SFU hosts dangerous anti-science crank group

Vancouver is a city in which one must be willing to put up with quite a bit of pseudoscientific woo-woo nonsense. There are reflexology and acupuncture and naturopathy clinics on every commercial block, each hawking their distinctive, heady mix of scientific ignorance and pure unadulterated bullshit. One learns to mutter epithets under one’s breath and make snide comments as one passes these storefronts, because short of passing a law or de-lobotomizing your fellow Vancouverites, there’s not much else that can be done.

But every now and again, there is an event so egregious, it warrants a more serious response:

The Vaccine Resistance Movement is hosting ‘Vaccine Summit: Vancouver 2013′, a major, interactive symposium on vaccines, to take place on Tuesday, March 12th at SFU’s downtown campus. Veteran researchers & nutritional experts will be joining us on stage, and via satellite from across North America. We will also be conducting a round-table discussion with parents of vaccine-injured children, the first of its kind ever mounted in such a conference. This is your chance to finally stand up as a community, and make your voices heard.

Guest speakers will include leading Immunologist & author Dr. Tetyana Obukhanych, Ph.D., Cellular Disease Specialist & naturopath Gary Tunsky, April Renée, a remarkable mother speaking out in memory of her daughter, Casi, who tragically succumbed to vaccine injury, and preeminent Medical research journalist & esteemed author, Neil Z. Miller.

Self-determination of the body is an inalienable right, and yet we, as families, are facing increasingly intense pressure from the Vaccine lobby & big Government to comply with vaccine mandates, pressured, from all sides, into submitting to herd immunity-type policies. Are we any healthier today than our ancestors because of it? Does does the science really add up? And if pushed to the brink against our will, how can we protect those we cherish most? We intend to find out.

Join us for what promises to be a ground-breaking, historic event, a meeting of extraordinary minds, to uncover the truth behind the deception. We are anticipating a lively discussion. The paradigm shift toward self-sufficiency & self-awareness begins with you.

The “Vaccine Resistance Movement” is Canada’s own version of Australia’s “Vaccine Information Network” or the various anti-vax groups in the United States. Its primary raison d’être is to undermine public confidence in vaccines by spreading blatant misinformation about vaccines, their efficacy, and their safety record. They seek to exploit the healthy (and abundantly justified) distrust people have for pharmaceutical companies, in tandem with the average person’s lack of scientific expertise, in order to push an anti-vaccination agenda under the guise of “promoting vaccine choice”.

They have chosen to host an all-day “summit” in Vancouver. If that were the beginning and end of it, there wouldn’t be much to do. After all, even anti-science cranks have the right to free speech. In this case, however, they are hosting their event at Simon Fraser University, an institution that is supposed to model intellectual rigour and responsible communication of facts to the public they are obligated to serve. By allowing the VRM to spew their dangerous nonsense from SFU’s pulpit, the university is violating its own mandate.

The most baffling component of SFU’s clear irresponsibility and evident lack of oversight is the fact that Vancouver has very recently been in the throes of an epidemic of vaccine-preventable disease. This is not a situation in which we have allowed ourselves to become complacent due to the faded memory of outbreaks of these diseases. Nor is it a case where there was some ambiguity as to the role that non-vaccinating parents played in the spread of illness. Unless SFU has the memory of a goldfish, hosting an event like this should have immediately sent up a red flag that someone needed to step in with some oversight.

Over the weekend, SFU’s faculty of health sciences responded on their website:

The Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) was surprised to learn that SFU has rented space to the “Vaccine Resistance Movement” for their Summit 2013 at the Harbour Centre Campus. Renting space to outside organizations for events such as these is done without any academic oversight. FHS disavows any support or affiliation with this event which we believe to be  anti-science and contrary to good public health practice. We are deeply concerned that the public will perceive the SFU venue as legitimation of the dangerous misinformation that the Vaccine Resistance Movement is known for. Please accept our sincere apologies for the inappropriate use of SFU facilities to promote this event.

Vancouver’s branch of the Center for Inquiry is co-ordinating a response to SFU’s breach of public trust (and basic competency) by allowing the Vaccine Resistance Movement to spread their virulent gospel on its campus. I will update this page as this response becomes better articulated. For the time being, if you are interested in participating and/or lending your voice, please contact CFI Vancouver’s regional director, Ethan Clow.

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  1. machintelligence says

    Are we any healthier today than our ancestors because of it? Does does the science really add up? And if pushed to the brink against our will, how can we protect those we cherish most? We intend to find out.

    I can save them quite a bit of time and discussion: the answers are YES, YES, and pull your heads out from where the sun don’t shine and face reality. Then get those you cherish most immunized.

  2. mythbri says

    Remind me – what was the average lifespan 100 years ago? And what is it now?

    I wonder what their explanation is for parents who bought the shit they are selling, and lost their children to preventable disease.

  3. says

    There is a great documentary (can’t recall name) about the polio epidemic in the 40s and 50s and the abject terror that young families lived with because of it.

