Field of Science

What makes an expert dangerous?

Via WikiMedia Commons
Today, an autism parent tweeted a link to the @thinkingautism twitter account asking, "Do you know who Tetyana Obukhanych is?", and linking to a site called "Natural Immunity." I hadn't heard of her, so I went to the site, where I found that Obukhanych's goal in life, as stated there, is 
to fully grasp the impact vaccination has on our individual and population immunity and to master effective and safe measures for dealing with acute illness in the absence of vaccination.
Enormous tasks for a single person, I'd say. I'd argue that vaccination is already a safe and effective measure for preventing acute illness, which seems preferable to contracting an acute illness that kills people. It also seems that we did that whole "dealing with acute illness in the absence of vaccination" thing for millennia without much success with the "dealing" part. At any rate, obviously, this is Just Another Antivax Website. Or is it?

Some antivax sites began with parents. Some began with MDs or DOs or chiropractors out to make a buck. But this one? The person who runs this site has credentials. In fact, she has credentials in immunology. She is presumably one of the experts I referenced when I wrote about what's required to gain expertise in science. She has a PhD in immunology and says she is currently a postdoctoral fellow in immunology (ETA: although the immunology part of that is difficult to discern) at one of the premier research universities in the world. In other words, she's an expert. I'm going to have to modify what I described in that post and add... "someone who adheres to the evidence-based practices of their profession and the scientific method."

According to her bio on her site, this expert references having witnessed the "corrupted attempts at the development of new vaccine strategies." No specifics, but this experience evidently drove her to determine that vaccines are bad and that we must find ways to deal with "acute illness in the absence of vaccination." Don't know about you, but I'd rather stick with prevention than time travel back to the Stone Age.

Recently, I published a list of what to watch out for when trying to distinguish science and pseudoscience. The short form of that list is below. Let's apply it. 

  1. The source here is clearly someone with specific training in this field. Apparently, Harvard narrowly missed having her as a postdoc, as she seems instead to have ended up at Stanford. 
  2. The agenda here may include the class that Obukhanych is offering, which she describes as including information about vaccine exemptions in California from daycare and regular schools. The class is $20 per person, limited to four people per class. She also offers herself up for "public lectures on vaccinations" and is giving one this coming February that's $30 bucks a head or couple. You know, we really need to pay postdocs more.
  3. The language is careful. It's caring. It talks about "empowerment" and ensuring that parents are "truly informed." This is marketing language to avoid the appearance of being reactionary and instead to give the appearance of being eminently sensible, welcoming, and calm. It's also the same kind of language antivax organizations like the National Vaccine Information Center uses. Insidious and ingratiating, it's concern troll language at its smoothest. I'm starting to wonder if there's some sort of antivax marketing guide these folks all use.
  4. Does it involve testimonials? No. This appears to be a new enterprise.
  5. Are there claims of exclusivity? Only the implication that because of her expertise, she knows things you don't...and apparently no one else in immunology does, either.
  6. Yes. "Corrupted attempts at the development of new vaccine strategies" and "proclaimed virtues of vaccines."
  7. It refers simply to "vaccine injuries." 
  8. Yes. Classes at $20 per person, lecture at $30 a head, although take from the door is not stated.  
  9. None are given. The reading list she provides includes tomes that emphasize homeopathy, a widely debunked form of pseudoscience.
  10. Is there expertise? Yes. 

And that last is what makes this so demoralizing and so dangerous. Not only is there expertise but also there is the cachet of a high-profile research institution with which she is associated, at least temporarily, and which she is careful to highlight. This combination of training and a high-profile institution results in the dangerous embodiment of someone who can--and apparently will--argue against lifesaving public health measures for a mere 20 bucks a head. As I noted in my post about distinguishing real and fake science, "even MDs and PhDs can be disposed to acquisitiveness. Never forget to look for the money. Always, always follow the money."

Her association with Stanford led to a discussion on Twitter that began with a tweet asking what Stanford might do about it. As another tweeter noted, Stanford shouldn't do much of anything about it unless she's somehow violated a contractual agreement. It is a feature of antivax proponents to contact people's employers and demand their ouster, sometimes to the point of harassment. That's not right, and it's not something that should be done here. But the association of Stanford with their postdoc's anti-science, antivax efforts likely will not reflect well on the university.

As noted above, Obukhanych is giving a seminar in February at a place called The Red Tent, where women can gather and, it says, support each other through all of life's transitions. I hope that such support includes transitions involving life-threatening disease because based on what Obukhanych is promising to teach attendees of her seminar, it's a potential outcome, one that's playing out everywhere vaccine uptake rates decline.

