All posts by Brian Martin

Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and vice president of Whistleblowers Australia. He is the author of a dozen books and hundreds of articles on dissent, nonviolence, scientific controversies, democracy, information issues, education and other topics.

Future sports

Most popular sports today were created in an earlier era, and by all rights should be obsolete. Some sports, like archery, shooting and the javelin throw, have hunting connections. Many others emphasise physical strength, skill, speed and endurance. Think of weightlifting and swimming. Team sports like football reflect the importance of coordinated action, which is vital on the battlefield. Coordinated action remains important in contemporary life, for example in numerous offices where teams of workers seek to outdo competitors.

            Elite sports also attract spectators, an important function especially when entertainment is tied to marketing.

Despite these functional connections between sport and society, it is curious that so few sports give priority to skills needed to survive and thrive in a world in which mental skills are a central feature. Consider a few new sports inspired by contemporary life.

Congestion challenge Contestants sit in their cars, wired up to monitor their brain waves, and spend hours in a heavy traffic scenario specially engineered to provoke road rage. The winner is the person who can maintain the most stable brain waves while simultaneously negotiating the traffic in a skilled manner, as judged by an artificially intelligent (AI) driving-skill monitor.

Question dodging Contestants ask each other challenging questions. Answers are judged according to how successfully they avoid giving a straightforward answer. Two or more can play, each asking questions and dodging the questions they are asked. Rambling responses receive a low score, whereas responses that seem plausible while having little substantive content are scored highly, by an independent panel. Laughing leads to disqualification. Career politicians are excluded as having an unfair advantage.

Shopping marathon This is a competitive enactment of “shop till you drop.” Contestants are given a credit limit and then must shop continuously for as long as possible, finishing when they spend their last cent. Most events last for days, during which time no food is allowed, only water. Keeping eyes shut for more than a few seconds is not allowed.

Sit-out Two dozen contestants sit at desks in a room facing the front and listening to a speaker. Each contestant is monitored for physical motion and brain waves. The winner is the person who remains awake and maintains focus on an incredibly boring speech, with calm and natural body motions and no tensing of muscles throughout the body.

Smile-a-thon Contestants must maintain a smile and associated positive body language while being exposed to rudeness, verbal abuse and absurd behaviour. They take turns trying to disturb the smiles of other contestants. Smiling authenticity is judged by an independent panel supported by AI.

Binge-watch This is an endurance event. Contestants watch a boring show on a screen while their brain waves are monitored. Beta waves must be maintained, and even a short period of sleep or daydreaming means disqualification. Body movement incurs penalties. The event continues until only one contestant remains.

Kafka challenge Contestants have to negotiate bureaucratic regulations that change in an unpredictable pattern designed to prevent the completion of an assigned task and to generate frustration. To win, it is necessary to keep going longer than any other contestant. Some games last for weeks or months. Psychiatrists are at hand to treat psychological injuries.

Franz Kafka

The new frontier for competitive endeavour is mental rather than physical. Using muscles is very much the old paradigm, suitable for when farm and factory work predominated. Today, in a post-industrial society, mental and emotional capacities are more valued, so it is only appropriate that sports encourage and recognise extreme ability in these domains.

            You might think new sports like these would not be entertaining, but there is great scope for dramatising ordinary actions. Reality television paved the way for the entertainment value of dull everyday activity. There are endless possibilities for close-ups of faces, brain-wave monitors, contestants who drop out or crack up, interviews with contenders, and commentators giving opinions about the course of the competition. After all, many physical sports are either incredibly slow, like cricket, or incredibly repetitious, like tennis. Spectators are attracted by the contest. Who, after all, watches reruns of last year’s events?

            Future mental-emotional sports will be just as exciting as old-style muscle-based ones and will lead to new sporting celebrities, valued for their minds rather than their bodies. Just think how many children will be inspired by these celebrities to practise for years to develop their minds. Rather than perfecting a golf swing, the next frontier is mind control.

Brian Martin,


Just to be clear, this is a satire. Actually, I’m a critic of elite sports (while admiring the athletes), especially the Olympics, and support participation in cooperative games.

            Thanks to Aloysia Brooks, Sharon Callaghan, Suzzanne Gray, Tim Johnson-Newell, Olga Kuchinskaya and Yasmin Rittau for valuable feedback. Sharon and Yasmin pointed to present-day versions of some of these “future sports,” and noted that they can foster valuable skills or undesirable behaviours, or both. So far, though, there are no world championships for any of these mental sports. Meditation may be good for you, but should it be a competitive event?


Some initiatives just never get off the ground. I wonder why not.

            It seemed like a good idea. The problem was cyberharassment: people receiving abusive messages and images online, by email, text messages and other means. For some people, the abuse is constant and extreme. Prime targets are women and minorities, especially those in the public eye. What can be done about it?

            I knew about cyberharassment and had studied research about it. I learned that the usual response from authorities is to dismiss it as not important or to say to get off the Internet, which is ridiculous. Formal complaints to officials, such as tech companies, almost never fix the problem.

            I thought of something. How about trying to find out what sorts of responses to abuse are most likely to be effective? Ignoring it? Tracking down perpetrators and exposing them? Responding politely? Counter-abuse? Humour?

            It wouldn’t be all that hard. Just set up some fake accounts to attract abuse, for example accounts expressing strong feminist views, and try out different responses. To do this sort of research, I wanted some collaborators to provide technical skills, insight and support. It would probably not be approved by a university ethics committee, so it would be a non-university project.

            I tried for years to interest others. I contacted a leading researcher who said there was nothing like this at any Australian campus. I talked with several individuals who were sympathetic, but that was all. I organised a meeting with several of those who expressed interest, but none followed up. Eventually I gave up, deciding the time was not right.

What’s it all about?

This project was a non-starter. It’s just one example of an interest or initiative into which I put some energy, but which didn’t get very far. That’s okay. Most initiatives, like most small businesses, fail, and usually quickly.

            Still, if most initiatives fail, is there something to be learned from the experiences? Nearly all attention is on successes. How many times have I read inspiring stories about the entrepreneurs who, from modest beginnings, built Microsoft, Google and Facebook? Whatever the number, it’s far more than I’ve read about failed tech efforts, or even small successes.

            What counts as a non-starter? Does it include an idea that never led to action? Does it include a viable activity that fizzled out? There’s no easy answer. My purpose in reflecting on these sorts of non-successes is to learn what caused them to fall short of what they might have been. So for the moment I’ll include a selection of efforts that occupied me for a considerable amount of time, that seemed worthwhile but didn’t amount to much. For each initiative, I’ve written longer descriptions but here I’ll just give one-paragraph summaries.

            A whistleblowers group In the 1990s, Whistleblowers Australia had branches in several states, but none in Western Australia. I and others tried for years to find someone in WA to convene regular meetings and create a branch, but were never successful. Assessment: the WA branch was a non-starter because there was no one who would be an organiser.

            A network In the early 1990s in the small group Schweik Action Wollongong, we planned to launch a “network against repression,” with contacts around the world, for providing immediate support for opponents of military coups. We developed a leaflet and contacted quite a few people. There was some support, but not enough for us to proceed.

            A local group A colleague and I set up a women-in-science group that worked well for a year. Then my colleague left the city and I had to leave the group after others decided it should be women-only. Without its two organisers, the group collapsed.

            A writing group In 2008, I initiated a writing group for my colleagues, including PhD students, and we met weekly, and still do. A few years later, I started a similar group with several nonviolence researchers. Because we were in different countries, and it was before Zoom, we didn’t have meetings. I just sent a weekly email reminder about daily writing. This group never became active, so I discontinued it and tried a different approach, which worked better.

            A simulation In the early 2000s, I designed a “communication simulation,” a type of drill for communicating in a crisis, such as a government crackdown on dissent. We ran one simulation, but that was all. I lost enthusiasm and no one else offered much encouragement to continue.

            A dissent network In 1993, a friend and I contacted many individuals, inviting them to become contacts on a list called Dissent Network Australia. Each person provided their name, contact information, interests and things they were willing to do to help dissidents. The idea was that anyone needing advice or support could contact someone on the list. We got the list up and running, but it wasn’t used very often, and eventually we closed it down.

            A dissent initiative In 2005, I was alarmed about Australian government laws that targeted dissent, put many documents on my website about resistance and notified everyone I could think of. Not much came of it. In 2021, I made a more concerted effort to find others who would collaborate in producing material for citizens to understand and oppose government threats to dissent. There was some interest but not, it seemed to me, in trying to build a grassroots movement.


It isn’t easy to promote a new idea, set up a group or launch a campaign. We read about successes far more often than failures, and hear about prominent failures more than low-key ones. My guess is that there are vastly more efforts that fizzle early: ideas that were never pursued, groups that barely got started or didn’t last, and campaigns that never took off. Reflecting on my own experiences with non-starters, one feature stands out: the need to persuade others to be involved. If no one else cares much, a good idea will remain just an idea, and a group or network will just be potential, not actual.

            Does this mean it’s no use trying to innovate and that it’s better to stick with existing ideas, groups and campaigns? If it turns out to be difficult to find others who are interested, might it be better to try something else?

            I know some individuals who never stop trying, raising the same issue for years, even decades, despite little interest from others. Should they be seen as misguided cranks or as tireless campaigners? It’s hard to know, because we so often judge efforts by their outcomes, not by their inherent value, assuming that can be assessed independently of outcomes.

Further reflections

Is it worth revisiting non-starters, to learn from initiatives that fizzled? One option is to see, years later, whether the issue turned out to have wider significance. Women-in-science groups across Australia continued for years but eventually closed down, so perhaps it didn’t matter whether one in Wollongong flourished. But this may be a cynical way to make an assessment, because initiatives can be worthwhile for the participants at the time, whatever their long-term prospects.

            Another angle is to estimate the odds that an initiative might be successful. By joining an existing group or area of activity, the odds are better that it’s worthwhile but, on the other hand, one’s own added contribution is likely to be smaller. In the 1980s, joining the mass movement against nuclear weapons was of this sort. In contrast, supporting an original or unorthodox peace initiative can be likened to betting on a long shot in a race, with a tiny chance of becoming a big winner. There’s no easy way to compare these options.

            A crucial part of the picture is reinforcement. Are you the sort of person who feels safer in a crowd, who looks to others to decide what’s worth doing? If so, you’re like most people, and you can play a valuable role in supporting causes whose time has come. Or are you the sort of person with the capacity to pursue a lonely path for years, with limited reinforcement? You might have the makings of a crank — or a prophet. But even prophets need followers at some stage. And even prophets may be able to learn from non-starters.

Brian Martin,

Thanks to Sharon Callaghan, Cynthia Kardell, Isla MacGregor and Yasmin Rittau for valuable comments and for sharing some of the journeys.

When they attack you online

Online attacks on your reputation can be distressing and difficult to deal with. Sometimes there are no good options, just options that are less bad.

            What’s the problem? On your favourite Facebook page, something you wrote is taken out of context to convey the opposite of what you meant. Then there are claims that you took a bribe. There’s a website with compromising photos, featuring you! Your boss and co-workers receive racist messages — from your email address. And there are news stories linking you with hate groups.

            Imagine that your activist group becomes the subject of repeated nasty, damaging messages online, where they are seen by audiences you care about. There are blatant falsehoods, repeated over and over, and subtle misrepresentations that seem plausible enough to believe. Your group’s Wikipedia page is hostilely edited to make all of you seem self-interested and misguided. There are deepfake videos that falsely show your leading members renouncing their views and engaging in salacious activities.

