Leaving the cult of antivaccinationism and alt-med

The other day, I got to thinking about cults. The reason is that it’s been clear to me for some time that the antivaccine movement is a quack cult. In fact, a lot of quack groups are very cultish, the example that reminded me of this having been an excellent report published by a young mother named Megan Sandlin, who used to be antivaccine but is no longer. Her post, Leaving the Antivaccine Movement, reminded me very much of the genre of “deconversion” stories, in which atheists who were once fundamentalist Christians describe the process of their losing their religion or cult members describe how they ended up leaving their cult.

Sandlin begins her story by telling first how she became an antivaccinationist when her oldest daughter was about four months old. It was that time that she described discovering the world of “crunchy” parenting, which led her to a world of cloth diapers, “intactivism,” and home birth. It didn’t take her long to notice that a lot of her newfound friends who raised children that way were hostile to vaccines, which led her to a Google University education that provided her with all the antivaccine “knowledge” and “science” that would mesh with her preconceived notions about “natural” parenting, “toxins,” and the like, and fuel an antivaccine world view. And that’s exactly what it did. However, even at her most antivaccine, Sandlin had more self-knowledge than the typical antivaccinationist (like the one I described the other day), as Sandlin’s musings reveal, or at least, in retrospect she understands where she went wrong:

However, my research was very skewed. I was going into it with preconceived ideas – my anti-vaccine friends had put ideas into my head, such as not trusting government websites. I was forced to rely on whatever I could find while Googling, which were often websites like Mercola or whale.to. I even started “liking” anti-vaccine pages on Facebook – pages that I now understand masquerade as “information” centers. I got added to Facebook groups like “Great Mothers Questioning Vaccines.”

Even though all of my supposed research was coming from non-scientific sources, I trusted it.

Hilariously, what ultimately led Sandlin to start questioning her nice, cozy world view and her nice, supportive friends was the phenomenon of crank magnetism, in which a person with irrational beliefs in one area tends to have irrational beliefs in multiple areas. In this case, Sandlin started to notice things about her friends’ beliefs that disturbed her:

However, I’ve always considered myself a skeptic, and I began to notice how some of my anti-vaccine friends believed in some other things that I found, well, questionable. For example, several of my anti-vaccine friends posted about chemtrails pretty frequently. I’d never heard of chemtrails, so I did some research and quickly discovered it was just a conspiracy theory easily explained away by people who actually understood how airplane contrails work. I also noticed that skeptic pages I followed occasionally made jabs about “anti-vaxxers” and homeopaths.

It was a slow process, but I gradually began to question my own anti-vaccine views. I stopped posting about vaccines for several months and began seeking out real science that would show me the truth, either way. What I found shocked me.

She went on to describe her process of seeking out real science and real scientific studies and how, more and more, she realized that antivaccine beliefs were not based in science or reason. Ultimately, she did a complete 180° turn and decided that she should be vaccinating her children. So she took her children to the pediatrician and got them their shots, and her two daughters are now in the process of catching up on their vaccines now, which is a wonderful thing. Not surprisingly, however, the reaction of her crunchy friends was not particularly supportive:

The fallout from changing my views was pretty extreme. Within two weeks of “coming out” on Facebook about my new stance, I lost over 50 friends. People who had cheered me on and supported me through my home birth, who had told me countless times that I was an awesome mother and an inspiration, just dropped me like we’d never been friends at all. I was removed from groups and blocked by people I didn’t even know. I was accused of being brainwashed and told that my girls were going to get autism and have terrible reactions. It hurt.

I now view the anti-vaccine movement as a sort of cult, where any sort of questioning gets you kicked out, your crunchy card revoked. I was even told I couldn’t call myself a natural mother anymore, because vaccines are too unnatural. That’s fine. I just want to be the best parent I know how to be, and that means always being open to new information and admitting when I’m wrong.

