Hate Mail, Abuse, and Death Threats

June 7, 2011 at 7:05 pm (Miscellaneous) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Paul Offit death threatsThe Guardian have reported that climate scientists in Australia have been moved into safer accommodation, after they received death threats. The Australia National University were quoted as saying that a number of its climate scientists had moved to a secure facility after they received a large number of threatening emails and phone calls. This isn’t the first time that scientists working in a field dealing with controversial issues have been threatened. As Paul Offit, among others, could tell them…

In 2009, the New York Times reported on the death threats Dr Offit (pictured on the right of H. Fred Clark, above) had received. Apparently, he is not alone in inspiring hatred among those who wrongly believe that vaccinations are more dangerous than the diseases they protect against. Dr. Gregory A. Poland, of the Mayo Clinic, says he has had threats against his children.

I’m glad that these vaccine researchers and climate scientists have not (so far) been deterred from continuing their work. I’m not sure whether I would show the same fortitude in such a situation. But then, I am a coward.

Aside from vaccination and climate change, those involved with the contentious issue of fluoridation have received death threats too. For example, in June 2009, an Australian MP faced death threats after plans were announced to add fluoride to the water supply. The message read “Thanks for the poison bitch, ready to kill you slowly”.

Oh yeah, politics… Charlie Brooker received threats following an article in which he’d recycled “a very old tasteless joke”, with George Bush as the butt of the joke. In his own words:

My inbox overflowed with blood-curdling death threats, and it was all very unfunny indeed – a bit like recounting a rude joke at a dinner party, only to be told you hadn’t recounted a joke at all, but molested the host’s children, and suddenly everyone was punching you and you weren’t going to get any pudding. I’ve had better weekends.

The above cases are clearly quite extreme. Death threats go beyond the mere unpleasantness that can be expected when one writes about, or is involved with, a controversial issue. Many will have had abusive comments or emails from those who disagree with them: scientists, journalists, mediocre bloggers (my personal favourite was the chap who referred to me as “a chicken-flavored nipple biscuit”).

Alan Dangour, who conducted research concluding that organic food is no healthier than conventional produce, “told The Independent that hundreds of people had contacted him since his work was published, with many accusing him of dishonesty and incompetence in emails peppered with swear words”.

Richard Dawkins, meanwhile, is apparently unperturbed by the badly-written hate mail he receives, even that containing the fervent wish that he “die slowly”, and can be seen here on Youtube reading out a selection that seems to greatly amuse his friends.

Update, 22nd August 2011

Chronic fatigue syndrome researchers face death threats from militants: Professor Simon Wessely and others have been targeted.

The full extent of the campaign of intimidation, attacks and death threats made against scientists by activists who claim researchers are suppressing the real cause of chronic fatigue syndrome is revealed today by the Observer. According to the police, the militants are now considered to be as dangerous and uncompromising as animal rights extremists.

More on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome:

Advocates of the hypothesis that XMRV is linked to ME/CFS are currently struggling to reconcile their belief with the disconfirming evidence of Paprotka et al.

One online critic claimed that “…in Paprotka they describe two types of PCR. One is quantitative real-time PCR and one is a qPCR.” I wasn’t entirely sure how this would have supported their argument, but it turned out to be a misunderstanding in any case. The corresponding author stated (in an email) that “…our paper defined qPCR as quantitative real-time PCR, and when we say qPCR we are referring to the real-time PCR experiments”, but the critic seemed disinclined to accept that the corresponding author understood his own paper better than they did. It seemed to me that this was an example of somebody who had an unreasonably high degree of confidence in their assertions.

Dr Sarah Myhill, meanwhile consistently claims that vaccination is linked to CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome), talking of vaccines “switching on chronic fatigue syndrome” and “triggering flares of CFS”. I’m always willing to be proved wrong, but I don’t think there is reliable evidence of an association between vaccination and CFS.

Appel, Chapman and Shoenfeld seem to think it is at least plausible that vaccination could be linked to CFS and call for further research, but state that: “Little is known about this issue. There are some reports on CFS occurring after vaccination, but few prospective and retrospective studies failed to find such an association” and point out that a working group of the Canadian Laboratory Center for Disease Control (LCDC) that was founded in order to examine the suspected association between CFS and vaccinations concluded that there is no evidence that relates CFS to vaccination.

A Norwegian study found “no statistically significant association between vaccination against meningococcal disease in teenagers and occurrence of CFS/ME”, and a double-blind, randomized study of the effects of influenza vaccination on the specific antibody response and clinical course of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome found that “no difference could be detected between immunized and placebo CFS patients in immunization side effects”.

Update, 2nd June 2012

The Guardian have published an article about pro-smoking lobbyists allegedly threatening and abusing academics and health campaigners: “Researchers say abuse and threats intensified first with the public debate on removing branding from cigarette packs and now a formal government consultation on the idea.” The tobacco control research group at Bath University apparently received around seven phone calls a day for two months, with the university increasing security in response to the harassment. An academic at Stirling University called police in response to threats, and ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) have also called the police following the publication of an article (hosted by the campaign group Freedom2choose’s website) which included the addresses of ASH offices and allegedly suggested shooting staff of ASH and Cancer Research UK.

