The annals of “I’m not anti-vaccine,” part 13: Nobody wants to admit to being “antivaccine”

Sometimes, in order to understand advocates of pseudoscience, such as antivaccinationists, it’s a useful exercise to look at their most extreme elements. Admittedly, in focusing on such loons, one does take the risk of generalizing the nuts to everyone a bit much, but on the other hand I’ve often found that the extremists are basically like the less loony versions on steroids. The advantage, to me, is that they are unconcerned (for the most part) with hiding the craziness at the root of their beliefs. While, for instance, SafeMinds of the merry band of antivaccinationists at Age of Autism (well, most of them, anyway) can strategically hide or at least downplay the conspiracy theories at the core of their beliefs (and make no mistake, virtually all antivaccinationists—witness Bill Maher last Friday—have conspiracy theories at the core of their beliefs), the extreme ones can’t.

So it is that our favorite all-purpose medical crank (The One Crank To Rule Them All, if Alex Jones didn’t exist), Mike Adams, let loose about media coverage of the measles outbreak and vaccination. First up, he started out with an article on Saturday entitled National media wages psychological terror campaign against Americans to set stage for government destruction of medical choice. It’s very much like Bill Maher’s complaint about the media coverage of the measles outbreak and antivaccinations as “shut the fuck up” and his guest Marianne Williamson’s similar complaint that anyone who “questions” is being called antivaccine, only ramped up to 11 and beyond:

Following the staged terror attacks of 9/11, the national media whipped up the public’s anger and hatred against “terrorists” with a relentless psychological campaign of “news terror” against American citizens. This anger and hatred, of course, was necessary to garner public support for passage of the Patriot Act, arguably the most freedom-crushing piece of legislation ever signed into law in America.

This is, of course, almost exactly the same analogy used by Bill Maher who compared the “hysteria” over measles to the government and media’s behavior in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, with suppression of dissent. It’s a tactic used by antivaccinationists and cranks of all stripes that I like to call the “‘no debate’ debate.” Here’s a hint for Maher: If you don’t want to be perceived as a loon, don’t make the same analogies that loons like Mike Adams make, which he makes explicit here:

Fast forward to 2015. A relatively small measles outbreak is now being whipped up with another media scare campaign; this time blaming “anti-vaxxers” and equating them with terrorists. Just as with 9/11, the media completely ignore actual facts and are wholly opposed to any real investigation of things like mercury in flu shots, faked vaccine science and the CDC whistleblower’s admission of the vaccine-autism cover-up.

All real facts are thrown out the window, replaced by a media jihad against America which goes to great lengths to outright lie as often as possible. For example, knowingly misrepresents the medical freedom stance of Rand Paul, claiming Paul is opposed to vaccinations when, in reality, Paul supports vaccine choice.

Actually, no. Rand Paul is antivaccine. He simply cloaks his antivaccine views in the rhetoric of “health freedom,” as so many with antivaccine views who happen to lean libertarian do. The whole “freedom” thing is what I like to refer to as an antivaccine dog whistle.

Of course, Maher and the rest, including most antivaccinationists, know better than to go where Adams goes with this because, well, the crazy. But go there Adams does:

It’s crucial to understand that Adolf Hitler’s master race programs were conducted with the full support and advocacy of the world’s top scientists at the time. The Holocaust killings were all conducted under the banner of “SCIENCE!” And Berlin was arguably the world’s most advanced science Mecca, churning out an impressive list of physicists, chemists and biologists. It didn’t take long, of course, for most of these scientists to declare their support for eugenics and genocide. Importantly, Hitler’s genocide was framed as a program “for the betterment of society” — the exact same words used in America today to justify forced vaccination of children.

He even included this poster:


Geez, where’s the love for Josef Stalin? I mean, come on, people! Doesn’t he deserve a spot in that pantheon of dictators. I mean, Kim Jong-Un is a piker compared to Stalin!

It’s basically one huge slippery slope argument, in which Adams claims that the government will use the same arguments it uses for vaccine mandates and to make sure that children whose parents refuse to treat their curable cancers don’t die in order to mandate:

  • Forced euthanasia of the elderly
  • Forced sterilizations of the mentally handicapped
  • Forced mass killings of the physically handicapped
  • Prison time for parents who disagree with doctors
  • More government-run medical kidnappings of children
  • Government-run medical experiments on prisoners

Yes, it’s all a massive Godwin. It’s also a statement of the distrust of the medical profession and pharmaceutical companies that cranks the paranoia up to 11 and beyond, but that paranoia is frequently lying under the surface of criticisms of pharma. Of course, I’m not saying that there’s not a lot to criticize in pharma. Ben Goldacre, for instance, has been brutal on the tactics used in the pharmaceutical industry, and it’s not always easy to recognize when reasonable criticisms devolves into conspiracy mongering. Adams provides an easy example. However, one way to recognize where reasonable criticism starts devolving into crankery is to look for the conspiracy theories.

Indeed, right on queue, Adams couldn’t resist a followup post entitled If vaccines are mandated today, what next medical transgression will the government demand of you tomorrow? He starts out with a rant about Obamacare and then segues into forced vaccination:

Now that the government has gotten away with the Obamacare racket, it’s trying to wipe out medical choice by staging an exaggerated nationwide fear campaign to lay the groundwork for passing mandatory vaccine laws. These laws would force you and your children to be injected with experimental vaccines containing toxic substances. By “experimental,” I mean that literally: Many vaccines on the market today have never been clinical tested for safety or efficacy, a fact which is readily admitted on the vaccine insert sheets as you can see for yourself in these photos.

