An antivaccine Frankenstein’s monster turns on his creator

Almost everyone knows the story of Victor Frankenstein and his monster. It’s such a classic tale that has been around so long and told so many times in so many ways that it’s almost impossible for someone living in this country not to have encountered it growing up. Frankenstein’s monster is also a tale that strikes me as an excellent metaphor for something that I witnessed that puzzled the hell out of me the other day, because, as everyone knows, during the tale the monster ultimately turns on its master, wreaking its revenge by killing people Victor loves and, depending on the telling, Victor himself. We’re seeing the very same thing going on in the antivaccine movement right now, a veritable Frankenstein’s monster turning his creators. I’m not sure whether to be amused or appalled. Actually, I think I’m a little of both. More importantly, in turning on his creators, this particular creation is airing some seriously dirty laundry that a lot of big name antivaccinationists (well, at least as big of a name as antivaccinationists can be) would probably rather not see aired.

I’m referring to a link that multiple readers sent me to a truly bizarre rant even by the standards of its author. Who, you might ask, is that author? Why, it’s none other than Jake Crosby, and he’s ripping into his former masters with a gusto that would frighten even the real Frankenstein’s monster.

What I’m referring to is an article that Jake mysteriously posted a link on his Twitter feed with the cryptic caption New Post, but not on @AgeofAutism: @safeminds Steals The Show, Literally…, and, indeed, the link led to a post by him not on his usual home, that wretched hive of scum and quackery, that antivaccine propaganda crank blog supreme, Age of Autism. As hard as it is to believe, Jake apparently found a hive of scum and quackery even more wretched than AoA, a crank website even more supreme than the antivaccine home on the web, with a webmaster even more detached from reality than any blogger on AoA. I know, I know, it’s really hard to believe, but it’s true. Don’t believe me? What if I told you that Jake’s latest opus appears on Patrick “Tim” Bolen’s website, the Bolen Report. So full of pure pseudoscience, quackery, and nonsense, all held together with the glue of even purer bile, is Bolen’s website, that I hesitate to link to it, even with the obligatory rel=”nofollow” tag. But link to it I will, because you just have to see how Jake has, as Science Mom tells us, thrown his former “mentors” under the bus. In the process, Jake utterly betrays them by sharing excerpts of private e-mails from the mailing list of the antivaccine group SafeMinds, as well as from private e-mails sent by “luminaries” of the antivaccine movement such as Mark Blaxill, Lyn Redwood, Sallie Bernard, Kate Weisman, and Eric Uram. It is truly a wonder to behold. No wonder Liz Ditz has saved screen shots, lest Jake be tempted to throw his screed down the ol’ memory hole. (Personally, I prefer to save web archives, but that’s just me.)

Before I go on, I can’t resist a brief aside here. Having been at the receiving end of such tactics by cranks, I’m shocked that the antivaccine “brain trust” was so foolish as to trust Jake enough to let him into their private deliberations so deeply. After all, this is a young man who is a two trick pony, having evolved from being a one trick pony. His first trick is to insinuate 6,000 degrees of separation conspiracy theories based on the flimsiest evidence, as he famously did to Adam Bly a few years ago. His second trick is to show up at talks by scientists such as Paul Offit or writers such as Seth Mnookin and either (1) get himself kicked out so that he can cry “censorship” and label his opponents as enemies of free speech who are too afraid to face him or (2) try to get them to say things that he can later use to embarrass them by publishing them on AoA. As another aspect of this topic, he likes to e-mail people and then publish their responses without their permission. Usually the story Jake ends up telling is a distorted, selective version. Oddly enough, the story that Jake tells about being shut out of the Congressional hearing rings true for a change (for him) in that it is very plausible that the leadership of SafeMinds would not want him to testify because letting Jake testify would make the organization look like the nutty antivaccine organization that it is. Ironically, Jake’s post at the Bolen Report may be the most accurate smear job he’s ever done.

So (spoilers!) when Mark Blaxill tells Jake,

Your interpretation of events is so radically wrong and the key facts you use to support your interpretation are incorrect in so many key respects, it’s not worth arguing with you anymore. So I won’t. It’s low quality work, that’s all I’ll say, and you should set a higher standard for yourself.

