Australian skeptics cheer David and Toni McCaffery

By Phil Plait | December 2, 2009 3:00 pm

Continuing with Australian Skeptics awards, they are giving out a new award in honor of Fred Thornett, a skeptic who died earlier this year. The first recipients of The Fred, given to outstanding promoters of reason, are David and Toni McCaffery.

danamccafferyThe McCafferys are heroes of mine. Earlier this year, their four week old infant daughter lost a battle with pertussis. Yes, whooping cough. She was too young to be vaccinated, and because the antivaccination movement is strong in their area, vaccination rates were low, and the herd immunity was in turn too low to help little Dana.

When this grieving couple was shrilly and mercilessly attacked by Meryl Dorey and the AVN, the McCafferys fought back. They went on TV, they gave interviews, and they told the truth: their daughter died from an easily preventable disease, and that people like Dorey and the AVN are a public health menace.

Mind you, this was mere weeks after their daughter had died. If I had been in that situation (and every parent, including me, has nightmares about it), I probably would have curled into a little ball and shut the world out. But not Toni and David. They spoke up. They also created a website in honor of Dana, to make sure her story gets told. They have been astonishing examples of what humans can achieve, even when dealing with something that must have been too heartbreaking to bear.

The Australian Skeptics have a video of the award ceremony. Richard Saunders tells me there was not a dry eye in the house, and just watching it — just writing about it now — chokes me up.

To Toni and David: I am so, so sorry you were eligible for this award, but I am very, very glad you two have done what you’ve done. Congratulations. And may your story save more lives than the AVN and its ilk can endanger.

Comments (34)

  1. Brian T.

    Kudos to David and Toni. I don’t know how they’re able to do it. I’m expecting my first child in seven weeks, a baby girl. The thought of anything bad happening to her is already enough to drive me nuts. Needless to say, she’s getting vaccinated.

    Phil: I know that a lot of commentators on this site give you grief for talking too much on topics that aren’t related to astronomy, but as someone who values human life, this can’t be stressed enough.

    So here’s a pre-emptive reminder to anyone who complains about this: If it’s *your* kid that dies because of preventable diseases, you won’t be able to show them the stars.

  2. Dianne

    Fortunately, I was there at the dinner and I was one who was bawling my eyes out. I have so much respect for Toni and David, the heart ache they have gone through and the strength they posses to take on the anti-vaxxers is amazing…

  3. Colin J

    Hear hear Brian. I’ll second that.

  4. Andrew

    Ever since becoming a parent 18 months ago, the world seems like a different place. I remember when I first saw the movie Finding Nemo, I didn’t understand why the dad chased after a boat carrying Nemo away that he obviously couldn’t catch. But now watching that scene is brutal to my emotions. I’d chase after a car carrying my daughter away until my body gave out.

    I know I should do more to spread this word, especially with family members and friends that believe in the autism/vaccination myth (and take their kids to chiropractors).

  5. sav

    Thanks for writing about this. People who deny the effectiveness of vaccines make me very angry. I really feel for these two parents. So sad. But I, too, appreciate their speaking out.

  6. Spectroscope

    It may be of interest to those who wrongly abuse Climate change Skeptics as “deniers” & uncritically adopt the Warmer’s line to note that Professor Ian Plimer, one of Australia’s most prominent and intelligent AGW Skeptics and author of the best selling ‘Heaven & Earth’ refuting the Alarmists claims was the 1995 winner.

  7. I applaud the McCaffreys. It is in the face of great struggle that we truly find out what we are made of. Most of us are lucky enough to live and die without ever having to make this discovery. But these loving parents were tested by an unspeakable, preventable tragedy and have shown the world that they are made of the toughest stuff ever forged from the human spirit. May they join hands with their community and continue to make Australia and the world a better place.

  8. Steve in Dublin

    I can well believe there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. There wasn’t even a dry eye in front of my computer. I couldn’t even bear to watch the whole acceptance speech. The McCaffery’s are very courageous people.

  9. Quatguy

    Thanks for letting us know about this Phil. Keep up the good work. I can’t stand anti-vaxers and their lies need to be exposed now and for ever.

  10. Spectroscope : What did Plimer win in 1995? – I too was in the room.. I took the video and my eyes were not dry.

  11. Jenett Tillotson

    Thanks for keeping up the good fight for getting people vaccinated. I’m hoping Bill Maher one day let’s you on his show. You’d wipe the floor with him.

  12. OwK

    Spectroscope, this is the first year the Fred Award has been given out.

  13. Mark Hansen

    Spectroscope, it may be of interest for you to note that this post has absolutely nothing to do with AGW. Your beef is with AGW – take it up in AGW posts or risk showing yourself as an insufferable troll.

