A Dunning-Kruger manifesto about vaccines and autism

I’ve frequently written about the “arrogance of ignorance,” a phenomenon that anyone who’s paid attention to what quacks, cranks, or antivaccine activists (but I repeat myself) write and say beyond a certain period of time will have encountered. Basically, it’s the belief found in such people—and amplified in groups—that somehow they can master a subject as well or better than experts who have spent their entire professional lives studying the subject on their own, often just through the use of Google University and the echo chamber discussion forums that they frequent with their fellow cranks. Thus we have, for example, the rambling clown car of antivaccine bloggers over at the crank blog Age of Autism declaring that, contrary to the mountains of evidence otherwise, vaccines cause autism, “brain damage,” autoimmune diseases and all sorts of mean and nasty other conditions. Skeptics quite properly point out that (1) there is no convincing evidence from well-designed and well-executed studies to support these links; (2) there is a lot of evidence from well-designed and well-executed studies that there is no link between vaccines and these conditions given that such studies invariably are unable to detect differences in the prevalence of these conditions associated with vaccines (or, in the case of the mercury militia, thimerosal-containing vaccines); meaning (3) the most parsimonious explanation for these results is that there almost certainly no link. What is the response? Antivaccine cranks will invoke the pharma shill gambit and all sorts of dire conspiracies on the part of the CDC, big pharma, the FDA, and the World Health Organization (WHO) to “suppress” smoking gun evidence that vaccines cause autism.

This is a well-known phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, a phenomenon whereby people who are unknowledgeable or incompetent about a topic hold an unjustifiably elevated estimate of their own knowledge base on the topic. In the antivaccine movement, the Dunning-Kruger effect tends to take the form of parents who think that their University of Google knowledge trumps the knowledge of physicians and scientists who have dedicated large swaths of their lives to the rigorous study of conditions such as autism and the question of how vaccines work; in other words, exactly the arrogance of ignorance I just discussed. Nowhere is the Dunning-Kruger effect more concentrated than in a certain relatively young antivaccine crank blog that basically declares its arrogantly ignorant Dunning-Kruger in its very name. I’m referring, of course, to The Thinking Moms’ Revolution (a.k.a. TMR), or, as I like to call it, The (Not So-)Thinking Moms’ Revolution. Basically, depending on whether it’s day or night, it’s a coffee or wine klatch of mostly affluent, educated women who clearly don’t understand how easy it is for educated people to fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect and become good at motivated reasoning to defend a false viewpoint. And nowhere on the TMR website thus far have I seen a more concentrated example of all these traits, as in a post from earlier this week called the The Thinking Moms’ Manifesto. It’s 4,100 words of weaponized Dunning-Kruger, arrogance, and motivated reasoning.

You wouldn’t know it at the beginning because its author, known as “The Rev” (real name: Lisa Goes), jokes about how critics have sometimes dubbed TMR the “Drinking Moms’ Revolution,” based on the moms’ frequent mentions of how they like wine and their propensity to gather together periodically to indulge that like. (Another annoying characteristic of TMR is that its bloggers take on some truly annoying pseudonyms that range from the height of Dunning-Kruger arrogance, such as “The Professor,” to the cutesy, such as “Princess,” to the faux fantasy cool, such as “Dragonslayer” or “Goddess.”) I’ll give The Rev credit for a momentary bit of amusing self-awareness. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last long, as, after the introduction, she lays down “guidelines” for what “Thinking Moms” do and believe. The first one is easily dispensed with, in that she simply declares, “If you call yourself a Thinking Mom, you treat every organization that recognizes what has happened to our children and wishes to advance their cause with respect,” which then is followed by a list of some of the quackiest, crankiest sites on the Internet, such as Age of Autism, Gary Null, NaturalNews.com, Mercola.com, GreenMedInfo, VacTruth, the Canary Party, and many others. You get the idea. If you’re a “Thinking Mom,” you treat pseudoscience and quackery websites with “respect,” but in reality you go beyond that. You believe them rather than real science.

But, if you’re not a “Thinker” yet, don’t worry, The Rev’s got you covered. In the context of supporting a frequent criticism that we skeptics make about alternative medicine and the antivaccine movement, specifically that no woo is ever rejected and every woo is equally valid (even when they are mutually contradictory in their basis and claims), The Rev lets everyone know that they should just STFU (in public, at least) if they disagree with an organization or think it did them wrong:

If you feel you’ve been maligned or disrespected by a fellow activist or organization, please wait at least 72 hours before you choose to act on your feelings. If you cannot let it go, take the issue directly to the person who caused offense instead of social media. Above all, when talking to new parents, do NOT trash a particular organization because you felt wronged by them. New parents are overwhelmed and confused enough by the very nature of what has just happened to their child. Your slight, no matter how great, is of no interest to them. They want to know how to save their child’s life and give them a future, and, most likely, you are their first point of contact. Right now, we are being closely watched by everyone, including pre-Thinkers — there are no non-Thinkers, just pre-Thinkers hungry for the truth and learning discernment skills! While it may seem we are repeatedly preaching to the choir and our hard work is going unnoticed, on the contrary, we are under a microscope. Shine with dignity and admiration for your peers under this scrutiny. In addition to supporting our fellow organizations, RAVE about and proliferate the films that have been independently produced and are being shown around this country thanks to the blood, sweat and tears of their makers, concerned citizens and affected families.

