Ad hominem and harassment: How antivaccine activists work

For some reason, I was really beat last night, and, given that this weekend is a holiday for a large proportion of the country (if, perhaps, not for a large proportion of my readership), I don’t feel too bad about slacking off a bit by mentioning a couple of short bits that I wanted to blog about but didn’t get around to. And what better topic to blog about on Good Friday than the exact opposite of what this Easter season is supposed to be about, namely the behavior of antivaccinationists? I realize it’s an easy target, but, hey, I’m tired. Besides, it amuses me, and, as I’ve said so many times before, this blog is about what I like and what amuses me. You’re just along for the ride, and if you like what I like, great. If not, there are plenty of other blogs out there.

This particular bit of misbehavior on the part of the antivaccine movement happened earlier this week and hit rather close to home. Remember nearly four years ago, when the Boy Wonder (Jake Crosby) launched an attack against me in which he accused me of having an undisclosed conflict of interest putting me in essence in the pay of Sanofi-Aventis. It was utterly ridiculous, as always, and based on his usual “six degrees of separation” conspiracy mongering, but it did spark antivaccinationists to start writing and calling the Board of Governors of my university demanding that I be fired or disciplined. Fortunately, the medical school and university stood by me. Indeed, he medical school dean even called me and asked if I felt threatened. When I likened the antivaccine activists harassing me to animal rights loons, she totally “got it,” which is why I recommend that comparison to any other academic who is subject to this sort of harassment. In any case, nothing came of it, other than some agita on my part, when I wasn’t sure whether Jake’s sliming would gain traction.

Even with Jake having completely nuked his bridges to the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism (AoA) and the antivaccine activist organization SafeMinds, it would appear that the antivaccine movement still likes to try to harass its critics at work. Earlier this week, I received an e-mail alert from the Autism Action Network (A-CHAMP) with the Subject: header of “Take Action: Paul Offit claims we know autism is prenatal.” (Yes, I am on the mailing lists of a number of antivaccine crank and other crank organizations, the better to have blogging material come to me, rather than having to seek it out.) Right on schedule, a couple of days later, on April 16, the antivaccine crank blog AoA published this “Take Action” notice:

Note: Here is an easy to use action alert to ask Dr. Paul Offit’s bosses to Action alertrequest that he stop making “stuff” (another word would fit well) up about autism – as a distraction for the epidemic and to protect his industry land connections. Click HERE.

Offit: “When you have autism, you are born with autism”

Ask Offit’s bosses to stop him making stuff up

In a recent interview with Medscape (www.medscape.com/viewarticle/822981) millionaire vaccine industrialist and spokesman, Paul Offit, MD, pretends that he knows that autism begins before birth, which denies that autistic regression occurs, “When you have autism, you are born with autism. There is no changing that, and to some people, that is helpful to know.” We thought this might come as a surprise to many people who watched their healthy child regress into autism, and anybody who follows autism research.

Offit promotes himself as one of America’s leading authorities on autism, even though, like most parents, he has no professional training in autism. Which may account for him saying things that have no foundation in either the medical literature, or the experience of hundreds of thousands of people. And he has several jobs at very prestigious institutions, which one would hope would value a close adherence to truth and known facts. Offit is the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology, and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, and Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases, and the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

If you are tired of credentialed elites with obvious conflicts of interest making up stuff about autism that conveniently supports their own financial interests please click on the Take Action link above to send an email to Offit’s bosses at the University of Pennsylvania and the Children’s of Hospital of Pennsylvania.

And why not give Offit’s bosses a call and ask them to ask Offit to stop making things up.

Amy Gutman, President, University of Pennsylvania, (215) 898-7221

Steven M. Altschuler, MD, CEO, Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (267) 426-6143

Please share this message with friends and family.

This is how antivaccinationists roll. They don’t have the evidence. They don’t have the science. They don’t have the clinical epidemiology. So they attack the messenger. They’ve been attacking Paul Offit this way for years. They’ve attacked me this way, but appear to have backed off now that it’s become clear to them that their attacks don’t gain any traction at my university and that I now view them as a badge of honor. Nowadays, the antivaccine cranks seem to be focusing largely on law professor Dorit Reiss and Forbes blogger Emily Willingham. At some point, new pro-science bloggers will earn the ire of the antivaccine movement–and I will congratulate them when they do–and become the new favorite target of these cranks. They also never learn. In the culture of academia, freedom of academic expression is highly valued, and if that expression happens to be in support of science it’s incredibly unlikely that any university’s administration would act to silence an academic like Dr. Offit, Prof. Reiss, or myself, as much annoyance as such e-mail and phone campaigns might cause deans and chairs. Indeed, a supporter of Stanislaw Burzynski tried the same thing on me just this year, and one of the associate deans told me that dealing with such cranks was just part of the job.

Still, years ago, I didn’t know that. I really thought that my job might be in jeopardy if cranks targeted me at work. Cranks rely on that fear to intimidate and silence newbies. I also realize that I’m lucky to be in academia. If I worked for a private hospital or clinic, for instance, it’s quite conceivable that the administration would find my extracurricular activities too troublesome to tolerate. Others who speak out against the antivaccine movement who aren’t in medicine or science and work for corporate America could also find that their bosses aren’t supportive of extracurricular activities that result in complaints and—to them—potentially adverse publicity. Government employees are particularly vulnerable because of political considerations and rules about advocating for causes; sometimes supervisors are just plain spineless. This is how the antivaccine movement silences bloggers. As much as I love to welcome new voices to the pro-science fold, I do want them to understand that they could potentially fall victim to attacks like the one most recently launched on Paul Offit, the attacks I’ve suffered over the last nine years, and the attacks that frequently target Dorit Reiss and Emily Willingham, among others. Such attacks used to frighten me; now I consider them, at most, to be an annoyance, not to mention as a badge of honor that I’m being effective.

I also take my amusement in noting that character assassination and ad hominem attacks aren’t just the weapon of choice of the antivaccine movement against its enemies, but also against itself. I need to fire up the microwave for some fresh popcorn to watch the latest internecine bloodletting going on in the antivaccine movement, courtesy of—of course!—Jake Crosby, who’s busily re-nuking all the bridges to his former friends and allies that he started nuking about a year ago. This time around, he’s busily continuing his attacks on former ally and mentor Mark Blaxill in a post entitled Mark Blaxill Didn’t Disclose Pharma Conflict at 2001 IOM Meeting:

Other than identify himself as a parent, Blaxill revealed no conflict of interest whatsoever. He only stated that his research was not supported by any funding source as IOM requested that he disclose. What he did not reveal was that he was still in the employ of Boston Consulting Group, which still had vaccine manufacturers as clients. He would admit this in email to SafeMinds’ board of directors the following year and to omnibus attorney Mike Williams the year after that. Blaxill even consulted for Merck.

Jake’s a crank whom I detest, all the more so after having actually met him in person about a year ago, but it is rather amusing to see some of the people who cheered him on as he tried to accuse me of undisclosed COIs getting a taste of their own medicine from the Frankenstein monster they created. Sure, his “logic,” such as it is, is completely based on conspiracy fantasies and support of pseudoscience, but that’s always the case, a world in which vaccines cause autism and all-pervasive, all-powerful pharmaceutical companies will do anything to silence it, even buying off people like Mark “Not a Doctor, Not a Scientist” Blaxill apparently not to push too hard against vaccines. Of course, if that really were the case, one wonders why those evil pharma overlords wouldn’t just co-opt Blaxill completely and have him “convert” to being pro-science, having seen the light? After all, if what Jake writes is true Blaxill is too stupid to be an effective double agent.

There, as tired as I am, I feel better.