This January, a few days after our local SkeptiCamp, the Vaxxed bus visited Monterey, California. It’s a problem anytime the Vaxxed bus visits anywhere, but this was my city and I wasn’t happy about it.
First a bit of information. Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe is an American pseudoscience “documentary” directed by discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield and Produced by Del Bigtree. It was released in 2016 and has been a thorn in the science world ever since. The documentary is about a senior scientist whistleblower at the CDC. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say that Vaxxed is pseudoscientific nonsense that seeks to keep people from getting vaccinated. I’m sure they would argue with that description.
In 2016, Vaxxed sent around a large bus to communities where people could visit and record their stories about how vaccines have harmed them. People write their names on the outside of the bus. The 2019 sequel, Vaxxed II: The People’s Truth, tells those stories.
When I learned that the Vaxxed bus was visiting Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, California, I saw red. The idea of their nonsense being pushed in our area and a group of unvaccinated people mingling with people in a popular tourist destination was too much for me.
I might have overreacted.
I posted in the Monterey County Skeptic Facebook group saying, “We have to do something.” I contacted the Fisherman’s Wharf people. Then the local media, both print and TV. Finally, I contacted the Monterey County Health Department to ask for advice and see if they wanted to help us “do something.”
My local group talked me down. They have the right to protest, I was reminded, and to be anywhere that other protesters are allowed. Another member of our skeptic group has dealt with the anti-vax crowd before and said that these people are aggressive and do not want to hear science’s opinion on the subject. They are not open to listening and are unlikely to change their minds.
I never heard back from Fisherman’s Wharf, but did hear from the local TV news. They wanted to know if I wanted to appear on camera to counter the Vaxxed message.
And then I heard back from the Health Department, who said that they are very aware of the group that invited the Vaxxed bus to visit, Latinos for Medical Freedom. The Health Department said that they protest whenever there is a free clinic for vaccinations anywhere in Monterey County. The person I spoke to told me that these people are not looking for more information; their minds are already made up. The best way to fight back is to ignore them and continue offering vaccine clinics and providing the best information we can. Keep educating people who are willing to listen.
After I calmed down somewhat, I realized that I only made things worse by alerting the media. They are on the hunt for anything controversial, and I was helping to make this bigger news than it should be. If I appeared to counter their arguments, it would appear that their arguments were equal to the science on vaccines. There can be no debate. I’m not an expert on vaccines, and possibly I could say something wrong on TV, and that wouldn’t help either.
I explained to the media that they should contact the Health Department for comment and maybe even skip the story altogether because even one minute of nonsense from the Vaxxed people can be a harm to residents. They seemed to seriously consider my concerns.
Monterey County Skeptics decided we would not counter-protest and draw more attention to them. We didn’t want to deal with aggressive people and make a scene.
So, I decided to show up and observe.
The van is quite large. They attempted to park in a small parking lot that would have been ideal for visibility, but the lot was full. They circled it and left. After a few minutes, they appeared in the mostly empty main parking lot used for tourists. They were told to use the bus parking area, which is a long way from tourists. In fact, they ended up a long way from everyone. A small group of people gathered around, cheering at the bus’s arrival. Lots of moms and children hung around the bus for about an hour. They obviously knew each other, because they were hugging each other and very friendly. Most of the children were school-age, and because school was in session for the public, I assume that at least some of these children were home schooled.
A TV crew came across the parking lot to interview the group, and after about thirty minutes they walked back to their TV van. I waited near the TV van for them to return. I spoke to them about the problem of providing any attention to the anti-vax message, and how important it is to keep our community safe. They assured me that they had already spoken to the Health Department and they themselves were fully vaccinated and believed strongly in the science of vaccines. They were unsure if it they would run the story because it made them uncomfortable.
I had learned from the Health Department that Monterey County is one of the most vaccinated counties in California. The Latino population leads in vaccinations. We have a 97 percent herd immunity, which makes me very proud to know.
I exchanged business cards with the TV crew, hoping that Monterey County Skeptics will be able to involve them in future projects. But they ended up running the story later that night.
