Mothering Magazine and Mothering.com are probably unfamiliar to most of our readers. That doesn’t mean they haven’t played a key role in a topic of interest to many skeptics—the anti-vaccination movement. Mothering is a widely read parenting magazine with over a hundred thousand readers that focuses on “natural” parenting. Its online counterpart hosts the largest parenting community found anywhere on the internet. Mothering describes itself innocently enough as:
“celebrating the experience of parenthood as worthy of one's best efforts and fosters awareness of the immense importance and value of parenthood and family life in the development of the full human potential. As a readers' magazine, we recognize parents as the experts and wish to provide truly helpful information upon which parents can base informed choices.”
All of that sounds just great until we get to the parts about “helpful information” and “informed choices.” The problem is that Mothering does anything but help parents make informed choices. In fact, Mothering is one of the loudest and most effective distributors of dangerous pseudoscientific misinformation on the newsstand or the internet.
There are plenty of books, magazines, and websites that spread inaccurate and/or biased information. The most dangerous, however, are those that do so under the guise of delivering balanced information based on all the available evidence. This is very much the case at Mothering Magazine and its associated forums and with no topic is this more true than with vaccination safety.
For new or potential parents, a quick Google search of vaccination safety will lead to the Mothering forums. They appear at first glance to be a parent-focused and civil place to strip away the politics and get real answers to vaccination questions. A closer investigation reveals the mixed message to be found at Mothering.com. Take a look at the disclaimer permanently posted on their extremely active vaccination forum (several hundred thousand posts).
We embrace all parents, regardless of their choice. We uphold the Vaccinations forum as a place where they can come and discuss all aspects of all vaccinations, and find support in their desire to make an informed decision to not vaccinate, to vaccinate, to selectively vaccinate, or to delay vaccinations.
This would be just fine if the forum had anything to do with informed decisions. That is made clear by the active policy that has pro-vaccination posts immediately removed by moderators (test it if you don’t believe me). You have to dig a little deeper into the forum policies to find the paragraph that reads:
Recently, we have seen several members join MDC who seem to have an agenda to promote vaccinations. Though Mothering does not take a pro or anti stand on vaccinations, we will not host threads on the merits of mandatory vaccine, or a purely pro vaccination view point as this is not conducive to the learning process.
The message here is “we support all parents’ decisions as long they are the same as ours.” How can they claim to offer both sides of the story yet ban posts arguing for one of the two sides? How exactly is shielding readers from pro-vaccination positions conducive to the learning process?
The result of this misguided policy is a massive source of anti-vaccination hysteria that gives a venue for a vigorous defense of Andrew Wakefield and his fraudulent “research” while not allowing a pediatrician to make a well-reasoned and evidence-based case for vaccination.
Shame on Mothering for luring well-intentioned information-seeking parents into their forums only to give them tightly controlled content loaded with pseudoscience and ideology. If you have an agenda to promote, at least be honest and make that clear to readers who just are trying to do what’s best for their children.
Sadly, vaccination issues aren’t the only ones being misrepresented through careful management of the Mothering.com forums. The same deceptive practices are being used to promote homeopathy, unassisted homebirth, and even HIV denial. More on that in part 2...
Michael Blanford is Director of Educational Programs for the James Randi Educational Foundation.