Doesn’t this sound a bit like religion? Of course it does. There’s the emphasis on never speaking ill of a quack organization coupled with the idea that everyone out there is a potential convert. Apparently they don’t even view skeptics as “non-Thinkers” but rather as potentially convertible, although I’ll admit that’s not entirely clear that The Rev isn’t just referring to parents of children with autism and developmental disorders. She probably is. Whatever the case, not surprisingly, the list of movies that follows includes some incredibly quacky movies, such as The Greater Good.

This idea that nothing, no matter how quacky, should be rejected, that there is nothing (other than the evil big pharma vaccine-industrial complex, of course) that isn’t potentially helpful to autistic children, shows up in item #3 of The Rev’s manifesto, “The paths to recovery are many, and Thinkers acknowledge them all“:

Some parents cut out gluten and dairy, get a little OT, and spend a couple of years with a qualified MAPS doctor and their severely affected seizure kid is on the honor roll and captain of the football team. Some parents follow a multitude of protocols, see mainstream and alternative doctors, shell out thousands upon thousands of dollars, and potty training and pointing at the age of nine are considered monumental victories. I know kids who have fully recovered with dietary intervention, ABA and a parasite protocol. I know kids who are virtually indiscernible from their peers having used mitochondrial supports, mainstream gastrointestinal treatment and nutritional intervention. I also know kids who are rocking their high school years with nothing but Son-Rise and nutritional modification. There are quite literally hundreds of paths to recovery and improvement. I am partial to the protocols offered through AIM. Several of my friends have dropped 30+ ATEC points by using CEASE homeopathic intervention. Still others enjoy great progress with homotoxicology and neurofeedback. Since we know the one-size-fits-all immunization program is what landed many of us in this elite club, resist the temptation to narrowly define recovery. Because something worked for you does not mean it will work for them, and because it worked for them, it will not necessarily work for you. Thinking Moms know labs are crucial in accurately diagnosing a child’s specific metabolic and autoimmune anomalies. While you may have developed disdain for western preventative healthcare, you know when it comes to replacing a limb, stopping a heart attack, and piecing people back together after traumatic accidents and injuries, there is no better treatment option than allopathic medicine. Yet, you also know you must promote and protect our right to pursue homeopathy, herbalism, naturopathy, chiropractic, nutritional intervention, medical marijuana, etc. Thinkers fight not to destroy one, but to embrace all treatments so that our kids may have access to every healing option and treatment modality available to improve the quality of their lives.

Homeopathy, as I’ve described more times than I can remember, is The One Quackery To Rule Them All (possibly in concert with reiki and other forms of energy healing). It’s magic. It’s the idea that diluting a remedy makes it stronger, even unto diluting it far beyond the point where a single molecule is likely to remain. Similarly, naturopathy, which encompasses homeopathy, is what I like to refer to as a cornucopia of virtually every quackery known to humankind. Basically, The Rev’s manifesto is a defense of autism biomed quackery and for “Thinkers” never to criticize any of it because, if you are a “Thinker,” you have to believe that someone, somewhere, will benefit from almost anything, no matter how vile the quackery.

Even bleach enemas, which were once again featured at this year’s autism biomed quackfest known as Autism One.

Knowing what I know about TMR and “autism biomed,” I must admit, that I nearly spit out my coffee as I read #2, which claims, “When it comes to helping others, Thinking Moms are short on opinion, strong on scientific data, medical facts, nutritional healing options and documented legislative history.”

I’ll pause a minute. (Or two. Or three. Or ten.) If you know anything about the level of pseudoscience regularly promoted by TMR (and what I quoted above is just a taste, albeit one that comes after item #2), you’ll need it to bring your laughter under control. Seriously. But there’s more, so much more. In addition to having promoted homeopathy and energy healing, TMR has featured a woman named Laura Hirsch (pseudonym: Oracle) who has “learned Reconnective Healing and Quantum Touch, used homeopathy, essential oils, and flower essences, used EAV (electroacupuncture) and muscle testing for diagnosing” and “consulted with mediums to get answers from the spirit world” to help her son. Its book is loaded with anecdotes of autistic children treated with such quackery.