            It’s bad, but it’s not new. Even before the Internet, individuals and groups were attacked in the mass media and in campaigns organised by opponents. But quite a few things about online attacks are different, many of them worse.

            Anonymity It’s now easier for attackers to hide their identity. This means you can’t easily assign responsibility or begin a dialogue.

            Less restraint When you can’t see the other person, and they can’t see you, it’s easier to be nasty. Researchers call this the online disinhibition effect. In contrast, when you’re face to face with someone, personal and social expectations encourage politeness: people are more reluctant to be rude.

            Less filtering Editors of newspapers screen submissions to weed out inappropriate material. This does not eliminate problems but at least reduces them. In contrast, many online platforms are not moderated, or not very well: there is less filtering. This makes it far easier for attackers to post their material.

            Permanence After someone posts a hostile comment, it can stay there indefinitely, and others can post it elsewhere. It’s not so easy to have the comment removed. In contrast, spoken comments and ones in print only are less likely to have lasting impacts.

            New technology Tools using artificial intelligence are readily available that enable users to alter photos and create videos in which, for example, your face realistically replaces someone else’s. You might be shown chatting with Vladimir Putin or kicking a puppy.

Reputations under attack

This is the sixth in a series of posts about dealing with unfair attacks on reputation. Since the 1970s, I’ve advised hundreds of people who contacted me about being defamed. Each case is different and the best option for one person may not work for someone else, so I will suggest several options for consideration. Other posts deal with false statements, derogatory labelling, guilt by association and malicious gossip.


Imagine you’re in a group dedicated to public welfare. Opponents mount a campaign to discredit your most prominent figure, Alex, and your group, with false claims and nasty comments on Facebook pages, doctored pictures on Instagram, and a webpage with a “Hall of shame” listing Alex’s personal details and contact information, inviting harassment. Your website is hacked and your Wikipedia page is edited to put your group in an unfavourable light.

            It sounds horrible, and it is. Before doing anything, it’s worth thinking through options, examining each type of attack and choosing the most effective option.


For some attacks, it’s easier and safer to do nothing. If nasty comments are on an obscure Facebook page, responding to them might only draw more attention to them. Fake videos may be unbelievable. If your reputation is sufficiently strong, you may not need to worry. Remember that you will probably think negative comments and images are more significant than they seem to others.


In some cases, you can reply in the same forum, or another one. Prepare a careful comment and post it in the same place, or another one, or send it to your supporters. What sort of comment? It might be better to focus attention on your positives and not spend too much time countering hostile comments. Often, readers don’t have the time or interest to get to the bottom of disputes: “they said – we said.” Instead, they will be influenced by the style of the comments. If you come across as calm, sensible, coherent and generous, this can be more effective than an angry rebuttal.


You’re aware that your attackers are hypocrites, are being funded by a notorious source, and have a long record of discreditable behaviour. Instead of defending against false claims, you can try to discredit the attackers, exposing their agendas and methods.

            Sometimes this can work wonders. It’s also risky, because it might lead to more abusive exchanges.


It’s the obvious option: make a complaint to someone in authority. It might be a tech company like Facebook, an Internet service provider or a government agency. You can ask them to take down offending posts, photos and videos, cut off service to offenders or in some other way stop the abuse.

            The trouble is getting a response. The history of tech company responses to obvious violations of rules, such as sending death threats, is that usually nothing much is done. The company may consider the comments about you and your group “acceptable.”

            There’s another problem. Even if you get some action from authorities, the attackers might just pop up somewhere else, using different names. In fact, after they learn what you’ve done to try to stop them, they might become more careful — and more persistent. Furthermore, they might start claiming you’re a censor.

Take legal action

You can sue for defamation. Good luck, because you’ll need it. Sometimes you can’t even identify the attackers. Even if you can, legal processes are slow and expensive, and most cases are settled out of court. If, by unlikely chance, you have some success in court, attackers can continue their assault, being extra careful to remain anonymous.

            Suing has another disadvantage. The attackers can publicise your legal action, giving even more attention to their claims. You might become a victim of the Streisand effect, in which an attempt to silence someone online leads to greater publicity about their claims.

Reputation management

Rather than trying to get rid of damaging material online, you can try to overwhelm it with positive material. You can set up websites and Facebook groups and encourage supporters to make comments on them and links to them. People searching the web seldom look beyond the first few links, so if you can push adverse material to the second page, few will see it. In general, having positive material adds to your reputation, often far more than trying to directly counter negative material.

            Reputation management techniques only work for some types of attack, mainly hostile material online. It doesn’t address damaging emails.

            You can pay reputation management services to do this sort of work for you, but it can be quite expensive. There’s plenty of information available for companies. You can also do it yourself.


If online attacks put you in personal danger, you need to protect yourself and other group members. If you are doxxed, the online threats might lead to physical ones. Consider what you need to do to ensure your safety. In extreme cases, this might mean moving away from home, closing all your social media accounts, changing your phone number, even adopting another name.

            If you are outspoken online, have a public profile, you may receive hostile messages, especially if you are a woman or member of a minority group. The more prominent you become, the more likely you are to receive threats and abusive messages via email, phone and social media platforms. This is serious and you need to find ways to protect yourself. Note that when you receive a threat by a direct message, it may be extremely distressing but it is not an attack on your reputation, because your reputation is what other people think about you.

Set an example

Try to behave in a model fashion: polite, sensible, supportive, generous, courageous. Many people who know you will see the attacks as lies and misrepresentations. Some of them might be able to counter some of the attacks.


Find others who have been attacked, and join with them to resist. This might mean collecting documentation to highlight the problem, sharing insights about what works and what doesn’t, providing mutual support to deal with trauma, and working together for common causes. You and your group shouldn’t try to do it all on your own.

            Tech companies make more money the longer users stay on their platforms, and one way of keeping users engrossed is by making them angry. This isn’t a conscious plan but just results from algorithms carefully designed to maximise screen time and hence profits. Changing the algorithms means changing the entire business model, for example by making the companies non-profit public entities. That’s not going to happen easily or quickly!


Online attacks are especially difficult to handle. Sometimes there’s little you can do. Complaint procedures are weak and ineffective, and counterattacking might make things worse. There’s no easy solution, so think about your values. At the very least, you can behave according to the highest principles. Others can attack your reputation, but you can still behave ethically and altruistically.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Clark Chilson, Anneleis Humphries, Julia LeMonde and Julia Nennstiel for helpful comments.

When they gossip about you, with malice

You discover that others are talking about you — and you don’t like what they’re saying!

            One of your closest friends tells you, “They’re saying the only reason you’re helping at the charity is to impress people.” Who are “they”? People who apparently know you.

            At work, word goes around that you and Chris are in a romantic relationship. Yes, the two of you work together, but what they’re saying is absurd, and offensive.

            One of your neighbours asks what seems like an innocent question about your family. It suggests people are making assumptions. Has one of your family members been telling tales about you?

            The gossip is upsetting and is getting in the way of what you’re trying to do. You can’t get it out of your head. What can you do about it?

Reputations under attack

This is the fifth in a series of posts about dealing with unfair attacks on reputation. Since the 1970s, I’ve advised hundreds of people who contacted me about being defamed. Each case is different and the best option for one person may not work for someone else, so I will suggest several options for consideration. Other posts deal with false statements, derogatory labelling, guilt by association and online attacks.

Functions of gossip

You probably engage in gossiping yourself, so you know something about it. It’s a rare person who never says anything, or at least anything negative, about others behind their backs.

            Why do people spend so much time talking about others? Researchers argue that gossip is part of what helps group members coordinate their relationships. By sharing thoughts about others, people build bonds. In the right circumstances, gossip can help a group operate more efficiently.

            When you meet someone in one of your networks — neighbourhood, workplace, club or church — it’s useful to have a starting point, and it’s also useful to know something about them, so you don’t say the wrong thing. Gossip helps you learn something about them beforehand. It helps you interact with a wider circle of people without making a mess of it.

            There’s lots of research on gossip, carried out in different ways, looking at positive and negative aspects and examining different functions and impacts. But researchers seem to have little to say about how to resist harmful gossip. The most practical advice I found is on WikiHow.

Resisting malicious gossip

Although gossip has positive functions, it can also be nasty — exceedingly nasty. It can spread falsehoods, poison relationships, promote prejudice and even drive someone out for no good reason.

            If you think gossip is unfairly hurting your reputation, what can you do about it? Should you do anything about it? Consider these options.


In many cases, it’s best to ignore gossip, whether it’s about you or others. You might listen and learn, including to find out who repeats stories. Does one of your friends quickly pass on every confidential comment, with a few creative embellishments? If so, be careful not to say anything to them you don’t want repeated.

Learn, and possibly change

Sometimes you can learn what others think about you. If there’s a grain of truth in the gossip, and you don’t like that truth, you may decide to change your behaviour. Maybe you should be kinder in your comments, or more explicit. Maybe you should be more open about your beliefs and intentions, or more cautious in revealing them.


Maybe the gossip is benefiting your reputation. How? People who know you might be offended by nasty and unwarranted comments about you, and come to your defence. They might think less of the gossiper. The person trying to discredit you might actually be damaging their own reputation. Before you act, try to find out if this process is happening.


If everyone you know seems to have heard malicious gossip, you may choose to counter it. You could send an email to everyone, or just to a few individuals who you know will circulate it to others. Or you could print out a statement and put it in people’s mailboxes.

            What should you say? You could say that some people are making negative comments about you, and then deny them, or present correct information. Your statement needs to be carefully worded. It’s usually best not to name or blame anyone: “Unfortunately, there’s been some incorrect information about what I’ve been doing. Here’s what’s really happening.” The idea is to appear magnanimous rather than distressed or vindictive.

            An even better option is to find someone who will speak on your behalf, preferably someone with credibility. They can make a statement in defence. Alternatively, and usually more effectively, they can provide some news about you and what you’ve been doing. It’s positive news. It doesn’t mention the nasty gossip but counters it implicitly.


You can fight gossip with counter-gossip. You can try to start nasty rumours about the person or group you think are spreading comments about you.

            This is a risky sort of response, because it might lead to an escalation of rumour-mongering. As well, you might gain a reputation as a malicious gossiper!

            A safer approach is humour. You could make jokes about the gossip, or about yourself, that are obviously absurd. “Did you hear the story of how I climbed up the side of a building just to show off?” Be careful, though, because even apparently absurd stories can sometimes be taken seriously, or used against you.

Praise your enemy

Counter-intuitively, you can try saying nice things about the people spreading hostile gossip about you. This might confuse them or make them rethink. You might be able to start a virtuous cycle of positive comments.


Years ago, I attended an all-day workshop on “Dealing with difficult people.” Our presenter was experienced and wise. Someone asked her about malicious gossip. She told about a bold technique. She identified the source of the gossip and said to them, “Someone said you are spreading stories about me. Is that true?” The person denied spreading stories, but there weren’t any more after that.

Take legal action

You could threaten to sue for defamation. You could pay a lawyer to write a letter threatening legal action and demanding the person cease and desist.

            Threats to sue are only credible if you have strong evidence of people gossiping about you, for example tape recordings. Threats might work against some people, but they might also lead to more hostile gossiping. Worst of all, threats poison the atmosphere. You might end up with a worse reputation than before.


“Mobbing” is collective bullying. In the workplace, it involves an organised attack on a target, which can include ostracism, petty harassment, onerous work demands, denunciations, referral to psychiatrists — and malicious gossip. If you are the target of mobbing, gossip is just one worry among many. You need to work out a plan to resist. Often, unfortunately, it is better to leave. Your health and wellbeing are more important than any job.


