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Friday, October 21, 2016

There’s been some tense back-and-forth over the Canadian mother who said she had stopped opposing vaccinations after all seven of her kids came down with whooping cough. Some say we should loudly thank Tara Hills for publicly disowning her anti-vax campaign. Others — me, for instance — are feeling less grateful.

Hills went beyond spreading lies about the “dangers” of vaccinations and exposing her Ottawa neighbors to serious disease. She strongly implied that the best medical authorities are “puppets of a Big Pharma-Government-Media conspiracy,” according to The Washington Post — and on a site demoniacally named

You’ve probably seen the famous cartoon showing a dog at a computer saying to another dog, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The word “dog” could have been replaced with “fraud.”

As more Americans turn to online forums for advice on everything from where to eat to whether they need surgery, concerns mount about the quality of the information. Readers often use the consensus of forum participants to bypass the views of recognized experts. And because these forums are usually little-monitored, the “weight of opinion” is often determined by the most verbose and those with too much time on their hands.

Millennials have become especially reliant on (apparent) group consensus, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers on the “sharing economy.” “If trust in individuals and institutions is waning or at best holding steady,” the report notes, “faith in the aggregate is growing.”

That is, consumers who disbelieve a hotel chain’s claims of fine accommodations will show up at the door of a total stranger, renting a room via Airbnb — their trust totally based on reviews submitted by who-knows-who.

As we know, interested parties or crazy people can create a phony consensus. Then you have people like the Ottawa mother, who seemed truly committed to her beliefs but was too lazy or unable to examine expert opinion in reaching them.

In a similar vein, Sarah Watts wrote an interesting essay about her online confab with other millennial new mothers on caring for an infant. At the time, her own mother was on the scene urging her not to worry if baby June cried shortly after a feeding. The crying will stop, the mother’s mother said. That advice turned out to be good.

“I had been scouring message boards and Facebook groups during June’s nursing sessions,” Watts said, “and I had stumbled on discussions of every kind of parenting issue imaginable.” Some were issues she had never heard of, such as cord clamping and vitamin K shots.

Most posted questions, Watts observed, resulted in respondents “bandying conflicting research like a weapon, every one of them armed with a battery of qualifiers to describe her personal parenting philosophy.” (I might take her skepticism one step further and wonder whether the other “moms” were actually mothers or even women.)

We see the clamor of anonymous and inexpert posts on everything from foreign policy to breastfeeding. Certain forums are purposely designed to buttress one point of view. They attract like-minded commenters, who leave the impression of overwhelming support for a position.

It’s crazy out there. Good sites are often so plagued by armies of the uninformed filling their forums with dimwitted comments that smart people stay away. But some well-run forums are hugely interesting.

It’s a sign of the times that Californians trying to tighten the vaccination mandate for schoolchildren now worry that the drawn-out legislative process will open the door to anti-vaxxers intent on poisoning public opinion. In many cases, readers won’t even know who they are. The scary part is many won’t even care.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected] To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at

Photo: Screengrab of an anti-vaxxer forum on

  • The lucky one

    Good points made by the author but it’s also true that many “experts” are paid by interested parties, pharmaceutical companies for instance, to promote views that help sell their products. Whooping cough vaccine may be worthwhile but the hysteria promoted by experts aroung the flu vaccine is just to sell product. A product that by the “experts” own admission was about 20% effective this year. Beware of all advice, do your own research and look for conflicting views, then make your decisions.

    • Allan Richardson

      I think 20 percent effective is better than ZERO percent effective, especially since the flu can affect some people far worse than almost all side effects. There is no way to convince antivaccination fanatics. If the government were to pay to have the vaccines made, and to have nurses (or PAs) go door to door to give shots for free, as they did for polio vaccines in the 1950s, that would mean to some that the “big scary government is giving us mind control medication to protect us from a disease which doesn’t really exist.” If the vaccines are made in the private sector and sold for reasonable cost in doctors’ offices and chain drug store clinics, that proves that “Big Pharma just made up the disease to sell more copies of a phony medicine which will actually hurt us.”

      What WOULD be an acceptable way to address the public health problem of communicable disease prevention? Publish the scientific papers describing the disease, publish the protocols for making the vaccines, and ask people to co-opt a meth lab and turn it to a good purpose by MAKING THEIR OWN? If no one makes the vaccine (and it should be made by professionals with the best possible quality control, not by the same people who make meth), no one can benefit from it. It must, therefore, be made and distributed EITHER by a for-profit business, meaning that SOMEONE (either government or insurance companies or individuals) must pay for it, distribute it, and give the injections, OR by a not-for-profit, either GOVERNMENT or a PRIVATE CHARITY (such as a church). Not many churches have the liquid resources (actual DOLLARS in the bank, NOT thousand year old art treasures) to manufacture, distribute, and inoculate even their OWN members, much less the entire POPULATION.

