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Pretending to be something you're not – Meryl Dorey's new blog

May 11, 2012

The Australian skeptical community was presented with a new member this week, a website calling itself "The REAL Australian Sceptics". (The site disappeared a few years later when the domain registration wasn't renewed.) You might think that it has something to do with the real Australian Skeptics, but you would be wrong. It is in fact a project of the Australian Vaccination Network, although this isn't mentioned anywhere on the site despite the rules about incorporated non-profit organisations saying:

An association's full name (including the word 'Incorporated' or the abbreviation 'Inc') must appear in legible characters on any letter, statement, invoice, notice, publication including website, order for goods or services or receipt in connection with its activities.

But let's not be pedantic about minor illegalities. We can leave that up to the relevant authorities (who have been notified, of course). See the Associations Incorporation Act 2009, Section 41 and the NSW Office of Fair Trading's rules for associations for more information.

When I first became aware in 2010 that the AVN had registered four domain names containing "australiansceptics" I sent Meryl Dorey, AVN President, the following email. I did not receive an answer.

Dear Ms Dorey,

You have no idea how pleased I was to find that you had registered various Internet domain names which include the word "australiansceptics". I knew that you were looking for something to do after you stepped down as President of AVN, but I never suspected that you would be planning to join me and my friends over here in skeptic land. As you usually use the spelling "septics" (a joke which is still funny after a million repetitions) and Australian Skeptics Inc use "skeptics", it seems obvious that you are planning your own skeptical organisation.

This can only be good news as the country needs as many supporters of skepticism and scientific and critical thinking as it can get to fight the forces of evil and nonsense. Sometimes it's difficult to convince sensible people that, for example, there are those who oppose vaccination, and it would be immensely useful to have someone with inside knowledge of organised insanity to help get the message of truth out.

As you are well aware, I do not speak for Australian Skeptics unless I specifically say so and in this case I am expressing my personal view. Australian Skeptics Inc might have an opinion on the matter but I will leave it up to them to comment.

I am sure that we can put aside the differences we have had in the past and I look forward to working with you to educate the population to recognise and accept medicine, science, rational thought and truth rather than quackery, magic, superstition and lies.

Your friend

When I saw the new deceptively-named web site I posted this email again as a comment. It wasn't published. I found out later that this was because comments were later blocked for the introduction page. This is not unreasonable but is usually done when the page is created, not as an afterthought. It did provide some amusement however, as the following Twitter exchange shows.

That's right – she follows the #StopAVN Twitter hashtag but replies to someone totally different. That takes real skill because most of the programs used to interact with Twitter automatically fill in the person being responded to. The Internet meme LULZ was given a heavy workout.

But now we should get on to the real commenting saga. The site contains a lot of words about how comments should be framed, pointing out that abuse will not be tolerated but dissenting views will be, references are required, and a whole lot of other stuff that experience says will only apply to people who are not friends of the AVN.

The first article posted to the blog was an insane rant by an anonymous person only identified as "HPS". It contained so many inaccuracies and outright lies that anyone with even a modicum of knowledge about science or medicine coming across it without prior exposure to the antics of anti-vaccination liars might see it as a joke. I posted the following comment:

For explanation, see Poe's Law and Landover Baptist.

I received this email from Ms Dorey, moderator of the blog:

I would like to offer you an opportunity to rewrite your comment so that it does not attack the person who wrote the blog post. If you do so, I will be happy to consider moderating it.

Kind regards,

As I couldn't see how I had been attacking anyone I didn't bother to reply.

Many of the comments on the article were posted by someone calling itself "ChildHealthSafety" with no further identification. This person runs an eponymous web site which also hides the identity of the site owner. Many (most? all?) of the comments made by this person were nonsensical reiterations of classic anti-vaccine lies. My opinion of anonymity is well known, so I posted the following comment. (Note – this might not be exactly what I wrote. I forgot to take a screen shot.)

Why doesn't ChildHealthSafety tell us its* name, either here or on its web site? What does it have to hide, or is it too unsure of its facts to back them up with a real name?

My name is Peter Bowditch and I am not ashamed to admit it.

* I use the pronoun "it" because it does not even reveal its gender.

I received the following from Ms Dorey:

I'm afraid that once again, your comment is attacking another commenter rather than commenting on the article and therefore, it will not be moderated. Please keep your posts on topic without making any derogatory comments about other people and I will be happy to approve them.

So asking someone to identify themselves is an attack. If that is the case then I can't go any further. Words are being used in a manner which is in conflict with normal usage of the English language. What is obvious, however, is that yet again Ms Dorey's claims of open and free speech are revealed as the vacuous statement they really are. Her idea of free speech is that she and people she agrees with can say anything they like without having to produce any evidence beyond anecdote and say-so while everyone else can just keep quiet. As I was banned from the AVN's Internet mailing list in 1999 without ever posting a message I can't say I'm surprised at the perpetuation of the cliché about leopards and spots.

I suppose allowing ChildHealthSafety to hide behind a pseudonym is consistent though. Consistent with, for example, registering domain names that look like they belong to someone else and then using them on a web site with a title very similar to the other party while simultaneously hiding your true identity. But as I have never expected an iota of honesty or ethics from anti-vaccination campaigners I can hardly say I'm surprised.

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