“Censorship.” You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

It’s rare that I encounter a bit of nonsense that allows me to deploy two of my favorite rhetorical devices. First, it lets me pull out one of my favorite clips from one of my favorite movies, in which the immortal line, “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!” was first uttered. Second, it lets me repeat once again yet another variation of Inigo Montoya’s immortal words. It’s a two-fer! Not surprisingly, it’s courtesy of the anti-vaccine crank blog we’ve all come to know and love (well, I love it because it has provided me such a target-rich environment for taking on quackery and woo, although I hate it because, well, it promotes anti-vaccine quackery and woo). Yes, we’re talkin’ Age of Autism, and this time it’s Katie Wright crying repression and censorship in a little screed she called Sebelius Asks Media to Censor Autism Debate.

“Censor.” You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

I’ll show you why. First, let’s look at what provoked Wright’s little bit of willful misinterpretation:

There are groups out there that insist that vaccines are responsible for a variety of problems, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary. We (the office of Secretary of Health and Human Services) have reached out to media outlets to try to get them not to give the views of these people equal weight in their reporting.


Apparently this came from a Readers Digest article in which Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, was being interviewed about H1N1. During that interview, she was asked what could be done about the public mistrust of vaccines. Reality-based regular readers of this blog (as opposed to some of the anti-vaccine extremists out there who monitor this locale to see what the “other side” is up to) would almost certainly find nothing objectionable in what Sebelius said at all. Indeed, time and time again, I myself have complained about the lazy “tell both sides” imperative so many journalists seem to consider absolutlely essential, an imperative that leads to journalistic atrocities in which for every story about vaccines, an anti-vaccine loon (often from Generation Rescue) has to be interviewed to give “the other side”) or for every story about teaching evolution in public school science classes, a creationist loon has to be interviewed to give “the other side.” The point, of course, is that, when it comes to certain manufactroversies, no matter how without a basis in science the crank side is, somehow journalists feel compelled to include a crank on equal footing with scientists, be it for controversy or to tug at the heartstrings with the case of a parent struggling to raise a severely autistic child and blaming vaccines for the child’s plight. It’s good to see that Sebelius actually understands what’s wrong with so much medical and science journalism today.

Katie Wright, on the other hand, clearly does not. Oh, man, she doesn’t understand:

That’s right. Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of HHS, has asked newspapers, magazines, television journalists, who knows who else- specifically NOT to listen to parents and scientists in the autism community, not to respect their concerns, not to take seriously the condition of chronically ill children with autism and to disregard a growing body of evidence questioning the safety of our infant and toddlers’ immunization schedule.

It never ceases to amaze me how talented various AoA denizens are at constructing straw men. Indeed, truly has Wright constructed a straw man of sufficient size and bulk that it could easily be used for a Burning Man ceremony with the flames of burning stupid consuming all. Or maybe Wright is prepping for yet another remake of the 1973 horror cult classic The Wicker Man, with reason and science in the role of the hapless policeman who blunders into the mysterious isle in the Hebrides looking for a missing girl. (You’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen the movie; if you haven’t, click on its title.) In any case, Sebelius said nothing of the sort. She simply said that reporters should not give equal weight to the views of anti-vaccine loons, not that they shouldn’t listen to parents. Also note the clever coopting of terms. She conflates the anti-vaccine movement (although, of course, she would not call it that) with “parents and scientists in the autism community.” You hear that, those of you with autistic children who accept the science and don’t buy into the pseudoscience claiming that vaccines cause autism? You aren’t part of the “autism community.” Or so it would seem, if Wright’s tone is any indication. Sebelius isn’t urging anyone to disregard anything. She’s simply urging media outlets to be a bit more responsible in how they pair the fear mongering cranks with real scientists.

But if you thought Wright was prepping for a remake of The Wicker Man with her introduction, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Apparently in the remake of the movie, an army of wicker men, alight with the fires of burning stupid, overrun the earth in a Blitzkrieg action, searing all intelligence from the face of the earth as they march. At least, that’s the only explanation I can think of for this bit of hyperbole:

I am taking Ms. Sebelius at her word. Ms. Sebelius has unilaterally said that she knows that every single American parent who saw their child regress post vaccination or experience a severe adverse reaction is wrong and she knows better.

Uh, no. Sebelius said nothing of the sort. She simply asked the media to stop giving equal time to pseudoscience. Her words have no force other than that of a Cabinet secretary; they do not have the force of law. It’s also highly unlikely the media will listen, unfortunately. Not that any of that stops Wright from turning the paranoia and anti-government hysteria up to 11:

Ms. Sebelius has ordered, suggested, beseeched, implored (?) American journalists NOT to “give these people (anyone concerned with vaccine safety) equal weight in their reporting” because she has decided by informal governmental decree that the debate is closed?

Sounds like something that would happen in a communist dictatorship, right? Was there a similar decree when “citizen dissidents” questioned the safety of hormone replacement therapy for women? Was the media instructed to ignore those nuisances who were suspicious of a long denied link between hormone therapy and breast cancer? Did the HHS order a first amendment crackdown of those trouble-making women who had long complained that Fibromalgia was a real disease and not a psychosomatic condition. Menaces everywhere who dared to question medical authorities! They must be silenced! You have got to be kidding.

Funny, I was thinking the same thing about Wright with the allusions to a communist dictatorship. I suppose I should be grateful for small favors in that she at least managed to refrain from likening Sebelius to Hitler or Goebbels or some Nazi official shutting down any dissent in Germany during the Nazi regime. It must have taken great restraint on Wright’s part to control herself, as I strongly suspect that she must have really, really wanted to play the Hitler card.

