Yes, Virginia, there is an antivaccine movement (efforts to deny it notwithstanding)

There are times when I want to fall down on my knees and give thanks for certain cranks. I mean, where would my blogging material come from, were it not for antivaccine loons, quacks, cranks, creationists, and animal rights terrorists providing me with an unending stream of blog fodder? Were they all to disappear, I’d be reduced to blogging about puppies or music or something, and, trust me, you wouldn’t want that. Of course, my readership would flee me faster than a advocates of gay marriage flee the Republican Party; so I guess it wouldn’t matter. I know which side my bread is buttered on; you come for the Insolence, both Respectful and not-so-Respectful, and hopefully you get some education about science, medicine, and critical thinking as a byproduct. Fortunately, my blogging proclivities based on what I like to write about line up rather well with what my readers seem to like read. I suppose there’s some circular logic in there somewhere.

Be that as it may, today I’m giving thanks for the antivaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism and one of its bloggers, Julie Obradovic for giving me an utterly irresistable bit of material that I rather suspect you’ll find just as amusing as I did. Of course, what made her post so irresistible to me is the very reason she’s not going to be very happy with me if she sees this post. Not that I care much, I just find it amusing. You see, Julie Obradovic really, really, really doesn’t like being called “antivaccine,” as in hates it so much that she wrote a post bout how much she hates it and considers it a horrific injustice and wants to convince you that she and the merry band of antivaccine propagandists over at AoA aren’t anti-vaccine after all. Yes, it’s the old antivaccine trope, “I’m not ‘antivaccine’; I’m a vaccine safety advocate,” and it comes in the form of a post entitled The Trouble with the ANTI “Anti-Vaccine” Movement: How They Hijack the Issue; Distort the Facts; and Totally Miss the Point. Not content to turn the antivaccine whining up to “10,” Obradovic turns it up to “11” with 11 things she finds really, really wrong with those of us who stand up for vaccine science against the likes of AoA.

It’s truly hilarious reading. Well, hilarious and sad at the same time.

Let’s dig in, shall we? Here’s Obradovic’s first complaint, which I present in full. I won’t do this for all of them (after all, you can read the post at the link above if you want), but this trope is so common that I feel it needs to be repeated in full:

1. They believe there is an anti-vaccine movement.

This may surprise a lot of people, but there actually isn’t an “anti-vaccine movement”. Although there are definitely people who believe no vaccine is a good vaccine, the controversy has never been solely about whether or not vaccines are good or bad; it’s been about whether or not they are being used responsibly and have been properly investigated for their role in chronic health conditions.

The more appropriate term to describe people raising this important question would be consumer safety advocates, seeking informed consent, more research, product liability, and policy reform.

Only a few possibilities exist to explain why those who insist on using the “anti-vaccine” label anyway continue to do so: they erroneously assume anyone who questions a product’s safety is automatically against it; they believe vaccines already are being used as responsibly as they possibly can be and have been properly investigated; or they choose to use a red herring label like “anti-vaccine” to manipulate people.

Yes, you read it right. Obradovic is actually trying to claim that there is no such thing as an “antivaccine movement.” One wonders how a person can be that clueless, unobservant, or deluded, but, then, Obradovic is antivaccine. If anyone can be that clueless, ignorant, unobservant, or deluded, it’s someone like her. The fact is, of course, that antivaccine movements exist and they’ve existed since shortly after the development of vaccines by Edward Jenner. They were particularly prevalent in the 19th century in England. In fact, there were even groups called the Anti-Vaccination League (England) and the Anti-Vaccination League of New York City. Times may change, but antivaccine beliefs and many of the objections used by antivaccine zealots do not.

