The Bent Spoon 2009…

By skepticlawyer

… Where whack-jobs get their just deserts.

I was kinda hoping Danny Nalliah and his anti-abortion noodles would get a guernsey, but the Australian Skeptics have instead gone for Meryl Dorey and her fellow anti-vax nutters for this year’s award. As Barry Williams tells it, the award has its origins back in 1982:

In 1982, Australian Skeptics instituted an award to be presented annually at the National Convention to individuals or organisations who made the most outrageous claim of a paranormal or pseudoscientific nature in the preceding year. After conferring with leading American Skeptic and illusionist, James Randi, who had earlier instituted a Bent Spoon award, it was decided that our award would also commemorate one of the less useful, though widely acclaimed, alleged paranormal claims; the psychic ability to distort items of cutlery. So was born the Australian Bent Spoon Award. Some years later, in a masterpiece of alliteration, it was decided that the preamble to the award should read ‘presented to the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudoscientific piffle.’

As Dorey’s brand of woo-woo actually helped to undermine herd immunity in areas where the AVN operates, contributing to a whooping cough epidemic and several deaths, I agree with the powers that be in the Skeptics that she trumps Nalliah (who still rates an honourable mention, in my view):

Testament to the efforts of the AVN are the significantly low vaccination rates on the North Coast of NSW where the AVN is located, which corresponded with a 2008 whooping cough epidemicMeasles outbreaks in QLD and whooping cough epidemics in South Australia have also been attributed to a loss of herd immunity as a direct result of the reduction in the take-up of childhood vaccination.

It’s been a tough year for Dorey who has received considerable mainstream criticism for her campaign of scaremongering and misinformation regarding the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Of note are her continuing false claims that vaccines contain toxic levels of elemental mercury, vaccines cause autism, shaken baby syndrome, SIDS and brain damage, and that vaccines are not responsible for a reduction in communicable disease, rather this is a product of increased sanitation and good food. In August 2009, Dorey and the AVN were the target of a national newspaper advertising campaign, financed by entrepreneur Dick Smith warning parents of Australia not to listen to the false claims of the AVN.

Now, before I leave you to be amused by the other nominees on the list (I especially like the new category of ‘noble savage woo’), I wish to dispense with one particularly pernicious AVN claim. I’m doing this because it’s one thing a non-scientist can do; I’d prefer to leave the rest of the debunking to scientists trained in the field. 

The AVN (and analogous groups) have long argued that vaccines are not responsible for a reduction in communicable disease, rather, that this is a product of increased sanitation and good food. This is wrong in a really twisted way, because it’s a half-truth, and half-truths can be harder to fight than outright, bare faced lies. See, improved sanitation and better food does increase life expectancy, and does help to prevent certain infections. It does not, however, do anything to stop viruses of the type implicated in most of the ‘childhood diseases’. How do I know this?

There are historical examples of societies that practiced good hygiene and sanitation but didn’t have vaccines, and — if we’re lucky — we can find out a great deal about what good hygiene and food can do… and what they can’t. Now having a volcano shit itself all over them was rather unfortunate for the 20,000+ people living in Pompeii and Herculaneum, but it showed us a few useful things nearly 2000 years later, and archaeologists have been able to study them and ‘report back’.

The people of Pompeii were taller on average than anyone up to the mid-20th century in the same region of Italy. That suggests they ate a varied diet with plenty of protein. Once people got past the age of 5, they tended to get to between 55-70 years of age. Not a developed-world life expectancy by any means, but a pretty decent one, and much better, once again, than anywhere on the planet until the early 20th century. They had all their teeth — even old people — which suggests both knowledge of oral hygiene and a diet without sugar. Allied to our knowledge of Pompeii is the fact that we have no records of puerperal fever from the high point of classical antiquity. It only turns up later, when people stopped washing daily. The ‘natural’ maternal mortality rate is approximately 1 in 100. Evidence suggests the Romans dragged that down to 1 in 200. So far so good. Public baths, public loos, quicklime to sanitize the baths, all good.

The Roman under-five mortality rate? 1 in 4. The Medieval under five mortality rate? 1 in 3. The Romans win by a nose, but not by much. One in four children died before the age of five. Infant mortality was so pervasive, Plutarch informs us, that the Romans forbade full funeral rights for children who died under the age of two. The dead bodies were thrown out with the household trash (something Colleen Mccullough got right in her various Rome books). Hey, at least the Romans had municipal rubbish collection… that doesn’t appear again in our records until Muslim Spain at its height.

One in four. Hold that thought.

