The annals of “I’m not antivaccine,” part 19: Del Bigtree and Polly Tommey edition

It’s been a while since I paid attention to the movie, but the publicity among the antivaccine movement for Andrew Wakefield’s and Del Bigtree’s movie VAXXED: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe continues apace. Sadly, I missed my opportunity to see Bigtree himself doing a Q&A for the movie when it rolled through Detroit a a week and a half ago, mainly (1) the evening Del Bigtree and Polly Tommey rolled through my neck of the woods happened to coincide with a day that I had to drive to Saginaw for a 7:30 AM talk (hint: it’s nearly a two hour drive from where I live) and then had to give a talk at our 5 PM cancer committee meeting and (2) I didn’t want to give Wakefield and Bigtree any of my hard-earned cash for their antivaccine propaganda film. In retrospect, perhaps I should have made a greater effort to attend, but I was just too tired at the end of the day to be willing to drive the 12 miles or so to the theater and potentially get into a sparring match with some antivaccine activists. Maybe next time. Or not.

My admission of human weakness aside, even as I maintain a pseudonym that is the name of a supercomputer from an old British science fiction television show, if there’s one thing the producers of VAXXED keep trying to convince reasonable people (you know, the people who aren’t antivaccine loons), it’s that they aren’t antivaccine themselves. Oh, no. Borrowing a page from the Jenny McCarthy playbook, Bigtree and company are frantically trying to paint themselves as vaccine safety advocates instead of the antivaccine nutters (to borrow a British word, given the involvement of Tommey and Wakefield) that they really are. The problem is, they keep doing Periscope videos that reveal that claim to be a delusion or lie. Certainly it’s not the truth. For example, the other day, they recorded a Periscope video in Atlanta. (Don’t worry, I downloaded it for when it disappears. Oddly enough, Periscope seems to be allowing videos to remain more than 24 hours right now. I don’t know how much longer, but it appears to be at least four days.)

In any case, Tommey and Bigtree are clearly sitting outside of a hotel lounge. They’re in rather poor light, with the bar televisions visible behind them, and they’re talking—what else?—vaccines. They’re also being very, very antivaccine.

For example, early on in the video Tommey describes a radio interview she did:

This one guy called in, and he says, “I have a four year old daughter who’s unvaccinated. Everything’s great. But now I have to vaccinate her.” And I couldn’t get him to say, “No you don’t have to vaccinate her.”

Here’s the thing. Parents are so worried—well, they should be worried; they’re in California. There’s no school, no job, no house, no anything worth putting a vaccine in your child, and it doesn’t seem to be sinking in, and I’m not judging, because I used to be that person. I mean, he saw VAXXED; yet he still says , “I live in California. I’m going to have to vaccinate my child.”

But, no, Tommey’s not antivaccine. Oh, no. She just thinks that nothing is worth vaccinating your child for.

Bigtree chimes in, and he’s no better. First of all, he regurgitates the misinformation that the “CDC whistleblower,” William W. Thompson had confirmed that the MMR vaccine causes autism and that the CDC was covering it up. Clearly, Bigtree is impervious to facts, because that is not what happened. The most you can say about what Thompson said was that he disagreed with not fully reporting a result that was almost certainly spurious. He never said the CDC committed fraud. He never said that vaccines cause autism. He just said that he thinks the spurious result should be followed up on. Showing his ignorance, Bigtree throws a reference to thimerosal, the mercury-containing preservative that was in some childhood vaccines until 2002 but never in the MMR. It’s still in some flu vaccines (for which thimerosal-free versions are available) but no other childhood vaccines.

This inspired Polley to double down by saying:

Say your child’s four years old, with no vaccines, and she’s doing really well and then saying, oh, well California law says you have to vaccinate him. You don’t have to do jack shit. Don’t take your child to school. I know it’s awful. They’ve got their friends, you’ve got your friends there. But it’s just not worth it.

But Polley’s not antivaccine. Oh, no. How dare you call her antivaccine?

Not to be outdone, Bigtree chimes in:

I mean, you kind of have to think about it like this. Well, we’re going to have to the right hand off of every child before they can go to school; so I guess I have to do it. It’s time for school. I mean, at a certain point, what is the safety of the child? Is their education—I mean, it’s really fascinating when you think about it. School is all about the development of their brain, the development of their mind. That’s what school is for. And you look at one of the major side effects of these vaccines is destruction of the brain, destruction of the mind. So yes, you’ve got your child in school, but they’re not thriving there because you’ve injured their brain with a vaccine.