I nonetheless have a hard time mustering up much sympathy for Blaxill, even considering how much I detest people who violate trust as egregiously as Jake did when he publicized private communications on a website. After all, Blaxill was part of the brain trust at AoA and SafeMinds that helped create Jake and “guide” his development, making him what he now is by nurturing his radical tendencies, patting him on the back, egging him on, and using him like a trained attack poodle to go after declared enemies of the revolution antivaccine movement. To see Blaxill’s wounded anger when the viper he helped to nurture turns on him is priceless. I also can’t help but chuckle heartily that Blaxill, of all people, would be the least bit bothered by incorrect interpretations of facts when he himself (working with Dan Olmsted) is responsible for some of the most hilariously incorrect, arrogantly ignorant interpretations of facts and science found in the antivaccine movement. Just check out what he and Olmsted wrote about polio and pesticides if you don’t believe me. Really, please do.

So what brought on this schism?

Remember a couple of months ago? That was when Representative Darrell Issa, who currently chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the committee that the most antivaccine Representative ever, Dan Burton, used to chair, held one last Congressional hearing on vaccines autism. Given that Burton had decided to retire at the end of the last Congress, it was basically a last antivaccine hurrah, a farewell present for Issa’s old buddy Burton, whose tenure as chair of the Oversight Committee was remarkable for several hearings in which antivaccine “scientists” and activists were allowed to let their pseudoscience and conspiracy theories fly free in Congress. That’s because Dan Burton is a true believer, utterly convinced that vaccines caused is grandson’s autism. What a nice retirement present from a friend!

In any case, as you might expect, the hearing, held on November 29, turned into a fiasco. That, of course, was not unexpected. How could it be otherwise? What was unexpected is that it wasn’t as loony as a typical Burton vaccine hearing. Also unexpected was something that Jake revealed, namely the efforts to which SafeMinds went to try to appear sane and rational for the hearing. Where Jake wanted to go charging in with testimony laden with multiple antivaccine conspiracy theories, Blaxill and the rest of the SafeMinds leadership clearly wanted to keep Jake as far away as possible from that meeting room. At one point, Jake recounts how Kate Weisman, SafeMinds’ Communications Committee Chair, suggested that he “walk the halls”:

Shortly thereafter, SafeMinds sent out its email alerting people about the Congressional Hearing; the alert made no mention of vaccines or the cover-up, and simply asked people if they thought the government was doing a good job with regard to autism. When I raised this concern with Kate Weisman, she explained that the action alert had already been sent out.

I replied:

I understand, but how can we leave vaccines out when the government has been caught covering them up? Are we really that afraid of being labeled “anti-vaccine” – an Ad Hom attack the vaccine industry throws at anyone who threatens its bottom line?

She responded:

I think Mark will talk about vaccines, but we won’t be able to go into all the details in 5 minutes. Beth, Mark and Lyn are working on the SafeMinds written testimony. …If you have any time to “walk the halls” and help with that, it is probably the best way to ensure that some tough questions get asked.

Apparently even SafeMinds realized what a loose cannon Jake is and didn’t want him testifying under any circumstances. Undoubtedly this was a smart decision. How it was implemented might not have been that smart, but if I were an antivaccine crank running an organization that had somehow scored an invitation to speak in front of Congress along with legitimate autism groups, I’d do my damnedest to keep the loons away. It’s good tactics and good politics. And that’s exactly what Weisman tried to do, as this exchange demonstrates:

I [Jake] responded by urging that Blaxill talk about vaccines, and I asked if I could have the opportunity to testify as well. I wrote:

He really ought to talk about vaccines. Not only that, he should talk about the corrupt activities government is involved in. 5 minutes isn’t that much time, but an awful lot can still be said within 5 minutes. I don’t know what you mean by “walk the halls,” but I would really appreciate it if I could have the opportunity to testify in front of Congress. How did Mark get the chance of testifying?

Weisman responded with a long email, explaining in detail how I, a person on the autism spectrum, should go to congressional offices, talk to aides and drop off materials. Along with this insulting request, she claimed:

In-person testifying isn’t something we control. They invited SafeMinds and Mark was willing to do it, since Lyn couldn’t. Marin’s office invited 4 organizations – we are lucky that we are one of the 4. That’s all the time they have allocated for the community – it’s not like IACC where whoever signs up gets to make public comment – the committee has to invite you. That is why we have to be careful not to piss them off too much.