Notice the characteristics of a cult that I can identify here:

  1. Authoritarian Leadership: OK, the antivaccine movement, being a diffuse, more dispersed movement doesn’t really have this, although it does have heros that it worships who cannot be spoken ill of without severe consequences, like Andrew Wakefield.
  2. Exclusivism: Antivaccinationists have this in spades. The Thinking Moms’ Revolution is a perfect example, in which only the “Thinkers” who have accepted the antivaccine views of the group are viewed as worthy of respect. Everyone else is the enemy.
  3. Isolationism: The isolationism of the antivaccine movement isn’t so much physical but takes more the form of online isolationism, where the antivaccinationists form online communities that avidly try to keep outsiders away.
  4. Opposition to Independent Thinking: We see this in the case of mothers or other antivaccinationists who start questioning the beliefs of the group, like Sandlin.
  5. Fear of Being “Disfellowshiped”: We see this in Sandlin’s case as well. Until she overcame her fear of losing all her online friends, she couldn’t truly be free.
  6. Threats of Satanic Attack: Antivaccinationists (well, most of them anyway) don’t use fear of an actual Satanic attack to keep its adherents in line. It does, however, have Satan equivalents, like Paul Offit, the FDA, the CDC, the government in general, big pharma, and, of course, us skeptics. They are all the enemy that will tempt members from the straight and narrow of the purity of the antivaccine path.

Obviously, the analogy isn’t perfect. Cults often have charismatic authoritarian leaders who demand absolute obedience. The antivaccine movement doesn’t really have that, but it does have several cults of personality around its heroes. They also aren’t as isolated as real cults in that most of them mingle just fine with the rest of the world, with possibly no other problem other than annoying some of their friends for haranguing them about vaccines. All the while it celebrates these online communities thusly:

Thank God for them. Through the message boards, Facebook pages, and websites. I have met some pretty awesome people. Some of them I have even been fortunate enough to meet up with in person a few times. But what I love most about the online community is when I’m having a frustrating/down day I can go to my phone or computer and send them a message. We can chat for hours about all things biomed. We bounce ideas off one another, or just vent. And it’s okay because we support each other, and know that deep down the other one GETS IT!

It’s very clear that there are other very cult-like groups going under the alt-med mantle. Perhaps the most prominent one of them is the people who admire Stanislaw Burzynski, which is, if anything, even more cult-like than the antivaccine movement. For example, there is more of a single authoritarian leader who is in charge and about whom no ill can be spoken. He is believed to have powers above and beyond that of average men in that he, apparently alone of all doctors, can cure certain kinds of incurable cancers. For those who believe in him, faith in him is unshakable. No matter how much evidence is presented that he can’t do what he claims to be able to do, no matter how much evidence indicating his malfeasance is presented, faith in the Great Savior never wavers. The enemies are the FDA, the NIH, the Texas Medical Board, and, seemingly above all lately, skeptics.

Examples abound of other alt-med practitioners with the same characteristics. The degree to which each of the six characteristics applies varies, sometimes markedly, which is why I’m not referring to these groups as being strictly cults, but rather as being cult-like. Think Robert O. Young, whose defenders have popped up, although unfortunately for him, his cult of personality is nowhere near as powerful as that of Stanislaw Burzynski. Think Jess Ainscough. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Irrational beliefs have a great deal of power over the human mind. Beliefs such as those at the core of alt-med appeal to our deepest desires, desires for purity, for health, for immortality, for community, for a purpose in life. In these things and others, belief in such treatments shares many characteristics with religion and cults. As imperfect as the analogy might be, it’s still a compelling one. Alt-med, antivaccine beliefs, and the like might not be an actual religion or cult per se, but they share enough with cults for the analogy to help us understand the resistance to evidence, the hatred of outsiders, and the shunning of “apostates” who abandon the religion. Evidence alone can rarely overcome such irrational beliefs, but the case of Megan Sandlin demonstrates, if a member is primed for a deconversion, putting the evidence out there can help it along. It’s part of why I do what I do.