Photo credit: The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia


  1. softestpawn said,

    If someone is persuading the public to behave in ways that (people believe) threaten lives, health, livelihoods, souls, etc, then it doesn’t seem all that surprising that people might respond in kind.

    See also death threats to Wisconsin Republicans following legislation to curb union powers. And long long running threats to climate skeptics: Nuremburg-style trials, execution, strangulation threats of jail, promises to destroy careers, etc some by quite ‘responsibly’ senior people.

    Death threats seem a bit severe as a result of a joke, esp by someone as usually grumpily abusive as Brooker, but this is t’interwebs, ya boo.

  2. softestpawn said,

    I am chocolate flavoured by the way.

  3. softestpawn said,

    In fact, it looks like there might not have been any death threats at all to the climate scientists that sparked this latest round of news :


    Rude, offensive, yes. But this:

    “If we see you continue, we will get extremely organised and precise against you. We will not do so if you rightfully argue against our points from a science view. But we will if you choose to stray into attacks on us as people or as a movement. The institution and funders that support you will find the attention concerning.”

    seems only somewhat incoherent…

  4. Peebs said,

    I follow many ‘Sceptic’ websites and like to think of myself as a critical thinker.

    However, I’m not convinced about global warming,or if it’s unusually cold, ‘climate change’.

    However,If I mention this I get the abuse and vitriol usually saved for creationists, antivaccinationists and homeopaths.

  5. Steve Hawkins said,

    I am sorry to hear that there have been death threats against Simon Wessley. Well, actually not very. His monopolisation of the field of ME/CFS research and opinion to the exclusion of proper studies into the real physical causes and nature of the disease, has condemned me to a non-life where I have to contend with both the completely incapacitating disease itself AND the psychological torture of facing, year after grim year, accusations that this is a psychological condition, and all I need is to submit to idiotic and childishly simplistic ‘just pull your socks up’ Clever Bugger Therapy, and it will magically go away. Wesseley and his accolytes and the media coverage they get, rob ME sufferers of dignity and respect, even of their friends and family, and open us up to a life where we have to also live in constant fear of the DWP and the loss of benefits that are our only means of support. It is a life of abject misery and many have eventually chosen suicide after giving up all hope of ever getting proper help. I have spent the last 15months pointlessly occupying a bed in a psychiatric wing simply because there is no appropriate place in the NHS where my physical condition – which continues to deteriorate – can be investigated. Wesseley is largely to blame for this state of affairs.

    Instead of blindly supporting Wesseley, real skeptics would look into his claims for CBT and graded exercise as the only treatment of ME. and the way he has duped the NHS into accepting only this and denying sufferers any ongoing diagnostic investigation. For example, I have read glowing claims that CBT is as effective as Prozac; but I have also read other accounts that find Prozac itself only as effective as placebo: thus CBT is just another quack idea like homeopathy, yet this man has raised it to the status of a quasi religion in the NHS.

    The man is a disaster for all those suffering from poorly understood, and under researched, diseases, and as such, the threats are quite understandable. Natural justice would ensure that he caught the disease himself, and have to learn first hand what it is like to be desperately ill and traduced by the whole of society at the same time.

  6. ChrisP said,

    Steve, I am sorry that you believe that making death threats against anyone you don’t like is in any way justified. It greatly diminishes any respect I might have otherwise had for you. I recognise that CFS is a frustrating condition to live with, given it has no obvious cause and no obvious cure. However, that does not in any way justify threats against scientists investigating the condition, just because you don’t like the conclusions.

    Contrary to your assertions, scientists other than Wessely (please note the spelling) have considered the claims of CBT and graded exercise. The Cochrane Collaboration has considered the available evidence http://summaries.cochrane.org/CD001027/cognitive-behaviour-therapy-for-chronic-fatigue-syndrome. Their conclusion:

    “CBT is effective in reducing the symptoms of fatigue at post-treatment compared with usual care, and may be more effective in reducing fatigue symptoms compared with other psychological therapies.”

    Although they do state that findings at follow up could be heterogeneous.

    A useful summary of the current literature is that CBT and GE are the only available treatments for which there is any evidence base of improvement over normal care. Until such time as the causes of CFS are identified it is unlikely that a better treatment will be identified. Patient groups driving researchers out of the field is not going to magically produce a new understanding of the condition.

  7. ME/CFS: Harassment of Researchers « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] or claim that researchers have brought the harassment and abuse on themselves (for example here, and on various internet forums) aren’t […]

  8. Justin Reilly, esq. said,

    I have to agree with Steve Hawkins and others who have commented that Prof. Wessely has brought the condemnation on himself with his decades-long war on ME science and persecution of millions of disabled worldwide. Please do your due diligence into the merit of Prof. Wessely’s “work” before announcing that any alleged threats to him are underserved. Thank you for your consideration.

    Justin Reilly, esq.

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