Gossip can be harmless. It can be functional, allowing people to share feelings about others. However, some gossip is misinformed and deliberately harmful. There are so many variations and possibilities that there’s no single best response to gossip that you think is harming your reputation.

            Consider your options, including doing nothing. It might be that by behaving in an honourable and supportive way, you counter gossip through your actions, without saying anything. But sometimes this isn’t effective. Others may be trying to damage your reputation, and are afraid to say anything openly, and will persist. Before taking action, try to find one or two people you trust, and discuss options with them.

            Try to be generous in whatever you do — even if you don’t feel generous! The way you respond to gossip may well form the basis for future gossip.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Paula Arvela, Jungmin Choi, Caroline Colton, Kelly Gates, Julia LeMonde and Qinqing Xu for helpful comments.

Incidentally, most of the images about gossip I found show women as the gossipers, to other women or sometimes men, and hardly any showing men whispering to women.

When they link you to something bad

When you are subject to “guilt by association,” what can you do?

In the early 1980s in Western countries around the world, there was a massive citizen mobilisation against nuclear war. Critics — defenders of Western military strength, including nuclear weapons — attacked the movement by claiming it was a tool of the Soviet Union, and that Communists were involved. These critics used the tactic of “guilt by association”: if Communists supported the movement, or were in the movement, this discredited the entire movement.

            Repressive governments use the same technique. They claim that opponents are funded by the CIA or are tools of other foreign powers.

            Guilt by association can also be used to discredit individuals. In the 1960s and 1970s, the leading US critic of fluoridation was Dr George Waldbott, a doctor and researcher, author of numerous publications. The American Dental Association compiled a dossier titled “Comments on the opponents of fluoridation” listing various individuals with far-out ideas, reactionary groups like the Ku Klux Klan — and a few scientists, including Waldbott, with damaging statements about him.

This dossier was circulated for years whenever Waldbott gave talks or testified to legislatures. It served to discredit him by associating him with crackpots and political fanatics. (See Scientific Knowledge in Controversy, and search for “dossier”.)

Reputations under attack

This is the third in a series of posts about dealing with unfair attacks on reputation. Since the 1970s, I’ve advised hundreds of people who contacted me about being defamed. Each case is different and the best option for one person may not work for someone else, so I will suggest several options for consideration. Other posts deal with false statements, derogatory labelling, malicious gossip and online attacks.


“Guilt by association” refers to a process by which the reputation of a person or group is hurt by being linked to a person, group, belief system or activity that is widely stigmatised. The word “guilt” is a bit misleading. The process might better be called “denigration by association” or “stigma by association.”

            This process is found in all sorts of circumstances. Some people will not buy or live in a house where a foul murder was committed. The house is tainted by association with the murder, and buyers don’t want to be tainted by association with the house. This connection might be called superstitious; it is founded on stigma by association. Another example: it is common for children of known criminals to be bullied at school. A moment’s thought should be enough to realise that the children are not responsible for the crimes of their parents.

Guilt by association is a powerful process because it operates without conscious deliberation. It is an automatic reaction and hence difficult to challenge.

            Guilt by association is an attack on reputation, and often quite an unfair one. It is not about some transgression or failing by you or your group, but rather just about your connection with someone or something that is negatively perceived. Logically, an association should be carefully probed to assess its significance. If left-wing or right-wing extremists support your cause, does it mean your cause is any less worthy? The onus of proof should be on those who make the attack but, alas, it’s usually the other way around. Those subject to a guilt-by-association attack need to figure out how to defend. There are several options.


The association may be so toxic that you want to distance yourself from the stigmatised linkage. Leaders of nonviolent movements might decide to condemn anyone or any group that uses violence, even those with the same aims.

            A guilt-by-association attack on a group can lead to internal strife. A political party might expel members with viewpoints hurting its reputation. The disowning option may come with a high cost.


Instead of disowning an association, a completely different approach is to accept it, even to welcome it. “Our group is open to anyone who shares our aims. We don’t discriminate.” Can you get away with this? It depends. The broader and stronger the group, the safer it is to use the acceptance option.


When criticised over your associations, you can counter by pointing to the critic’s unsavoury connections. If you’re linked to left-wing extremists, you can point to your critic’s links to right-wing extremists.

            This can be a potent response, especially when critics are obviously hypocritical. Nevertheless, there’s an important drawback in this response: it cements the use of guilt-by-association techniques.


You might try to explain why stigma from an association is not logical. You can say that just because you live next door to a convicted criminal doesn’t mean you’re less than honest. In fact, it might show your tolerance, generosity and forgiveness. Explanations are valuable when others listen and stop to think.


Sometimes you can just ignore attempts to discredit you using guilt by association. Maybe you don’t care or maybe you realise that by defending against the implied allegations, you simply draw more attention to them.

Honour by association

A potent counter to stigma by association is to make connections with people or things that are highly valued. This is called reflected glory or honour by association. You didn’t do anything special but knowing a celebrity or brain surgeon gives you greater status.

            Honour by association is all around us. You might think you’re not susceptible to this process because, after all, it’s just an association and the positive spin-off is not sensible. Consider some examples.

  • Selfies taken with prestigious or good-looking people or locations.
  • Name-dropping: mentioning famous or accomplished people you’ve known, met or even just seen. The opposite is name-withholding: you don’t mention low-status individuals you’ve known.
  • In academic work, citing well-known intellectuals, but not obscure ones.
  • Having prestigious figures as patrons for your organisation.
  • Having high-status individuals as referees for job applications rather than lower-status individuals who know you better.
  • Barracking for a sporting team that is doing well, but dropping away when they’re not.
  • Choosing to live in a high-status suburb.
  • Attending a prestigious university rather than an equally good but lower status one.
  • Entering a respected occupation (doctor, lawyer).
  • Attending talks by famous people (rather than equally informative talks by others).
  • Owning a nice house, car, watch, clothes, etc., and making sure others see your possessions.
  • Being seen with good-looking or popular people.

These examples suggest the powerful role of honour by association in the way societies operate, especially ones driven by materialism, in which striving for status through possessions and titles, for getting ahead, takes precedence over the quest for a virtuous life. Honour by association is important in politics: politicians acquire status mainly through their positions, not their achievements. Indeed, being prominent is often thought of as an achievement itself, as in the case of celebrities who are famous for being well known.

            Although honour by association is often an unconscious process and used to serve dubious purposes, there is nothing wrong with using it for worthwhile goals. Consider the circumstances of people with intellectual disabilities, who are often shunned and looked down upon. Wolf Wolfensberger developed an approach called social role valorisation, or SRV, to enhance the lives of people with disabilities.

Wolf Wolfensberger

Part of SRV is promoting positive images through enhanced competencies and favourable associations. Honour by association comes from being well dressed in the company of valued individuals, living in a nice neighbourhood (and not next to a cemetery or waste dump), and having a respected job.


When your reputation is threatened by a guilt-by-association technique, you have a variety of options. Rather than responding quickly and emotionally, it’s worth choosing the option that serves your purposes most effectively. It might be tempting to respond to an attack with outrage, or to counterattack, but maybe remaining silent or calmly pointing out the lack of logic might be better.

            You can also use the technique of honour by association to enhance your reputation. And you can use this technique to help others. Assuming you and your group are respected, you can make a difference by aligning yourselves with others who are stigmatised. When it comes to the reputation game, we can all make a difference.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Tonya Agostini, John Armstrong and Anneleis Humphries for useful comments.

When they call you a bad name – and hurt their cause

Sometimes using derogatory labels can be counterproductive.

My recent post “When they call you a bad name” suggested options for responding to demeaning labels, for example when someone calls you a fascist. By chance, a friend told me about her recent experience being part of a group targeted with abuse, and how this affected her. A key insight is that calling someone else a bad name can be bad for your cause.

            Here is her short account of her experience. Afterwards, I offer a few comments.

“This scum needs to be removed from our streets”: How to create enemies, by Claudia Carson-Clarke

            I have been involved in the human rights and peace movement for over 25 years. In my younger days I was involved in the usual peace and equality movement student politics, including attending peace protests against the Iraq war, and the fallout from the so-called War on Terror.

            Over the years I have watched the peace movement slowly falling to pieces, bit by bit. I am not surprised given the lack of strategic thinking and my recent experiences.

            On Saturday 3 December, I attended a lecture in Sydney by Dr Jordan Peterson.

            There was a stark police presence at the event, including mounted police and rows of police guarding the entrances. I had to go through a metal detector and bag check upon entry. I was prepared for this level of security.

            What I wasn’t prepared for was abuse hurled at me for simply wanting to attend this lecture.

            A small group of protestors had assembled at the main entrance to vilify anyone entering the lecture. Here was a group of people yelling at me, calling me a fascist, Nazi, racist, bigot. They were intimidating, just like the police.

            The protestors need to ask themselves, “What are we trying to achieve?” Listening to the live-stream from the safety of the building, I heard several citizen journalists ask people walking by what they thought of the protests. Every person said they didn’t even know what the protesters were talking about because they were simply shouting into the loudspeaker and they couldn’t understand what they were talking about. The people walking by simply wanted to get to their dinner or Christmas party events.

            One of the more disturbing elements was the violent rhetoric coming from the protestors, including calling attendees “scum” who needed to be “removed” from the streets.

            What were the protests trying to achieve by calling the young men who attended “incels” and misogynists, other than creating a political enemy? Did those protesting consider having a discussion with some of the young men about why they were attending and about their views about women?

            I did, and I found them to be thoughtful, courteous and curious minds. These young men found hope and purpose in the words of Dr Peterson. They wanted to clean their rooms as one of their rules for life.

            At the end of the day, the only people spewing violent rhetoric and hate were the protestors. Dr Peterson’s lecture was about meaning-making in life, and the importance of love. He discussed the psychology of play and the development of relationships as core to life and psychological development. Most importantly, he offered a stark warning of the road we are taking in relation to war, noting that we are much more technologically powerful than they were in the era of Hitler and Stalin. The core message was that of peace.

            Perhaps if the protestors had gone inside and listened to Dr Peterson, rather than denigrating him and everyone who went inside to listen, they would have developed their understanding. The protestors created their own enemies and ensured that those that attended felt intimidated and denigrated. To indiscriminatingly apply the label “fascist” to groups of people, some of them long involved in the peace movement, is just appalling.

            This is just a tragedy, not only for the peace and equality movement, but also for society in general. The protests only served to create more division and hatred. Clearly the strategy needs to change if the movement wishes to engage more people.

A few further thoughts from Brian

Claudia’s story is instructive. Shouting at people can be a bad idea, at least in terms of winning them over. So can trying to censor a speaker, especially a popular one. It might be better to try to understand why the speaker is popular and address the factors that make this possible.

            I have not read Jordan Peterson’s books nor listened to his talks, but I do know he has become a symbol of values detested by some of those on the left. That’s fine. But if someone is a symbol of values you detest, is vilification the best way to counter those values and promote your own? Would it be better to ignore Peterson’s talks, or organise a public meeting promoting your preferred values, or give leaflets to Peterson-talk attendees beforehand or afterwards, or interview them afterwards to learn about their experiences, or even attend his talk to better understand his appeal?

            To ask such questions is to begin the process of thinking strategically about protest. This includes formulating goals, considering the other side’s argument and taking into account how your actions will affect others. It includes considering the implicit, perhaps unintended, messages being sent by the protest and the way it is delivered.

            The anti-Peterson protesters can be understood as acting expressively, letting out their own emotions, anger and disgust in this case, and directing them at Peterson and those attending his talk. Protesting, it might be presumed, makes them feel better about themselves, by displaying their values and showing their fellow protesters their commitment to the cause. This can help build solidarity within their own groups and networks, but in this case it had a counterproductive effect on Claudia, and possibly on others who were subject to their verbal abuse.

