Is the anti-vaccine movement fizzling?

After a week of some of the most amazing anti-vaccine craziness that I’ve seen in quite a while, a week that started with anti-vaccine hero Andrew Wakefield’s name being struck off the list of licensed medical practitioners in the U.K. During the entire week, there was (and is ongoing) an anti-vaccine crank conference known as Autism One. By midweek, the anti-vaccine loons had their rally in Grant Park, a perfect storm of crankery in which the “health freedom” movement met the anti-vaccine movement. When Harry Met Sally, it wasn’t. In any case, skeptics, despite short notice, still managed to get a group together to counter the rally.

Autism One still has three days to go, counting today, and I thought I’d make a few observations. First, the most heartening observation is that the anti-vaccine rally, which Age of Autism and Generation Rescue promoted heavily, was basically a huge bust. People who were actually there have been sending me estimates, and, counting the speakers, volunteers, and the anti-vaccine band, the largest estimate of the number of protesters that I’ve seen was around 200. Most estimates were in the 100 to 150 range. Here are some pictures from the rally itself:

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The crowd looks rather thin to me, even in pictures posted by Age of Autism. Jerry Witteven described the turnout that he observed at the rally thusly:

At the rally, I estimated under 200 people in attendance, including some news agencies and a documentary film crew. There was a small group of pro-science folks organized by Elyse at Skepchick blog and encouraged by PZ Myers and Orac (I’m sure there were more involved).

I want to be perfectly clear about how small “under 200″ is. I have gone to some of the most esoteric events in Chicago, ones with far less funding than the anti-vax event had yesterday, and they were far more supported than this pathetic excuse for a rally. If something is popular enough to have a following, Chicago has never disappointed me with a small crowd … until yesterday.

He’s right. I lived in Chicago for three years in the late 1990s. I love Chicago. Lack of a crowd is a rare problem at a Chicago event. Most of the attendance estimates for this rally that I’ve seen or heard from skeptics are between 100-200, including around 30 or 40 “red shirt” volunteers (oh, how I love that they chose red shirts for the volunteer staff). The organizers were clearly expecting a much larger crowd, given the number of volunteers. (After all, what rally needs one volunteer for every four people or so?) They didn’t get it. Not that that will stop anti-vaccine websites from claiming that 1,000 or more showed up. The inflated claims likely to come can go against other accounts from people who were actually there that back up the sad and utterly pathetic nature of the rally. First up, The Skeptical Teacher describing a picture taken with Andrew Wakefield himself:

That’s Wakefield in the middle, unwittingly posing with two of our skeptical ninjas who infiltrated his rally. In fact, the girl is wearing a Surlyramics necklace that says “Hug Me, I’m Vaccinated!” and moments before this snapshot was taken she handed him a note. It said how much of a horrible person he is for spreading anti-vax nonsense and scaring people out of vaccinating their children. She told me that he didn’t look at it & just put it in his pocket, thinking that he got the phone number from some hot young lady. Here is the text of what she wrote:

Dear Andrew Wakefield,

I know that you truly believe that what you are doing is helping people and that the ends justify the means, but I just want you to know that the things you are doing – the actions you have taken in the past have hurt people – killed people. Your work has scared and manipulated parents into not vaccinating their children, putting them and their entire community at risk, all in the name of safety. Children have died because of you. I just want to make sure that you fully understand that.

Sincerely,

**********

Andrew Wakefield, completely pwned! Brought a huge smile to my face, that post did!

Next, here’s part of Jamie Bernstein’s account, courtesy of The Friendly Atheist:

Most of the speakers focused on painting a picture of the people who tout vaccines as evil. And, I’m not talking “Glenn Beck evil” here, I mean Hitler/Al Queda evil. In their view, pharmaceutical companies commit blatant fraud, creating horrible, toxic, poisonous substances like vaccines and acetaminophen (yep, Tylenol is EVIL!) and then making up lists of benefits and selling it to the public under the lie that its good for you. And don’t forget the government. Clearly the government is in the pocket of BIG PHARMA (capitalized because every time anyone mentioned BIG PHARMA, it really sounded capitalized). They get money from BIG PHARMA in order to turn their heads even when they know people are taking fraudulent products, and some even get enough money to convince them to legislate mandates and subsidize vaccines.

Oh, but while we’re at it, don’t forget your family doctor. S/he’s in on it too. See, they just really love to stick needles in your child’s arm. When you try to tell your doctor that you did that googling thing and read some stuff from a YouTube commenter on the internets and are sure that your son got autism from vaccines, your doctor will just laugh and you. Why? Because doctors think they are so smart from going to school and hate mothers and children. That’s why they became pediatricians in the first place, just so they can poison children then laugh about it afterward while rolling in their BIG PHARMA money.

