Anti-vaccine activist Mark Blaxill pleads for a “sense of civil discourse” about vaccines. My irony meter explodes again.

Over the weekend, I saw a rather fascinating post by Sullivan entitled A Sense of Civil Discourse. The reason I found it so fascinating is because what was quoted in it utterly destroyed my irony meter yet again, leaving it nothing but a molten, gooey mess still bubbling and hissing in my office. Apparently last week, Mark Blaxill and Dan Olmsted, authors of the distillation of all the craziness that is the blog Age of Autism into book form under the same title, The Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-Made Epidemic, did a radio interview on the Leonard Lopate Show. During the interview, in response to a question about being “attacked,” Mr. Blaxill responded:

We get attacked on a regular basis. I think we have become accustomed to that. I think that one things we really need to recover in this debate is a sense of civil discourse.

See why my irony meter exploded? (Mr. Blaxill will be receiving a bill for replacing it.)

Apparently, Mr. Blaxill’s definition of a “civil discourse” is quite different from mine (or anyone else’s, for that matter), at least if the blog to which he contributes is any indication. Remember, AoA is the same blog that has relentlessly attacked Dr. Paul Offit, calling him things such as a “hired gun and “a quote machine for hire,” a “false prophet,” feeder of a “hungry lie” (actually, the “lie’s public chef“), a “fox in a henhouse,” and a “biostitute.” Meanwhile, on the Amazon.com page for Dr. Offit’s upcoming book Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All (which I’ve gotten to read part of pre-release, by the way; it’s really good), anti-vaccine activists have already tagged Offit’s book with terms like “vaccine paid shill,” “anti-science propaganda” (talk about a lack of self-awareness!), “pharma-funded,” “unjust to vaccine injured,” and “industry spokesman.” Never mind that the book won’t be released until January and there’s no way that any of these Blaxill sympathizers could possibly have read it yet. That doesn’t stop them from descending on the customer comments section for Offit’s yet-to-be-released book with venom and idiocy.

Some examples:

  • Amy Carson: “Offitt’s book should really be titled: Deadly Money Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens His Vaccine Profits…”
  • Maureen E. Meleck: “Buy Offit’s new book if you need: toilet paper, a door stopper, to make a paper mache pig, kleenex (not gentle though for the nose either), to start your barbecue going, paper for the new puppy, a Christmas present for your biggest enemy, trash paper for your waste basket. Just don’t read it. It’s fantasy. Offit wants to be a big movie star.”
  • Mrs. Lhg Files: “A more impartial opinion would be obtained ,asking the local butchers shop about the benefits of vegetarianism, than reading any of Offits offers on how to boost his personal wealth through death and destruction of the most vulnerable members of society world wide… hope he rots and his wealth brings his family and anyone who touches a penny of OFFIT, nothing but the death and destruction he has manifested with his greed.”
  • Ginger Taylor (her blog here; an example of her typical behavior here): “However, Pharmas 30 billion dollar per year vaccine market will turn into a 5 billion dollar vaccine market, with almost no room for growth… And Offits Proffits for his rota virus vaccine will go down the drain. Gotta keep people terrified of disease and get them to hate anyone who questions giving 100 shots to kids… because they have more doses to add to the schedule! Does Offit get a bonus from Merck when the CDC schedule hits 100 doses of vaccine? I wonder.”

Somehow, these sorts of comments are not my definition of “promoting civil discourse.” Will Mr. Blaxill speak out against such behavior and such nasty ad hominem attacks? If he wants a “civil discourse,” will he try to bring it about by example? Somehow, I doubt it. Civility is something Blaxill demands of his opponents while ignoring his allies, because persuading defenders of science to be “civil” leaves the field open for his allies at AoA and in the anti-vaccine blogosphere to get vicious and nasty. Meanwhile, Blaxill can appear to stay “above the fray” by calling for civility.

Remember, AoA is also the same blog that last Thanksgiving posted a Photoshopped picture so offensive that it even outraged some of its regular commenters, and that’s really, really hard to do. Basically, AoA Photoshopped the faces of Paul Offit, Steve Novella, Trine Tsouderos, Amy Wallace, Paul Insel, and Alison Singer into a picture of a Thanksgiving feast where the main course was a baby. (Yes, I’m still disappointed that the unnamed Photoshop hack failed to include my face in the picture.) In light of his recent call for civility on the radio, I’m sure that Mr. Blaxill was so alarmed by the viciousness of this attack and the inappropriateness of the imagery used that he immediately remonstrated with the AoA flak who posted it, right?