            One lesson: calling someone a nasty name might make you feel righteous, but it might also make them think less of you — and your cause.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Claudia for her text and additional information about the talk and protest. Thanks to Paula Arvela, Sharon Callaghan, Suzzanne Gray and Julia LeMonde for helpful suggestions. Several photos are taken from a video by @Chriscoveries.

When they call you a bad name

Fascist! Communist! Lunatic! Murderer! Paedophile!

What do you do when someone calls you a derogatory name, one that really hurts, one that might stick? Your reputation has come under attack. How can you resist?

            And it might not be just you. Your group could be labelled and have a hard time dealing with it.

            Labelling, including derogatory labelling, happens all the time, and it’s an important issue. Many people care more about their reputation than about their health or happiness. In the olden days when their honour was besmirched, gentlemen would issue demands to engage in duels, which sometimes were lethal. Today, you can go to court with a defamation suit. That’s slow, expensive and may not protect your reputation.

Reputations under attack

This is the second in a series of posts about dealing with unfair attacks on reputation. Since the 1970s, I’ve advised hundreds of people who contacted me about being defamed. Each case is different and the best option for one person may not work for someone else, so I will suggest several options for consideration. Other posts deal with false statements, guilt by association, malicious gossip and online attacks.


It’s useful to understand what’s going on when labels are applied. Words have an explicit meaning, a denotation, and implied meanings or connotations. Derogatory labels are rich in negative connotations. The person who calls you a fascist may know little or nothing about fascism as an ideology or political system. They do know that “fascist” is a term of abuse. They use it to discredit you or simply to show they hold you in contempt. Maybe they are upset and want to take it out on you.

            The key is to realise that the label is less about being a description and more about associating you with the connotations. This is important. You might want to respond to the literal meaning, which is fine, but this misses the power of the label to shape people’s views — if the label sticks.

            It’s relatively easy to see the problems with labels when you don’t agree with them. You know you’re not a fascist and can laugh it off. However, when you agree that someone else really should be called a fascist, it can be difficult to appreciate the hurt and damage.

            Consider “conspiracy theorist.” This has a straightforward meaning: someone who believes conspiracies exist. But usually when someone is called a conspiracy theorist, the main effect, and often the main purpose, is to dismiss or discredit them. Conspiracy theorists are presumed to believe in crazy ideas and therefore must themselves be misguided or deluded.


Suppose someone calls you a conspiracy theorist or dismisses one of your ideas by calling it a conspiracy theory. Consider your options.


Maybe it doesn’t matter to you what the person says or thinks. Maybe they have no credibility themselves. It might be safer to ignore the insult because a reply may give it more attention and make people think there is something in it.

            Ignoring a label is not so easy when a friend uses it, when several others start using it or when it starts harming your credibility. If you want to win people to your ideas, you may need to respond.


You can say you’re not a conspiracy theorist. You can say, “I’m not a conspiracy theorist” and start explaining your beliefs (“Here’s some of the evidence”). In effect, you are denying the connotations of the label while asserting your ideas. There are many examples of this response, for example “I’m not a racist,” often followed by a comment that might be deemed racist.

            The value of this response is in trying to get beyond the label, to get others to discuss the substance of the issues. One disadvantage is implicitly accepting the negative connotations of the label, which means you will continue to come up against prejudicial attitudes.

Accept with pride

You can say, “Yes, I’m a conspiracy theorist — and here’s why.” You can use various techniques to counter the negativity attached to the term. Can you do this alone? Probably not. But over time, some terms can be turned from negatives to positives.

            Think of “Black” and “queer.” These were derogatory but eventually became more positive, accepted with pride. The transformation of the words’ connotations paralleled the change in the identity. If you’re part of a group with a stigmatised identity, you can help challenge the stigma by using the label with pride.


Rather than trying to defend, you can attack — and one way is to apply the same label to those who have labelled you. This only works for some names, but it does work for “conspiracy theorist.”

            A well-known conspiracy theory is that the US government organised the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Towers in New York. This theory is often assumed to be absurd and used to discredit anyone who supposedly believes in any conspiracy theory. To turn this around, ask “Who do you think planned the 9/11 attacks?” If they say al-Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden, you say, “Ah, you believe it was a conspiracy. You’re a conspiracy theorist!” This is a good example because nearly everyone believes 9/11 involved a conspiracy. It’s just a question of which one.

            The conspiracy-theory label is seldom applied to the views of government officials. President George W. Bush and others warned that Saddam Hussein had or was getting nuclear weapons — this was the justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq — but hardly anyone says, “Bush was a conspiracy theorist.”

            A counter-label can reveal inconsistencies in thinking. It might lead to a discussion of the meaning of the label.

Cite experts

Sometimes you may have the opportunity for a discussion, and you can refer to the views of experts. For racial epithets, you can mention that scientists say there is only a single human race and there are few genetic differences between ethnic groups.

            A group of philosophers, called the particularists, argue that conspiracy theories need to be assessed on their merits, just like any other theories. In other words, they argue that explanations involving conspiracies should not be dismissed out of hand, or assumed to reflect poor thinking, but instead evaluated like other sorts of explanations. This is a perfectly rational argument, but that’s not the point. What you do by raising this perspective is draw on the authority of experts.

Use humour

You may be able to distract or derail abusive comments with a humorous response. An off-beat or unexpected reply can sometimes make it difficult for the other person to maintain their mood of condemnation. You can make fun of the topic, make fun of yourself or introduce an absurdity that disrupts the serious intent of the attacker.

            “You know who I think was behind 9/11? Elvis.” If you pick your example carefully, the labeller may not know whether you’re being serious. “You mean you’re not a shape-shifting lizard like me?” This reply will only make sense to someone familiar with this particular conspiracy theory. Ideally, you can expose some of the lack of logic behind labelling and encourage thinking about what a conspiracy theory is.


On some occasions, you may decide there is a serious and helpful intent behind the label. Rather than resist, you might reconsider your position. This doesn’t mean you agree with the label or the derogatory intent behind it, but instead of resisting, you try to join the person criticising your views. This can be disconcerting to them, and they may not know whether you’re being serious.

            “I’m with you. Some conspiracy theories are goofy. We ought to check carefully before going down the conspiracy rabbit hole.”

            “My mother told me never to believe a conspiracy is involved when incompetence or pure chance could be an explanation.”


The examples here involve one-on-one interactions, but there are many other situations where derogatory labelling comes into play. The same sorts of responses are usually possible. A lot depends on the circumstances, your skills, your assessment of the attackers, and the topic. A humorous response may work when you’re called a conspiracy theorist, but maybe not when a racial or sexual epithet is deployed.

            Be creative, and be experimental. You can learn what works by trying out a variety of responses with different people and seeing what happens. If you’re able to strike up a conversation or stimulate some thinking or make the engagement less serious, you’ve been successful. If so, tell others about your techniques. We all need to know.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Ben Case, Kelly Gates, Kurtis Hagen, Julia LeMonde and Erin Twyford for helpful comments.

When they say false things about you

What can you do when people spread false statements that harm your reputation?

It was going around social media that you lied about your personal relationships. There was a news story about your group, saying you supported violence. At a public meeting, a speaker called you a racist. There was another media story about your group, saying you received funding from vested interests. At a staff meeting, your boss accused you of bullying.

            None of it is true, yet the claims are being repeated all over the place. Your reputation is being trashed. What can you do?

            Before making accusations about lies and libel, and before rushing to your lawyer, pause — and consider your options.

Reputations under attack

This is the first in a series of posts about dealing with unfair attacks on reputation. Since the 1970s, I’ve advised hundreds of people who contacted me about being defamed. Each case is different and the best option for one person may not work for someone else, so I will suggest several options for consideration. Future posts deal with derogatory labels, guilt by association, malicious gossip and online attacks.

Understanding false claims

To appreciate what’s really going on, try to figure out what’s in the minds of those spreading the falsehoods. Could it be just a difference in perspective? Could there be some misinterpretation of actions or statements? Or is it something malicious?

            Your boss accuses you of bullying. Did you do something inappropriate? Or is the boss bullying you and others, and because you called out the boss’s obnoxious behaviour, you’re now a target?

            To say a claim is false is to make a statement about truth. Is that possible in an age of fake news, disinformation, and the postmodern rejection of ultimate truths? In academic circles, it’s accepted that all knowledge is provisional and open to challenge. Don’t worry about that, because for practical purposes the belief in truth remains strong in most circumstances, though often people disagree about where the truth lies.

            The trouble is that powerful groups try to impose their views as being true. That means bosses, media outlets and governments assert or assume their claims are true even though others — including you — can see they are obviously false.

Issues to consider

When confronted with false claims that damage your reputation, it’s tempting to jump to an immediate defence or to lash out in a counterattack, calling the other person a liar. Usually it’s better to pause and consider what you know about the situation.

            Is the other person — the one who makes the claims you think are false — sincere? Do they believe what they’re saying? This is an important question. If your boss says something damaging about your performance, maybe that’s what they really think, so it’s a matter of different perspectives, different information or a communication problem. Listen carefully. Then, if your boss seems sincere, it may be better to try to explain things. But if you think your boss is trying to get rid of you or trying to warp your perceptions — in other words, gaslighting — then you need to be more careful.

            If the other person is sincere, then they aren’t lying. A lie is an intentional falsehood or intentional withholding of the truth. It’s unwise to call someone a liar if they might believe what they’re saying. To further complicate matters, many lies are for good purposes.

            Another distinction is between misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is information that’s incorrect, which may be due to ignorance, mistakes or sincere belief. Your boss can be misinformed while being concerned and supportive. Disinformation, on the other hand, is intentionally false. It is often used to describe covert government campaigns to discredit enemies or disrupt societies. The words misinformation, disinformation, fake news and post-truth are sometimes used as labels for attacking rather than accurate descriptions.

            You need to decide whether you’re being targeted or whether the false claims referred to you inadvertently or as a spin-off from other agendas. When the boss says your report is not up to scratch, is this harassment or is it because the boss needs to please some other player and your report gets in the way? When your group is attacked by a politician in a media story, is your group a special target or just being named for rhetorical purposes?

            You may not know the answers to all these questions, but it’s worth asking them and keeping in mind that you don’t know for sure what motivates other people’s actions. It’s usually better not to make too many assumptions, so you can adapt your responses as new information becomes available.

            After you’ve tried to understand what’s happening and why, you can consider options. There’s no single best option when you’re subject to false claims, so you need to think about everything you know about the people and the circumstances, and decide what to do.


Although you may be upset or angry about falsehoods, sometimes it’s better to ignore them. At work, if co-workers or clients make comments about your performance, you might be better off not seeming to notice but just continuing with your efforts. Responding might seem to others like accepting the comments as potentially valid. Worse, it might simply draw more attention to them. By not responding, you also signal that you’re not easily rattled.


Counter the false statements. Just say they’re wrong. Present the evidence showing what’s actually going on.

            The boss says you’re not showing up on time and that your work rate is one of the lowest on the floor. You prepared for this. You have screenshots showing when you arrived every single day, and you have the stats on work rates in your team. So there!

            Defending can be effective when others respect honest information. It’s good news if they say, “Sorry, we were mistaken. You’re doing a good job.” On the other hand, if they make some new false claims, you might be subject to mobbing, a collective form of harassment. If so, the facts won’t matter.

