“I don’t make assumptions” about vaccines and people’s motives

Every so often, I like to try to get into the mind of an antivaccine crank, a quack, or crank of another variety, because understanding what makes cranks tick (at least, as much as I can given that I’m not one) can be potentially very useful in my work trying to counter them. On the one hand, it’s not easy, because understanding conspiracy theorists, really bad science, and a sense of persecution shared by nearly all cranks doesn’t come natural to me, but it’s a useful exercise, and I encourage all of you to do it from time to time. While it might not be possible (or even desirable) to “walk a mile in their shoes,” it is revealing to try to understand why they behave the way they do.

What provoked this bit of thought (if you can call it that was a recent, rather hilarious Twitter exchange involving everyone’s favorite conspiracy theorist crank (on this blog at least) but perhaps least favorite on a personality level crank, Jake “Boy Wonder” Crosby. In response to being called (along with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.) “mercury obsessed” and, of course, antivaccine, Jake Tweeted:

Yes, that’s right. Jake is actually claiming that he “doesn’t make assumptions about people’s motives.” In fact, that’s all Jake does. His entire online “career” as a blogger and antivaccine activist has been largely based on making assumptions about other people’s motives.

Until recently, Jake was perhaps the most prominent rising star in the “vaccines cause autism” movement. He is young, just out of high school when he started blogging, reasonably attractive, and actually “on the spectrum,” which allowed the antivaccine movement to pretend as though it actually cared about issues of interest to autistic people. In other words, he was a perfect poster boy for the antivaccine movement. Even better (from the antivaccine movement’s standpoint), somehow Jake managed to get into the epidemiology program at George Washington University, which means that, should he graduate, the world will consider him an epidemiologist, although it’s doubtful that most epidemiologists will consider him one, given his propensity for the bad science, bad epidemiology, and in general bad reasoning of the antivaccine movement. So over the last four years or so, Jake has been churning out antivaccine rants for that crankiest of antivaccine crank blogs, Age of Autism, and basking in the increasing adoration of the vaccine-autism tinfoil hat brigade, whose praise of his “efforts” frequently bordered on the nauseating.

In fact, Jake developed an MO whose core is to question people’s motives. Basically, until recently, Jake was a “one trick pony” whose one trick was to impugn scientists’ and journalists’ motives by claiming undisclosed conflicts of interest based on tenuous “six degree of separation” links to big pharma or vaccine manufacturers. Indeed, when I first became aware of Jake’s propensities, he was busily trying to slime the founder of Scienceblogs and Seed Media, Adam Bly, as somehow being in the thrall of big pharma because as a teenager—yes, as a teenager—Bly had been the youngest guest researcher at the National Research Council, a Canadian government body that overseas scientific progress, studying “cell adhesion and cancer. He also suggested that Seed Media, which had in 2004 published a credulously awful portrait of Mark and David Geier as “brave maverick researchers” who did their research in the basement of Mark Geier’s house (one wonders how he got the permits or whether city knew about his doing biomedical “research” in a residential neighborhood) abandoned sympathy to the antivaccine viewpoint because of pharmaceutical company advertisement funding.