The rest of Wright’s rant is a repetition of frequent anti-vaccine talking points that we’ve all heard a million times before. They aren’t sufficiently interesting or different for me to bother with them, as I’ve dealt with their ilk more times than I can count anymore, and I don’t happen to be in the mood right now to do it again. What I’m more in the mood for is to point out how Wright’s little rant is of a piece with virtually every other form of crankery, pseudoscience, and quackery in that she is crying “persecution” and whining that the pseudoscience she believes in is being “suppressed,” using Sebelius’ reasonable complaint about the press as a jumping off point to do so. And the similarity hits home when she decides to go full mental jacket on Poul Thorsen, parrotting the latest anti-vaccine smear machine designed to distract from the recent ruling from the Autism Omnibus and then cranking it up beyond 11 to 12, 13, 14, 15, even 20. Oh, hell, she’s even taking it to arguably libelous extremes:

It is absolutely frightening that a wanted felon has such an enormous and pervasive influence on the lives of our children.

So I am trying to get this straight Ms. Sebelius. Help me out here. We should take lying thieves with no interest in operating in the public’s interest at their word but the media should ignore parents and legitimate scientists who question the validity of vaccine science research performed by alleged criminals? I’m really confused!

The crazy is strong in this one, Luke.

As I’ve pointed out, Thorsen was at best a minor co-author in the Danish study that forms but a part of the body of evidence exonerating thimerosal-containing vaccines as a cause of autism, and it’s not even clear that he did anything wrong yet. Given the track record of AoA, the more they attack Thorsen, the more I wonder if he even did anything wrong. However the attack on Thorsen reminded me of something I saw earlier. This something was a perfect case of crank magnetism in the form of a post on a different home of pseudoscience, specifically the pseudoscience known as evolution denial or creationism. Bruce Chapman of the Discovery institute opines:

Do you still contend that scientists are a breed apart, a superior species that should hold others, mere mortals, in awe? Then please digest the latest scandal about money, greed and “science”, and this time keep in your mind’s eye the thousands, maybe millions, of infants that are affected by autism. It is their welfare that must now come into focus.

Won’t somebody think of the children? Actually, “intelligent design” is about the children–corrupting the children’s scientific education that is. Chapman also seems to think that challenging the Danish studies might mean that the science showing that vaccines do not cause autism should come into disrepute and that that might mean that vaccines might actually cause autism, just as creationists think that if they can discredit one major study about evolution it means that they’ve falsified evolution:

Danish scientist Paul Thorsen has disappeared, apparently, along with a couple million dollars of U.S. public money and some of the data that formed the basis for studies in which he participated. Now those enormously influential studies–supposedly disproving any connection between mercury and autism–are coming into question, and deservedly so.

Why deservedly so? Here’s a word of advice for Mr. Chapman: Stick to evolution. You still embarrass the hell out of yourself every time you opine about ID, but you have just embarrassed yourself even more. In fact, I wonder if someone pointed that out to him. His post originally had this ending:

Maybe the studies were valid. By all means, let’s find out. In fact, a thorough and independent public investigation is imperative. Since the Center for Disease Control’s money was involved, surely the CDC should not be the only body looking into this matter. Meanwhile, tell us again why scientists who dissent from the “consensus” in this scientific field, or any other, must be silenced.

Note the ending in the current version of the post, which has been watered down. I prefer the original because it shows very much how the mindset of creationists is very much like the mindset of anti-vaccine zealots. Both want to paint themselves as “dissenters” rather than cranks. Both want to tear down scientists, because it is science itself that stands in the way of the acceptance of their beliefs. Discredit scientists, they think, and they can discredit the science. It never occurs to them that science is more than any single scientist and that discrediting a scientist does not necessarily discredit the science unless one can show scientific fraud. Not that cranks don’t try. Indeed, the most recent egregious example is the hype surrounding the e-mails from climate scientists stolen through hacking. It’s what I like to call the “vindication of all kooks” corollary to crank magnetism.

I’ve mentioned this before, but the difference between cranks and real scientists is how much cranks personalize their beliefs. They don’t realize that science is a process, a methodology, not a set of conclusions. They also can’t seem to understand that what science tells us is not purely a belief or set of beliefs; it is a set of conclusions based on observation and experimentation that are continually updated and adjusted as new evidence comes in. In contrast, the beliefs of anti-vaccinationists or creationists, for example, never change their core beliefs, which are that vaccines are evil and cause autism and that evolution is evil and wrong, respectively. Nothing, no amount of evidence, no amount of science will change those core beliefs. To them all science, particularly any mechanism of science that exists to weed out bad science (such as peer review), is “repression” or “censorship.” Any scientific consensus is a conspiracy, “repression,” and/or “censorship. The reason is simple. It’s because science tells denialists that they are wrong and to them that’s censorship.

ADDENDUM: Remember how I (sort of) congratulated Wright for refraining from playing the Hitler card? Naturally, it turns out that at least one of the commenters on AoA is not so “restrained”:

Keep speaking up and being in community. We may have to continue to haul this load on our own longer. Oppression can be tough and that is what this is, oppression, with parents of Autism being like the French Resistance during WWII. I believe the truth will prevail.

Because the scientific community is just like the Nazi occupation and AoA’s brave maverick resistance is just like the French Resistance. I wonder if there is a word for such a delusion.