A Flu Tale of Intellectual Bullying?

One form of bullying, shunning, and isolation that doesn’t get enough attention is what happens to folks in academic and research positions who take a position that happens to collide or conflict with the conventional wisdom.  In the hard sciences especially, but in the social sciences and humanities as well, history shows us that life can get mighty uncomfortable for those who question the prevailing views within their disciplines.

Such appears to be the case in the debate over flu vaccinations.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not someone who swears off all vaccinations.  Many years, I’ve taken the seasonal flu shot, and I believe I’m up to date on whatever other shots I’m supposed to have.  Furthermore, as I explain in more detail below, I’m petrified of a deadly flu pandemic.  However, I’ve experienced some flu-like days after taking the flu shot. More generally, I also have concerns over the mounting number of obligatory and semi-obligatory vaccinations, as well as the pharmaceutical industry’s role in generating demand for their products.

They dared to question

It was with that attitude that I approached a lengthy article in the November issue of The Atlantic, “Does the Vaccine Matter?,” highlighting research that questions the efficacy of flu shots and claims made by drug manufacturers about their effectiveness.  Health writers Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer describe some of the medical establishment’s reactions to researchers who are challenging the dominant orthodoxy.  This article does not adopt the worldview of the hard-core anti-vaccine faction; it simply questions whether flu vaccines do what they claim to do.

For example, it cites the work of physician and researcher Lisa Jackson, who led a 2004 study concluding that the flu vaccine may not have any effect in reducing mortality levels.  One authority on influenza and vaccines is quoted as labeling her research “beautiful” and “classic studies in epidemiology.”  And yet she was warned by others that “no good” could come of her research.  Top-ranked medical journals would not publish her work.

The article also references the work of physician and researcher Tom Jefferson, who has challenged claims that a flu vaccine can reduce all deaths by 50-90 percent.  In his view, it would be a “miracle,” not a vaccine, for something to produce such a result.  Jefferson has been shunned by other colleagues at professional gatherings due to the positions he has taken.


In the blogosphere, some of the reactions to the piece have been sharply critical, especially concerning references to Tom Jefferson.  Effect Measure states as part of a long response:

Unfortunately by taking as their main example flu vaccine during a pandemic, they have not only picked the wrong example but created more confusion at a time when there’s already too much.

…I understand the rhetorical value of having a martyr-hero [Dr. Jefferson] when pitching a story, but this was a particularly irresponsible time to pull this stunt.

And here’s a snippet from another long commentary, this one in Respectful Insolence:

At or near the top of the list has to be a biased and poorly framed article that appeared in The Atlantic this month. I tell ya, I’ve been a subscriber to The Atlantic for at least 25 years, and for the first time ever I’m seriously tempted to let my subscription lapse when it expires early next year. In the 25 years I’ve been a subscriber, I’ve never seen such a credulous, irresponsible piece of “journalism” appear in The Atlantic.

(Comment 18 is a lengthy response from Brownlee and Lenzer.)

Inconvenient conclusions

I am hardly qualified to use any public medium to preach a hard position on the flu vaccine question, but as an academician I do understand how research and scholarly communities might attempt to bully, shun, or ignore those whose work leads to unpopular or inconvenient conclusions.  The “go along, get along” attitude all too often prevails in the world of ideas, and those who confront conventional wisdom  — even when backed by research and analysis — may well find themselves marginalized by the dominant group.

The process is understandable, if not defensible: In the realm of research and scholarship, one may build an entire career around staking a claim to certain bodies of knowledge and scientific conclusions.  Especially in fields related to science and health, there may be a lot of money at stake as well.  Those who make wild claims from the “fringes” can be easily ignored, but when others come along and back their challenges with research studies, that’s when invested Powers that Be may start resisting and even lashing out.

Both ways, at times

Of course, some who oppose vaccination can get awfully strident as well.  Though I question some of the motivations of Big Pharma and researchers who shill for them, I’m alarmed at wholesale criticisms of a form of preventive care that has saved lives (smallpox or polio, anyone?) and with harsh attacks directed at legitimate researchers whose work happens to come out on the side of vaccination.  (“An Epidemic of Fear” by Amy Wallace in the November issue of Wired magazine aptly raises those concerns and makes a case for getting the flu shots.)

Still and all, genuine bullying requires a power imbalance, and in health and medicine, that balance tips strongly in favor of the medical establishment.  Many conventional wisdoms defended by that community have fallen by the wayside over the years, so perhaps we should not be so quick to dismiss those who question long-held beliefs about the effectiveness and safety of various prevention, treatment, and care options.  (Remember a time not so long ago when antibiotics were being dispensed willy-nilly?)  Those who question the efficacy of flu vaccines may turn out to be wrong, but they appear to have raised credible concerns.  Maybe that very credibility has triggered such an aggressive response.

Sidebar:  Lest readers think I’m taking the flu question too lightly because I’m acknowledging criticisms of flu vaccines, I assure you that for years the possibility of a flu pandemic has scared the daylights out of me.  In fact, the commentary that really shook me up over the weekend was Robin Cook’s piece in Foreign Policy, in which the good doctor and thriller writer posed the scenario of the swine flu and bird flu mixing together to create an influenza pandemic that would rival the 1918 outbreak or even plagues of centuries past.

Of course, online comments to that piece have dismissed Cook by saying he’s simply trying to sell books.  I don’t think he needs the money, but it’s easier to believe that than to imagine the possibility he wrote about.

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