But Bigtree’s not antivaccine. Not at all. Perish the thought! He just likens vaccination to cutting off a child’s right hand and believes that vaccines destroy children’s brains.

Polley and Bigtree are very unhappy with Senator Richard Pan. Of course, antivaccinationists hate Senator Pan with a passion, because he was one of the two California senators who spearheaded the passage of SB 277, the California law that eliminates nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. Indeed, the level of demonization Sen. Pan has endured is astonishing, so much so that what I’m putting up with now from a certain well-known Internet crank seems pretty tame in comparison. In any case, Bigtree bemoans how people on Senator Pan’s Facebook page allegedly treat parents of children with autism. No, those of us who are pro-vaccine don’t criticize parents of children with autism unnecessarily. Certainly I don’t. In particular, I try not to be too hard on antivaccine parents of children with autism who have been misled by antivaccine misinformation. I have nothing but empathy for such parents’ difficulties and have said many times I don’t know if I’d have what it takes to do what many of them do.

However, we do criticize the parents of children with autism who actively promote dangerous antivaccine pseudoscience. Let’s face it. The leaders of the antivaccine movement (like Polly Tommey) often have special needs children. Even as we have empathy for the good they do raising their children, on the other hand having a child with autism is not a free pass to spew antivaccine misinformation without criticism. They do not get to hold up their children with autism—and, make no mistake, that is what some of them do—as shields against criticism when they go around promoting antivaccine misinformation. I’m sorry. They just don’t.

Hilariously, Bigtree says that the antivaccine movement (I know, I know, he doesn’t call it that) has to “take the high road.” He claims he wants his critics to meet him on the “level of science and truth.” I couldn’t help but think that, sure, that would be nice, but what planet is he living on? The only time anything in VAXXED resembles “science and truth” is by coincidence, and even then Bigtree and Wakefield did their best to twist everything to promote antivaccine pseudocience. After all, just take a look at what our friend from Austin (not Andrew Wakefield) has been saying about me.

Bigtree’s call to “take the high road” is even funnier and more hypocritical based on what happened the other day:

On Monday, Vaxxed producer Del Bigtree arrived at Pan’s office without an appointment to talk. After Pan exited without granting an audience, Bigtree pursued him down a hallway.

“He darted out,” Bigtree said in a followup interview during which he linked “defective” vaccines to rising autism rates. “You’d think people wouldn’t be wanting to put children in harm’s way, and that’s what we believe Sen. Pan has done.”

Posts recounting the incident, including a video, have circulated among vaccine skeptics who have gleefully promoted the hashtag #PanRan (they’ve also leveled more threats; one wrote on Facebook she hopes Pan gets hit by a bus).

Here’s the video Bigtree made:

PAN RUN_Vimeo from Francesca Alesse on Vimeo.

Basically, Bigtree knows that this sort of ambush puts the subject in a very difficult situation. If the subject stays to talk, he’ll be harangued by cranks on camera until he’s forced to turn his back and get to work again. (And, make no mistake, Bigtree and Wakefield are cranks.) If the subject walks briskly away, he’s accused of running away, and Bigtree gets to come up with a cutesy hashtag like #PanRan. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a role for the “ambush” in journalism, but Bigtree and Wakefield are not journalists. It is very clear from how they approached their “ambush” and what they did afterward that they had no desire to illuminate a topic, have an honest dialogue, or get answers to report. They weren’t doing anything resembling legitimate journalism. They were all about propaganda, given that VAXXED is a propaganda film.

I do have to admit that Pan’s communications director Shannan (Velayas) Martinez did about as well as she could against this sort of stalking:

Of course, one can’t resist pointing out a bit of irony here, as 12 years ago, it was Wakefield running from questions:

Again, whatever you think of the “ambush” interview (and, again, sometimes they are very effective tools in the armamentarium of a real journalist like Deer, but they can also be misused), Wakefield, as always, is a hypocrite. When he turns his back on a journalist and walks briskly away to avoid an interview, he views it as completely justified. When Pan turns his back to decline an interview, he’s a coward. Wakefield never changes.

As much as Bigtree, Tommey, and Wakefield try to deny that they are antivaccine, they can’t help but let their antivaccine freak flag fly by likening vaccines to cutting off children’s right hands and insisting that nothing is worth vaccinating your child. If that’s not antivaccine, I don’t know what is.