            Should you defend by collecting information and providing as many facts as you can? It depends a lot on the circumstances. If there’s any risk of a false-claim attack, it’s nearly always valuable to obtain information to counter the falsehoods. At the workplace, you can collect information about your performance, testimonials from bosses, co-workers and customers, and comparative statistics. Just hope you never need it!


Instead of defending directly, you can explain what’s going on, for example why someone might want to make false claims. This is best done in a calm manner. If a co-worker says you’re not doing your job, you might explain that the workload has increased with no added staff and for the past month you’ve been doing two people’s jobs.

            Explanation is useful when others don’t know what’s been happening. It provides context so they can understand and make a judgement themselves. Rather than saying “You’re wrong” you’re in effect saying, “Here’s what you need to know so you can decide for yourself.”

            Explanation is an excellent technique for communicating to outsiders, those who have no stake in the conflict. You change their understanding from “You said, they said” to “Let’s see what’s really behind this difference in opinion.” However, those involved in a dispute may just see explanation as a form of special pleading.


In some cases, nasty comments and misleading statements contain a grain of truth. The boss might say you’re never on time and always too slow, which is a gross exaggeration given that you’re nearly always on time and usually work faster than others. A disarming response is to accept the criticism. “Thank you for your feedback. I appreciate your concern about my performance.” This sort of response draws on the perspective of the Stoics, a group of philosophers in ancient Greece, whose ideas remain relevant today.

            Chris Voss was an FBI negotiator who developed techniques that worked in the most difficult situations. He then found the same techniques applied in other negotiating situations, and wrote about his experiences in his book Never Split the Difference. When you confront someone, it can be powerful to start off by recounting every negative thought they have about you.

            If false statements about your performance have been circulated around your workplace, when you meet the boss or someone else you need to deal with, you can lead off with something like this: “You probably think I’m never on time.” After they nod, you say, “And you probably think that I’m one of the slowest workers on the floor.” Again they nod. The surprising thing about this approach is that it enables a more open and honest interaction.


“They defamed me. I’m going to sue.”

            The law of defamation is supposed to provide a remedy for damage to reputation. There are two main forms of defamation: slander refers to spoken defamation and libel to written defamation, except that broadcasts are in the libel category.

            There are two main problems with defamation law. First, it serves as a means of censorship. Second, it seldom restores reputations. In addition, it is slow, costly and procedural.

            The general rule is, don’t sue unless you have a lot of money and don’t mind losing it. It’s especially unwise to sue an organisation that has more money than you.

            When you sue, you become the attacker. Before, you might have had sympathy due to being treated unfairly. Now people’s sympathy may switch to the person you’ve sued.

            Suppose there’s a front-page news story that contains false and misleading statements about you and your group. You are accused of fraud, extreme political views, and lying. So you sue the media organisation for defamation. What’s going to happen? The most you can hope for is a published apology. It will be in small print in some obscure location on a website, and most readers won’t remember the original story.

            More often, though, you won’t receive an apology. Months later, after you’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on lawyers, you might receive nothing or maybe a financial settlement. That means the organisation pays you something. That’s nice but doesn’t restore your reputation.

            Rather than suing, consider other options. You can write a polite letter for publication countering the accusations (defending) or giving the context (explaining). Or you can just let it go (ignoring), guessing that most people will forget that front-page story and that by suing, you may just make more people aware of it.


When others make false statements about you, it can be extremely upsetting. Your reputation is at stake, and it’s totally unfair to be attacked with incorrect, misleading or manufactured information presented as if it’s the truth.

            It’s tempting to reply immediately, while you’re angry and upset. It’s better to wait until you can calmly consider options. If possible, seek advice from people you trust, especially people who’ve been through a similar ordeal. Be especially cautious about defending, in case you draw more attention to the falsehoods, and don’t take legal action unless you know for sure that it has worked well for others in similar situations.

            If you care about your reputation, and the reputation of your group, remember that people are influenced by what you do. That includes how you respond to attacks. If you seem generous, understanding and informative, you have a better chance of making a good impression. And you set a good example.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Kelly Gates and Suzzanne Gray for helpful comments.

A message from the Turtles

A new book offers the best available critique of vaccination orthodoxy. 

(This is a long review. To skip the preliminaries, go to “Turtles enter the fray.”)

The vaccination debate

In 2010, I began writing about the vaccination debate — the public debate over the benefits, risks, ethics and politics of vaccines. This was long before Covid-19, so nearly all the debate was about childhood vaccines for diseases like polio, measles, diphtheria, and tetanus.

            I came to this issue having previously written about disputes over nuclear power, pesticides, fluoridation, nuclear winter and the origin of AIDS. In the field of science and technology studies or STS, these are called scientific controversies. They typically involve striking disagreements between both scientists and laypeople, and aren’t just about science. They also involve disagreements over ethics, decision-making and values such as freedom.

            In studying the vaccination issue, my purpose is not to take a side but to understand the dynamics of the controversy, including the players, their moves and claims. I also have another purpose, which I’ll come to.

            There are remarkable similarities between different scientific controversies. They typically pit a powerful establishment, supported by governments or corporations and most experts, against citizen opponents, backed by a small number of dissident experts. This at least is the configuration in debates over nuclear power, pesticides, fluoridation, genetically modified organisms, microwaves — and vaccination. There are two important exceptions, where most experts oppose a powerful establishment: smoking and climate change.

            In every controversy, it is possible to examine public campaigning and expert scientific commentary. In public campaigning, it is common to find mistakes, exaggeration, misunderstandings and misinformation. However, judging what is a mistake is not always easy, because partisans on one side or the other may challenge what seems like an obvious statement or assumption. For example, I refer to the “vaccination debate” but some proponents say there is no debate and any disagreement with vaccination is misinformed or worse.

            Before proceeding, I had better explain my own position. I do not have strong views in favour of or opposed to vaccination. As noted, my interest in the issue is as a social scientist, to learn about the way the debate proceeds. My other interest in the issue is to defend free speech on controversial social issues. I believe in the value of open dialogue, discussion and debate. If vaccines are highly beneficial and extremely safe, criticism should be welcomed so that it can be clearly and accurately countered. If vaccines have shortcomings, criticism is valuable for highlighting them, hopefully leading to better products and practices.

Writing about the vaccination debate

I started writing articles about the vaccination debate, in particular about a most amazing attack on an Australian vaccine-critical group. By doing this, I came under attack myself. This was wonderful! As a social scientist studying a public scientific controversy, it is often difficult to obtain first-hand information. Social researchers usually rely on published materials, interviews and surveys, but remain separate from the action. I didn’t just have a front-row seat: I was on the playing field. Some others were treating me like a player.

            In writing scholarly articles, I gradually developed a standard way of introducing the vaccination debate in a few words. Here’s one example, from 2012:

Vaccination against infectious diseases is supported by medical professions worldwide (Andre, et al., 2008; Offit and Bell, 2003), and in most countries there is a standard set of vaccinations given to children. In the face of this medical orthodoxy, a small number of citizens’ groups and professionals present a contrary position, arguing that the benefits of vaccination have been overestimated and that there are significant risks to individuals and society, with recorded cases of seriously affected children (Habakus and Holland, 2011; Halvorsen, 2007).

You can see that for the vaccination-positive view, I gave two references, and likewise for the vaccine-critical view. In each case, I wanted to give solid, credible references. Reflecting on how I proceeded, my implicit criteria were that the source should be comprehensive, reasoned, authoritative and readable.

  • Comprehensive: the source needs to address all or most of the vaccines and the scientific and medical issues in the debate.
  • Reasoned: evidence and arguments should be presented in a careful, logical, systematic way.
  • Authoritative: the authors and the content should be credible.
  • Readable: the writing should be understandable by non-experts.

It’s hard to satisfy all these criteria. For example, there is a vast quantity of vaccination-positive materials in scientific and medical journals, but most of it is specialised (not comprehensive) and aimed at experts (not readable).

Vaccination-positive sources

For the case for vaccination, the book by Paul A. Offit and Louis M. Bell was an ideal reference. Titled Vaccines: What You Should Know, it is aimed at a general audience, covers the full gamut of vaccines and comes across as informative. Paul Offit is a doctor and professor and a prominent advocate of vaccination, and Louis Bell is also a doctor. Some of Offit’s other works include bitter attacks against critics, but Vaccines does not enter this territory.

            A correspondent alerted me to an article by F. E. Andre and eleven co-authors. It is titled “Vaccination greatly reduces disease, disability, death and inequity worldwide,” and published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization. The title alone suggests the article’s aim to be comprehensive, and the authors are a slew of experts in the field. It scores less on readability.

            Later I cited another source: Vaccines. The seventh edition of 2018 is edited by Stanley A. Plotkin, Walter A. Orenstein, Paul A. Offit and Kathryn Edwards. This is a massive text, aimed at specialists. It is definitely comprehensive, and the editors have high status in the field. It is factual rather than overtly partisan but is not bedtime reading for non-experts. It is good for pointing to the vast quantity of research supporting vaccination.

            No doubt there are other good sources. These were the ones I found most useful. My purpose was to point to credible material supportive of vaccination. I guessed that few readers would bother to look up any of these sources, but they needed to know they existed.

Vaccine-critical sources

To show the existence of a dispute over vaccination at the level of science, I wanted to cite sources that had some parallels with the vaccination-positive ones. That means ones that are comprehensive, reasoned, authoritative and readable. At this point, it is useful to note a crucial asymmetry in the debate. Because nearly all scientific and medical authorities support government vaccination policies and practices, it is unlikely there will be any authoritative critics, because to be a critic is to become a target of attacks on credibility.

            You’ll note that I’ve avoided using the term “anti-vaccination.” It is misleading, and in the shortened form “anti-vax” has been turned into a term of denigration. Anyone who deviates from the official vaccination position may be called an anti-vaxxer. This includes parents who space out their children’s vaccines or choose some vaccines but not others. It includes researchers who raise any questions or reservations about vaccination. To call someone “anti-vax” suggests they are opposed to all vaccines, which is misleading. Therefore, I avoid the label “anti-vaccination” for both its imprecision and its derogatory connotations. Although “pro-vaccination” does not have negative connotations, I’ve also avoided it.

            For vaccine-critical sources, I found a book by Richard Halvorsen titled The Truth about Vaccines.

Halvorsen is a doctor who researched the issues himself. Halvorsen is not opposed to vaccines — he gives them. But he wanted to find out the full story, and so addresses both the history of vaccination and each vaccine in turn, focusing on Britain and its policies and experiences. He provides lots of references. His message is to be aware and consider the evidence, not to make a knee-jerk decision either way. Halvorsen’s book, now in its fourth edition titled Vaccines: Making the Right Choice for Your Child, is comprehensive, reasoned and readable. It somewhat lacks authority in that he is not an established researcher in a relevant field such as virology or epidemiology.

            Another useful critical source is Vaccine Epidemic, edited by Louise Kuo Habakus and Mary Holland. It covers a wide range of issues, ranging from law and ethics to the politics of science. However, compared with Halvorsen’s book, much less of Vaccine Epidemic addresses the scientific evidence about vaccination.

            In 2018, a comprehensive critique of vaccination was published: Mateja Cernic’s Ideological Constructs of Vaccination. It is a revised and expanded version of her PhD thesis at the School of Advanced Social Studies in Slovenia. The book is an intriguing combination of massive documentation and strong statements. It includes a treatment of social aspects of medicine and vaccination, covering discourses, ideologies, representations of vaccination critics, power and abuses of power by medical and state authorities. The longest chapter is a challenge to the orthodox view about the effectiveness and safety of vaccination, covering infectious disease mortality rates, the immune system, adverse events, safety and efficacy studies, contamination of vaccines, monitoring of adverse events, and herd immunity. This would seem to be a powerful challenge, yet it has received little attention, perhaps in part because it is not so easy to read, and the author is a sociologist, someone outside the medical establishment.