In actuality, antivaccine zealots must at some level know that being anti-vaccine is akin to being anti-child health. They’ll never admit it, but at some level they know that being antivaccine is something shameful, as well it should be. So antivaccinationists do everything they can to avoid the label “antivaccine,” including torturing language. The most common form that particular torture of the English language takes is for antivaccinationists to deny they are “antivaccine” and instead to labor mightily to recast themselves as vaccine safety advocates. Famously, Jenny McCarthy proclaimed herself to be “not ‘antivaccine’ but ‘pro-safe vaccine.'” It’s a lie, of course, and it’s a lie that’s easy to refute. All that’s necessary is to ask Obradovic (or any other anti-vaccine zealot), “If you are not ‘anti-vaccine,’ then, please, tell us which vaccines you would give your children.” In other words, make them get specific: Would you give your child the MMR? The Hib vaccine? Pertussis? Don’t let her waffle; don’t let her place all sorts of conditions on statements about whether specific vaccines are safe or not, which is another way antivaccinationists try to dodge the question. The questions should follow the form of “Do you think this vaccine is safe enough to give to your child, yes or no?” Be aware that this question may require some pushing to get an answer. Rarely am I able to get a definitive answer on the first try, because most anti-vaccine advocates are cleverer than that. They realize that I’m trying to get them to admit that they are anti-vaccine. Even so, if I ask something like, “If you had it to do all over again, would you vaccinate your child?” or “If you have another child, will you vaccinate that child?” I will usually get the candid response I’m looking for. The reason I try to make the question real now is because often antivaccine activists will retort that they vaccinated their child. That’s in the past and it’s a dodge. What matters is what they say now and what they would do now, not what they did or thought in the past.

As is often the case with propagandistic twisting of reality, there is a grain of truth in Obradovic’s viewpoint. In an earlier post, she wrote that the “overwhelming majority of parents foregoing vaccines are actually not anti-vaccinationists.” No one that I’m aware of disputes that, but it’s an irrelevant observation. Most parents who don’t vaccinate have been frightened by people like the bloggers at AoA claiming that vaccines cause autism and a wide variety of other chronic diseases, slamming vaccine scientists as corrupt, and touting any study that they can twist into fear mongering about vaccines. Because in the end, to the antivaccinationist it is about the vaccines. It’s always been about the vaccines. It always will be about the vaccines. They always find a way to make their health fears be all about vaccines.

That’s what I mean by “antivaccine.”

And there is an antivaccine movement, too. In fact, Obradovic’s very own blogging boss, J.B. Handley recently bragged about his organization Generation Rescue in a post entitled Tinderbox: U.S. Vaccine Fears up 700% in 7 years:

With less than a half-dozen full time activists, annual budgets of six figures or less, and umpteen thousand courageous, undaunted, and selfless volunteer parents, our community, held together with duct tape and bailing wire, is in the early to middle stages of bringing the U.S. vaccine program to its knees.

Handley further bragged:

There is a solution to this mess. As Jenny said, the genie is not going back in the bottle. The fear of vaccines is going to rise. Our community is only getting stronger. Who will step in to broker a truce? I really don’t know, but, mark my words, the results from the next survey will show that the trust continues to erode. Keep fighting, parents, America is really listening.

At one point, Handley even congratulates his “community” by heartily urging it to “take a bow.”

So let’s see. We have a community represented by Generation Rescue, whose founder brags about “bringing the U.S. vaccine program to its knees” and how, thanks to its efforts, the fear of vaccines is rising and trust in medicine is continuing to erode. If that’s not an “antivaccine movement,” I don’t know what is. Generation Rescue, SafeMinds, the National Vaccine Information Center, the Australian Vaccination Network, the International Medical Council on Vaccination, and other similar groups are nothing if not the 21st century successors to the Anti-Vaccination League of the 19th century. Indeed, some of the commenters are even taking Obradovic to task for claiming that there is no “antivaccine movement.” For example, here’s someone named Shawn Siegel:

There are, however, those of us who think there is no responsible way to use vaccines.

And Benedetta:

As some one here said once – I am an antivaxer now *NOW*.

Ooops.