    “Are we any healthier today than our ancestors because of it?”

    if you answer no to that that, then you are too incompetent to speak on the subject in the first place… I mean Goddammit! I mean, the fucking internet dude. There is NO excuse for not knowing this shit… NONE!

    …end caps rant…now…

    thank you

  4. Anthony K says

    Remind me – what was the average lifespan 100 years ago? And what is it now?

    While it’s true that life expectancy in Canada has increased from ~50 in 1900 to ~80+ now, I’m not fond of the measure for comparisons (consider making a same comparison, but using average income, and you’ll see how much the shape of the distribution influences the mean.)

    In this case it is useful measure, because vaccines that prevent childhood morbidity and mortality greatly increase life expectancy at birth, so it is completely appropriate to use here.

    The reason I’m persnickety about this measure is how often it’s misinterpreted: we’ve likely all heard (or even made) comments like, “Happy 40th Birthday!—did you know that if you lived in the middle ages, you’d be a senior citizen by now?” which suggests to a huge problem for how many people interpret life expectancy at birth to mean something like life trajectory for an average individual.

    So, when discussing life expectancy with people who might not understand such measures, it’s not a bad idea to make sure you toss in a bunch of caveats and explanations, so as to minimise the likelihood that they’ll run away thinking that you’ve supported either their romanticism about non-industrialised populations or notion belief that life before the present was nasty, brutish, and short.

  5. Anthony K says

    Sorry, forgot the end rant tag.

    And I apologise if I came across as jumping on you, mythbri.

  6. Anthony K says

    Wow. Wiki has some data that suggest life expectancy both at birth and at age 15 were higher in the Upper Paleolithic than in Classical Rome.

  7. mythbri says

    @Anthony K

    No worries – my comment was more of a blase “How can these people not see the positive effects that vaccination has had on the general health of populations in which they are rigorously applied?” rhetorical question.

    I understand completely how the question would have to be qualified in a substantive and evidence-based conversation with people who lack that understanding.

  8. w00dview says

    I will give these cranks some credit; with a name like Vaccine Resistance Movement, you know you are dealing with anti science jackasses exploiting people’s ignorance and fears. A name like Vaccine Information Network is far more deceptive; selling horseshit under the guise of impartial science. Why they are not for or against vaccines, they are just giving you the information you need to make a choice! It is pretty much Propaganda 101.

  9. w00dview says

    Oh, that’s awesome news! And their complaint about suppressing free speech and fighting the big bad government was all too predictable. If you have no evidence for your claims, well there is nothing a good old martyr complex won’t fix!

  10. yazikus says

    There are quite a few people in my area who are anti-vax. My response ( besides noting the whooping cough epidemic this last year) is to mention that I’ve had every vaccine imaginable (lots of travel as a child), and I turned out okay. This seems to bring it a little closer to home, without being hostile. I feel bad that there is so much misinformation out there, and anti-vax parents really believe they are protecting their children. It is pretty terrible.

  11. smrnda says

    I kind of wonder how much of the anti-vax and other woo health issues are just fueled by people who feel that health care is too bureaucratic and too much of a business. A bunch of quacks realize this is a phenomenal opportunity for their ‘alternative woo’ industry, which, in the end, is just as much of a profit-making machine but without even a pretense of caring about scientific evidence.

    The psychology of these individuals should be studied. Perhaps they simply like to believe in whatever seems alternative to consensus, or are more susceptible to belief in conspiracies, prone to the naturalistic fallacy, or are just scientifically illiterate.

  12. says

    It creates a perverse set of incentives for pharmaceutical and device companies to resist effort to streamline the system and keep people who don’t need hospital-based care stuck in the system, because those same companies own the companies that hock the “natural cures”. They make the money from the people who can’t afford to operate outside the system, and you make the money from people who look to “alternative” frauds instead of the system. The worse the problem becomes, the more money they make. The only way they lose money is if people either a) don’t get sick, or b) get rapid and effective treatment (which, arguably, puts the interest of the private sector diametrically opposed to those of the people who use the system). This analysis grossly oversimplifies reality – I don’t think that the people who work for the corporations actively want to undermine the system (or maybe they do, but I don’t really go for moustache-twirling evil supervillain theories), but the corporation itself is amoral and will find the best way to make the most money for the least effort.

    The way we deliver medical care is woefully inept, and leaves MDs with way too much responsibility and authority over not only individual patient care, but over the system at a macro level. The people who arguably should be in charge of the system – policy experts – are woefully overmatched by savvy doctors and nurses unions and the pharmaceutical companies who all benefit from the status quo + more money. More money doesn’t fix the system, it just makes the problems more expensive and more intractable.

    I have a solution, but it requires a fundamental shift in our understanding of health care and the role of physicians. What it would ultimately do, however (in theory), is free up doctors to spend more time treating patients the way naturopaths claim they do. It would empower patients and provide a greater continuity of care, at what I personally think would be a cost savings (but that’s straight up pie-in-the-sky at this point – I have neither the data nor the wherewithal to formally model it entirely).