I know this sounds like I’m exaggerating, but I’m completely serious.

I know.

Many are the times I’ve tried to convince people just how off the plantation the hard core anti-vaccine movement is. People don’t believe me. They really don’t–at least not until they see for themselves. Sadly, in the comments there is at least one atheist anti-vaccinationist who is confusing correlation with causation and proclaiming without a whiff of embarrassment that, by not vaccinating, she’s giving her child a free ride on herd immunity. At the same time, alas, she is also demonstrating that being an atheist is no guarantee of being science-based (paging Bill Maher!) and that people who self-associate with the skeptical movement are often not very skeptical at all in some areas or confuse pseudoskepticism with skepticism. In any case, here it is on display in a series of videos posted by Bruce Critelli. Feel free to watch them or not; they are there mainly for completeness’ sake, so that you can see what we’re dealing with.

Here’s Part 1:

Now here’s Part 2 (with Andy Wakefield himself!):

From the account by Jeremy Witteveen:

In fact, when Wakefield took to the stage, the crowd leapt to their feet, clapping and cheering. The critics were right, Wakefield has been martyred, canonized and deified. Frankly — and you can see from the clip — he’s kind of a dick.

Tell me something I didn’t already know.

Here’s Part 3 (with Vaccine Gestapo!):

Did Louise Kuo Habakus actually compare “Vaccine Gestapo” to protest songs from the civil rights movement and against the Vietnam War? Yes, she did, and she was utterly without irony when she said it. She even said that the vaccine issue is the “defining issue of our time,” you know, just like the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war were the defining issues of the 1960s. Talk about an inflated sense self-importance!

Part 4 (with a singalong, and Andy himself singing along!):

Funny, is it just me, or does the logo used by American Rally for Personal Rights look and awful lot like the rising sun logo of imperial Japan during World War II?

In any case, if you want any further evidence that Andrew Wakefield has completely abandoned any pretense of science, the video above should put any doubts to rest. It’s all there, claims that there can’t be a “genetic epidemic,” that vaccines are more dangerous than the diseases against which they protect, that pharmaceutical companies have silenced him, and that vaccines aren’t adequately studied for safety. As if he would know. He also began with a truly offensive anecdote about a mother who told him that she wanted to take her autistic son with her when she dies because she’s the only one who loves him.

Then, there’s Autism News Beat, who was also there, described the rally thusly:

Rally organizers clearly expected much larger crowds, as evidenced by dozens of anti-vaccine signs still unused by 5 pm, when the park started to clear out. A sign-in sheet listed about 35 names and email addresses. Hundreds of free bananas remained unclaimed, and most of the vendors’ tables that surrounded one side of the quad remained empty.

Meanwhile, the rest of city carried on as normal. In this case, that was a good thing.

It is a good thing indeed. By all accounts, the rally fizzled. Big time. Not only that, but Chicago area skeptics rallied and made an excellent showing, serving notice to the anti-vaccine movement that they no longer have an open field. No longer can anti-vaccine loons expect to spew their misinformation uncontested in major cities in the U.S. Great job, Chicago skeptics! I can’t wait to meet you all in August.

Yes, it’s pretty clear that the American Rally for Vaccine Choice was an utter failure. The anti-vaccine activists failed to get anywhere near the numbers in the crowd they expected, and the speeches and music were so full mental jacket loony (particularly the music) that they demonstrated for all the world to see that this was pure anti-vaccine crankery. The optimist in me wants to think that this is part of the dying gasp of the anti-vaccine movement. Think about it. Their big rally fizzled, but not only did it fizzle but it made anti-vaccine loons the object of justifiable ridicule throughout the skeptical, science-based community.

In fact, if you want an indication of the frustration that the anti-vaccine movement is feeling as they are ridiculed and their message fails to gain traction outside of the pseudoscientific fringe, just take a gander at this post by Dan Olmsted at AoA entitled Olmsted on Autism: Rhymes with “Struck Off”! When an anti-vaccine propagandist like Olmsted, who normally tries to be polite and so desperately wants to be taken seriously, starts rhyming things with the F-word, you know things are bad. When he writes something that’s even more delusional than his usual posts:

The American Rally for Personal Rights Wednesday in Grant Park was many things — a strong first step for a new organization that now is in position to gain more funding and support from like-minded groups that support personal rights; a great affirmation on a beautiful day that the tide is turning toward parents who say their children were injured by vaccines despite the rearguard actions of the medical establishment to deny, delay, and distract; and a way to celebrate the many children who have improved and even recovered with treatments that include the dreaded “B” word — biomedical interventions. As if on cue, The Chicago Tribune was out with a hate piece about the rally, Alison Singer sniping from across town at a vax conference about the overwhelming science that vaccines don’t cause autism, yada yada yada.