Finally, I can’t resist pointing out, that by allying herself with AoA, even going so far as to blog for it, Julie Obradovic is part of that movement, as much as she obviously doesn’t want to admit it. I realize I’ve taken a lot of verbiage to deal with that one point, but I think it’s important to hammer it home that these people are antivaccine. I refuse to let them hide behind the “vaccine safety advocate” label.

Obradovic is also very unhappy at the criticism:

2. Anyone who disagrees with them is an idiot.

If the first line of attack doesn’t work it will almost always be followed by an insult. Not only are people who disagree portrayed as dangerous lunatics who want to see the world explode in infectious disease, supposedly they are also “flat-earthers” who can’t accept the world is round. Certain journalists have gone so far as to suggest it’s no wonder their children have problems.

One is tempted to respond that anyone who disagrees with an antivaccinationist is automatically in the thrall of big pharma, a “pharma shill, even (the antivaccinationists’ favorite retort to skeptical scientists who deconstruct their pseudoscience). Oh, wait. I just did. But it’s true. To an antivaccinationist, someone like Paul Offit (or Orac, for that matter) can’t possibly think that vaccines are a good thing because we’ve examined the science and concluded that the benefits of vaccines far outweigh any conceivable risk and that vaccines have arguably saved more lives than any other medical intervention. Oh, no. It has to be because we’re in the thrall of big pharma. That’s not even counting the frequent harassment and intimidation antivaccine activists subject scientists and critics to. I refuse to cede the moral high ground here.

Particularly amusing is that Obradovic later opines that the “most common demographic of a person who questions vaccine safety or refuses them is a highly educated mother with a master’s degree.” No doubt. It’s also well known that those with a higher degree of education are more prone to the Dunning-Kruger effect (a.k.a. the arrogance of ignorance) when they wander outside of the discipline in which they got their degree. Literacy in one area of knowledge (or a broad but shallow knowledge of several areas of science) does not necessarily translate to expertise in a scientific discipline. In fact, the vast majority of the time, it does not. Also, counterintuitively, it is actually educated people who are less likely to recognize the limits of their knowledge than less highly educated people. They’re the ones with more confidence than is justified about their judgment in areas outside of their area of expertise. Or, as it is sometimes phrased, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” because a small amount of knowledge (these days, often gleaned from the University of Google) can easily mislead a person into thinking that she’s an expert. The reason for this phenomenon is that that “highly educated mother with a master’s degree” knows enough to be able to seek out evidence that bolsters her preconceived beliefs but doesn’t have the level of expertise necessary to realize why that cherry-picked evidence actually doesn’t show the scientific consensus to be wrong. She also don’t have the background knowledge (which takes a long time to obtain) to put such studies in their proper context or to assess the totality of the current scientific consensus.

Next up is a straw man:

3. They blame Dr. Wakefield for everything.

No, we don’t. We blame Andrew Wakefield, Mark and David Geier, Rashid Buttar, Harold Buttram, and scores of other cranks, quacks, and antivaccine-enabling physicians and scientists, all feeding an echo chamber of antivaccine activists led by the likes of J.B. Handley, Barbara Loe Fisher, Joe Mercola, Mayer Eisenstein, and many others. They are to blame. It’s never been all about Wakefield. True, Wakefield is a convenient target because of the overwhelming evidence for his incompetence and scientific fraud. It’s sometimes too convenient a shorthand to point to Wakefield all the time, and I might even concede that we as skeptics should probably be a bit more careful about not making Wakefield the prime mover of the antivaccine movement. In fact, I sometimes wonder if certain segments of the antivaccine movement are the ones making it “all about Wakefield” with their rabid defenses of Wakefield and attacks against anyone who criticizes him.

The next few are just too easy. For example:

4. They just don’t get it.

Why? Because, according to Obradovic, they’ve “sold out to the pharmaceutical industry” (there’s that “pharma shill gambit” again!) and:

At this very moment, doctors still can’t agree on what Autism is, how to define it, when it started, if it’s a problem, who has it, if it’s treatable, how it’s treatable, or what to do about it. In fact, the only thing they feel completely confident telling the world about Autism is who didn’t cause it: them.