Wrong. Here’s what Blaxill wrote in the comments, as documented by Sullivan:

The response this has gotten is certainly interesting. And while I have a certain sympathy for those who argue against ad hominem attacks (we need less name-calling and a more civil discourse on all the issues surrounding autism), I think we all need to recognize this is a CARTOON. And the apt metaphor on the table (pun intended) is that while the medical industry feasts off its excesses, pays off scientists for exercises in misdirection, and pays toadies in the media for hit jobs on those who dissent, real children’s lives are consumed.

For our friends who object, I’m not sure I would have chosen the image of the baby myself, but chill out for a bit folks: We’re a blog, for Chrissakes; it’s our job to be edgy. At the same time, all the faux outrage is more than a bit hypocritical; frankly, anything that makes the wackosphere vibrate with new forms of silliness is fine by me. Seriously, though, something is happning to a generation of children and Michael Specter gets a free pass to call us nutjobs and denialists.

This is Orwell incarnate, you can’t make this stuff.

Somehow, Mr. Blaxill’s reaction to another AoA blogger portraying enemies as baby-eating cannibals by excusing it as being a “CARTOON,” calling it “edgy,” and labeling the targets of the smear paid off scientists and “toadies in the media” do not fit within my definition of “promoting civil discourse. Neither was the reaction of most of the commenters there, as I documented when I first blogged about this.” Even Blaxill’s co-author Dan Olmsted (who is the frikkin’ editor of AoA, by the way) sat by and let this be published. Will Mr. Blaxill now speak out against such behavior?

“Orwell incarnate”? Well, yes, but not in the way that Blaxill thinks. Rather, the term “Orwellian” fits AoA to a T in how its bloggers can twist language to use against its perceived enemies.

Then there is the history of attacks on journalists, bloggers, and anyone else who has the temerity to criticize Generation Rescue, the anti-vaccine movement, or AoA. These include Chris Mooney, Amy Wallace, and Trine Tsouderos, among others. Generation Rescue’s leader J.B. Handley, for instance, wrote an attack consisting of pure misogyny against Amy Wallace depicting her as having had a date rape drug (the term J.B. used was “rufie”) slipped to her by Paul Offit. Meanwhile, AoA’s resident attack poodle, a kid who’s clearly trying to be J.B. Handley when he grows up, Jake Crosby, has launched a conspiracy mongering attacks on Paul Offit, an attack Brian Deer that is nothing more than making fun of his pictures on his website to paint him as a narcissist , accusations against Amy Wallace of being a pharma shill, along with Adam Bly, Chris Mooney, and anyone whom Jake sees promoting actual science, as in refuting the scientifically discredited view that vaccines cause autism. Jake’s even gone so far as to try to tie a “good friend of the blog” to having undisclosed big pharma ties using tried-and-not-true conspiracy theory techniques that would make Jeff Rense or Alex Jones blush.

Somehow, I would take Mr. Blaxill’s call for “a more civil discourse” much more seriously than I do (which is not seriously at all) if he actually practiced what he preached and tried to persuade his fellow AoA bloggers to do the same. To paraphrase Jesus, the anti-vaccine movement of which Mr. Blaxill is a prominent part needs to remove the plank from its own eye before looking for the speck in its neighbor’s eye. Mr. Blaxill could contribute to that effort either by speaking out against the rampant incivility–nay, utter nastiness–on his side or at least dissassociating himself from it. He has done neither. Neither has Dan Olmsted. Nor will they, I predict. Rather, Blaxill has instead defended portraying Generation Rescue’s opponents as baby-eating cannibals and remained silent when J.B. Handley and Jake Crosby have lashed out at their enemies, real and perceived, thus giving his tacit support to such incivility. He hasn’t said anything about the penchant that AoA regular and guest bloggers have for comparing anyone who criticizes vaccine/autism pseudoscience to Nazis, which is a favored tactic used to demonize those who stand against the anti-vaccine movement and its pseudoscience that endangers children.

Civility, Mr. Blaxill. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Finally, I can’t help but note in closing that the call for “playing nice” from Mark Blaxill and other anti-vaccine zealots is always one-sided. They demand respect and “civility,” but they give none at all to scientists who don’t buy into their beliefs, even ones who try to act with the civility and respect they say they want. “Civility” and “respect” are not one-way streets.