      So, no matter how a vaccine is made, distributed, administered or paid for, SOME kind of “conspiracy” is involved, right? Given today’s attitude in the middle of the 20th century, we would still have polio and smallpox, along with measles outbreaks, pertussis (whooping cough), chicken pox (setting a time bomb for shinges later), etc etc etc. Wanna buy a used iron lung cheap?

      • The lucky one

        As I said some vaccines are worth taking and others are not. IMHO it is equally foolish to reject all vaccines as it is to slavishly embrace every vaccine that comes along. There is no substitute for doing your own due diligence and making an informed decision. The Cochrane databases are a good place to start to find unbiased reviews of the current research. No, 20% effective is not better than nothing because 20% could be expected from a placebo. Are individual single doses dangerous? Probably only for a very small number of people but the threat does exist and we don’t know what the effect is on the nervous and immune systems of doses repeated yearly over a long period of time.
        I used the flu vaccine as an example because it is ineffective for a number of reasons. One is that it is impossible to predict the strains that will be active during the next season in time enough to produce them. For those who flu is life threatening maybe it’s worth it but for me my research tells me it is not. I don’t need to hypothesize a conspiracy to reach that conclusion. However there are plenty of instances of preventions and “cures” being sold by some members of the medical profession and their suppliers that turned out to useless and sometimes harmful. To each his own but I will reserve the right to make my own choice based on my understanding. No flu vaccine for me.

        • elw

          You are right to a degree. Younger healthier people probably have the same risk level whether they get an annual flu shot or not, but those who are compromised health wise benefit by getting it. When I was working (retired now) I got one every year because I work directly with patients. Now I will get one if it is convenient, but never worry about it If I miss it. But then I am healthy and get so little exposure either way is a good bet for me.

          • Luba Petrusha

            The Spanish flu preferentially killed the young and healthy. So that’s not always protective.

          • elw

            You right that us why I said to a degree. Healthy people are more likely to survive the flu, but that is not always true and if they get sick, there is no telling how sick they will get and what kind of complication will affect them. It is not unusual for the complication to do more damage than the flu.

          • dpaano

            I get a flu shot every year no matter what…..I’ve also gotten other strains of the flu even after being vaccinated; however, the shot kept the aches and pains to a minimum as opposed to NOT having been vaccinated. I will continue to keep my flu and pneumonia shots up to date, also my mammos and pap smears (even at age 69)!! I’d rather go through the litany of vaccinations, etc., than to not and end up regretting it. That, however, is just my opinion.

          • elw

            It is actually more than a opinion, it is smart and sane thing to do.

      • ralphkr

        Every time I read about people arguing about vaccinations I am reminded of the time in the early 1960s when I worked in a Post Office that was an entry point for mail from both Asia & Northern Europe. I would be casing mail and suddenly someone would be rolling up my shirt sleeve, swabbing my arm, and giving me a shot, without a word being spoken. We were never told what the shot was for other than a new epidemic had broken out somewhere. None of us ever got sick from those vaccinations nor did any of us catch the plague or whatever was currently raging in Asia.

  • R Michael Maddox

    Oh Hell. What a good article. I am always trying to get people I know, to STOP listening to any GOOBER that says something on the Web. OR THE MEDIA, for that matter. I find it quite amazing that a woman, or man for that matter, would listen to some stranger about issues that could harm them or their children. Instead of finding a knowledgeable professional to get SOUND information or suggestion concerning the well being of themselves or loved ones. Just like politics, people have their own “trusted” {sik} places to get their information. I try, sometimes to the point of pulling out my hair, to get people to RESEARCH many places to get the FACTS about a person that they think they will be voting for. CSPAN, CSPAN2,, There are MANY ways to find out the truth about someone, or about an issue, If you research responsibly, and in many varied places, you can then, form an INTELLEGENT decision about what you are looking for. But ,we as a society, seem to have such a narrow line of sight any more. A wise man once told me, “I am never too old to learn something new”. But now days, everyone seems to think they know everything about everything. When we cease to keep an open mind, we will cease to advance as a society. Just think back in history and think about if peoples through the ages stopped thinking outside the box. Stopped looking for more answers. Stopped learning from other people or other creatures for that matter. What if people did not follow the thought that “hey that animal is eating that berry or green or flower, maybe we should try it , before we starve to death.” You should NEVER STOP LEARNING, BUT, look many places for the answers you seek. We are the only creature on this planet with the ability to REASON and weigh the possibilities. And have the ability to turn around and go the other way if the forward path might be blocked, or could lead you some place you really do not want to go. Don’t listen to just one source , LISTEN TO THEM ALL! Never know, you just might find the TRUTH!! IF that is what you are seeking. IF you are not blind to it. Hell, you might even realize, “That is a good idea, I been thinking about this ALLL wrong, ALLL this time.” Once again, Isn’t it wonderful, BEING A HUMAN, WITH A BRAIN AND REASONING SKILLS”.