Mar 18 2014

Australian Anti-Vaccination Group Loses Charity Status

The group previously known as the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) has been getting a lot of heat recently, in large part thanks to the Australian Skeptics who have been exposing their dangerous misinformation. The AVN is an anti-vaccination group that actively campaigns against vaccination. They are (or at least were until recently) also a registered charity, which means they can take tax-deductible donations.

The Australian Skeptics pointed out that the name of the AVN is misleading, as it might make the public think they are giving fair and balanced information about vaccines. In reality the information they dispense amounts to anti-vaccine propaganda.

Recently the New South Wales Department of Fair Trading ruled that the AVN is a misleading name, and ordered the group to change their name. That’s the good new. The bad news is that they decided to change their name to the Australian Vaccination Skeptics Network.

While this may have satisfied the letter of the order, I have to wonder if this was a deliberate dig at the Australian Skeptics. It is very unfortunate when denialist groups co-opt the name “skeptic.” It just further confuses the skeptic brand. Denialism is as far away from scientific skepticism as is gullible belief.

Of course deniers always think they are the true skeptics, just as true-believers think that skeptics are deniers. People tend to calibrate their denier->skeptic->believer scales to themselves. Therefore anyone more accepting of a particular claim than you is a believer, and less accepting is a denier.

In reality, scientific skepticism is a process that involves critical thinking skills and knowledge of philosophy and scientific methodology.It’s just a matter of accepting or rejecting a specific claim, it’s about the process.

The AVSN, formerly AVN, are not skeptics. They have an anti-vaccine ideological agenda and promote pseudoscience and misinformation. They are as far away from true skeptics as you can get.

One potentially good bit of follow up news is that the AVSN has now been ordered to surrender its charitable fundraising:

Now New South Wales Fair Trading Minister Stuart Ayres has taken further action.

“We have requested that it surrender its authority to fundraise, which it has done, under the Charitable Fundraising Act,” he said.

I can see that some may find it troubling that the government can decide what information is acceptable, and remove charity status (what would be called non-profit status in the US) for speech it deems unacceptable. However, in this situation we are dealing with medical information (not political advocacy).

No group has a right to charitable status. It makes sense that such a privilege should come with a responsibility to demonstrate a public good. In this case, it can be clearly shown that the AVSN is a public menace, threatening public health with dangerous misinformation. It would be perverse, in fact, for such a group to benefit from any government subsidy or support.

I don’t know what the future holds for the AVSN, but I am glad that regulators are taking complaints about such groups seriously. I am a strong supporter of free speech, and would tread very cautiously on any government regulation of speech. The AVSN, in fact, is free to spread their misinformation and propaganda.

But they should not carry the slightest imprimatur of government legitimacy. I also think its reasonable to criticize them for what is essentially false advertising, potentially misleading the public about their true cause.

Politicians are experts in such things. Just look at the titles of proposed bills compared to what they actually contain.

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