It is strange that SafeMinds was able to successfully lobby for Mark Blaxill’s position on the panel, but not for someone with autism. This left the opportunity wide open for others with autism who do not acknowledge vaccines’ role in the autism epidemic or even the epidemic itself to lobby to testify. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) and the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership (GRASP) were not afraid to “piss them off too much” when both groups successfully lobbied Congress to include their leaders in the hearing as representatives on the autism spectrum.

Poor Jake. It’s obvious from his account that SafeMinds wanted Blaxill and not him because, as much as Blaxill thinks he’s a scientist and isn’t, he at least knows when to keep his conspiracy theories at least somewhat in check in situations like a Congressional hearing. Jake doesn’t. Much of Jake’s lengthy post involves his description of his efforts to try to persuade the SafeMinds leadership to allow Mark and David Geier and/or Dr. Brian Hooker” to testify about the “vaccine-autism link” that doesn’t exist and about the Poul Thorsen case, a bogey man that the antivaccine activists like to flog to try to “prove” that there is a coverup of massive corruption in CDC vaccine research. There isn’t, and pro-vaccine scientists like myself make no bones about saying that Thorsen should be prosecuted if there’s sufficient evidence that he committed the fraud with federal government grant money that he’s accused of committing and sent to jail for a long time if convicted. We also point out that Thorsen’s possible fraud has nothing to do with the validity of the Danish studies, despite the most strenuous efforts of Jake and other antivaccinationists to make it seem as though Thorsen’s purported fraud invalidates all the science that shows that there is no detectable link between vaccines and autism. Shockingly, Weisman herself apparently even said that she was “not aware of any direct proof of Dr. Poul Thorsen’s role in data manipulation.” Ultimately, bringing up Thorsen was vetoed, although it is rather interesting how Weisman encouraged Jake to “keep digging” earlier but, when Jake wanted to take advantage of a huge public forum to spew his conspiracy theories about Thorsen, Weisman reined him in.

Taken as a whole, Jake’s diatribe is just another example of the tension inside the antivaccine movement. On the one side, there are the “respectable” antivaccine groups, like SafeMinds, Generation Rescue, and the National Vaccine Information Center. These groups have managed to get some mainstream traction, and their leaders are sometimes featured in reports as “vaccine skeptics” by mainstream media outlets in the name of false “balance,” as Barbara Loe Fisher was recently on NPR. Then there’s SafeMinds, which somehow managed to score an invitation to be one of the autism advocacy groups (and in Safeminds’ case I use that term very loosely) invited to testify in front of Dan Burton’s swan song of a hearing. Such publicity is a chance they don’t want to blow, which instills caution even in antivaccine zealots. On the other side are the radicals, like Jake, who view such opportunities as rare chances to proclaim their wackiest conspiracy theories to large audiences. Indeed, what this latest kerfuffle reminds me of is Jenny McCarthy’s antivaccine protest in Washington nearly five years ago. Before the protest, I monitored some of the antivaccine mailing lists, and I noted a definite tension between the antivaccine activists who weren’t afraid of the label “antivaccine” and Jenny McCarthy’s minions, who were trying to stick to the party line that the protest was all about “greening our vaccines” and that the group was “not antivaccine, but ‘pro-safe vaccine.'” Then, of course, there’s the age-old conflict between age and pragmatism versus youth and radicalism that plays out in all sorts of political organizations. Jake ended up on the losing side, and he didn’t like it. He was out, along with Brian Hooker and Mark and David Geier, because they were all too fringe and because the Geiers were suing several of the attorneys in the Petitioner’s Steering Committee for millions of dollars. Blaxill was in.

There’s another very disturbing thing that Jake reveals. His initial complaint was this:

Dr. Brian Hooker – biochemical engineer, university professor and autism parent – worked tirelessly for six months to resume the Dan Burton autism hearings, and was the key person from the autism community to set up the recent Congressional Autism Hearing. And yet, at some point prior to the hearing, his work was pushed aside by an organization pretending to represent him to Congressional Staffer Mark Marin. That organization is the Coalition for SafeMinds (Sensible action for ending Mercury-induced neurological disorders), on which I served as a member of its Government Affairs Committee. When SafeMinds’ executive director Eric Uram invited me onto the committee, he stated one of two major objectives for the organization’s presence in Washington, D.C. was, “seeking to elevate the issues related to vaccines and vaccine injury.” So I joined.