In modern Italy (to keep the cross-country comparison consistent), the under 5 mortality rate is 5.6 in 1000. All the countries in the world are listed in a series of convenient graphs here. Only the very poorest and most war torn countries on the list are as bad or worse than the ‘best’ figures from the past. A world without vaccines but with good sanitation is almost impossible for modern westerners to imagine, but since we can’t hop in a time machine and go back to the ancient world, maybe we should send the anti-vaxxers on an all expenses paid holiday… to Sierra Leone. Even that, however, is distortionary, because NGOs sometimes manage to administer vaccines even in war zones, some parts of the country are sewered while some are not, and some of the deaths are no doubt caused by HIV.

On balance, sanitation and a decent diet will prolong your life once you get past the age of 5. They will improve maternal mortality rates in childbirth. They will make your cities smell a whole lot better. They will make you smell a whole let better. But they won’t stop smallpox, diptheria, whooping cough, polio, measles, rubella, tetanus and all the rest. Absent vaccines, these will kill many of your children. The deaths will fall unevenly, too. Some families from times past had all their children survive to adulthood; others lost the lot. It really was a death-dealer’s lottery.

One in four. Remember that.


  1. Posted November 30, 2009 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    The noble savage category was a bit baffling- the first para they pick out is not particularly post modern at all, it’s just saying talking about ability to read the land. Seems uncontroversial and not at all in conflict with science.

    The second one, sure, is a deflection to the mythology and beliefs of the indigenous people of the area. But at least they also mention the science. You’re not going to see a plaque clarifying ‘science shows this is all crap’ when you enter St Paul’s cathedral… or most of Australia’s most prestigious schools.

    On the primary topic of the post- yes this seems a worthy cause for the award. Kids have died because of it, and not necessarily the kids of the people who made that choice, and I don’t know how those parents cope with knowing they lost their child because of what you’ve unpicked above…

  2. Posted November 30, 2009 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Well said. The occasional brush I have had with these people has shown them to be both ignorant and bull-headed – a dangerous combination. And to make it worse, they’re not deciding for themselves, but for their, and other people’s, helpless children. Children too young to be vaccinated, born to parents who have every intention of acting responsibly, are the ones most likely to contract disease as a result of lowered herd immunity.

  3. Roz
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Their just dessert-spoons perhaps

  4. Posted November 30, 2009 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm. On the immunization thing and herd immunity: the more exclusive a group, the more I’m tempted to say “don’t immunize if you don’t want to”, especially if you say “non-immunized kids don’t go to state-owned schools/child-care”. If the non-immunization nuts want to start their own school, I reckon give them government assistance, assist with recruiting more like-minded parents to send their kids there.

    (My lefty fluffiness has temporarily gone out the window, I know)

    Yep, same reason I’d give some funding rebates for crystal and faith healers for serious disease INSTEAD of standard scientific medicine if you could manage a binding EITHER/OR contract between citizen and government that couldn’t be varied for at least 5 years. (And then I’d run a guilt-trip ad campaign for the theists to use prayer only rather than disprove their trust of their imaginary friend).

    Oh yeah, and if you are talking of immunization and child mortality rates… lefty me cannot help but point my libertarian/rightie friends to USA v Cuba stats according to the CIA handbook.

    I wonder if climate-change skepticism correlates with immunization skepticism? If not, why not, as they both reject a fairly heavy consensus of the scientific community? (And OK, I know vaccination efficacy/risks vary between vaccines, but even so…)

  5. Posted November 30, 2009 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if climate-change skepticism correlates with immunization skepticism?

    From the material that lands in the Skeptics’ in-tray, the opposite appears to be the case. There also seems to be a correlation between anti-vax, uber-pro climate change silliness and fluffwicca (like Hives, only more so).

    The problem with your earlier suggestion (which I sincerely hope was in jest) is the loss of herd immunity impacts most strongly on children too young to be vaccinated, as M-H points out. This is one case where the only appropriate response is compulsion; the positive externalities thereby generated are simply too large to be ignored.

    On Cuba: even if it is in the CIA factbook, I wouldn’t believe a damn thing said by the Cuban government… up to and including something uncontroversial like ‘the sky is blue’. Having worked on a couple of Cuban refugee matters over here, I’ve learnt that they (the govt, not the refugees) are bigger liars than the Chinese (which is actually hard to do). When the system shits itself (as it eventually will), all those people who held Cuba up as some sort of ‘model’ will be forced to admit (as they were with the previous lot of alternatives to capitalism) that the Readers’ Digest was right.

  6. conrad
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Speaking about people being right and wrong, the AVN people make me 102% sure that Darwin was right. The stupid die out.
    The lack the AVN crowd have of any real ability to understand probabilities is also disturbing. Even if they were correct, and there was an exceedingly small chance of being harmed by the vaccine, it still remains the case that thanks to international air travel, it’s no-doubt less than the chance of catching the nasty disease and being
    harmed by it.

