Issue 44 / 21 November 2011

A CURIOUS book landed on my desk recently with the catchy title, Anyone who tells you vaccines are safe and effective is lying. Here’s the proof.

Just another anti-immunisation crank, you might think, except that the author is one Dr Vernon Coleman, an English GP who, according to the cover endorsements, has been dubbed “king of the media doctors” by The Independent.

What makes somebody who has gone through the rigours of a medical degree or other scientific education succumb to the temptations of anti-science, the bizarre conspiracy theories that lurk in dark corners of the internet and elsewhere?

The scientists who sought to deny the link between HIV and AIDS — or even, in some cases, that AIDS actually existed — are still out there, peddling their often bizarre views, though they don’t get the media attention they once did.

Dr Peter Duesberg, a professor of biochemistry, biophysics and structural biology at the University of California, Berkeley, has long argued AIDS does not have a viral cause, suggesting it might instead be the result of long-term drug use. One of his articles was “permanently withdrawn” by Medical Hypotheses in 2009 after a series of complaints.

Back in 1994, one of his admirers, American physician Dr Robert Willner, deliberately stabbed himself with a bloody needle fresh from a man claiming to be infected with HIV.

Willner, who had his medical licence revoked in Florida after claiming to have cured an AIDS patient with ozone infusions and who died suddenly in 1995, described the needle stunt as “an act of intelligence”.

It had, he said, nothing to do with promoting his book, Deadly deception: the proof that sex and HIV absolutely do not cause AIDS.

These guys certainly have a knack with titles.

Another thing these maverick doctors often seem to have in common is an air of courageous martyrdom.

Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced and deregistered British doctor who claimed to have uncovered a link between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism, says he has stuck by a belief that has “cost me my job, my livelihood and my country”.

He told the New York Times earlier this year he believed public health officials and pharmaceutical companies were paying bloggers to plant vicious rumours about him online.

Similarly, Dr Coleman writes in the preface to his book: “Experience tells me that this book will bring me much trouble, a great deal of abuse, a number of threats and considerable personal and professional inconvenience. But I firmly believe that vaccination is one of the most offensive and dangerous of all modern medical practices …”

And so on. And so on.

Is it their opposition to the mainstream that creates the colossal self-pity so many scientific mavericks seem to display, or do they have an innate desire for martyrdom that pushes them into becoming contrarians in the first place?

Either way, their formal qualifications lend them an unwarranted credibility when they speak to a public that is often ill equipped to evaluate the claims of an individual “expert”.

Wakefield, now resident in the US, will no doubt continue to trumpet his anti-MMR message to eager audiences, and Dr Coleman will continue to write books with titles like Power over cancer and Why doctors do more harm than good. (I can’t imagine what the one called I hope your penis shrivels up! is about, though I can tell you it’s listed under psychology/sociology.)

For all the efforts medical schools make to assess candidates’ psychological suitability, I’m betting they’ll never find a test that screens out those who are likely to embark on an obsessive crusade against their own profession.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

Posted 21 November 2011




6 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Reining in mavericks

  1. Max Kamien says:

    The more I learn about these doctors, the more I come to believe that their underlying motivation comes not from Mammon, but from some realization or revelation that they have developed some new therapeutic insight denied to other medicos. In other words they have developed an overvalued and obsessive monomania – an idée fixe.

    So all the clever admission/prediction psychologists have to do is to develop a screening test for obsessional monomania.

  2. cboughton says:

    I share your concern re these medicos who, eg, completely ignore available data re safety and efficacy of vaccines, the established fact of the causal role of HIV in AIDS, etc. They abandon the impartial scientific approach that they were taught during medical course and should use in evaluating data re such important issues. And they misinform the public, which is quite unacceptable. There often is an element of paranoia involved. Where such a medico advises parents not to immunise their children, medical indemnity insurance should be withheld, as such advice is not only misleading but is also malpractice.

  3. Simon C says:

    I appreciate your concern about ‘medical’ quacks and I am extremely critical of anyone who describes vaccination as “one of the most offensive and dangerous of all modern medical practices” (as you quote).

    BUT despite this, I do believe that those who are publicly anti-anti-vaccination only raise the profile of anti-vaccinationists by these kind of smear-articles. I think that a better approach is probably to simply continue to present the best available evidence in the clearest possible way, with relevant statistics and warnings so that people can make up their minds for themselves. The media love a conflict. Vilification of opponents will certainly generate attention – just not the kind of attention which is helpful for those actually interested in achieving reductions of preventable disease.

  4. Dr Joe says:

    Semelwiess was a maverick too. Yes some are way off on a tangent but it is only because of those prepared to question orthodoxy that any progress is made.Sorry Jane, we do not know everything yet. Getting rid of everyone who questions the status quo will see medicine stagnate. The price we pay for that is some whose ideas are “crazy”.

  5. Sue Ieraci says:

    Dr Joe – very little of modern science has developed through revolutionary out-of-the box theories – but more from years and years of hard work. Our community over-values the crazy maverick – they generally add little to overall knowledge. And then there are mavericks and mavericks. The proponents of mega-Vitamin C had a great following for their theories, but no evidence was produced to support them. On the other hand, the mavericks who worked out that peptic ulcer disease was infective committed themselves to the hard work of research, and produced their own evidence. Maverick ideas that turn out to be supported by evidence can change the world. Narcissistic theorists who feel no obligation to put their theories to the test can become subculture heroes, but they don’t save a lot of lives.

  6. Mia says:

    The problem with your article is that you are attacking on the ideological front (and trying to discredit by association). At the heart of the vacccine vs anti-vaccine debate is science – or should be! And as scientist, (medical professional) one has to ask: what evidence is available, what is the level and credibility of that evidence? Without these facts (and scientific rigor) the whole debate remains pointless – an ideological war. Science’s defence and argument can not be ideological “reasoning”, but scientific evidence – without bias.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.