For several months, I was under the impression that SafeMinds led preparation for the hearing. However, I later learned that SafeMinds’ involvement actually began when one of Dr. Hooker’s co-organizers revealed the news about the upcoming hearing to SafeMinds’ Government Affairs Committee Chair Mark Blaxill at AutismOne. From there, SafeMinds hired external consultant Beth Clay – former Burton Staffer and experienced Washington-based lobbyist (who now also happens to be International Ambassador to the Scientology Front “Citizens Commission on Human Rights”) to lobby on SafeMinds’ behalf. Neither Clay nor Uram has a familial connection to autism, to my knowledge.

According to Marin, the congressional staffer who worked closely with committee chair Darrell Issa, Clay introduced herself as a representative of Dr. Brian Hooker when in fact that was not the case. Nevertheless, Clay succeeded in replacing Dr. Hooker’s testimony with that of Mark Blaxill. Dr. Hooker had prepared five solid minutes summarizing in devastating detail the government cover-up of thimerosal-containing vaccines’ causal role in the autism epidemic (please read it here), in contrast to Mark Blaxill’s testimony.

Now here’s the interesting thing. Hooker really did claim to have met with several members of the Oversight Committee. Moreover, Beth Clay reports on her website that from 1998 to 2003 she

…served as a Professional Staff member on the Committee on Government Reform with Chairman Dan Burton and subsequently a Senior Professional Staff Member on the Subcommittee on Human Rights and Wellness. She led oversight activities regarding health research, practices, and regulation culminating in more than 2 dozen hearings. Areas of focus included cancer research and treatment, pediatrics, vaccine injury, FDA regulation, conflicts of interest, health care disparities, disease prevention, integrative medicine, and drug re-importation.

Clay was also a founding board member of the National Autism Association, which buys into antivaccine pseudoscience. All of this means that in his heyday, Burton had at least one board member of an organization pushing vaccine-autism pseudoscience working very closely with him. Did anyone know that at the time?

In the end, I almost—almost—feel sorry for Jake. He’s just gotten his first real lesson in realpolitik. Unfortunately for him, he’s chosen to react to that defeat by burning all his bridges with his creators and masters. In fact, he hasn’t just burned the bridges, he’s soaked the bridges with napalm and then stood there with a flamethrower until nothing remains but soot by betraying the confidences of several of the leaders of SafeMinds. Indeed, it’s hard to overemphasize just how badly Jake has betrayed his friends. People do not take kindly at all to having their private e-mails aired publicly, even excerpts from them. It is a breach of trust that I view as very difficult to forgive. Do it to me, and you make me your enemy. On the other hand, as I alluded to above, I can’t believe SafeMinds and AoA couldn’t see something like this coming, given Jake’s history.

The more disturbing question is what’s going to happen next. Jake had a political battle and lost. It happens to all of us who are involved in any sort of cause. Unfortunately for him, he was so immature that he basically threw a major temper tantrum and lashed out at his allies in a near-unforgivable way, shooting himself in the foot in the process by betraying them. Jake clearly views himself as a future leader of the antivaccine movement. (After all, why else would he go to graduate school to study epidemiology if he weren’t grooming himself to be the next Andrew Wakefield, using his skills to “prove” that vaccines cause autism?) He doesn’t have any of the charisma or political savvy that would suggest a future leader, and, worse for him, he appears incapable of learning. Sadly, what’s likely to happen is that he will go further and further into the fringes, although now that I think of it I don’t see it as an easy task to go further to the fringes than he has gone. He has, after all, started posting on Tim Bolen’s website, and it doesn’t get much more fringe than that, unless you count Time Cube territory.

In the end, Jake might make up with his allies, but one thing’s for sure. Even if there ever is some sort of reconciliation between Jake and his creators in the future, they won’t trust Jake again for a very long time, even in the unlikely event that they ever trust him again.