The antivaccine movement and its quest for legitimacy thwarted

If there’s one thing that the antivaccine fringe wants above all else, it’s legitimacy. They crave it almost above all else. They want to be taken seriously from a scientific standpoint. Unfortunately, what they fail to realize is that to be taken seriously from a scientific standpoint you really need to demonstrate that you actually understand science. At the very least you can’t be spouting pseudoscience, but that’s what antivaccinationists do constantly. Virtually every argument they make trying to demonstrate that vaccines are the root of all evil (or at least cause autism, autoimmune diseases, and various neurodevelopmental problems) is chock full of bad science, pseudoscience, and anti-science.

With this as a background, I noted with some amusement a couple of posts that appeared on antivaccine crank blogs. The first comes to us courtesy of our old friend, one of the earliest promoters of the myth that mercury in vaccines in the form of the preservative thimerosal causes autism. I’m referring, of course, to Dan Olmsted, who was blowing his own horn (or at least that of the antivaccine crank blog of which he is the editor) over what he considered to be a great honor:

Age of Autism is honored to announce we have been chosen as part of Columbia Journalism School’s inaugural Single Subject News Network. An initiative of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, the network “connects news websites that focus on one subject on an in-depth level, filling the gaps in mainstream media and innovating models for journalism.”

On the weekend of November 9, the Tow Center “will host a series of panels amongst students, industry, and an elite class of 20 single subject news publishers selected by the program.” I’ll be on a panel discussing how to create community around a niche topic.

When I learned of this, I was rather surprised. There is a different between a Single Subject News organization and a single subject crank blog. Age of Autism (AoA) is without a doubt the latter. It is not a legitimate news organization. It does no investigations of its own. Rather, it produces a continuous spew of antivaccine propaganda chock full of pseudoscience, paranoid conspiracy mongering, and misinformation. A far better analogy to AoA would be a single-subject Prison Planet, except that in many ways AoA is less restrained and more full of crazy than even Alex Jones. Indeed, I wonder if there’s an organization for single-subject conspiracy sites.

In any case, after seeing that announcement, I wondered if the Columbia Journalism School had lost its collective mind. After all, AoA isn’t subtle. You don’t have to read very much of AoA to figure out its true nature. True, every so often AoA tries to appear to be a real autism advocacy blog and will publish posts about, for example, the restraint of autistic children or autistic children wandering off and being injured or the like. However, it’s never very long at all before the topic flips back to the raison d’être of AoA: Opposition to vaccines and the promotion of the scientifically discredited idea that vaccines cause autism. It’s also rarely very long before the paranoid conspiracy mongering rears its ugly head. Then, if that fails, there’s always the AoA “media editor” Anne Dachel sending her hordes of flying monkeys off to dive bomb with their poo mainstream news sites and blogs that have the temerity to publish articles supporting the scientific consensus that vaccines don’t cause autism.

All of this makes it particularly delicious to see the addendum that Olmsted added to his post the next day:

Well, that was quick. Shortly after this article was posted, Columbia Journalism School withdrew their invitation, saying that after further review, “Age of Autism does take a clear position on the link between vaccines and the incidence of Autism, also engaging in advocacy on that position. Therefore we must disqualify the site from our study.” The same person said, when inviting us in August: “I’m also a huge fan of The Age of Autism, how you’ve built and sustained an enriching and focused platform. It’s a huge pleasure to invite you to join a community at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. … What you’re doing is part of a wave in the journalism world that the Tow Center wants to bring together and highlight as a trend.” We warned them to expect to hear from critics but were told, “Thank you Dan for the head’s up but we are happy to have you!” Que sera, sera.

At least the Columbia Journalist School realized its mistake and corrected it. This has the added bonus of driving the AoA commenters into new heights of ranting and paranoia. For example, one accused the school of uninviting AoA because Columbia University Press is the publishing company that published Paul Offit’s book, as if that had anything to do with it. It’s also rather amusing given how much the antivaccine brain trust at AoA has attacked the Columbia Journalism School for hewing (mostly) to the scientific consensus regarding vaccines and autism.