Ah, yes, it’s the dreaded argument by package insert. I also can’t help but note that Maher made a similar argument in that he claimed that there was no long term study comparing unvaccinated and vaccinated children, a common antivaccine trope that feeds into various claims like the ones made above by Mike Adams and other antivaccinationists that vaccines aren’t adequately tested, that they aren’t tested together, that they are somehow synergistically dangerous.

Adams even includes an audio clip from Ron Paul, Rand Paul’s father:

If you want a more explicit statement of the libertarian position in which parental rights trump all, including public health, with respect to vaccines, you will be hard-pressed to find one. Note that this was just released yesterday. In it he makes the same sorts of pharma conspiracy theories and slippery slope arguments, but in the end asserts that any infringement on the parental right to decide about vaccines is the first step in a slippery slope towards medical fascism.

The simple point is that, although antivaccine views run a continuum, whenever you see someone making what he or she perceives to be “reasonable” objections to vaccines, it’s not very far to the crazy. Often, the reasonableness is just a thin veneer covering the conspiracy theories and outright pseudoscience.

But, admittedly, Mike Adams is an extreme example—intentionally so. Let’s step it back a bit.

One thing that really struck me about the whole Maher segment on Friday. At one point, one of the guests, Amy Holmes emphatically states, “I do not worship at the church of Jenny McCarthy.” Elsewhere, Marianne Williamson emphasized that she is not antivaccine. She even repeated it again on Twitter:

And, of course, Bill Maher repeated multiple times that he is not “antivaccine,” beginning right at the beginning of the segment when he says he’s “not antivaccine” but is “anti-flu shot.” Unfortunately, quite a few people who ostensibly consider themselves skeptics are willing to take that as sufficient evidence. For instance, on this thread on Facebook, where Skeptical Inquirer posted a link to my post, the most common complaint is that I was making a mountain out of a molehill, that because Bill says he’s not-anti-vaccine he’s not antivaccine:

Using this argument, these same skeptics would have to conclude that Jenny McCarthy is not anti-vaccine. She’s said many, many times that she is “not antivaccine” but rather “pro-safe vaccine.” Do these same skeptics believe her? What about Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who last year declared himself “fiercely pro-vaccine” on The Dr. Oz Show, even though he’s been spewing antivaccine nonsense at least a decade? McCarthy, for instance, probably does really believe that she is not antivaccine. Yet the evidence from her own words and deeds is overwhelming that she is definitely antivaccine. The same is true of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. If you’re willing to accept Bill Maher’s word that he’s not antivaccine, then you shouldn’t consider Jenny McCarthy or Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to be antivaccine either.

Of course, the tropes on display last Friday closely echoed Jenny McCarthy, making Holmes’ denial that she “worships at the church of Jenny McCarthy” all the more ridiculous in the context of what her co-panelists were saying and given that all she could seem to contribute was to label criticism of Rand Paul and Chris Christie “gotcha politics.” There were many of the anti-vaccine tropes that Jenny McCarthy is known for and that come straight out of the antivaccine play book, particularly as promulgated by people associated with Jenny McCarthy’s organization Generation Rescue:

  • Anti-pharma conspiracy theories? Check.
  • The “too many, too soon” gambit? Check.
  • Claims that vaccines are loaded with toxins (excuse me, “chemicals”) and therefore harmful? Check.
  • The call for a vaccinated/unvaccinated study? Check.
  • Ignorant nonsense about how the immune system works? Check.
  • Blaming pharma and government for the parental suspicions of vaccines? Check. If you don’t believe me, consider this “classic” quote from Jenny McCarthy: “I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.” This is no different from what Marianne Williamson and Bill Maher were saying. Indeed, compare what McCarthy said to Williamson’s observation that the government has “earned our distrust” and “suppressed information” and that medicine has done the same, followed by her conclusion that the answer is “not to call us kooks” but for the government and pharmaceutical industry to “get their acts together.” Marianne Williamson and Jenny McCarthy sound so much alike on this it’s eerie.

The bottom line is that very few antivaccinationists will admit they are antivaccine. They either delude themselves (like Jenny McCarthy and Bill Maher) into thinking that they are not antivaccine, or they lie. So rare is it to find people who are antivaccine who will proudly proclaim that they are antivaccine that I tend to find such admissions oddly refreshing. As odious, ignorant, and misguided as such people are, at least they know what their beliefs about vaccines are and are willing to state them plainly, rather than deluding themselves into believing they are something they aren’t or strategically lying because they know the reaction of society to antivaccine views is (correctly) not kind and want to camouflage them for general consumption. (Antivaccine “dog whistles” are particularly effective at this.)

In any case, the arguments made on Maher’s show last week would have been right at home on antivaccine websites such as Age of Autism,, The Thinking Moms’ Revolution, or even Heck, they would have been right at home on Mike Adams’ website, because sometimes Adams posts articles by other people that don’t amp the crazy up to 11 and beyond. But, again, let’s back it up. Let’s look at Age of Autism, where press coverage is explicitly criticized as being too pro-vaccine and Anne Dachel proclaims that the distrust of vaccines is fed by distrust of the media.

Few people want to be viewed as advocating something harmful to society, such as antivaccine views, which is why so few antivaccinationists will admit they are antivaccine. Bill Maher is no exception. Jenny McCarthy is no exception. Instead, they spin themselves as “pro-safe vaccine” and construct elaborate conspiracy theories about big pharma and the government in order to justify their views. In this behavior, Bill Maher and Jenny McCarthy are far more alike than Maher could ever bring himself to admit. In believing Bill Maher when he says he’s “not antivaccine,” skeptics defending him are more like Jenny McCarthy’s followers and admirers than they would ever be able to bring themselves to admit.