She expects to discuss what she calls "three pillars that support the illusion of vaccine effectiveness and safety." Evidently, she plans to pull out dead-horse tropes about how vaccines didn't really eradicate diseases like smallpox, that there's a "lack" of evidence-based research to back up claims of vaccine effectiveness and safety, and that the "immunologic theory" underlying vaccination is profoundly flawed. Finally, the summary of her planned lecture says, she is the mother of a "healthy, unvaccinated toddler," and she herself "experienced most of the benign infectious diseases of her childhood" in Ukraine. That last thing drives me nuts. I admit it. "I survived" is not somehow evidence that everyone else will, too. I've survived three full-term pregnancies. That doesn't mean all women do. Also, I'm wondering if among those "benign" childhood diseases, she experienced polio, meningitis, or diphtheria.

In other words, there is not one thing here that's new, that hasn't been debunked and thoroughly buried under evidence and data. Nothing here in content that distinguishes the originator from any number of antivax Websites and woo peddlers. She even gives the laundry list of woo-based caveats on her site, from the "aluminum in vaccines will rot your brain" oldie but goodie (it will not) to "you can eat your way to avoiding infectious disease!" (if only).  But...despite this faithful reflection of what the antivax choir has adhered to for years, something here's just a little...odd.

It's odd that someone with extensive training in immunology is unaware of the literature about vaccine safety and effectiveness. It's odd that given the remarkable public health success story that vaccines are--not only in the United States but anywhere they're available--someone with expertise would argue that the theory underlying them and on which they've been developed and tested is profoundly flawed. Eradicating disease is a strange way for such a flaw to manifest. It's odd that despite how well tracked the decline in diseases like smallpox was, someone would argue that it wasn't linked to the vaccine that stopped its transmission.

What is most odd here is that this scientist, with all of her training, has not provided us on her Website with evidence-based information to support what she's claiming. All we have is an assertion of "corrupted attempts to develop new vaccine strategies," a misty phrase that doesn't seem to have much to do with whether or not vaccines work but does hint at a juicy conspiracy. That's a cardinal sign of a pseudoscience. Where's the real science to support her assertions?

Coming from someone like this, someone with the cachet of degree and expertise, what normally would be a yawner of antivax wishlisting becomes, in this context, an insidious, insinuating, and potentially fatal danger to public health. How many of those women will emerge from that Red Tent or the Menlo Park "classes" inflamed with misinformation and proselytize it to others? How many will go forth into the world and elect not to vaccinate their children against vaccine-preventable illness? How many children will suffer--not only the unvaccinated by parent choice but those who cannot be vaccinated because of age or immune conditions and who contract their diseases--because parents refuse to fulfill their social responsibility? Is this potential for death and suffering really worth 20 bucks a head?


  1. Makes you wonder if she is REALLY who and what she says she is. Afterall, there are plenty of examples of doctors and other professionals who aren't who they claim to be, have not had the education they say they have had, etc. Seems very illogical to me that someone who truly understands the science behind immunology would have such a website. But I might be naive. I am always looking for the best in people.

  2. She exists and at the institutions named. It's a unique name. But I understand the wish that this were someone who had just taken on a persona.

  3. Yes, going to the Stanford site and putting her name in the search box brings her up a few times, including a list of her degrees and what department she is in. It is not immunology.

  4. I'm going to hesitate to leap to a conclusion because my postdoc was in "urology," but my focus was mammalian developmental genetics. Someone searching my name at my postdoctoral institution might not have cleanly put that together. I agree that what appears to be her current advisor's focus isn't immunology, per se, but Alzheimer's is one of the foci, and it's linked to an immunological component. The person in question, however, has one paper listed from the lab, one in which she is a second author. Shockingly, it's an autism paper, looking at amino acid levels in a tiny population of autistic people vs "neurotypical" people.

  5. So there is some departmental cross over, and obviously some tolerance at kicking around randomly fringe ideas. Much like an ophthalmologist at UBC.

  6. We had a woman in our department (in that 90% of the people focused their research on HIV)that liked to claim that they still hadn't proven that HIV caused AIDS.

    3 of us pulled out the DSM to diagnose her.

  7. Being credentialled does not preclude being wrong, deluded or stupid.

  8. i read a lot of information before making a decision to not vaccinate my kids. I read this book I am so glad I did not vaccinate.
    This book should be a required reading for all MD, Health Care Providers so they understand (in case they do know and keep doing that) what damage they do to our kids and future generations.
    $20 per class? Right, especially if you compare it to trillions dollars Pharmacy companies make killing us.
    Why in a earth should I believe "literature about vaccine safety and effectiveness"? Did you apply your 10 questions to these authors?
    I read this book, I sent this book to everybody I know so they learn and was able to make a right decision

  9. "Why in a earth should I believe "literature about vaccine safety and effectiveness"? Did you apply your 10 questions to these authors? "
    Good point "Anonymous". I ask the same question.



Comments for this blog are closed.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.