And things like this, advice from The Rev herself in her manifesto:

It’s all in the delivery, Thinkers. Suggest, don’t attack. Sometimes you just leave studies and do not say a word. Sometimes you listen and listen make one comment about causation and move on to something else. I know to us it feels disingenuous. “So Rev, if I’m at a dinner party you’re basically telling me to whisper to my hosts, ‘Hey those shiners, that headbanging, and posturing? Those are all signs that little PJ’s mitochondria is on fire. Those fever relievers you keep shoving down his throat are depleting glutathione. He needs a metabolic panel and organic acid test (OAT), stat. Pass the salt and pepper please.’” I know it feels wrong addressing something of such significance with such passivity, but trust us when we tell you people cannot hear you at the beginning stages of the discovery process if you are screaming at them.

In other words, be nice to convert “pre-Thinkers” to fully actualized, quackery-loving “Thinkers.”

Closely related to this is #4, which tells Thinkers that you can’t judge other Thinkers on the level of recovery their children have achieved (which is convenient, given that the vast majority of autism biomed is quackery), “Not all recovery is created equal, and not all Thinkers must approach it the same way“:

Thinking Moms do not measure the value of other Thinking Moms, based on the level of progress their child has made toward recovery. Please know that if I hear a single solitary self-proclaimed Thinking Mom allow the phrases, “Well, you know, she just didn’t follow through . . . ” or even worse, “You know, if it was my kid I would have done XYZ . . . ” to pass from their lips within earshot of other humans, I will sincerely lose my sh%t. You have not walked in their shoes. You do not know their story. You do not know their life. You do not sleep with them, eat with them, live with them, or deposit money in their bank account. You hear snippets of their perspective and form judgments that may or may not be accurate. Always give other Thinkers, and all parents with affected kids for that matter, the benefit of the doubt and treat them with understanding and compassion.

Even if they’re subjecting their child to bleach enemas, dubious “stem cell” injections by lumbar puncture (even if you have to hit your child’s grandparents up for $15,000), or dangerous chelation therapy, apparently, you must not criticize or, worst of all, be “judgmental.” Well, the hell with that! If someone is subjecting a vulnerable child (and, make no mistake, autistic children are among the most vulnerable of all), I’m damned well going to criticize and be “judgmental.” I understand that these parents often have good motivations and believe that what they are doing will help, but at the very least I can try to warn others away from their quackery.

The rest of the items in The Rev’s manifesto aren’t quite as amusing, as they are rather standard, dull platitudes about how, “Thinking Moms’ ditch canned positivism in favor of authentic outreach,” which apparently means providing tangible help without looking for acclaim, which would be all well and good were it not yoked to items #1 through #4 and activity such as that described in #6, “Healthy boundaries are essential for all Thinking Parents“:

I was enlisted to help a child here in Chicago, whose mother allegedly took his life after many years of seeking support and help through hospitals and government aid. His story is chronicled in the award-winning documentary Who Killed Alex Spourdalakis? Having had this incredibly valuable life experience, I can tell you this: The child is always worth saving, despite the condition or situation of the parent. However, you must always ask yourself with great sincerity, “What is it that I have to give?” At the time I became involved with Alex, my son was profoundly affected. Our first TMR book had just launched, and I was the point person for public relations. But I delved headfirst into documenting Alex’s plight, despite this responsibility and the fact that I was managing tremendously complex medical and nutritional protocols at a time when a good night’s sleep amounted to three hours. Despite all our core team of seven attempted to do to help Alex, he died.

No, no, no, no, no! Yes, Alex did die, but, despicably, The Rev couched her version of his death in passive doublespeak that makes it sound as though it just happened, as bad things sometimes do. “Oh, Alex just died.” Worse, The Rev makes it sound as though Alex died despite her best efforts, when in fact what she appeared to be trying to do was to facilitate access to “autism biomed” quackery through “Autism Is Medical.” No, he was murdered by his mother after Andrew Wakefield had swooped into his hospital to be a publicity whore over the case during the Autism One quackfest in 2013 in the hopes of making a documentary over the alleged “injustices” done to him. Later, the antivaccine reporter Sharyl Attkisson (whom we’ve encountered many times before, going back to 2007) did a biased report that conveniently left out Andrew Wakefield’s involvement in the Alex Spourdalakis case. AI put it at the time, Attkisson lied by omission. She was also widely criticized, although my criticism once again led to an antivaccine activist trying to harass me at my job.

The Rev ends up by pontificating, “If you are truly a Thinking Mom, you are defined by what you are FOR, rather than what you are AGAINST” and how burdened they are with this Sacred Knowledge They Don’t Want You To Know About:

While we get with great clarity the immense burden associated with the knowledge we now carry, our commitment is to spread the truth, not destroy the liars. It is our hope that everyone will align under the guise of the whole-body medical model that benefits all our kids and embraces individualized healthcare, authentic nutrition, and integrative healing. This is what Thinking Moms embrace and fight for.

In other words, TMR is fighting for autism biomed quackery, which is something we didn’t need 4,100 words to discover. They wrap it in motherly camaraderie and extreme Dunning-Kruger, but at their core that’s what TMR stands for.