The cult of antivaccinationism

Whenever I’m looking at fringe scientific claims, I’m always on the lookout for things that help me conclude whether I’m looking at “legitimate” fringe ideas or pseudoscience and woo. One observation that I’ve found helpful in leading me in one direction or the other is to look for certain dead giveaways that what we’re looking at is almost certainly pseudoscience or woo is the presence or absence of conspiracy-mongering based on unverifiable “evidence.” I find a lot of it, and the other day I found one of the best examples of it I’ve ever seen. It comes, not surprisingly, from Dan Olmsted, the former UPI reporter who has become completely convinced that vaccines cause autism. In fact, it was so egregious that I seriously question why he even bothers to call himself a reporter anymore.

First, get a load of how Olmsted characterizes his bit of evidence:

One of the benefits of living around Washington, as I do, is that you hear the darnedest things – not because someone said them on C-SPAN or at a press conference, but because a neighbor chit-chatted in the produce section at Whole Foods with a senator’s aide who said a little too much, or someone’s wife let slip at a cocktail party something she didn’t realize was that big a deal to someone who realized it was … and so on.

That’s how I came across the following tidbit of hearsay – and make no mistake, that’s what it is. But there is hearsay and then there is hearsay. None of it is admissible in court, but some of it simply feels more reliable, given the source and the circumstances. I think this falls in the latter category … but that is up to you, Dear Reader.

That’s right; Olmsted is going to relay hearsay, and this is the hearsay:

So this week I had lunch with my “source” – not some bigwig sitting down with Tim Russert, but the mother of an affected child who lives nearby, and me, blogger and troublemaker extraordinaire. She is a well-respected member of the community who believes that vaccines were central to her son’s regression. And I – well, everybody knows where I’m coming from and can judge accordingly.

I wanted to hear her story again and make sure I got it right and see what holes I could poke in it, playing devil’s advocate. So here, over a four-cheese pizza and a salad (me) and a mozzarella-and-tomato sub and fries (she), is the tale she told:

A friend of hers is a Mormon who attends a local church that is also attended by Mike Leavitt, the secretary of Health and Human Services.

This friend of hers also has an affected child, and she is interested in but not totally convinced about the vaccine-autism link. For one thing, both her friend and her friend’s husband have the engineering/math bent and they suspect that played a role.

So, this friend of hers runs into Secretary Leavitt in the parking lot of their church after services and she says to him: What do you think is causing all the autism, or What’s going on with autism – that kind of thing, according to my friend, who freely says she’s not sure of the exact formulation of the question. But she is crystal clear about how her friend says Secretary Leavitt responded:
“We know it’s the mercury.”

In other words, a “friend of a friend” heard that the Secretary of HHS himself said that “we know it’s the mercury.” (Cue dramatic and scary music.) Olmsted spends the rest of his post justifying why he believes this story, despite the fact that the original person who supposedly had the conversation with the Secretary of HHS is out of the country and cannot be interviewed and that Olsted doesn’t think she would necessarily confirm the story anyway.

Folks, this is about as blatant a case of an urban legend or rumor as it gets. This story is no more convinincing than the innumerable stories of X-Files-style government conspiracies in which “they know” about the aliens and UFOs. In fact, it’s exactly the same thing. How many times have we heard conspiracy theorists claim that they knew a “friend of a friend” (or a “friend of a friend of a friend”) who heard a high-ranking official admit that, yes, the conspiracy exists, the government knows that aliens have been abducting people, that Bigfoot is real, and that there really is a Masonic-Illuminati conspiracy to keep the U.S. perpetually at war. It’s no coincidence that these sorts of rumors always come from true believers and virtually always come from secondhand or third-hand sources that can’t be verified. They’re the urban legends of the credulous, nothing more.

And that’s all it takes to convince the “reporter” Dan Olmsted that this story “feels right,” just as all it took to convince him that unvaccinated children don’t get autism was the unscientific and undocumented recollection of woo-sympathetic physicians from a crunchy practice in the Chicagoland area and the it took to convince him that the Amish don’t get autism because they don’t vaccinate apparently (and conveniently) left out a visit to the major center for developmental disorders in Amish country as well as bothering to look at studies that show that the Amish do vaccinate.

When you see the sort of desperate rumor-mongering that Olmsted posted (and that true believers seize upon to demand investigations), it’s a good indication that you’re probably dealing with a cult not unlike those who believe in alien abductions and government conspiracies to cover them up.