    But until we fix the system, the “alternative” quacks are going to be able to exploit not only people’s fear of the pharmaceutical industry, but their frustration at the inefficiencies and outright incompetencies of the medical care system. Both of these are legitimate grievances, neither of them is solved by throwing fistfuls of money at the first reiki master that crosses your path.

  13. says

    I don’t suppose that its worth considering organizing those who were injured by the threats to heard immunity? Think about the symbol if families of the victims of whooping cough protested outside of the proceedings with signs that had figures bearing useful historical statistics? These people are a threat and need to be treated as such.

  14. rork says

    “savvy doctors and nurses unions and the pharmaceutical companies”

    There’s lots of money to be made from medical care, which creates and intrenched system that doesn’t want to change the way health care is paid for and delivered. I’d point at insurers first, high-end medical administrators perhaps way behind at #2. Nurses unions? Pharma? Maybe I don’t know what you are talking about.

  15. says

    The current model spends the majority of its money on two things: labour and drugs. The groups that advocate for the labour (which is made up primarily of nursing in terms of numbers, doctors in terms of dollar cost) and the groups that advocate for the drugs have a clear goal: getting more money without necessarily having to do more work. Any kind of major structural change would make nurses less in demand (although I would imagine the individual nurses themselves would be much happier), and therefore less powerful to negotiate for things. And the pharmaceutical companies would lose their bottom line.

    Yes, private insurers would be an impediment. I had neglected to think of them, primarily because they are not the kind of major power players up here that they are in America, but I’m not sure they’d have the same kind of problems with structural reform: if they can collect premiums and not have to pay out benefits, they get more money by doing less work. They don’t necessarily have the same type of skin in the game.

  16. Ethan Clow says

    I’d like to have some sort of public vaccination information session. Perhaps a panel or workshop. We could probably get some speakers together, however; unless SFU was going to fast track the process, it would take about 3 weeks to book a room at harbour centre.

  17. lirael_abhorsen says

    The nurses’ unions here (in the US) advocate for things like single-payer healthcare, as well as favoring a lot of generally left-wing policies like a financial transactions tax, support for public schools, and environmental safeguards. I wish they had as much clout as you seem to think.

    Like you said, there are real problems with how medical care is provided, and those affect people’s willingness to use the system. It’s not just a matter of inefficiency (though that plays a role). For instance, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, in the US, 19% of trans and genderqueer people have been refused medical care because of their gender identity and 28% have been harassed in a doctor’s office (7% have been harassed in an ambulance). And there’s the whole thing where a lot of people in the US still can’t afford medical care. People who can’t or are afraid to access the system are going to look for something else. I am being US-centric here because the US is what I know, but might, for instance, indigenous Canadians have more reason to fear the system than white ones?

  18. says

    I would talk to either Monika or Amy about that. Apparently that idea (or one somewhat similar to that) was considered and rejected

  19. says

    The nurse’s unions have a slightly different incentive structure here. And I should make it clear I am not bashing unions, particularly nurse’s unions – I am a child of a union household, I recognize the central importance of unions in our lives. What I am saying is that the large players building rigidity into the system here (particularly BC) are the doctor’s unions, the nurse’s unions, and the pharmaceutical companies. None of them stand to gain from the kind of drastic changes I think are necessary (although I think it’s likely that their members would) – they would become smaller players in the health care conversation, and as a result would lose the ability to bargain as effectively with government. No union wants that – nor, I dare say, should they want that. The fact remains that in terms of systemic changes, at least here, there are major players deeply entrenched in the status quo, and health care professionals unions are among them.

    I am the wrong person to ask about harassment and discrimination. I can’t think of any reason why it wouldn’t happen, but I can imagine that a public system lowers the barriers to entry, meaning that people aren’t necessarily as desperate when they walk into a hospital. That might make them more likely to report abuse, but I’m speculating. I would imagine that, like other things, the reality in Canada is a scaled-down version of what happens in the USA.

  20. says

    Yes, Ethan. Sorry. My ‘back end’ for comment replies looks very different, and I keep forgetting that I de-threaded comments.

  21. km says

    I’ve always found doctors’ monopoly over prescriptions a bit puzzling. It always seemed like a major waste of taxpayer’s dollars that I have to see a doctor when I want a new prescription for birth control–I’m healthy and in no risk groups for that. There’s lots of women like me that really should be able to access the stuff with a lot less control.

    I’m considering moving to Vancouver (depending on whether UBC funds me!). Not sure if I can handle the woo tho…I’ve got some low tolerance for that stuff. But maybe it’s just a side-effect of all that other good stuff that BC has–more relaxed atmosphere, increased environmental and social justice awareness, etc?

  22. says

    Vancouver has way more good than bad going for it, in my experience. The woo is irritating, but I wouldn’t let that tip the scales.

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