The fixed mindset of the anti-vaccine activist

One of my interests in skepticism and critical thinking has been the similarity in the fallacious arguments, approach to data, and general behavior of those who are–to put it generously–not so skeptical or scientific in their approach to life. I’m talking about believers in the paranormal, quacks, anti-vaccine activists, conspiracy theory mavens, Holocaust deniers, creationists, anthropogenic global warming denialists, and cranks of all stripes. Indeed, it is this similarity in mindset that led Mark Hoofnagle to coin the term “crank magnetism,” a perfect description of how people who believe in one form of crankery often believe in other forms of crankery as well. Examples include Dr. Lorraine Day, who’s a believer in cancer quackery (indeed, lots of other forms of quackery, too) and is a rabid Holocaust denier as well; Melanie Phillips, who is anti-vaccine and doesn’t believe in AGW or evolution, either; Vox Day, who hits the crank trifecta of anti-vaccinationism, evolution denialism, and anthropogenic global warming (AGW) denialism; Nicholas Kollerstrom, who hits the different crank trifecta of Holocaust denial, astrology, and crop circles; and Mike Adams, whose crank magnetism encompasses virtually all forms of pseudoscience except for than AGW denialism.

But crank magnetism is not the only aspect of the believer in pseudoscience, and that’s an extreme “us versus them” mentality. True, this is not a characteristic unique to cranks or even defining of cranks, but when you verbiage like this in combination with dubious science, chances are that you are dealing with a grade-A woo-meister, a crank par excellance:

I want to win the “Vaccine-Autism War.”

It’s probably why I spend inordinate amounts of my scarce free time watching History Channel specials on military battles and tactics. The books I read also tend to be about great historical struggles and what eventually happened.

And sometimes I simply can’t believe we haven’t already won.

These are the words of Kent Heckenlively, whom we’ve met multiple times before on this blog. He’s one of the main bloggers for the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism and, over its history, has written some truly appalling posts, such as when he described borrowing $15,000 from his daughter’s grandparents to take her to a clinic in Costa Rica for a quack stem cell treatment for autism that involved injecting “stem cells” right into his daughter’s cerebrospinal fluid. Another example was when he enthusiastically embraced a model of autism in which he speculated that bacteria made toxic heavy metals that caused autism. His most recent appalling post came not long before TAM, when Heckenlively quoted a passage from Psalm 94 praying to God for vengeance upon the enemies of Israel. The implication was obvious; Heckenlively was praying for the Lord to bring vengeance upon those who support vaccine science. He also cited Stephen King’s novel The Stand, which featured an apocalyptic nuclear explosion in Las Vegas in its climax. Given that the post was written only a couple of days before 1,600 skeptics descended upon Las Vegas, the timing of the post was certainly concerning.

After proclaiming his love for all things military and regurgitating common anti-vaccine canards, such as confusing correlation with causation with regards to vaccines and autism and citing parental testimonials, Kent decides to get down to business trying to analyze The “Mindset” of Our Opponents. First, he cites a book by Carol Dweck entitled Mindset, which to him has special relevance to his study as a brave maverick anti-vaccinationist. Next, he absolutely obliterates yet another of my irony meters (and this was one that I wrapped in flame retardant protective armor, too!):

Sometimes it’s not enough to have facts on your side, you have to understand the psychology of the other side and use it to your advantage.

Seriously. If there’s a person on this planet with less self-awareness than Kent Heckenlively, I’ve never seen it. Kent and his fellow travelers in the anti-vaccine movement are the very definition of a group that clings to an idea regardless of evidence, facts, science, or reason. As I’ve learned over the last several years, while combatting the anti-vaccine movement, it is not enough to have facts on your side, which is why, ove the years, I’ve tried to understand the psychology of the other side. The problem is, that doesn’t seem to work, either. Anti-vaccinationists cling to their beliefs that vaccines are evil and cause autism with a ferocity that a fundamentalist would be hard-pressed to match.

Kent then tries to use the thesis of Dr. Dweck’s book to argue that those evil doctors are close-minded, arrogant clods, and that only he and his fellow anti-vaccine believers are open-minded and enlightened. While it’s true that there are doctors out there who are close-minded, arrogant clods (and, having had to deal with my fellow doctors on a daily basis for the last 25 years, don’t I know it!), it’s even more true that if there’s anyone off whom facts, logic, and science bounce as harmlessly as stones off a tank, it’s anti-vaccine activists like Kent Heckenlively. That’s why the meat of Kent’s post strikes me as revealing something else very integral to the crank “mindset” (to steal Kent’s terminology), namely projection. Time and time again, how often do we see cranks of all stripes projecting their mindset, their attitudes, onto defenders of science?