  7. Posted November 30, 2009 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    Have just deleted a defamatory comment about the couple who lost their four week old daughter. Note to punters: this site is run by two lawyers. We know what defamation looks like.

    Also note to punters: one of those lawyers is currently pursuing a DPhil in law and economics, so knows a bit about this.

  8. Posted November 30, 2009 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] said “There also seems to be a correlation between anti-vax, uber-pro climate change silliness and fluffwicca (like Hives, only more so).”
    Wow! (dunno what Hives are apart from bees and inflammatory reaction). I guess their climate position is derived via the same dodgy decision-making processes as the uber-skeptics.

    And yes, my comment was 75% jest, 75% anger, 100% frustration. I look on anti-vaccination stances, without a very good medical reason, as darn close to a failure of proper care – and a big state should possibly have the right to intervene (herd immunity considerations might cause some internal conflict in the minds of a libertarian). My qualifier about keeping non-vaxed families out of state schools/child-care centres was for the same reasons as yours, although mainly for those kids who have a genuine disorder that prevents them having a vaccine and should be allowed into state schools because they are such a small minority it won’t affect herd immunity.

    It’s worth noting that pertussis (whooping cough) rates in Vic/NSW have got bad enough over the last couple of years for the US Center for Disease Control to issue travel warnings… and the pertussis vaccine has been around for years. (Hmmm… woo affecting tourist dollar inflow…).

    btw: Some vaccines I’m NOT a fan of… such as the Helicobacter pylori vaccines Big Pharma are pushing, except for those with problems already caused by H.pylori.

    And (as you would have guessed) loved the Herculaneum data. I’m not surprised McCullogh got and presented what she did, with a lab background and owning a complete set of red and green Loebs (lucky sod), she probably didn’t have much of a choice.

  9. Posted December 1, 2009 at 4:34 am | Permalink

    Wonderful article skepticlawyer. Yesterday was indeed a big day, with our very own Troofers trumpeting AVN Fear Drives to raise money.

    “There will come a time – I pray to God that it will happen in my lifetime – when those who have pushed vaccines upon innocent, helpless babies – doctors, pharmaceutical companies, government officials – will be proven to have lied and cheated these instruments of death into our children’s bloodstream. When that occurs, the outcry will be heard around the world and there will not be enough hiding places on the globe for these murderers to hide or enough money to pay for compensation. Of course, it will be too late for the babies, like this poor child, to be saved. But we will be able to take satisfaction from the fact that never again will anyone have to be pushed to poison their child because for once and for all, it will be known as poison and we will all wonder how it was we fell for the vaccine lie for as long as we did.”
    Meryl Dorey, President, Australian Vaccination Network
    AVN Yahoo! group, 17 Dec 2008, message #36449
    Recent antics include “saving” neonates from the brutal horror of life saving Hepatitis B surface antigens. This is a repeat of Aug. 2008 in which the AVN hid a family from DoCS and police to ensure “informed choice”.

    In Dorey’s own words:

    “This young woman was ready to go into hiding should that be required – as the family last year did when they were also being forced to decide between their child’s health and their freedom to reject the Hep B vaccination.”

    Source: Meryl Dorey AVN Yahoo! Message #41001, entitled “A Great Victory For Informed Choice”.

    In my experience Drug Free is Evidence Free and the AVN have parallels in the morally conservative world. Harm Minimisation also protects our community yet remains under constant criticism from lobbyists.

  10. Posted December 1, 2009 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    WAIT- reopen nominations! Senator Minchin was a tobacco “skeptic”:

    Wow. I wonder if he bends spoons too?

  11. Kodjo
    Posted December 1, 2009 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Nice post

  12. Posted December 1, 2009 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your feedback all; it’s been nice to get some actual information out there…

  13. Posted December 2, 2009 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    Great post. Anything that spreads basic historical data so effectively gets my vote.

    Especially against the criminally stupid anti-vaccine campaign.

  14. Viola
    Posted December 8, 2009 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    There are only a small number of children affected by the vaccine, I agree, but perhaps doctors should do more for them and think about this situation more. It is arguable that until they do this there will still be many people who won’t let their children have the vaccine.

    My brother was allergic to the vaccine and it did him great harm. (This was a long time ago and it’s improved.) She still bitterly hates the specialist who demanded that she give my brother the vaccine.

    My point is that some children are affected by the vaccine and very little is done for them. I can understand why people are scared to give their children the vaccine and they’re certainly not all mad. I’ve met one who was extremely well-educated.

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