Noakes and vaccine-assisted herd immunity

Professor Tim Noakes has published a response to Nathan Geffen’s criticism of a recent radio interview, where Geffen argued that Noakes was running the risk of misleading the public and “demean[ing] the scientific and medical community”.

One reason I haven’t written about Noakes for 18 months or so – despite his recent interest in climate-change scepticism, and his continued misrepresentation of his critics – is that I thought he was doing enough to demonstrate his epistemic irresponsibility without people like me having to point it out.

Also, his core following already believe – with encouragement from him – that I and other critical voices are simply “trolls” who have no interest in giving him a fair hearing in any case. So what would be the point of saying any more?

On the other hand, misinformation and disinformation thrive when nobody calls it out, and here, the disinformation is potentially dangerous, in that vaccine-assisted herd immunity is necessary for Covid-19 to become a relatively trivial problem for all of us.

So, as I’ve said before, it matters less whether Noakes is anti-vaccination than whether he could plausibly be interpreted by others as casting doubt on the efficacy of vaccines, and/or on the motives of those who recommend vaccines.

And in a general sense, the approach he takes – both in responding to criticism on Twitter, and with regard the interview Geffen wrote about – of saying he’s just “asking questions, like scientists do” ignores the fact that if you only ask certain questions, typically derived from certain sources, your defence is made threadbare. You’re not just asking questions, but instead acting as an agent of doubt with respect to a particular point of view.

Let’s look at a few examples from his lengthy response to Geffen’s piece, initially published on GroundUp, and then on Daily Maverick (disclosure: I have written for both of these publications). It opens with:

This is the second time that Dr Geffen has disparaged me publicly. His most recent article follows the identical approach of a previous article of August 28th 2014 (2): the similarities are instructive. Both articles were distributed seamlessly and instantly through his well-oiled networks in the social, print and broadcast medias.

Leaving aside that disparagement is in the eye of the beholder (Noakes has been very critical of others, and when he does so, seems to treat that as robust science in action), the conspiratorial thinking is evident right from the start. GroundUp and Daily Maverick have been in partnership since 2012, and articles on the first are routinely cross-published on the second, on the same day.

The same sort of collaboration can be seen between Pierre de Vos’s Constitutionally Speaking and Daily Maverick. “Seamlessly and instantly” is how the Internet works, and it doesn’t require a network of intrigue, “well-oiled” or not.

But Geffin [sic] knows that I am not “anti-vax”. I received the regular childhood vaccines as did my children and grandchildren. I have never advised the general public to refuse vaccinations. On Twitter I have repeatedly stated that vaccination is one of the great achievements of modern medicine; a discovery that has saved millions of lives.

This anti-vax issue is the one I will focus on, as it offers a clear example of Noakes cherry-picking sources and ignoring reasonable criticism in favour of confirming his biases. This paragraph is profoundly misleading. First, the personal historical precedents are unhelpful, given that Noakes considers it one of his virtues that he has changed his mind on fundamental issues.

Second, the quotes in favour of vaccinations need to be read alongside those from Noakes that cast doubt on vaccinations. He only presents one side of the argument here, for example leaving out something like this: “but there is evidence that [vaccination results in autism], you see”. (From the interview transcribed here.)

He then returns to the debunked “CDC Whistleblower” story, where Dr William W. Thompson alleged that the CDC was obscuring findings that black male American children developed autism at higher rates than other male children, following MMR vaccination.

The evidence proving these allegations to be correct has since been published in a peer reviewed journal, the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons (4). Thus my original Tweet conveyed information that has since been proven to be factually correct. It is difficult to understand how factually correct information can be “dangerous”.

So, that is a journal published by an activist group – the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons – who openly oppose vaccination, abortion, and various other things under a right-leaning ideology of protecting patients from state interference. Ron and Rand Paul are members, as is notorious quack Joseph Mercola.

The Association is not considered credible, and their journal is not listed on or in PubMed, Web of Science, Google Scholar, nor the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It is, however, listed on Beall’s list of potential predatory journals, where predatory journals are typically understood as those that take money from authors for publication without doing the peer-review or quality control one expects in scientific journals.

Noakes further forgets to mention that a similar paper by the same author was initially published in Translational Neurodegeneration (2004). Barely a month after publication, the paper was however retracted, with the journal editors remarking that:

The Editor and Publisher regretfully retract the article [1] as there were undeclared competing interests on the part of the author which compromised the peer review process. Furthermore, post-publication peer review raised concerns about the validity of the methods and statistical analysis, therefore the Editors no longer have confidence in the soundness of the findings. We apologise to all affected parties for the inconvenience caused.

Here’s Dr David Gorski on all the errors that persist in the new version of Hooker’s paper. And, you might not be surprised to read that Hooker is on the board of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccine organisation.

Nevertheless, the “proof” offered in the Hooker paper is, for Noakes, sufficient to say:

Also, in his article vaccine-activist Geffen refers to the work of Dr Andrew Wakefield whose “name has become synonymous with dishonesty in science”. Yet, whatever is the truth of that allegation, the reality is that Wakefield’s original paper apparently “fatally flawed both scientifically and ethically” according to Geffen, nevertheless was the first to identify the findings that the Hooker paper (4) has now confirmed. Perhaps Geffen might at the same time also apologize to Dr Wakefield.

So, an initially-retracted paper, now published in a partisan (anti-vaccine) and possibly predatory journal is evidence that Wakefield deserves an apology, and more crucially, considered evidence of anything relating to the scientific issues, for Noakes?

Noakes soon moves on to an extended tribute to his own achievements, but not before saying:

Now that we understand how Geffen’s mind functions, we can move on to a detailed exposition of his more recent  attempt to discredit me.

Dr Geffen PhD has no training in medicine, virology, pharmacology, physiology, or in any of the biological sciences. Yet he believes that he is sufficiently expert in all these topics to offer definitive answers to his audience.

The curious thing here is that Hooker has a bachelors degree and a doctorate in chemical engineering, but also none of the qualifications listed above, which you’d recall was reason to dismiss Geffen’s input.

How then, can Hooker’s input (from the unreliable source described above, and where he is known to be anti-vaccine) be taken as confirming Wakefield’s claims?

There are many more words in Noakes’ response, but they are about treatments, where I can’t offer any views. But I hope that the above has at least demonstrated first, that Noakes is not being at all receptive to criticism, and second, that evidence that accords with his views is sometimes not interrogated nearly enough.

Lastly, and again, the piece expressly argues that Wakefield now merits an apology. Wakefield told us that vaccines cause autism, in a retracted paper that is not supported by the vast majority of scientists.

So whatever role this “rebuttal” of Geffen serves, being pro-vaccination is certainly not one of them. And, when we finally have a vaccine for Covid-19, I would think it pretty likely that some folks – without necessarily remembering any details – might think: “oh, but remember, Professor Noakes said Wakefield was right about vaccines, and that the CDC are part of the conspiracy because they profit from vaccines”.

If so, and if they decline the vaccine, that impedes the fight against Covid-19 – no matter how big or small you think that fight is. Even if you are part of “it’s no big deal” crowd, but still want fewer rather than more deaths, being vaccine-sceptical in this way is irresponsible, and immoral.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.