Blaming failure to promote anti-vaccine views on “progressivism”

Every so often on this blog I get in the mood to take on a post on the anti-vaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism. Over the three years of its existence, I’ve seen some truly bizarre posts, ranging from one blogger blithely discussing how he took his daughter to Costa Rica for stem cell quackery to treat her autism to rants against journalists who have the temerity to point out that the scientific evidence out there does not support the idea that vaccines cause autism to attacks on perceived enemies of the anti-vaccine movement in which these enemies have their heads crudely Photoshopped into a photo of people sitting down for a Thanksgiving feast of dead baby. Indeed, given the cannibalistic “tribute” to its enemies last year, I shudder to think what the loons at AoA will come up with this year, given that Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away, although I must admit that I do wonder how AoA can top portraying its perceived enemies as cannibals.

Sometimes, however, I come across a post that is so completely off the wall that I don’t know what to think of it, at least not initially. True, such posts always proceed from the idea that that vaccines cause autism, that the government and big pharma are out to suppress that forbidden knowledge, and that various “biomed” quackery can “cure”–or, as the “autism biomed” likes to call it, “recover”–autistic children. However, sometimes what the post says comes at this concept from such a bizarre angle that I don’t honestly know what to think. Such was the case when I perused AoA over the weekend and came across a post by Dan Olmsted entitled Dan Olmsted On Why Progressives Don’t Get Autism. He begins with an assertion that strikes me as bizarre, to say the least:

The midterm elections have ushered in a period of reflection and reckoning for the nation’s liberal-left movement that today usually describes itself as “progressive.” As The Huffington Post bluntly put it, “Progressive Heroes Go Down to Defeat.” Especially given health care reform’s big role in the election debate, this reckoning ought to include the biggest health problem facing the next generation and hence the nation: Autism.

But first, progressives have got to come to grips with their abject failure to “get” the autism issue.

My first reaction to this passage was a big fat “WTF?” First off, how is autism the “biggest health problem facing the next generation”? What about heart disease? Cancer? Stroke? Chronic pulmonary disease? Combined, these diseases are the top four causes of death and disability in the U.S. With the first Baby Boomers hitting age 65 next year, we are starting a 20-30 year stretch in which diseases of the elderly are going to skyrocket. Speaking of diseases of the elderly, what about Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia? These, too, are expected to skyrocket. With the aging of the population, whether President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) is significantly altered or not with Republicans in control of the House, as a nation we will be straining to care for victims of these diseases for the foreseeable future. Yet, Olmsted declares autism to be the “biggest health problem” facing the nation. Don’t get me wrong; I understand that the costs of caring for autistic children is high, but even a study from a few years ago estimated it to be less than the cost of caring for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, mental retardation, anxiety, and anxiety and very similar to the costs of caring for people with schizophrenia. For comparison, in 2006 Michael Ganz estimated the yearly cost of caring for patients with autism to be on the order of $35 billion while the same cost for patients with Alzheimer’s disease was estimated to be $91 billion.

Be that as it may, what really seems to be eating at Olmsted is that his recent book with Mark Blaxill, Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-Made Epidemic doesn’t appear to be making much of a splash. You’ll see what I mean soon. First, however, it’s revealing to see Olmsted blame the failure of his and Blaxill’s on–of all things–progressivism. I kid you not. Olmsted blames the failure of his anti-vaccine message to resonate on progressivism:

One key part of the progressive agenda of the last century has been improving health – and especially children’s health – through mass vaccination against deadly diseases. And now come a new group of people, autism parents, who allegedly want to roll back all this progress so long in the making. And how do they want to accomplish this nefarious (and nebulous) goal? By questioning the consensus that genes cause autism, and by claiming that the environment – and plausibly some aspect of the very same mass vaccination campaign — is implicated in autism’s epidemic rise. Cleverly labeling these concerns “anti-vaccine” and, implicitly, anti-progress, makes it easy to ignore a fundamental truth — that every ideology including progressivism can go too far, get hijacked by forces that should be its natural enemies, and fail to understand what is required at a particular historical moment.

I must admit, this one blew my mind! Olmsted’s unhappy that his movement has been unable to convince scientists and physicians that vaccines cause autism; so he blames “progressivism” as being a huge part of the reason. While it is probably true that mass vaccination as a means to improve the health of children derives from a progressive impulse, there is without a doubt a large contingent within the anti-vaccine movement that consists of people who would be characterized as liberal or progressive. Think Bill Maher, for example. Think Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Bastions of anti-vaccine sentiment can also be found in areas loaded with affluent liberals, such as Marin County, San Francisco, New Jersey (where at least one of the bloggers for AoA can be found, along with Louise Kuo Habakus, about whose anti-vaccine activism AoA bloggers have approvingly written in the past).

None of this is meant to say that the anti-vaccine movement is primarily a liberal movement, as conservatives sometimes try to paint it. For example, there is a very strong strain of anti-vaccine activism within the “health freedom” movement, which bases its support for “alternative” medicine on more–shall we say?–Libertarian impulses. Then there are conservatives such as Representative Dan Burton, who is profoundly anti-vaccine, having abused his position to try to promote the concept that vaccines cause autism and who is now, apparently, set to do it again now that the Republicans have regained control of the House. As I’ve said before, anti-vaccine lunacy is the quackery that knows no political boundaries. Both liberals and conservatives are pefectly able to find reasons to fear vaccines, particularly in the conspiracy theories they use as the basis for their fears. Conservatives, for instance, distrust big government and paint anything that smacks of mandatory vaccination programs as big government trampling their freedom, while liberals tend to distrust big pharma and as a consequence to use conspiracy theories based on the nefarious activities of pharmaceutical companies, sometimes in concert with government, as the basis of their paranoia. Regardless of whether or not there is a greater tendency to hold anti-vaccine views among liberals or conservatives, one thing’s for sure. Olmsted’s argument seems to be that progressives reject his anti-vaccine views.

As though that were a bad thing!

Indeed, if Olmsted were correct, it would reflect very well on progressives that they don’t fall for his pseudoscience. Oddly enough, having come to view resistance to his anti-vaccine message as deriving from progressivism, Olmsted nonetheless urges progressives to join him in his anti-vaccine cause:

At THIS moment, what’s required of progressives is a willingness to listen to literally thousands of these parents, and hundreds of scientists and doctors, who are trying to tell the medical industry – trade organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, government public health officials at the FDA, the CDC and NIMH, pharmaceutical companies – that something is badly amiss. The message is pretty simple, really: In creating an undeniable public good, those responsible for taking care of children’s health inadvertently unleashed a monster – epidemic levels of developmental and chronic illnesses in this generation of children.

Except that they didn’t. Science doesn’t support Olmsted’s assertions that vaccines are responsible for “epidemic levels of developmental and chronic illnesses in this generation of children.” This makes it particularly hilarious to see Olmsted opine:

So please, don’t paint me with the anti-science, anti-progress, know-nothing brush that too many progressives love to wield whenever this issue comes ’round to the undeniable implications of autism’s recency and rapid rise. Mark Blaxill and I have just written a 300-plus page book with 700-plus footnotes, laying out the history of the disorder and its roots in the commercialization of a new mercury compound in the 1930s (“The Age of Autism – Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-Made Epidemic”).

If the shoe fits…

Personally, I love it when cranks brag about the lengths of their books and the number of footnotes they use, as though either were any indication that the actual content of a book is scientifically valid. After all, cranks have always confused the number of footnotes with research rigor. If those footnotes are nothing but references to the same crappy studies, it means nothing other than that the crank has, as expected, referenced a whole lot of crappy, pseudoscientific studies. Alternatively, pseudoscience boosters will quote decent studies but misrepresent what they mean, co-opting them to the service of their pseudoscience. Fortunately, in this case “progressives” appear to have caught on and haven’t bought into Blaxill and Olmsted’s pseudoscience, leading Olmsted to whine:

It’s doubly disappointing to see traditionally progressive outlets – from Salon to Daily Kos to The Atlantic to National Public Radio and PBS – ignore the evidence presented in our book and so many other places, twist the facts they can’t deny, belittle those who believe otherwise including beleaguered autism parents, and glibly trumpet tired reassurances that the concern over vaccines has been “asked and answered,” that “study after study” has refuted any relation, and that continuing to point out disturbing patterns of evidence to the contrary endangers children and infants.

Or, in other words, “Waaaaaahhhh! No one is reading or believing our book!” It’s hard not to feel a distinct sense of schadenfreude. I haven’t read the whole book, but I’ve had a chance to read the introduction and a couple of chapters, and it’s hard for me to say that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer couple of guys. The book is badly written, not well argued, and pummels the reader over the head with pure anti-vaccine views, recycling the same nonesense Olmsted has been promoting since at least 2005 and that AoA has been serving up on a daily basis for three years. In other words, it’s exactly what one would expect from Blaxill and Olmsted.

No wonder no one is interested, and Blaxill and Olmsted blame everyone but themselves for that. That’s hardly a “progressive” attitude. The problem isn’t that progressives don’t “get” autism; it’s that they appear to “get” the anti-vaccine movement as represented by Blaxill and Olmsted all too well.