in some venues”

      It’d be interesting to know where that happened. (She did say something about a venue in Dunedin cancelling, which would imply another venue.)

  • It’s also worth noting that the Guardian review was one of the kinder ones. Metacritic gives the film a rating of 24/100.

    • It is, it’s a reason I included it. Roughly I have one that I consider is a reasonable take on the film (if a bit long!) by Gorski, one that is a bit reactionary (reflecting when it was written, I think) but has useful bullet-point summaries, and The Guardian piece. The latter while kinder still closes out with describing it as a conspiracy film.

  • “It is not about venues being obliged to host everything that comes their way. Venues should be able to decline if the topic or style of presentation does not suit them or what they represent.”

    For a private organisations, including private universities, I agree with you. But this is a public university not a private one.

    “If a member of the public or group approaches the university wishing to use a lecture theatre, it should not be a presentation that tries to pre-select or ‘filter’ for a ‘preferred’ audience, recruit attendees in a way that makes others who might attend uncomfortable (i.e. tries to put off “outsiders”), or, even, to restrict their attending. It should be an open public event.”

    For a public university this is an important point, events should be open to the public and if the organisaers are not willing to make it public then the univeristy should think twice about hosting the event. Thus I would argee with

    “Just my humble opinion, but I feel the organisers should have been asked to choose between a private screening for their members only at a private venue (i.e. not the university), or an open public event, dropping the secrecy, allowing people to register without giving their email or phone number, reworking the Q&A to include representatives from health/medicine, and allowing open discussion.”

    “I also can’t help wondering to what extent current fussing over free speech in universities has affected the decision; the response can be read as playing along with current politics.”

    One can never “fuss” to much over free speech. Events on university campuses in the US over recent years show what can happen if we don’t “fuss” about free speech.

  • I’ve just learnt that the organising group has blocked me from their Facebook page. I honestly can’t remember if they did this ages ago, but I’d like to think I could remember if they had. But then again I don’t cling onto things like that, so maybe they did.

    It would have been nice to know when they blocked me (and why). There’s a small possibility it was pre-emptive before the film screenings. (There’s a precedent in that they once tried to sideline me before they knew they were to get media attention.)

    Either way, so much for open discussion from that lot? I’ve never done anything particularly untoward to them, and made it my practice to not start conversations on vaccine groups. (I did on rare occasions reply when someone in the group asked for information, but limited myself to polite, brief explanations or pointers to a source. My thinking was to follow their lead, and that the groups at least claim to discuss vaccine information so that should be acceptable by their own standards.)

    The Facebook group here for anyone who is interested: https://www.facebook.com/IASNZ

    • A quick inspection suggests that I had access to their Facebook page in the last few posts I wrote about them, e.g. this in early 2013 –

      http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2013/01/14/ias-forum-page-rules/ (That post badly wants editing, what you get from seeing things you wrote long ago…)

      I notice I closed that post (in the Footnotes) with,

      Having said that, currently a good number of people are blocked for reasons outside of the ‘page rules’ they have laid down. Perhaps it’d be wise of the IAS to start over and allow everyone to write under a level playing field.

  • Even Dave Chappelle said he wouldn’t vaccinate his kids in his new special recently. How are people still debating this? Anyone who’s done their own research knows something is not right. I understand that many parents out there might not be able to even process that they did something horrible to their children all because they trusted the cdc to tell them the truth about vaccinations but they can help all of humanity by acknowledging this. At the very least, mmr should not be given all in one shot 12-15 mo child (this is what the evidence pointed to as being the biggest cause of the autism, as the infant can absolutely not handle the 3 viruses being injected at once. This is also where the cdc shaved the numbers so there would be no connection since they used a fraudulent sample size in comparison to the whole). At the very most.. LOOK IN TO: eugenics, bill gates and his father, AIDS and africa, Clinton foundation soros and pizzgate/ pedogate. After you do, you realize its probably the latter

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