  14. Spectroscope

    @ 10. Richard Saunders Says:

    Spectroscope : What did Plimer win in 1995? – I too was in the room..

    Sorry, my bad. I posted that from memory &, mea culpa, got it wrong.

    Having now checked with the “About the Author” page at the front of Heaven & Earth ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heaven_and_Earth_(book) ) I can tell you that what Professor Ian Plimer won in 1995 was actually the Australian Humanist of the Year & he was later awarded the Centenary Medal.

    Plimer has recieved the Eureka prize for the promotion of science, the Eureka prize for his book A Short History of Planet Earth and the Michael Daley Prize (now a Eureka Prize) for science broadcasting.

    Which shows that Professor Plimer, like many others that have been demonised by the Politically Correct Gorebull Warmer Hysterics, is a genuine and serious scientist.

    Unlike y’know, those “Hide the decline” invent-the-hockey-stick, ignore, suppress and manipulate the real evidence so you can create an ideological scare campaign based on the flawed and falsified “scientific” premise that Human C02 emissions will cause the sky to fall in CRU mob! :-P

    Plimer is also a serious Skeptic who has fought legal battles wth the Creationists and written an awesome book Telling Lies for God dismissing their quasi-religion.

    He is therefore clearly somebody that true Skeptics and Scientists must respect and take seriously. Unlike the likes of original Big Fat Liar Al Gore, “Hockey Stick fraudster Michael Mann & the now utterly discredited CRU “scientists” exposed in the Climategate scandal.

    @ 13. Mark Hansen Says:

    Spectroscope, it may be of interest for you to note that this post has absolutely nothing to do with AGW. Your beef is with AGW – take it up in AGW posts or risk showing yourself as an insufferable troll.

    You any relation of James Hansen Mark? ;-)

    Yes, don’t worry I will take this up on the pitifully few and pitifully pro-Alarmist slante dthreads here that theBA provides. ;-)

    This post has to do with Skeptics being awarded prizes – & I thought Plimer was a past winner of the award in question thus a relevant footnote to mention here.

    I was mistaken about the specific prize there & admit that but my point that Plimer is a prize-winning prominent genuine skeptic & scientist still stands and that’s where I’ll leave it here.

    But don’t worry, I’m always happy to discuss the other (factual) side of the story and reassure those conned into terror by the now starkly exposed pseudo-science of the Gorebull Warmer Alarmists. ;-)

    As for straying a little off topic in the comments well that happens all the time & I’m hardly the first, last or only culprit there. ;-)

  15. To Toni and David: I am so, so sorry you were eligible for this award, but I am very, very glad you two have done what you’ve done. Congratulations. And may your story save more lives than the AVN and its ilk can endanger.

    Seconded.

    And, at the risk of further thread derailment — Plimer’s a known ignoramus on the subject of climate science. Just goes to show that criticizing creationism is a low bar to surpass: you don’t really have to be that good a critical thinker to do it. (Rather like Bill Maher’s attacks on fundamentalist religion, now that I think about it…)

  16. Toni and David are true heros, being so brave during such devastating times and opposition. I’ll never forget meeting them, and wish I had known ahead of time they’d be at Briskepticon. I would have pulled out all stops to be there. More than deserving of the award. I honestly can’t find the words to express the amount of respect I have for them.

  17. Spectroscope

    @ 9. Quatguy Says:

    Thanks for letting us know about this Phil. Keep up the good work. I can’t stand anti-vaxers and their lies need to be exposed now and for ever.

    I agree. The anti-vaxxers, the Creationists-IDers, the Moon-Hoaxers, the 2012 mob, Hoagland – & also the Gorebull Climate Alarmists too. All are obvious liars and all should be exposed by skeptics and treated with the contempt they deserve.

    My congratulations to David and Toni McCaffery for their well-deserved award.

    @ 15 Blake Stacy: You are simply wrong. Read Plimer’s book & judge for yourself everyone – also note what I said before in comment 14.

  18. SteveT

    Spectroscope: What part of “Their baby just died” do you not understand? Or is it simply that you lack even the tiniest shred of human decency?

    Have you no shame, sir?

  19. Spectroscope

    @ 18. Steve T

    I have not criticised or disputed anything David and Toni McCaffery have said nor would I ever do so and I have just congratulated them on deservedly winning this award. I am on their side and loathe the anti-vaxxers too.

    Merely pointing out as a footnote that Ian Plimer is another reputable skeptic, who I thought had also won the same award (&, okay, I mis-remembered that & confused it with another science-related award that he won) is nothing to be ashamed about. I see distinct similarities with the loathesome anti-vaxxers and the Alarmists as both groups are lying about science to scare people into doing silly and life-ruining things for ideological nonsensical reasons of their own.

    I believe in skepticism and rationality, I love astronomy and I love the McCaffery’s work and I’m cheering them (& other skeptics) on and supporting them as best I can.