Turtles enter the fray

Being on the lookout for good sources on the pros and cons of vaccination, I obtained a copy of a book published in 2022 titled Turtles All the Way Down. The title, at first glance, sounds peculiar. The subtitle is more revealing: Vaccine Science and Myth. For convenience, I will refer to it as Turtles.

            The book arrived with plenty of advance publicity. It was published in 2019 in Israel, in Hebrew, and made a splash. I read that it had received a positive review in an Israeli medical journal, a review written by Ety Elisha and Natti Ronel. Well, well. I knew them: we were collaborating, along with two others, on a paper about suppression of critics of official views about Covid-19. It’s a small world.

            An unusual aspect of Turtles is that its authors are anonymous. They chose not to reveal their identities to avoid ad hominem attacks. Also, if they worked within the health system, they could be subject to reprisals in their careers. That’s exactly what I had been studying for the past decade concerning vaccination, and even longer for other scientific controversies. Remaining anonymous makes a lot of sense to me. Indeed, it’s what I recommend for whistleblowers, whenever possible. The authors call themselves The Turtles Team or TTT.

            Turtles is a frontal attack on the assumption that the standard childhood vaccination programme is both safe and effective. This assumption is at the core of the vaccination paradigm, the framework that guides thinking and research in the area.

            To illustrate the contrast between TTT’s analysis and the official position on vaccination, I found a short article that nicely articulates the orthodox view, an article you can read yourself. Titled “Simply put: vaccination saves lives,” it was published in 2017 in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, a prestigious long-standing US scientific journal. The authors are Walter Orenstein and Rafi Ahmed, both from Emory University. Orenstein, from the Department of Medicine, is also one of the four co-editors of the text Vaccines, which I mentioned earlier as an authoritative source for the vaccination-positive view. I will refer to Orenstein and Ahmed’s article to highlight assumptions and emphases in the orthodox position on vaccination, the position challenged by the Turtles Team.


Let’s start with safety. Orenstein and Ahmed do not explicitly discuss adverse events caused by vaccination, but instead implicitly dismiss them by countering concerns that vaccines cause autism. Perhaps their assumption is that if the autism claims don’t stand up, less well-known ones won’t either.

            A prime claim in Turtles is that the safety of standard vaccines has never been established, indeed that assumptions or claims about safety have no foundation. How could this be? TTT begin by examining the vaccine approval process and the randomised controlled trials that are required, clearly and carefully explaining what’s involved. In phase 3 trials, there are two groups of children. One group is given the vaccine, let’s say a vaccine for chickenpox, and the other group is given a placebo: they are injected with a passive or neutral substance. No one, including the researchers and the children, is supposed to know which children get the vaccine and which get the placebo. When testing for safety, the numbers of adverse events — including seizures, breathing difficulties, allergic reactions, paralysis, severe illness and death — in each group are noted. If the frequency of adverse events in the vaccine group is not much higher than the frequency of adverse events in the placebo group then, after other factors are taken into account, the vaccine is assessed to be safe.

            The problem, TTT say, is that the placebos in phase 3 trials of childhood vaccines, before they are licensed for use, are not inert. The researchers doing the safety studies could have used a saline solution for the placebo, but instead they use other vaccines. This would be fine if the other vaccine had been shown to be totally safe but, according to TTT, no vaccines have been tested against inert placebos, and hence the clinical trials don’t actually show how safe the vaccine is. This is a striking claim, and also a daring one given that a single counterexample, a single study, might undermine it. A safer claim by TTT would be that despite extensive searching, they have not discovered a phase 3 trial of a vaccine against an inert placebo.

            Note that TTT don’t make a detailed claim about the rate of adverse events. They just say the clinical trials haven’t shown vaccines to be safe. As they put it, “The true rate of adverse events of routine childhood vaccines is virtually unknown; therefore, there is no scientific basis for claiming they’re safe.” (p. 66)

Undone science

Clinical trials are only one way to examine the safety of vaccines. Another possibility is to undertake biological and physiological research into adverse events. TTT examine studies in this area, or rather their absence. Their conclusion is that the generous funders of vaccine research — there is a vast amount of research in the field — seem remarkably averse to adverse-events research into diagnoses, causal mechanisms, individual susceptibilities, and therapies. By not undertaking studies to better understand damage from vaccination programmes, it remains possible to say vaccination is safe.

            David Hess, an anthropologist and sociologist at Vanderbilt University, and my friend and collaborator, introduced the idea of undone science. This refers to research that could be done, and furthermore that citizen activists say should be done, but which is neither funded nor carried out because the findings might be unwelcome to powerful groups with vested interests. There are many examples, especially on environmental and health topics. For example, the sweetener mannitol may have benefits for treating Parkinson’s disease, but because mannitol cannot be patented, companies didn’t want to research it.

            TTT do not refer to Hess’s analysis of undone science. The team sticks to scientific and medical sources and does not engage with social-science writings. Nevertheless, the team’s examination fits the picture of undone science perfectly.

            What about the reporting of vaccine adverse events? Anyone following this issue will soon hear about VAERS, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, where harmful side effects of vaccines can be reported. If there aren’t many reports, that should indicate that vaccines are safe. But, according to TTT, there’s a problem, actually several problems. Although reporting of cases of many infectious diseases is mandatory, when it comes to potential adverse events from vaccines, reporting is voluntary, and doctors are not compensated for making them. Furthermore, many doctors are reluctant to make reports, telling patients that their conditions could not be due to vaccines but are just a coincidence. This suggests considerable underreporting. Some estimates are that only one in ten, or one in a hundred, adverse events are reported.

            So why not improve the rate and quality of reporting to determine how accurate VAERS actually is? There was a study to show how this could be done but the CDC — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US body charged with vaccination recommendations — stopped engaging with the researchers, without explaining why. TTT argue that the CDC has shown no interest in improving VAERS.

            TTT’s next target is epidemiological studies showing a low rate of adverse events. Imagine collecting data from a large population about the incidence of a particular condition, let’s say high blood pressure. Then collect data about people’s ages, incomes, diets and anything else you can think of that might be relevant. By looking for statistical relations between the health condition and other factors, you might be able to notice, for example, that people’s blood pressure gets higher as they get older, or that it’s higher for people who eat lots of meat, or whatever. These are correlations, but they don’t prove causation. Maybe people who eat lots of meat get less exercise: it could be that lack of exercise is the main factor responsible for high blood pressure. Or it could be the salt in the meat dishes. You can see this gets quite complicated.

            TTT provide a primer on epidemiology, explaining the basic ideas clearly and simply. They then offer a damning indictment of epidemiological studies about vaccine safety, arguing they are designed to show no correlations between vaccines and adverse events. This is serious. TTT closely examine five major studies. Based on their examination, they suggest the studies are biased by design or execution, using defective research methods, relying on unsubstantiated data, omitting essential data, making meaningless calculations, dismissing unwelcome findings and exaggerating the significance of the findings.

            Remember that Orenstein and Ahmed in their article “Simply put: vaccination saves lives” did not explicitly mention adverse events caused by vaccines, but implicitly dealt with them by dismissing a study by Andrew Wakefield and 12 collaborators about the possible connection between the MMR triple vaccine and autism. One of the epidemiological studies often cited as showing there is no such connection is by Madsen and colleagues. This is one of the “doctored” studies that TTT analyse, showing systematic shortcomings.

More undone science

TTT next examine what they call “the studies that will never be done.” An obvious way to investigate the overall safety of the entire vaccination schedule is to compare the health of two groups of children that are as similar as possible except in one respect: one group receives all recommended childhood vaccines and the other group receives no vaccines at all. Simple! Such a study would gather all the benefits and risks of vaccines, the benefits from reduced incidence of infectious disease and the risks from adverse events, and anything else, including beneficial or harmful effects not normally considered. A study like this showing the benefits of vaccination would be a powerful way to encourage parents to have their children vaccinated. But, perhaps surprisingly, such a study has never been undertaken by medical authorities. (There are some small studies by vaccine critics showing unvaccinated children have better health.)

            This is the most striking example of undone science in the vaccination arena. A plausible reason is that proponents are afraid the results might not support vaccination, or not support it as much as they hope. TTT go further, suggesting that the CDC has the data and therefore comparative studies may have been quietly done but never published because the results do not support vaccination. This is speculative. Another explanation derives from the vaccination paradigm: proponents operate within a framework that assumes vaccines are vital for health.

Historian-of-science Thomas Kuhn introduced the idea of scientific paradigms

Given this belief, there is no need for further studies to see whether vaccines are beneficial. In fact, publicity about doing such studies might generate alarm, by making people think there is some reason to doubt the vaccination programme. Within the assumptions of the paradigm, this is a reasonable concern. However, it does mean that critics can continue to point to the absence of definitive studies showing that the net benefits of receiving all recommended childhood vaccines are greater than having no vaccines at all.

            I’ve referred to the “vaccination schedule.” In guidelines for childhood vaccination, there are targets for particular vaccines at specific ages, for example, in the US, hepatitis B at birth, one month and six months. The schedule is another target in Turtles. For example, in the usual schedule, several vaccines are given in a single visit. Some parents prefer to space out the vaccines. Is there sound evidence for the safety of giving multiple vaccines at the same time? TTT say no.

A vaccination schedule

            Given TTT’s sustained critique of assumptions about vaccine safety, does this mean that vaccines are unsafe? This depends on what exactly is meant by unsafe. Despite statements that “vaccines are safe,” careful vaccination advocates always acknowledge adverse events, but say they are extremely rare. What TTT have done is show that the research behind the claim that risks are extremely low is simply not there. They show that research about adverse events is either flawed or not done at all. But what if studies were carried out to accurately determine the rate and significance of adverse events? One possibility would be that the adverse events would be shockingly frequent, validating the worst fears of vaccine critics. But another possibility is that harmful effects would be modest, perhaps higher than ones currently acknowledged but not high enough to outweigh benefits. TTT may have shown that the science of vaccine safety lacks foundations, but they haven’t attempted to show what the science would say if it did have a solid foundation. By the nature of undone science, no one can know for sure. But we do know who is resisting doing definitive studies.


In the usual slogan of “Vaccination saves lives,” the benefits are assumed to outweigh the risks. There is a sleight of hand here in referring to “vaccination” rather than individual vaccines. It is quite possible that a group of vaccines reduces the death rate but some specific vaccines cause more harm than benefit.

            Orenstein and Ahmed’s opening sentence is “Few measures in public health can compare with the impact of vaccines.” The Turtles Team challenges this claim. They provide figures showing that deaths and illnesses from infectious diseases were in rapid decline before mass vaccination was introduced, and argue that most of the decline in these diseases was due to other measures that improved public health, including clean water, good diet, better hygiene and a higher material standard of living.

            Orenstein and Ahmed provide a table showing the decline in annual morbidity (ill health) for vaccine-preventable diseases. It shows, for example, that measles morbidity declined by more than 99%. From what? Their base figure is the “20th Century annual morbidity” which they compare to reported cases in 2016. What they don’t provide is a comparison of morbidity before and after the introduction of mass vaccination. See below for more on this.

            These arguments are not new. They were presented, most prominently, by Thomas McKeown, and have been cited repeatedly by vaccine critics. Despite this, vaccine proponents seldom mention these arguments. Orenstein and Ahmed certainly do not. I wish vaccine advocates would provide a cogent rebuttal of the work of McKeown and others who question the scale of the benefits of vaccination. So far as the public debate is concerned, this might be called an “undone refutation.”

