The mercury militia silences a voice of reason

Today is a very sad day in the autism blogosphere. The news I am going to discuss saddens me and should sadden anyone concerned with autism, particularly in combating the antivaccination hysteria and the outright quackery that flows from it promulgated by so many these days, from J. B. Handley to Jenny McCarthy, who couldn’t be more different other than their being twits.

One of the longest-running and best autism blogs, Left Brain, Right Brain, is closing.

It would be one thing if the trials and tribulations of everyday life had led Kev to make this decision, as they do for so many other bloggers. It would be another thing if he had just gotten tired of it, or if blogging had lost its interest for him. Such was not the case. For Kev, the reason was…well, let Kev tell you:

The reason LB/RB is shutting is because I cannot continue to allow my beautiful eldest girl to be exposed to the hatred and bullying she is recieving from John Best. John has seen fit to compare my beautiful child to a trained monkey because he didn’t like the fact she was progressing. He has made numerous jokes at her expense on that theme. He has assumed her identity online. He has encouraged others to do the same.

Let me be clear. I do not care one iota what this cowardly idiot thinks of me. He can write whatever he wants. But he has involved my daughter. Not to reference her progression. Not to quote me. But to laugh at her and to put words in her seven year old mouth.

For those of you not familiar with John Best, he has been an intermittent and sometimes frequent commenter on this blog under the pseudonym “Fore Sam.” He is the only commenter in the nearly three year history of this blog whom I have ever banned, albeit temporarily, and he richly deserved it. I took some flak for announcing that he was banned in public for the not unreasonable guess that Best loves attention, even negative, and I was giving it to him, but in retrospect my only regret is that I didn’t ban him permanently. Best has a blog, entitled “Hating Autism” (Google it, if you really want to see it; I refuse to link directly to it anymore). He’s always been a piece of work, and every so often I would check Hating Autism to see just how crazy Best could become, but this time he went too far.

Over the last few days, John Best made three posts that were so despicable in nature, so over the top, that even I hadn’t thought that Best could go that far. Best appears to have taken them down now, and unfortunately they are not in the Google cache or in the Wayback Machine (presumably because they were very recent, since Thursday or Friday), nor did I save a copy of them. I’m sure Kev kept a copy, though. Suffice it to say that they were written as though they were in the voice of Kev’s autistic daughter Megan and were represented as pleas for help because her daddy “won’t do anything to make me better.” As Kev put it:

I genuinely fear for her safety at the hands of this person (I will refrain from calling someone who picks on children ‘a man’). Three days running he has posted blog entries about her, two of which assume her identity and one of which is attempting to gain money in her name. I do not know where he would stop. Therefore the only way to make her safe is to remove us from his presence.

So vile and vicious were Best’s words that I truly did not know how to react, other than to forward the link to Kev, thinking that he should know about it. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t done that, but that’s just wishful thinking on my part that if I hadn’t told Kev about Best’s vile posts he might never have known about them.

Over the years, Kev has had many vicious and slanderous statements directed at him and made about him by a number of those on the “other side,” who cling to the discredited notion that mercury in vaccines or vaccines themselves cause autism, and he’s generally handled it with aplomb and a level of patience that I do not think I could have mustered. He built up what is, as far as I know, by far the most popular autism blog, with over 4,000 unique visits a day the last time he mentioned his traffic, and a few weeks ago expanded it into a group blog. In the world of autism and neurodiversity, Left Brain/Right Brain had become the strongest and brightest candle in the darkness, speaking out against the antivaccination lunacy, pseudoscience, and quackery that dominates all too many of the discussions about autism on the web and in the blogosphere. Its loss is a huge loss. (Imagine, if you will, the skeptical movment losing the Skeptics’ Society or the James Randi Educational Foundation, and you’ll get an idea of how bad this is.) Although, like Joseph, I sincerely wish Kev had not come to this decision and hope that he may, once the emotion of the moment passes, reconsider, I can’t at all blame him for his decision. He had to do what he thought to be right for his daughter and his family, and if shutting down Left Brain/Right Brain was what he needed to do then so be it. There’s no reason that he should be faulted for not wanting to subject his daughter to the demented ravings of an individual as hateful as John Best. It’s impossible to know, but very likely were I in Kev’s position I might well have come to the same decision, though it saddens me to see a blog that I first discovered two years ago when I first lambasted RFK Jr. for his dishonest scare piece on Salon.com go silent.

The truly sad thing about this is that John Best, twisted as he is, will probably view Kev’s retirement from the blogosphere as a “victory.” Indeed, so will others, which just goes to show that the mercury militia and antivaccination fringe are indeed more about silencing debate than about engaging in true debate. Based on my experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that at least one true mark of a crank, particularly medical cranks but certainly not limited to them, is that they are obsessed with who the opposition is. Because their position is so tenuous and because there is no legitimate scientific rationale for it, their only fallback it to attack the person. Failing that, they look for other weaknesses, one obvious example of which is to get to the one they detest through his family, which is what happened with Kev.

Unfortunately, this tendency to try to censor or otherwise silence contrary opinions is pervasive in autism “biomedical” circles and in alternative medicine circles in general. A few months ago, I wrote about how scientists doing autism research whose work does not support a link between vaccines or mercury and autism have found themselves at the receiving end of campaigns of harassment, and just this week the Society of Homeopaths used legal threats to silence a blogger who criticized it for not living up to its own published ethical standards. Personally, even though I’m convinced that the evidence does not support a link between mercury and autism or vaccines and autism and think that the parents who believe otherwise are quite wrong, I’d like to think that disturbed individuals like John Best do not represent the vast majority of parents who have concluded that vaccines or mercury contributed to their children’s autism. Only time will tell. Will their reaction be to condemn John Best for his inexcusable and despicable behavior? Or will it be, as it has been before, to ignore or tolerate him–or to use him as evidence of their reasonableness in comparison?

I’m not holding my breath waiting for the answer.

ADDENDUM: Skeptico weighs in.