One’s tempted to point out that the only thing antivaccinationists feel completely confident telling the world about Autism is what they believe did cause it: Vaccines. Because that’s the world view of antivaccinationists like Obradovic. To them, it’s always the vaccines, even when the evidence overwhelmingly shows that it is not.

This one made me laugh:

5. They repeatedly distort or exaggerate the facts.

What has been a major theme of this blog over the last seven years? That’s right. It’s how the antivaccine movement repeatedly distorts the science to serve its agenda. I’ve written more posts on that very topic than I can remember (hundreds, probably), many of them well documented and explaining how the antivaccine movement distorts or misrepresents the results of scientific studies, which, ironically, Obradovic proceeds to do, repeating a whole bunch of tropes and then flaunts her ignorance:

In spite of these blatant conflicts of interest, the studies have been touted as conclusive evidence of a lack of correlation; this even though several studies have come to contradictory conclusions. Several, for example, show Thimerosal, a mercury-based neurotoxin, is beneficial to children’s health. One shows it has an indeterminable effect. One shows it possibly prevents Autism. Others show it causes tics, speech delay, and behavior delays.

This is, of course, a highly slanted view of the evidence, which is uniformly negative. But even if it weren’t, Obradovic clearly doesn’t understand that the sorts of results she describes would be most consistent with no relationship between thimerosal and autism. And don’t even get me started on her ranting about how there hasn’t been a “vaxed versus unvaxed” study. I’ve dealt with that one before.

Not that that stops Obradovic from lecturing skeptics:

6. They pretend to be the gatekeepers of science.

And antivaccine activists pretend to know what they’re talking about when it comes to science. They don’t.

Next up:

7. They fail to acknowledge the context of the controversy.

The context, apparently, according to Obradovic, is one massive conspiracy:

In the case of the Autism controversy, the problem is simple: consumers are accusing the government, pharmaceutical industry, and medical community of collectively causing Autism, yet the government, pharmaceutical industry and medical community are the only ones who have been allowed to investigate themselves to determine if they are guilty. Astonishingly, they keep coming up innocent.

Except that there is no Autism controversy. Really, there isn’t. Among scientists, it is not controversial at all; vaccines don’t cause autism. There’s no good evidence to support the contention that they do, and the most reasonable interpretation of existing evidence is that they do not, given the number of studies that have been done. The Autism-vaccine “controversy” is in reality a manufactroversy trumped up by activists.

But, then, what do I know? I’m just a scientist, and according to Obradovic:

8. They over-simplify the problem.

Ha.

Ha. Ha.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Hahahahahahahahahhahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

I’m sorry. I just couldn’t help it. It’s just too funny. On the one side, we have scientists looking at all the complexities of autism, including genetics, possible environmental influences, pathophysiology, neuroscience, and the like. On the other side, we have people like Obradovic accusing scientists of “oversimplifying” in the same article in which she blames autism on vaccines and “heavy metal poisoning.” Remember Generation Rescue’s message from around five years ago? Their message was that “childhood neurological disorders such as autism, Asperger’s, ADHD/ADD, speech delay, sensory integration disorder, and many other developmental delays are all misdiagnoses for mercury poisoning.”

Now that’s oversimplification. Obradovic owes me a new irony meter. Two, actually. It’s also amusing that she seems to think that this is a valid criticism:

9. They have no hypothesis.

This is, of course, not true, but it’s instructive to see what Obradovic is thinking when she makes this criticism:

The hypothesis of those who believe Autism is primarily, but not exclusively, an iatrogenic disease is simple: heavy metals and toxins when coupled with microbes such as bacteria or viruses are able to penetrate the central nervous system and/or damage the immune system, thereby leading to systemic malfunctions that manifest as the symptoms of Autism and other health conditions in a susceptible person. Depending on the exposure, timing, and combination, the manifestations vary.