            You can see that the slogan “vaccination saves lives” is suspect if the benefits have been exaggerated and the harms undercounted. But TTT are not finished. There is one more important claim to address.

Herd immunity

Proponents argue that being vaccinated primes the immune system, reducing the risk of catching the targeted disease. They also argue that when most people have vaccine-induced immunity, others — including people who can’t be vaccinated — are also protected. For a virus to spread, it needs to encounter susceptible hosts: others who can be infected. If most people are immune to the virus, the disease outbreak will die out. This process protects the whole population, the “herd,” a collective benefit from sufficiently high levels of immunity in the community.

            Vaccine proponents make a big deal about herd immunity. It provides a moral imperative to be vaccinated and to promote vaccination, including through mandates. Orenstein and Ahmed devote a considerable portion of their short article to herd immunity, complete with a colourful diagram.

They write that herd immunity “provides the rationale for interventions to achieve high population immunity” including “mandates for immunization requirements for attending school.”

            For years I’ve read the arguments for and against herd immunity. Vaccine proponents almost invariably raise it, sometimes at such length that people gain the false impression that the main benefit of receiving a vaccine is not to yourself but to others. The result of this impression is that vaccination is sold, and often perceived, as altruistic, which means those who question vaccination, or are not vaccinated, can be painted as selfish.

            I wondered why herd immunity plays such a high profile in arguments for vaccination but analogous concepts are less prominent concerning other public health interventions. By analogous concept, I mean the idea that health-related behaviours benefiting the individual can also benefit others in the community. The example I find most compelling concerns alcohol. Not drinking alcohol benefits one’s own health by reducing the risk of cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, cancer and other maladies (partially counteracted by a few health benefits). Not drinking also reduces the harm to others caused by drunk driving and domestic violence. A community with less drinking is a healthier and safer community. There is more to be said about the pros and cons of alcohol, and I’m not making an argument for prohibition or abstention. The point is that the collective-benefit argument does not play such a big role in alcohol debates.

            Turning to writing by vaccine critics, it’s possible to find critiques of herd immunity, with arguments that it doesn’t exist or is irrelevant.

            So is herd immunity the most wonderful thing since sliced bread, or fake news? I don’t remember seeing an intermediate view — until reading Turtles. TTT systematically examine the evidence for and against herd immunity for each of 14 vaccines, from tetanus to measles. They conclude that, with sufficient coverage, five of them may confer herd immunity, whereas the others probably will not, or that their protection is not relevant or beneficial to children. It was refreshing to encounter an analysis that independently follows the evidence and doesn’t end up purely in one of the two warring camps.

Remember that Orenstein and Ahmed provided figures showing the measles vaccine reduced disease morbidity by over 99%. TTT agree that the vaccine reduced morbidity through herd immunity, though perhaps not by this percentage. Some vaccine critics may find this assessment unwelcome.

            TTT’s analysis shows the value of making careful assessments of different vaccines, each one with specific considerations and complications. Rather than follow Orenstein and Ahmed in saying “vaccination saves lives,” the question should be whether specific vaccines save lives, and beyond this who benefits and who suffers harm.

            To question vaccine-induced herd immunity is to question the rationale for coercive means to promote vaccination, for example requirements for attending school. Even for vaccines providing herd immunity, an assessment of the overall benefit needs to take into account harmful side effects. As TTT put it, “in the absence of solid evidence for a positive net benefit for individual vaccines, as well as the totality of childhood vaccination programs, there is no moral justification for mandating vaccination, or enforcing it in any other way.” (p. 367)


In 1990, I began studying the debate over the origin of AIDS. In particular, I became interested in the hypothesis that AIDS could have started as a result of contaminated oral polio vaccines used in central Africa in the late 1950s. Even if this hypothesis is correct, it says nothing about the safety of today’s vaccines, so the origin-of-AIDS debate is not relevant to the arguments in Turtles. Anyway, in the course of studying the polio-vaccine theory of the origin of AIDS, I read various studies of polio, including dissident views about its cause. One of those dissident views is that many or most cases of what we call poliomyelitis, a serious paralytic disease, are due to exposure to pesticides.

            Polio has long had a high profile, first as a disease to be feared and then as one of the great triumphs of vaccine research. In the 1950s, Jonas Salk developed a vaccine that was injected. Then Albert Sabin developed an oral vaccine, typically taken with a sugar cube. I vaguely remember having this vaccine when I was in primary school. The struggle to eradicate polio is one of the longest-running sagas in vaccination lore. As you can imagine, the idea that pesticides are the main cause is not likely to receive a warm welcome from the medical establishment.

            Turtles provides the clearest exposition of this idea that I’ve encountered. In a long chapter, TTT systematically lay out a series of open questions and contradictions in the official story about polio, presenting the standard view and an alternative explanation based on pesticide exposure. For example, they ask “Why did most of the early polio outbreaks occur in sparsely populated rural areas rather than in the large and crowded metropolitan areas?” The standard view about polio, which assumes the contagious spread of the poliovirus, cannot explain this. The alternative view gives this explanation: “Farming communities were the first to be poisoned by the use of toxic pesticides.” All up, TTT list 19 mysteries not explained by the standard view but apparently explained by pesticides being the primary factor in paralytic polio.

DDT spraying in the 1950s

            TTT’s arguments about polio are not essential to their overall critique of the risks and benefits of childhood vaccines, so their polio chapter might be thought of as a provocative supplement, an extra way of showing the limitations of establishment explanations. Without trying to get to the bottom of the polio story, my thought was “I’d really like to see vaccination proponents offer their views about each of these 19 apparent mysteries.”

What next?

In the late 1980s, I made an intensive study of the fluoridation controversy, and came to the conclusion that nothing would resolve the controversy in the short term. No matter what new evidence and new arguments are introduced, partisans on each side maintain their positions. This sort of polarised scientific controversy can be likened to a clash of paradigms, with adherents to each side seeing the world through assumptions almost impervious to new evidence. Contrary information is treated as anomalous, and supportive evidence is intertwined with assumptions about ethics and appropriate methods of decision-making.

            Why should the vaccination controversy be any different? I don’t expect Turtles to turn the tide. However, it will undoubtedly be a potent tool for vaccine critics.

            During the 1980s, US pro-fluoridationists discussed whether to engage in debates with anti-fluoridationists. Those who said yes thought that debates provided an opportunity to show the superiority of the arguments for fluoridation. Those who said no feared that engaging in debates gave anti-fluoridationists too much credibility. In essence, debating meant accepting that there was something worth debating. But there was a problem with refusing to debate: it seemed arrogant, which could hurt the cause. The debate about debating was never resolved.

Water fluoridation debate in Portland, Oregon

            These same considerations are present in the vaccination debate. My guess is that vaccination proponents will studiously avoid engaging with the arguments in Turtles. It is certainly possible that they could counter some of TTT’s arguments but, alas, we will probably never know, because proponents are in the ascendant, having cemented childhood vaccinations as an unquestioned good and stigmatised the slightest reservation or criticism.

            This is a sad state of affairs. There are a great many people who would benefit from an open debate, without ad hominem attacks, with respect for contrary views. Such a debate might lead to some backing down from vaccine mandates and more tolerance for selective vaccination and even non-vaccination. On the other hand, the debate might lead to a more solid basis for the benefits of some vaccines.

            “Debate” is the wrong word. There needs to be deliberation, a calm, rational discussion with the aim of reaching an agreed position, the sort of process used in citizens’ juries to look at all manner of contentious issues. In such a jury, a group of randomly selected citizens addresses a carefully specified issue by weighing up available evidence and reaching collectively-agreed recommendations. But allowing citizens to have input via deliberative processes is unlikely while experts and authorities are in full control.

            However, even deliberation would not be enough, because of undone science. There is too much research that needs to be carried out, too much evidence that needs to be collected, before judgements about vaccination can be put on a solid basis.


Of available critiques of vaccination orthodoxy, I think Turtles is the best yet. It exposes systematic weaknesses in studying the harmful effects of vaccines and challenges the usual claims about the benefits of vaccines for the individual and the community. The book has all the features I look for.

  • Comprehensive: it covers the central scientific and medical issues in the debate.
  • Reasoned: evidence and arguments are presented in a careful, logical, systematic way.
  • Authoritative: the authors, though anonymous, show their knowledge through their grasp of research and through comprehensive citations to medical research.
  • Readable: the writing is remarkably clear, and occasionally high-spirited.

            Two predictions. First, vaccination advocates will try to ignore the book. They are unlikely to engage with the book’s contents, though they might complain about the authors’ anonymity. Second, Turtles won’t end the dispute, which is likely to continue for decades.

Turtles was written before Covid and does not address Covid vaccines. Yet Covid is an important factor in the vaccination debate, because Covid vaccine mandates, and adverse events from Covid vaccines, disturbed large numbers of people, leading some to protest publicly. Concern about and opposition to Covid vaccines led to greater questioning of other vaccines. For those who are energised by concerns about Covid vaccines, Turtles is the ideal source for learning about the evidence and arguments.

Although arguments seldom resolve scientific controversies, events sometimes make a big difference. In the debate over nuclear power, the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima had immense impacts, serving to discredit the technology. In the vaccination debate, a major vaccine disaster could play a similar role. The full story of the impact of Covid vaccines is yet to play out, but it is reasonable to say that when promoters endorse a vaccine that is widely seen as disastrous, they jeopardise the rest of the vaccination programme. So perhaps my prediction about the continuation of the debate is off the mark. Time will tell!

            There’s much more to be said about Turtles. But enough from me, for now. You can form your own view, let me know what you think and, after you’ve read the book, contact The Turtles Team at the email address given in their book.

A different turtles team

Brian Martin

For valuable feedback, I thank Steven Bartlett, Lyn Carson, Jungmin Choi, Kevin Dew, Bob Dildine, Kelly Gates, Anneleis Humphries, Olga Kuchinskaya, Julia LeMonde, Natti Ronel, Wendy Varney, Qinqing Xu and others who prefer to remain anonymous. None of them necessarily agrees with the views expressed in this review or by The Turtles Team.

Controlling our thoughts and actions

In 1972, a book was published titled Body Language and Social Order: Communication as Behavioral Control. I read it a year or two later and was so impressed that I wrote to the authors, saying I especially liked what they had written about social order.

            Recently I was going through my old files of printed material and came across the notes I had taken on the book and my correspondence. I wondered what the book would say to me today, fifty years after it was published. So I ordered a copy and read it again. It was just as interesting as before, and I think there is still much to learn from it.

            Kinesics is the study of people’s physical behaviour: postures, gestures, facial expressions and movements. Some motions are obvious, even striking, as when a child jumps up and down in excitement or anger. Other motions are subtle, such as when you enter someone’s office and they indicate where to sit with a hand gesture, a glance or the positioning of their body. A posture or a shrug can communicate without the conscious awareness of either the sender or the receiver. These subtle motions and what they communicate are what interested the authors.

            Albert Scheflen was a psychiatrist. I say “was” because he died long ago, in 1980. In the book, he is described as “Professor of Psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Researcher in Human Communication at the Bronx State Hospital and Jewish Family Service.” He began researching kinesics in 1957. Among his colleagues were the prominent figures Gregory Bateson and Ray Birdwhistell.

            The biographical blurb in the book about Alice Scheflen says she “has been a feature writer and editor in medicine and the sciences and Research Assistant in Human Communication.” I couldn’t find any other information about her.