The relevance of Dr. Dweck’s book comes in where she identifies two types of mindsets among people, the “fixed” mindset and the “growth” mindset. The fixed mindset, according to Kent, involves a tendency to avoid challenges, to give up easily when frustrated, and to ignore useful negative feedback. One key aspect of the fixed mindset is a tendency to view criticism of one’s work or ideas as criticism of the person, and the reaction is invariably highly defensive. In other words, criticism of a person’s ideas, skills, or results of his work is all too often taken as a direct attack or an insult. Personally, again, I have a hard time thinking of another group of people possessing these traits in more abundance than anti-vaccine activists. Another aspect of the fixed mindset that Kent doesn’t mention is this:

Usually when others succeed, people with a Fixed Mindset will try to convince themselves and the people around them that the success was due to either luck (after all, almost everything is due to luck in the Fixed Mindset world) or objectionable actions. In some cases, they will even try to tarnish the success of others by bringing up things that are completely unrelated (“Yes, but did you know about his…”).

In other words, ad hominems are the rule of the day. Think of how the anti-vaccine movement deals with Paul Offit. Think of how anti-vaccine loons gleefully leapt all over the fraud investigation and indictment of Paul Thorsen.

In contrast, Kent tries to paint the “brave maverick doctors” producing autism pseudoscience and quackery as possessing the opposite of the fixed mindset, namely the growth mindset, while marveling that most doctors don’t view autism quackery the way they do:

By contrast, the person with a growth mindset is lead by a desire to learn and will therefore embrace challenges, persist in the face of obstacles, and try to learn from criticism. Those rare doctors you have met with this mindset are probably among your heroes, even if they haven’t yet been able to fully resolve the problems of your child.

In other words, it’s the DAN! doctors, the Andrew Wakefields, and the Mark Geiers of the world who are to Heckenlively the doctors with the “growth mindset.” Meanwhile, he likens doctors to the executives at Enron who drove the company into the ground:

Dweck points to Enron as an example. They believed in the “talent” rather than the effort theory of hiring potential employees. In a movie about the Enron debacle they were termed “the smartest guys in the room.” Nobody called them the hardest-working guys. Their brains were supposed to be their secret weapon, even if they didn’t use them. They believed in themselves so much they became convinced that if they thought of an idea which could make them money they could put that amount of money in their account books as income. Those of us who live in the real world know that just because we think of a potential money-making idea doesn’t mean the bank will put that money in our bank account.

Of course, this is not quite telling the whole story. The guys from Enron might have been the smartest guys in the roo,, but they were also the most deceptive guys in the room. They used highly unethical accounting practices to intentionally misrepresent the company’s earnings and debts. Its accounting practices were downright dishonest. In fact, if anything, many autism “entrepreneurs” remind me more of the “guys” of Enron than any legitimate scientist. Part of being the “smartest guys in the room” at Enron was to heap contempt for being “unimaginative” or “close-minded” upon other businesses and accountants who had the temerity to point out that their accounting and business practices were risky, unethical, and even illegal. Sound familiar? Perhaps like the way that autism quacks castigate conventional autism scientists for being close-minded and unimaginative? There’s also a profound anti-intellectualism and anti-science mindset embedded in these tirades against doctors and scientists. Note Kent characterizes them as acting far more out of a desire to appear smart than anything else, as viewing themselves as the “smartest guys in the room” (just like Enron executives!), or as arrogant.

The bottom line is that projection frequently is a major characteristic of cranks, every bit as much as crank magnetism and a fast-and-loose approach to scientific data. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve seen creationists, quacks, anti-vaccine activists, and other cranks castigate scientists for being “close-minded” and possessing characteristics of the fixed mindset without actually mentioning the fixed mindset. While it’s true that doctors are sometimes too dismissive of patient concerns and unwilling to listen, if you want to see rigid, “fixed mindsets” in action, check out the anti-vaccine movement.

And don’t even get me started on how Kent accused doctors and scientists of “magical thinking.”


Another irony meter is blown by one of the commenters:

I think you are on to something here, Kent. It is the desire to “look smart” that is motivating many in this disaster. And unfortunately, the vaccine pushers know this. That is why the internet is over-run with vaccine-promoting bullies.

Verbal bullies intimidate their targets by name-calling and ridicule. Why do they do this? As I have told my daughter, who has sadly been a victim of bullying, bullies act the way they do because they are insecure about themselves. They call others names because somehow it makes them feel better about themselves to put others down. They are the ones who have mental and emotional problems–not the people they are bullying. Even though the effect of their horrible behavior is often to make those they bully feel bad or stupid or inadequate, the truth is that the bully is really the one who is bad, stupid, inadequate and most seriously in need of help.

Who later says:

So what do those who feel most threatened do? They react by calling their opponents names–ignorant, misled, anti-vaccine, baby-killers, etc. etc. etc. We have all read their bullying tirades on various blogs and comment streams. Rather than admit the limitations of their own knowledge and abilities, or of medical and scientific knowledge, they resort to bullying and threats. If you don’t do what we say, then we won’t treat you. (Blackmail.) If you don’t follow our directions, we’ll turn you in to CPS. (Extorsion) If you question vaccines, it must be because you are stupid enough to listen to a crazy Playboy bunny rather than a clearly more educated doctor. (Ridicule.)

You see, when it’s J.B. Handley threatening his enemies or calling them names, he’s fighting the good fight, and the anti-vaccine minions at AoA praise him for being tough, aggressive, and “giving as good as he gets.” When it’s a scientist criticizing J.B., that’s a close-minded reaction borne out of being threatened with not appearing to be the “smartest guy in the room.”