About which she says:

This is a reasonable and plausible hypothesis to explain the explosion in chronic disease we have documented in the industrialized nations of the world over the last 200 years. The chemical soup in which we now live is frightening. Everyone can agree on at least that.

Oh, noes! It’s teh chemicalz! I can only say: “Reasonable and plausible. You keep using those words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean.”

Let’s put it this way. Even if it were true that scientists “have no hypothesis” for the cause of autism (it’s not; actually they have many competing hypotheses), a lack of a scientific hypothesis on the part of scientists does not automatically make a crank “hypothesis” a credible alternative by default, which is what Obradovic seems to assume. In other words, it’s better to have no hypothesis or a set of competing hypotheses, none of which yet has enough evidence to rise above all the others, than it is to have a hypothesis that is wrong. (Indeed, antivaccine zealots like Obradovic who believe that vaccines cause autism are a perfect example of H.L. Mencken’s maxim applied to autism, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”) In fact, as I’ve said so many times before, as much as antivaccine zealots try to convince us that the “hypothesis” that vaccines cause autism is pinin’ for the fjords, it’s passed on! This hypothesis is no more! It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker! It’s a stiff! It’s kicked the bucket, It’s shuffled off ‘this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisibile!! THIS IS AN EX-HYPOTHESIS!!

And so it shall remain, unless there is a large amount of vary high quality, convincing evidence to resurrect it, which at this point appears highly unlikely. Basically, Obradovic is dead wrong when she accuses us of having “no hypothesis. In reality, there are multiple hypotheses. Obradovic just doesn’t like them because they’re complicated and most of them involve a strong genetic contribution to autism. For whatever reason, she rejects that reality and substitutes her own.

Not that Obradovic doesn’t have a response to the lack of concordance between her reality and science:

10. They have an excuse for everything.

Perhaps Obradovic means the way AoA, David Kirby, and his ilk had so many excuses when, contrary to the clear prediction of the hypothesis that mercury in vaccines cause autism, the incidence of autism didn’t level off and start to decline when expected after thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines. Or how Sallie Bernard had an excuse when Thompson et al didn’t validate her idea that vaccines cause autism. I could go on, but I’m getting tired; so I’ll simply move on to the last objection:

11. They fail to recognize their tactics aren’t working

In which Obradovic cries “censorship”:

I have just thoroughly and thoughtfully laid out the position for why the vaccine controversy continues. I will continue to do so as long as I live, or until at which time it is no longer necessary. I am confident other parents like me will do the same. Calling us names, censoring our stories, or dismissing our concerns will not deter us.

Until then, it is simply not true to say there is nothing to debate. It is simply inexcusable to censor or stop the conversation. It is simply juvenile to use insults to describe those who refuse. And mark my words; it’s a waste of breath.

I suppose one could make the argument that “it’s a waste of breath” to argue with Obradovic because, no matter how much evidence and how many studies go against her fixed belief that vaccines cause autism, she will never change her mind. Nor is it “stopping” the conversation to acknowledge that vaccines don’t cause autism. It’s simply pruning an unproductive branch off of the discussion of autism science and what the causes of autism are, a branch that’s sprouted up and transformed into a giant weed that’s choking off productive conversation and debate, and people like Julie Obradovic and her fellow travelers at AoA are watering and feeding it with bile, paranoia, and pseudoscience. Science investigated the possibility that vaccines cause autism, found that line of investigation to be unfruitful, and moved on. Antivaccine zealots cling to a discredited hypothesis and refuse to move on, and it is the vaccine-autism hypothesis that has sucked the air out of the room with respect to autism research. One wonders how much money and scientific effort have been flushed down the toilet of endlessly investigating, re-investigating, and re-re-investigating the question of whether vaccines cause autism and what real breakthroughs could have been accomplished if that money and effort had been used to investigate more promising hypotheses once the vaccine-autism hypothesis had been roundly falsified.

For the antivaccine movement whose existence Julie Obradovic denies, unfortunately, that’s the same as it ever was. I just hope it’s not the same as it ever will be.