This little fit of pique by Olmsted, however, was just a little wafer to cleanse the palate, a tiny little thin one. Next up over the weekend was everyone’s favorite “six degrees of separation” conspiracy theorist, our old “friend” Jake Crosby. Hilariously, he is now accusing Mark Blaxill of “interfering” in the Autism Omnibus. As you may recall, the Autism Omnibus proceeding was a large action brought to the Vaccine Court by the antivaccine contingent that fervently believes that vaccines cause autism. Because there were around 5,000 complainants, the Vaccine Court basically told the lawyers to present their very best cases for vaccine causation of autism. So that’s what happened. A handful of complainants had their cases heard by the Special Masters of the Vaccine Court, the idea being that, if these very “best” cases could convince the court then the rest could be heard. At the time, it was a rather terrifying prospect, because if the court found for any of these complainants, it might have opened the door to thousands of such claims and potentially bankrupted the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Thankfully, despite the best efforts of the complainants to introduce pseudoscience, ultimately the court found against the test cases.

Some of the pseudoscience used to support the complainants claims that vaccines caused autism and that they should be compensated on that basis came from some old familiar faces. I’m referring to that father-son tag team of execrable science done in the basement of the father’s Silver Spring home, Mark and David Geier. We’ve met them before many times, but they are most infamous for chemically castrating autistic children using Lupron because they proposed that testosterone interferes with chelation of mercury in the brain. I’ve known that the Geiers were bad news when it comes to medicine and science for a long time. It’s because of his utterly pseudoscientific quackery that Mark Geier ultimately lost his license to practice medicine in every state in which he had had a license.

Apparently, if Jake Crosby is to be believed, SafeMinds and the antivaccine movement knew it too, way back in 2003. I note that that’s before I started blogging and before I took a serious interest in the antivaccine movement. Crosby somehow got a hold of old e-mails between Mark Blaxill and Mike Williams, who was the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Autism Omnibus Proceedings of the Vaccine Court, and, if what Jake says is true (and, believe me, I take anything I see written by Jake with a huge grain of salt), Blaxill showed better scientific judgment than I thought him capable of:

As to the Geiers, I may be a bit of a minority voice here, but I worry very much that they can do our cause more harm than good. They are not very good scientists, write bad papers (both writing badly and reporting in sloppy fashion) and attract too much attention to themselves as individuals. In this last regard, they don’t show nearly as well as Andy Wakefield but they’re trying to play the same role. Frankly, if I were on the other side and were asked to critique their work, I could rip it to shreds. I’m surprised they haven’t been hit harder. So I think you are wise to diversify.

In a later e-mail from February 24, 2004, Blaxill is quoted:

In the interest of full disclosure, I thought you might be interested to see my critique of the Geiers’ latest work on VSD. I have not been a big fan of the Geiers. I worry they do not represent our side well. They often do sloppy work.

OK, I said “better” scientific judgment than I thought him capable of, not good scientific judgment. After all, Blaxill was obviously very impressed by Andrew Wakefield and presumably still is. Anyone who thinks Wakefield is a good scientist is a very poor judge of quality in science. He was also speaking out of both sides of his mouth, so to speak. For example, not too long ago, Blaxill was arguing that mercury in vaccines is strongly linked to vaccines while trying to explain away a study that failed to find a correlation. He also has argued frequently for the claim that thimerosal is associated with autism.

One can’t help but note that the two e-mails above are dated before the emergence of the quackery that ultimately cost Mark Geier his medical license, namely the “Lupron protocol,” or, as I like to call it, Why not just castrate them? Yet, even before the worst of the quackery, there was Blaxill, badmouthing them. True, they richly deserved it even then given the absolutely atrocious quality of their “science,” but this was at a time nearly ten years ago when Blaxill and the Geiers were on the same team. They were arguing the same “hypothesis,” namely that the mercury-containing preservative in vaccines, thimerosal, was the One True Cause of the Autism “Epidemic.” As Matt Carey points out, on his own blog, AoA, Blaxill was promoting the Geiers’ quackery as Mercury, Testosterone, and Autism — A Really Big Idea!

Indeed, it’s hard not to conclude that Blaxill is a total hypocrite. He thought that the Geiers’ work was crap, but he never said anything in public because it might undermine the push to try to link vaccines with autism. Then, even though it’s likely he realized just how horrible the Geiers’ “Lupron protocol” was, he said nothing and let the Geiers continue to promote the protocol. Such are the ethics of the antivaccine movement.