A “strong first step”? In what universe? With only maybe around 100-200 people who looked pretty demoralized and pathetic in the videos I’ve seen thus far, the efforts of the speakers to get them fired up notwithstanding, I don’t see how anyone can characterize this rally as anything more than an abysmal, embarrassing failure, which is, of course, a very good thing indeed. Truly, Kev was correct when he characterized the rally as a “bit of a damp squib.” No wonder even the more reserved Olmsted is channeling Orac. He’s engaging in some serious wishful thinking. After all, as Kev pointed out, aside from Andrew Wakefield, most of the big machers of Autism One weren’t even at the rally! They were nowhere to be seen! Jenny McCarthy wasn’t there, nor were any of the other Generation Rescue bigwigs–or even the little wigs, aside from Jake Crosby, of course. I haven’t watched all the videos yet, but it didn’t look to me as though J.B. Handley even bothered to attend. Whatever contempt I might have for J.B.’s understanding of science and what he does with his ignorance (and I have a lot of contempt for J.B.’s understanding of science), I do have to concede that he does have not inconsiderable business and P.R. savvy. My guess is that J.B. knew a stinker when he saw it and stayed away.

Far, far away.

All that left were Wakefield and his groupies. There were the The Refusers too, who, while Michael Belkin, the man responsible for The Refusers’ “music,” was pure comic gold, did not exactly leave an impression other than that of extreme unintentional hilarity. Speaking of unintentional hilarity, check out this passage from Kent:

But the real theme of the day was the arrival of Andy Wakefield as a full-fledged combatant in what is now an American revolution against the insanely overzealous and understudied childhood immunization program, along with other environmental threats to the health of future generations. In his powerful speech, Wakefield alluded to that, saying this country is the place where revolutions have a pretty good record of succeeding, and promising to stay with the fight till it is finished. In a way, the final severing of his ties with the British medical establishment gives him the energy and focus to become the moral leader of the battle in this country. Even a Colossus must find it hard to bestride two continents at once.

Comparing Andy Wakefield to a “Colossus”?

Heh.

Heh heh.

Heh heh heh.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

I’m sorry. I couldn’t help myself. The thought of comparing Wakefield to a “Colossus” bestriding two continents at once was just so funny that I couldn’t stand it.

Back to business.

I’ve alternated between extreme pessimism and mild optimism regarding the success (or lack thereof) of the anti-vaccine movement. Thanks to the American Rally for Personal Rights, I’m in one of my optimistic moods. Think about it. Andrew Wakefield has been totally discredited. The big anti-vaccine rally meant to publicize Autism One and the “health freedom” views to the masses was only attended by maybe 100 people. Generation Rescue and Autism One are not in the news. Meanwhile, compared to even last year, few mainstream news outlets are going to the anti-vaccine movement for quotes anymore, and when mainstream news outlets do stories on vaccines these days it appears to come down overwhelmingly on the side of science. In a desperate attempt to use rhetoric that has some resonance among the general public, particularly in this Tea Party-infused political time, Generation Rescue starts trying to link up explicitly with the “health freedom” movement and using rhetoric of “personal choice” to justify its anti-vaccine stance. Then that fizzles. Then, whenever the media interview Andrew Wakefield, it seems that whoever is interviewing him also interviews the skeptical side, such as Brian Deer. His book is being panned by anyone who knows anything about the issues involved.

Meanwhile, in contrast to the past, groups of skeptics (as opposed to the occasional lone brave skeptic) are organizing to show up at anti-vaccine events and counter the misinformation. It’s a beautiful thing to behold, particularly after my several years at this when it appeared that the skeptical movement didn’t view combatting anti-vaccine quackery as being anywhere near as important as combatting creationism or debunking the paranormal. As I’ve said before, the anti-vaccine movement is a threat to public health now. If there’s a form of pseudoscience that should be near or at the top of the agenda of skeptical organizations, it’s the anti-vaccine movement. It’s also one of the rare occasions where I feel no qualms whatsoever about kicking someone when he’s down.

One need look no further for evidence that the anti-vaccine movement is down than the ridiculous rally at Grant Park and the hermetically sealed nature of Autism One, where skeptics are not allowed and never is heard a discouraging word against the idea that vaccines cause autism. Unfortunately, the movement is not far enough down. It may be fizzling right now, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last several years, never count anti-vaccinationists completely out. They are amazingly zombie-like in their ability to rise from apparent death to endanger children again.