            The first part of the book describes various messages conveyed through body position, gesture and facial expression, and how they relate to spoken language.

An expression suggesting anxiety, in the US context. From the book, page 8

            The authors begin by pointing out that humans share many behaviours with other primates. Chimps stake out territories and can counter intruders aggressively. Examples of human territoriality include fences around houses and boundaries between countries. These sorts of boundaries keep outsiders out and insiders in. When leaving or entering territories, there are bonding rituals, for example waving goodbye or going through immigration control. The Scheflens write that communication, normally thought of as spoken or written words, also includes behaviours that regulate the social order, including the organisation of a group and its dominance and submission patterns. That includes rituals associated with territories.

As a couple steps back from an embrace, the woman grooms her husband by adjusting his collar, an example of bond-servicing. From the book, page 20

            Arriving at a social function, I see people standing around, mostly in groups of two, three or four. Spying someone I know in one of the groups, I approach. If a friend sees me approach, they might open a space for me to join the group, by a small movement. If others recognise the move, they will open a space for me, but sometimes they form a tighter circle, making it harder to join, an elementary example of the “cold shoulder,” so familiar to those who are shunned. It can be an unconscious manoeuvre.

If two people do not want to be interrupted, they may stand closer or put their arms up as a barrier. From the book, page 29

            At the gym, I approach a weight machine just as another exerciser does, coming from another direction. He looks at me and then looks at an adjacent piece of equipment, signalling that he will defer to me and use the other equipment. When I finish my repetitions, he is still at the other piece of equipment. I catch his attention and gesture towards the machine I just left. He smiles. Not a word is exchanged as we negotiate access and priority.

This woman may be saying “On the one hand” and will then open her left fist when saying “On the other.” From the book, page 43

            The first part of the Scheflens’ book is devoted to these sorts of kinesic messages, systematically explaining how people communicate through their bodies. Many different sorts of messages are described, illustrated with photos on nearly every page. The photos are literally snapshots of extended sequences of moves, so the Sheflens provide descriptions of the events displayed.

A kinesic signal of dominance. From the book, page 52

            One message they describe is the “monitor,” designed to control someone else’s behaviour. Observing two of his patients, Albert Scheflen observed a mother making a subtle move, sliding a finger across her lip, whenever her son said something she didn’t like, and her son picked up the message immediately, although neither mother nor son consciously realised what was happening. Different sorts of gestures can serve as monitors, for example a frown or hunched shoulders.

            In some situations, a body-language monitor can be more effective than explicit verbal instructions. A spoken command can trigger resistance in some people, whereas subtle gestures can work better because the message is subliminal. When children are acting up and then realise that others are looking at them in a certain way, this may be enough to get them to stop.

“A common monitoring signal is the act of wiping the index finger laterally across the nostrils. This kinesic act can be seen anywhere in America when some group member violates the local proprieties of that group.” From the book, page 108

            The monitor is just one example of how kinesics can provide insight into social interactions. Many people, in their jobs and outside, experience disapproval, but it can be hard to point to what’s going on because the message is partly or completely nonverbal, conveyed by gestures, postures and facial expressions. It’s almost impossible to collect evidence about this. The same applies to ostracism. People seldom say, “I’m not going to socialise with you.” Instead, they don’t look you in the face, walk by without saying hello or providing a glance of recognition, and avoid sitting near you. These are kinesic and territorial behaviours. Most of these behaviours operate outside of consciousness by either the sender or receiver of the kinesic messages.

Control over the way we think

One of the Scheflens’ chapters is titled “The control of ideation,” which means the control of thinking. They point out that kinesic-territorial behaviours learned at home and school, without formal instruction — a sort of indoctrination — prepare a child for the adult world, usually by acquiescing to dominant ways of thinking and behaving.

“An American child learns at an early age the fundamentals of his culture. He learns to speak and he learns the pointed myths of the culture in the form of fairy tales and the like. He learns to believe doctrines, and he also learns the rudiments of ethnocentrism. If he comes from a middle-class family or a family that aspires to the middle class, he will also learn about upward mobility and develop the motivation to learn and get ahead. He is now ready for schooling.” (page 147)

            The Scheflens say an organisation member can become intellectually and emotionally bound up with the organisation’s official belief system, so when hearing about alternatives or not conforming, ideas and feelings tied to the organisation are evoked. This is “institution-think,” which means thinking and feeling from the perspective of the organisation. You can see how this would be a danger for someone who questions what is going on, who points to shady activities that contravene the official belief system. Those bound by institution-think will respond negatively, based on gut reactions and automatic thoughts.

            In a society like Australia, most people are inculcated with a belief in individual autonomy, a belief that most behaviour is instigated by individuals making conscious choices to achieve their goals. If you think this is completely obvious, you’ve subscribed to what the Scheflens call the myth of individualism. An alternative perspective is that most behaviour is conditioned by the environment, which refers to everything external to the individual, including family expectations, job structures, roads, buildings and other people’s behaviour. In this alternative perspective, which is common in collectivist societies, the focus is on the whole picture, on society, on social life as a dynamic process in which individuals are components that adapt to their environment.

            How, in a place like Australia, do people maintain a belief in individualism? The Scheflens say the myth of individualism is maintained when those who conform to institutional rules make slight deviations that do not challenge the dominant ways of thinking. You can wear your own style of clothes to work but continue to accept and maintain the work hierarchy. You can adorn your room with personal pictures while continuing to be a conventional consumer. You can put your phone in a distinctive case and choose your own ring tone. The Scheflens note that people focus on individual choices and individual differences but do not notice wider-scale regularities and conformities.


Every social arrangement — families, clubs, businesses and nations — has problems. What should be done about them? Why not blame someone?

            Blaming is a convenient mechanism for exercising control, gaining power and eliminating those who might cause friction. The target of significant blaming rituals is called a scapegoat, someone or some group that is treated as responsible for problems, and attacked and/or expelled. The scapegoat serves as a magnet for others’ psychological projections: all their own unrecognised bad elements are attributed to the scapegoat, magically cleansing the attackers.

            Even the threat of being blamed can keep members subservient. Although the Scheflens never mention whistleblowers — the term was hardly known at the time — their analysis of scapegoating remains relevant today.

            They say two structural factors lead to blaming. One is organisational problems, which are inevitable. The second factor is people believing in blaming and crediting, which is deep-seated in societies like the US and Australia. This can be seen in the deification of some public figures — think of Queen Elizabeth II — and the discrediting of others, such as disliked politicians.

            In the process of scapegoating, the accused is often guilty of something, but no more so than others. This is a double standard, something familiar to whistleblowers.

            When evaluating a worker’s performance, what can be done to downgrade the scapegoat? It’s not so hard. One method is to use a single attribute, for example sloppiness, tardiness, fondness for alcohol or attention to detail, to characterise the whole person. A highly creative and inspiring worker can be downgraded by being labelled sloppy, tardy, alcoholic or obsessive.

            Another method used to downgrade a scapegoat is to apply local standards and ignore other values. In the organisation, it might be routine for corners to be cut, friends rewarded and monies siphoned. These are the local standards, and anyone who doesn’t conform is cast loose. Meanwhile, other values, such as the merit principle and proper accounting, are disregarded.

            When someone is undermined and abused, sometimes they lash out in frustration. This provides a pretext for scapegoating. This applies not just to whistleblowers but also to groups such as drug users and ethnic minorities. When any of them react to their demeaning treatment, they are blamed and repressed, while their life conditions are forgotten or absolved.

            Defending scapegoats from attack is necessary but comes with a downside. The focus remains on the scapegoat and on their treatment. Sometimes the focus is on corrupt operators. But seldom is attention directed at social arrangements, for example the market economy or hierarchy within organisations, that condition people’s behaviour and lead to dysfunctions. Scapegoating is toxic, to be sure, but it may be better to understand it as a symptom of deeper problems, ones linked to the way families, workplaces, neighbourhoods and countries are structured.

Communication and deviancy

The Scheflens describe the process of “binding,” which refers to close attachments, for example of a child to a parent or a patriot to a country. Binding often starts in the family and then continues through life, reinforced by culture, for example through the idea of romantic love.

            Some people are bound to their employers; as already mentioned, they are subject to “institution-think.” Managers do not address how the organisation fosters alienation among workers, but instead blame individuals. You can see how binding can lead to blaming those who don’t conform. A family’s “black sheep” member may be shunned or abused. In an organisation, they may be exploited or bullied. When they resist, they may be treated as insane.

            Then there is the process called “double-binding.” The Scheflens say there are three dimensions of double-binds: (1) contradictory demands on a person; (2) the paradoxical aspects are not recognised, for example one demand being verbal, the other being kinesic; (3) the person is in a social niche with no escape. A girl is told to be independent but whenever she takes initiative, a parent sends a non-verbal message to stop: this is a double-bind.

            This same idea applies to workers who are expected to behave according to the high-minded ideals of the organisation but to live with contrary behaviours. The organisation might have an anti-bullying policy but bullying is rampant. Workers who cannot afford to leave are caught in a double-bind. If they lash out in desperation, they are blamed in the usual scapegoating ritual.

            One of the Scheflens’ final points is that in Western countries, it is assumed that individual behaviour causes wider social processes, for example that politicians and corporate executives are responsible for what happens, good or bad. The Scheflens prefer systems thinking, in which the drivers of behaviour are social structures, communication systems and ways of thinking.

            In the half century since Body Language and Social Order was published, there have been many changes in society and interpersonal behaviour. With the rise of the gig economy, binding to organisations may be less common; perhaps binding occurs through economic insecurity. Social media have changed the way people interact. Still, the Scheflens’ analysis offers many insights that remain relevant today. If anything, society is even more individualistic than before, and so is blaming people — the unemployed, criminals, corrupt operators or foreign enemies — while ignoring the role of social structures like the family, organisations and the system of nation-states.

            After reading the book, in 1974 I wrote to the authors:

I would like to let you know how much I enjoyed your book Body Language and Social Order, especially the part “Communication in institutional and political control.” It seems to me to present an important radical perspective of the world in an easily understandable form, by appealing to an individual’s personal experience of the world rather than to abstract philosophical arguments.

After telling about my own interest in the topics, I continued:

It is obvious that educational institutions, like other institutions, communicate through their structures as a means for effectively obtaining and maintaining control over members. The authoritative space and time structure of the lecture situation, the design of syllabi by “experts,” the creation of a scarcity of knowledge and the monopolisation of certification illustrate the divergence between “Do what I say” and “Do what I don’t need to say.” However, I am not familiar with any formal studies of educational institutions which investigate in detail the use of structure and paracommunicative behaviour in maintaining institutional control. I would appreciate any references you could give me along these lines.

In response, I received a letter from the Bronx State Hospital in New York:

Many thanks for your comments on our book on Body Language and Social Order. Many people have commented on the early part of the book, but it is as though the last part on politics of communication was never written. It is simply ignored by students and reviewers as well. Some people have said I should never have written it. But I disagree. I would like to have written it better but it is high time we stop this nonsense that science is value free and speak out about the abuses of concepts and researches. So many thanks for making it worthwhile. I have no references to send you. The stuff you read is my own and my wife’s. We did not do formal research on the matter and do not know anyone who has.

            Signed “Al Sheflen.”

            After my recent rereading of the book, I returned to my notes about it taken in the early 1970s. They were entirely on three of the fourteen chapters, the ones about control of mobility, control of ideation and control by scapegoating. How good to be reminded of these ideas again. If only the Scheflens were still around to discuss them.

Brian Martin

Body Language and Social Order (download entire book)

A version of this post appeared in the October 2022 issue of The Whistle.