And that’s how Jake got started. If you peruse his oeuvre on AoA now, starting at the beginning, you will find numerous instances of Jake doing exactly what he denies doing, making assumptions about people and conspiracy mongering. Examples are legion, including his painting Brian Deer as a “narcissist” who, “starved for attention…knew how to get it – by targeting Dr. Andrew Wakefield” (which is nothing short of pure ad hominem and making assumptions about Brian Deer just because he had a lot of pictures of himself on his website) and his attack on Paul Offit as being “Nick Naylor from ‘Thank You For Smoking’ with an MD.” If you remember that movie, Nick Taylor was an unscrupulous lobbyist whose major client was the tobacco industry, and he would lie for the tobacco industry for money. If likening Dr. Offit to a hired flack who will say anything for money isn’t “making assumptions” about Dr. Offit’s motives, I don’t know what is. Ditto the assumption that Brian Deer posts pictures of himself on his website because he’s a narcissist and that Adam Bly somehow stomped on all blogging sympathetic to the antivaccine viewpoint in order to score some of that sweet, sweet pharma lucre for advertising. The list of vaccine defenders who have been subjected to similar attempts to impugn their motives as deriving from being in the thrall of big pharma (again, due to that sweet, sweet pharma lucre) is long and includes prominent bioethicist Art Caplan, Seth Mnookin, Scott Pelley (who, according to Jake, is responsible for the CBS antivaccine reporter Sharyl Attkisson being “silenced,” all because he sits “on the board of directors of the International Rescue Committee with Susan Susman, director of external relations for Pfizer, “which sponsored Pelley’s 60 Minutes report on H1N1 vaccine production”), and even a judge, Amy Clark Meacham, all because she is married to a lobbyist who has done work for the Texas Academy of Family Physicians (because, apparently, you know, being married to someone who works for physicians who are pro-vaccine is a hopeless conflict of interest that can’t be overcome). Jake even recently touted a talk he was to give at Autism One in which he claims he is “trying to convince people of scientific truth” while at the same time explaining how to look for conflicts of interest in obituaries (nice touch!), wedding announcements, Twitter accounts, Facebook profiles, news articles, and the like.

A while back, I predicted a bright future for Jake as an antivaccine “brave maverick scientist” (as a real epidemiologist, not so much) on par with Andrew Wakefield or even worse, churning out bad study after bad study linking mercury in vaccines or vaccines themselves with autism, all to the adulation of the vaccine-obsessed conspiracy mongers that AoA claims as its base. Unfortunately for him, his tendency to ascribe evil motives extends even to his allies, leading to a rift in which Jake attacked his erstwhile allies for not being antivaccine enough and allegedly engineering a switcheroo that eliminated his favored “scientist” (Brian Hooker) from testifying in front of a Congressional panel. He even went so far as to insinuate that his former mentor Mark Blaxill was fooling around on the side.

Believe it or not, I didn’t write this just to have fun discussing Jake’s utter lack of self-awareness and propensity to engage in conspiracy mongering and attacking his enemies as hopelessly compromised and in the thrall of big pharma (although there is no doubt that it is fun to do so), but rather to provide an example to demonstrate what I think to be a larger point. Even though to us (and anyone with two neurons to rub together), Jake is a conspiracy theorist whose main technique is to impugn the motives of his enemies (which inherently involves making assumptions about their motives, by the way) is antivaccine to the core. Just perusing his AoA archive will produce numerous examples to illustrate both points. Yet he really, really doesn’t believe that he is antivaccine, and he really, really believes that he does not make assumptions about people’s motives, although I’ve just shown multiple examples showing that he does just that. I could produce many more if necessary. In this, he reminds me of Eric Merola, the film producer responsible for the antivaccine propaganda “documentary” Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is A Serious Business, Part 2, who appears to honestly believe that he is not a conspiracy theorist, that he doesn’t engage in ad hominem attacks, and that he is an “objective” journalist. Other names that come to mind are Stanislaw Burzynski (of course), Andrew Wakefield, Sayer Ji, Dana Ullman, and many, many others. All share characteristics to a greater or lesser extent, specifically a denial that they are cranks and a complete lack of self-awareness.

True believers don’t think they are cranks. They believe, as Jake does, that they don’t attack science, don’t attack people, and don’t make assumptions, even though in fact that’s all they do. That’s why I rarely try to change the minds of such people. It’s a fool’s errand. The odds of succeeding at it are almost as slim as the odds that there is still a molecule of an original homeopathic compound in a 30C dilution. The strategy instead has to be to expose the fallacious arguments, demonstrate the crankery for crankery, and counter the ad hominem attacks. The goal, of course, is to show the fence sitters or those with little knowledge of the issues involved. It has to be.