The whole situation was a good education for me about vaccine activism. Attacking and ridiculing these people is only going to fuel their conspiracy-minded beliefs. Protesting them directly would only make them happy. Giving them attention would make their day. Speak to those willing to listen and move on.
Our time as scientific skeptics is limited. We need to pick our battles and play the long game. Getting involved in a drawn-out discussion online with people is not a great use of our time. These people are not reading those well-researched links you are giving them. They are moving the goal posts and engaging in “what-aboutism” and trolling you.
Finding more subtle ways to fight back is important. Talk to your friends and family about vaccines thoughtfully. Don’t ridicule or challenge them. Many are looking for information and have not joined the anti-vaccine ranks; they’re just repeating something they heard somewhere. Talking about baby coffins or telling them that they are idiots is only going to make them circle the cognitive dissonance wagons, and they will not be receptive to what you have to say. Speak to them with good information and kindness.
Make sure you are up-to-date on your vaccines, and if you are on social media, share a post when you get your annual flu shot. Staying on top of your vaccines should be the norm. My friend Greg Dorais posts a reminder to get the flu shot a few weeks before the CSI conference every fall, and every year I realize how quickly a year has passed and go to CVS for my shot.
Many of you might be aware of a project I run called Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW), which is an international Wikipedia editing team focusing on all people and topics of science and pseudoscience in all languages.
We have done work on vaccines, hoping to get positive information out into the world so that people who are questioning and looking for answers will find well-written and well referenced Wikipedia pages. We also write about the people associated with the vaccine world. We’re trying to give the pro-science community a leg-up, hoping the media will seek those people out when a comment is needed on the subject. We have also written Wikipedia pages about the anti-vaccine community. Understanding their arguments and thinking process as best we can is important for learning how best to fight their arguments. No ad hominems at all, just the facts where the citations lead us.
We are public about the work we do and know we need to follow all the rules of Wikipedia or we will be called out for it. These pages gather all the relevant reliable sources into one place. The media, which rarely have the time and resources to take a deep dive into a subject these days (especially concerning science topics), can start with a Wikipedia page and branch out, reading the citations for further information.
At the time of this writing, March 4, 2020, the GSoW team has written thirty-nine Wikipedia pages concerning vaccines, including two each in Portuguese and Polish, and one each in Afrikaans, French, and Dutch.
Those thirty-nine Wikipedia pages have been viewed (as of this writing) 664,966 times.
Obviously, this is only a small start on what is a very big project. GSoW writes about many topics and people and in many languages. We just published page number 1,335. And those 1,335 Wikipedia pages have been viewed (as of this writing) 55,907,803 times.
There is still so much to do.
If you are tired of arguing with trolls and people on social media who are wasting your time and raising your blood pressure, consider joining the GSoW team.
You do not have to be a scientist or an expert on anything. Wikipedia editors do not evaluate studies or use primary sources at all. We use secondary sources, written by experts and written for the layperson to understand. We gather that information and then write the Wikipedia page using neutral words aimed at someone with a high school education.
We train people who have never coded or edited Wikipedia before. All training happens using Google documents and Facebook Messenger, and we are housed in a Facebook group called the Secret Cabal. I know some of you are saying “What! Facebook?!” Yes, that is where we have found we are best able to talk, motivate, give feedback, and socialize. You do not have to venture beyond the Secret Cabal and Facebook Messenger unless you want to.
We are a lively group of people who are very social and fun. We are a community that supports each other, and I’m very proud to be associated with it.
Training is self-paced and needs to be completed within four months. The average is two months.
You are given a personal trainer, which is usually me.
You do not have to be a great speller or terrific with grammar; we have proofreaders for that. No one judges. We are here for each other.
If interested, please approach me on Facebook Messenger. I will need your email address and for you to open an account on Wikipedia. You will be given a taste of training that should take you two hours to complete. That should help you decide if this is a good fit for you.
I hope to hear from you soon. And in case you want to help support us financially, we are now a 501(c)3 and you can donate via PayPal in monthly micro-donations or a one-time contribution. You can also fund us with Amazon Smile and eScrip.
In case you are interested, here is a sampling of some of the vaccine-related Wikipedia pages GSoW has written. Enjoy!
Measles vaccine (Masels-entstoff in Afrikaans)