Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Lying with the Truth

By Peter Bowditch

Association with a prestigious organisation can bestow credibility upon those who don’t deserve it.

A phenomenon called the “halo effect” is well-known to psychologists and advertising executives. This where some thing, person or event is associated in the minds of observers with some other thing, person or event, and the perception is influenced by the real or perceived qualities and authority of this reference. In layman’s terms it’s called “reflected glory”. It’s what motivates people to have pictures on their office walls of them shaking hands with famous or influential people, and is also part of the philosophy behind celebrity endorsement of products.

The halo effect can be used to deceive, and one way that it is used constantly by pseudoscientists and quacks is to rent meeting rooms and then use the name of the venue or institution in promotion or post-event reporting to suggest that whatever was said was somehow endorsed by the owner of the venue. Universities are very open to this sort of abuse, and I am sure we have all seen things like “It was announced at Harvard yesterday ...” followed by a report of something that was said at some event that was only related to the university because of the location.

For example, I went to a recording of a television show about a psychic once, and for some reason it was held in one of the lecture theatres at Westmead Hospital. Mercifully, nobody made any announcements about how psychic powers had been demonstrated at Sydney University’s medical school, but perhaps nobody thought of it.

A few years back some UFO nuts rented a room in an office building in Washington that houses support staff for US Senators. Because the building has the word “Senate” in its name, they actually put out press releases that began: “It was announced in the Senate today ...”. Of course, the true believers lapped it up and repeated the story, although, unlike the conference organisers, they might not have known it was a lie.

In another example, some 9/11 Truthers announced that a conference was to be held at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum with the obvious intention of linking their idiocy with a scientific establishment. Luckily I was able to inform the Museum staff of the potential for abuse and embarrassment that the place was facing, and the Truthers were told to peddle their madness elsewhere.

Another example of this deceit dropped into my mailbox recently under the heading: “Dr Andrew Wakefield speaks at Parliament on Autism”. You will remember Dr Wakefield as the author of a paper published in The Lancet in 1998 that suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This paper led directly to reduced vaccination rates and the deaths of children. The paper has since been retracted by the journal, and Wakefield’s ability to practise medicine has been withdrawn. These actions followed revelations of Wakefield’s unethical behaviour, extreme conflicts of interest and deliberate stretching of research conclusions beyond what was in the data.

As I couldn’t imagine why any parliament of any respectable country would want to have anything to do with a discredited and deregistered ex-doctor, and as in most places the only outsiders who get to address houses of parliament are foreign heads of state, I immediately assumed that I was being lied to. Actually, as the email had come from someone who would lie to his grandmother about the day of the week if that could cast doubts on vaccines, I probably didn’t have to check any further. I noticed, of course, that the announcement said “at Parliament”, not “to Parliament”, but I am certain that the nuance would be missed by the true believers. The implication is there, and that is all that is needed when the “badness” of vaccines is being discussed.

And did ex-Dr Wakefield speak “at” a parliament? Well, yes: in a rented meeting room at the European Parliament HQ in Brussels.

Did he speak “to” parliament? No, although some members might have gone along because they had nothing better to do.

Did the European Parliament endorse what he had to say? Not that I could see.

And did he provide any new information about any possible link between vaccines and autism? That is a rhetorical question, as deceit about vaccines and autism is what he does for a living. I started watching the video of his speech but gave up when he put up a PowerPoint slide showing the tired old anti-vaccination clichés coming in the rest of the talk.

I predict that Wakefield speaking to a parliament will be part of anti-vaccination folklore within weeks, and it will be used to “prove” that his advocacy of placing children in harm’s way is gaining acceptance from legislators and politicians.

There are reasons why I call anti-vaccination liars “liars”.

Peter Bowditch is Immediate Past President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (