The anti-vaccine movement as a religion with Andrew Wakefield as its prophet?

Several of you have been sending me this; so I would be remiss not to note that there is a rather lengthy profile of Generation Rescue’s favorite “martyred” anti-vaccine hero, disgraced and discredited British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine entitled The Crash and Burn of an Autism Guru. By and large, it’s not bad, but what caught my attention wasn’t so much the story of Andrew Wakefield, with which I have, sadly, become intimately familiar, or the usual self-pitying, self-serving excuses and denials of Wakefield himself. Rather, it’s what the anti-vaccine movement inadvertently revealed about itself to reporter Susan Dominus.

Actually, it’s more about what our old buddy and pal J.B. Handley revealed. Remember how frequently I compare anti-vaccine views to a religion? It’s not, of course, just because the anti-vaccine movement is not at all based on science. After all, there are lots of things that aren’t based on science that are are reasonable, or at least not batshit insane. Nor is it just because anti-vaccine views are clearly based far more on belief than on evidence or science, although that certainly helps. Rather, it’s…well, let’s set the scene with the opening of the story, which describes a talk at the raceview Baptist Church in Tomball, TX:

In his presentation, Wakefield sounded impatient but righteous. He used enough scientific terms — “ataxic,” “histopathological review” and “vaccine excipients” — that those parents who did not feel cowed might have been flattered by his assumption of their scientific fluency. He also tried to defend himself against a few of the charges laid out in The British Medical Journal — offering defenses that did not hold up before the journal’s panel of editors but were perhaps enough to assure an audience of his fans that he did, in fact, have defenses. Some part of Wakefield’s cult status is surely because of his personal charisma, and he spoke with great rhetorical flair. He took off his glasses and put them back on like a gifted actor maximizing a prop. “What happens to me doesn’t matter,” he said at one point. “What happens to these children does matter.”

And there you have a critical element for many religions: A prophet who suffers for his message at the hand of a hostile “orthodoxy.” Andy fills that role. In fact, here’s where our old buddy J.B. comes in. Later in the article, Handley is interviewed, and, while probably not realizing it, he provides an excellent description of why the anti-vaccine movement is very much like a cult or religion:

“To our community, Andrew Wakefield is Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ rolled up into one,” says J. B. Handley, co-founder of Generation Rescue, a group that disputes vaccine safety. “He’s a symbol of how all of us feel.”

Since losing his medical license, Wakefield has depended on his followers for financing and for the emotional scaffolding that allows him to believe himself a truth-teller when the majority of his peers consider him a menace to medicine. The fact that his fans have stood by him through his denunciation may seem surprising, but they may find it easier to ignore his critics than to reject their faith in him. After all, his is a rare voice of certainty in the face of a disease that is, at its core, mysterious.

In any case, this is something I’ve been saying all along. Real scientists realize that autism is a complex and mysterious condition. It clearly has a strong genetic component, but, as is the case of many other complex diseases and conditions with a strong genetic component, identities of the specific genes involved in its pathogenesis has been maddeningly elusive. That’s because autism is likely multigenetic in origin, possibly with an environmental component. It should be noted that hen I say “environmental component” I do not mean vaccines. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last several years, when the anti-vaccine movement refers to an “environmental component” or “environmental trigger,” it’s code for, “It’s the vaccines.” It’s a belief that is immune to reason, science, and evidence, given the numerous studies that have failed to find a link between vaccines and autism. Wakefield and other pseudoscientists who push vaccine “injury” as a cause for autism are in reality being incredibly simplistic, and simple answers resonate.

Another aspect of this obsession with vaccines and “environmental triggers” (i.e., vaccines) is that there’s not much that can be done about genes. In contrast, if autism is “vaccine injury,” then there are all sorts of quack treatments that can be sold to “reverse” that injury. Not coincidentally I think, one of the favorite of these quack remedies involves “detoxification” of “toxins” and “heavy metals” using chelation therapy and other nostrums. Think about it this way: Given the vagueness of many of the “toxins” to which anti-vaccine activists ascribe autism causation and the lack of evidence supporting the concept that mercury or other heavy metals have anything to do with autism, “detoxification” becomes a lot like purification rituals common in so many religions, this time substituting a medical form of purification based on pseudoscience for the various means used since ancient times. The purpose, whether acknowledged or not, is to drive the demon autism out and “recover” the normal child parents believe to be within. From my perspective, it’s not for nothing that Generation Rescue is called Generation Rescue and its activists who preach the gospel of biomedical treatments for autism are called “Rescue Angels.”

Moreover, like any good prophet of a new religion, Andy Wakefield has suffered for his promotion of the new faith. Consequently, the more science-based medical authorities reject him, the more medical-legal authorities investigate him, the more he is subjected to the deserved penalties for his scientific fraud, including loss of his medical license and retraction of his fraud-laden paper, the more tightly the faithful cling to him. The only way they could be more faithful is if St. Andy were to be martyred the way early Christians were martyred. There’s a reason I included images of various martyred saints when I wrote about Wakefield’s loss of his medical license.

From this article, though, I get the feeling that St. Andy’s martyrdom is not all that painful. He has a bunch of mothers of autistic children who absolutely adore him, who–dare I say it?–worship him. As the article describes, he lives in a high-end home in Austin, TX, whose view he likens to Tuscany. When he the medical director at the “autism biomed” paradise Thoughtful House, he pulled in close to $300,000 a year. Where he’s getting the cash to sustain his continued opulent lifestyle, I have no idea, but he’s still living pretty high on the hog. Certainly it’s not his book revenues that are paying for that big house in Austin. Perhaps it’s his speaking engagements. Who knows? Whatever the source of Wakefield’s apparently continued income since he lost his job a year ago, he’s not exactly suffering like a martyr, although he seems to believe that he is. Moreover, the more he is criticized and the more penalties he suffers, the more convinced he becomes that he is right:

His faith in his theory also remains intact, which he made clear when I asked him, in a separate interview, if he still believed M.M.R. caused the autism in the children in the Lancet paper. “Is that a serious question?” he said. “Yes, I do still think M.M.R. was causing it.”

For Wakefield, the attacks have become a kind of affirmation. The more he must defend his research, the more important he seems to consider it — so important that powerful forces have conspired and aligned against him. He said he believes that “they” — public-health officials, pharmaceutical companies — pay bloggers to plant vicious comments about him on the Web. “Because it’s always the same,” he says. “Discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield, discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield.” He also “wouldn’t be surprised” if public-health officials were inflating the number of measles mortalities, just as he thinks they inflate the risks of the flu to increase uptake of that vaccine. Having been rejected by mainstream medicine, Wakefield, the son of well-regarded doctors in Britain, has apparently rejected the integrity of mainstream medicine in return.

Notice anything else that’s like a religion? That’s right. Andy Wakefield is turning into a cult leader. He has his followers, his worshipers. The more the outside world rejects him, the more convinced he becomes that he’s right, and everyone else is wrong. Meanwhile, the adulation of his followers feeds his megalomania, just as each new setback feeds his paranoia. He really does believe the medical world is out to get him and that public health officials are exaggerating measles statistics just to get back at him. Because he’s just that important. At least, that’s what he believes and that’s what he wants his followers to believe. As usual, Brian Deer gets it exactly right when he compares Wakefield to “the kind of religious leader who is a true believer but relies on the occasional use of smoke and mirrors to goose the faith of his followers.” It works, too. Even yesterday, the anti-vaccine zealots at Age of Autism were still defending Andrew Wakefield and calling for “revisiting” Deer’s claims that Wakefield fabricated his findings, and a few days ago uber quack Mike Adams posted a video entitled Selective Hearing, which attacks Brian Deer, the investigative journalist who unmasked Wakefield’s fraud. He is, after all, an the enemy of the faith.

Unfortunately, the most disturbing part of this whole story doesn’t come as a surprise to me. It’s noted in the description at the beginning of the article of the Wakefield rally that there was an armed security guard there. Towards the end of the description of the rally Dominus notes:

Michelle Guppy, the coordinator of the Houston Autism Disability Network and the organizer of the Tomball event, said she believed her own autistic son benefited greatly from one aspect of Wakefield’s work: his conviction that untreated gastrointestinal problems could be behind some of autism’s symptoms. It was Guppy, it turned out, who thought to hire the armed guards “to make the statement,” she said, “that this is neutral ground, and it’s going to be civil.” Guppy, a mother of two who was elegantly dressed for the occasion, made no pretense of neutrality herself. She narrowed her eyes when she learned that a writer from The New York Times was there to write about Wakefield.

“Be nice to him,” she said, “or we will hurt you.”

I don’t know about you, but that certainly sounds like a threat to me. Just like a Scientologist defending the cult, Guppy is using intimidation with armed guards to prevent anyone from asking questions of Wakefield that are too “inconvenient” and threatening reporters. Of course, intimidation and smear campaigns are part and parcel of how the anti-vaccine movement responds to criticism, particularly of its saints and dogma. I’ve been on the receiving end. Journalists Trine Tsouderos, Amy Wallace, Seth Mnookin, and especially Brian Deer have been on the receiving end. Paul Offit has had threats. It’s all of a piece.

Perhaps the best summary of the phenomenon that is Andrew Wakefield comes at the end of this article, where Dominus writes:

It seems very unlikely that any study, no matter how carefully conducted, will assure Wakefield of the safety of M.M.R. at this point: numbers can lie, or be manipulated, and even paranoids have enemies. Didn’t they laugh at the researcher who said bacteria caused ulcers? Doesn’t he owe it to the children to continue on?

Before leaving for the airport with Wakefield and his son, I took in the view from the deck. The hills looked lofty, peaceful, a little bit blurred in the distance — you could believe, as Wakefield had promised, you were in Tuscany. With a little effort, you can believe almost anything.

Just like a religion. Because it really is all about faith far more than science and evidence.