    So I’m really not sure what your problem is or why you have so badly misunderstood what I’m saying.

  20. reasonablehank

    Toni and David. Beautiful people placed in an abnormal circumstance by hideous creatures; and yet they retain the dignity to debate these hideous creatures with poise and courtesy. I am amazed every time I here from them. They are heroes to myself and to all that have been touched by them. Beautiful post Phil.

  21. ndt

    19. Spectroscope Says:
    December 2nd, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    @ 18. Steve T

    Merely pointing out as a footnote that Ian Plimer is another reputable skeptic, who I thought had also won the same award

    Phil’s post clearly states that this is the first year this award was ever given out. Therefore, I can only conclude that you are lying and that you knew Plimer had never won this or any skeptics award, and are just pretended you thought he did so you could derail the thread.

  22. I’ve been in the position where I thought one of my children was dead or dying three times. All three times turned out to be “harmless” febrile seizures… although the second time he didn’t start breathing again on his own. The dread that I felt then (and can still feel when I recall those times) is inexpressible in words. The best I can do is describe it as a mixture of fear that reaches to the core of your being and complete helplessness to really do anything to fix the situation.

    Of course, that was just thinking they were dead/dying for minutes. To have it actually come to pass, I’m sure, is a thousand times worse (at least). The small taste I got was much, much more than enough to last me the rest of my lifetime. I hope to never feel those feelings again, much less feel the full “my child has died” feelings.

    And to think that the McCaffery’s, during the time when those horrible feelings were at their peak, chose to speak out so much instead of retreating into their house to cry. They are definitely much stronger people that I think I would be. I’m sorry for their loss, but I’m very happy that they’ve turned such a horrid occasion into something that may do a great deal of good. Thanks to them speaking out, perhaps more parents will be spared what they have to go through.

  23. Erin N.

    This isn’t going to be helpful to the debate, but ugh. It is not fair to those poor parents that they are being punished for the stubborn willful ignorance of others.

  24. shawmutt

    Ugh, international dates are confusing. I was wondering why the pic had four months, for those silly Americans like myself who were also confused, the date on the pic is in international format–day/month/year.

    That pic makes me sad just looking at it. I wish I never watched that movie when the story first came out. I hope the McCafferys save a lot of lives by having the bravery to face the kooks and cranks and tell their story.

  25. Cheyenne

    There’s no way I’m hitting “play” on that video right now. I already know I’d be sobbing in about 2 seconds.

    What an unspeakable tragedy. And what an incredible show of courage by those parents. Doing what they did really will save lives by bringing this story to light. GREAT on them.

  26. Cheyenne

    @Spectroscope – Are you really that daft to be making comments like that here? Go away. Post in a thread that is on topic.

  27. The post I tried earlier got eaten by the spam filter…

    Toni and David, once again I must thank you for showing such fortitude. It is my hope that your story can really bring home just how important vaccinations are.

    To everyone else, spread the word. Point your friends and family to places like Science-Based Medicine’s Vaccines and Autism reference page. Send them to antiantivax.flurf.net, Respectful Insolence and all the other sites addressing the issue.

  28. Spectroscope

    @ 21. ndt Says:

    19. Spectroscope Says: “Merely pointing out as a footnote that Ian Plimer is another reputable skeptic, who I thought had also won the same award.”

    Phil’s post clearly states that this is the first year this award was ever given out. Therefore, I can only conclude that you are lying and that you knew Plimer had never won this or any skeptics award, and are just pretended you thought he did so you could derail the thread.

    I skim read & yes, I’ll admit I didn’t pay enough attention, missed taking in that first sentence properly & got this new prize confused with something else which Plimer had won.

    This was NOT deliberate but, yes, I’ll admit that I stuffed up & I apologise if this has caused any offence.

  29. The McCafferys are so deserving of this award. They really are amazing. Meryl Dorey and the AVN killed their baby and she coldly says right in front of them that whooping cough isn’t dangerous, it’s disgusting. That woman does not have a heart. If I were in the same position as the McCafferys I would be a wreck, I have so much respect for their courage.

  30. Jessica

    Great post.

    However, am I the only one who hates when people say that someone “lost their battle” with a disease or something along those lines? It makes it sound like it was their own fault they died. I guess it is somewhat fitting if it was a long illness where you do make specific decisions on how to fight it, eg when an adult has cancer and has to choose different types of treatments. But when a baby has a disease with a faster course and no obvious choices between treatments, the analogy just doesn’t work for me. The baby was killed by whooping cough, but to say that she lost her fight with whooping cough just rubs me the wrong way.

  31. David and Toni McCaffery are heroes and display matchless courage. Deep gratitude to them for their work in disease prevention and way to go Skeptics for the award!

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