The Woo Boat, part 3: Andrew Wakefield goes full Mike Adams antivax

Hard as it is to believe, it’s been seven months since the Conspira-Sea Cruise, or, as I called it when I discovered it before it set sail, The Woo Boat. After it set sail and I started reading reports about it from two reporters who took the cruise in order to report on it, Anna Merlan, Bronwen Dickey, and Colin McRoberts. Reports by Merlan and McRoberts were published in due course (and, of course, blogged about by me). The cruise was about as you’d expect, of course. Particularly hilarious (to me, at least) was how far Andrew Wakefield had fallen to be reduced to being one of many cranks on a cruise atteneded by conspiracy nuts that included New World Order conspiracy theorists, crop circle believers, people who think HAARP is a form of mind control, HIV/AIDS denialists, and, of course, antivaccine loons.

Finally, a few days ago, Dickey’s article was published in Popular Mechanics titled I Went on a Weeklong Cruise For Conspiracy Theorists. It Ended Poorly. Not being a regular reader of Popular Mechanics, I’m not sure why it took so long for Dickey’s article to finally see print, but it’s certainly nice additional description of what went on during that cruise. Although there had been intimations of threats before, Dickey spells them out right at the very beginning of her article:

It was a bit after seven, and I should have been downstairs on Plaza Deck, dressed in formal attire and enjoying dinner with the conspiracy theorists. There were about a hundred of them, and they were nearing the end of their week—the last week in January—aboard the Ruby Princess. Many of them were older people, and each of them had paid $3,000 (not including airfare and beverages on board) to participate in the first-ever Conspira-Sea Cruise, a weeklong celebration of “alternative science” hosted by a tour company called Divine Travels. For the past five days, they had debated UFOs, GMOs, government mind-control programs, vaccines, chemtrails, crop circles, and the Illuminati’s plan for world domination, all while soaking up the mystical energies of three Mexican tourist towns known mainly for wet T-shirt contests and Señor Frog’s.

But I was not on Plaza Deck. I was locked in my stateroom on Baja Deck, picking at a room-service cheeseburger. Earlier that afternoon, a pair of Conspira-Sea presenters had chased me—chased me—from a conference room. This wasn’t our first confrontation, and now I feared they were tracking me around the ship, waiting to spring out from blind corners and empty doorways.

How did it get to this? Dickey backtracks to the beginning and lets the story flow from there. One detail she caught that was amusing to me is how she was able to distinguish the cruisers, the people on the Ruby Princess who were there for a typical Pacific Ocean cruise and not there to attend the conspiracy-fest and her fellow attendees. She noted that the former group tended to dress in bright colors and loud prints, complete with captain’s hats from the gift shop, while the later consisted mainly of “serious-looking senior citizens in ‘Infowars’ T-shirts,” some of whom wore casts, others of whom walked with canes, and a couple of whom relied on motorized scooters. She also noted that none of them “looked like he or she could afford to spend money frivolously.”

Then there were the introductions. Speakers included Laura Eisenhower (great-granddaughter of Dwight), who claimed that she had been invited in 2006 to join a secret American colony on Mars and that aliens are living on earth in disquise. There was also Dannion Brinkley, a best-selling author who claims to have risen from the dead three times. (Top that, Jesus!) There were crop circle mavens, anti-GMO activists, various quacks, and “holistic healers.” As I pointed out at the time, the only form of conspiracy woo missing was someone into cryptozoology. I was, indeed, surprised there were no Bigfoot fans.

Then there was, of course, the biggest name on the roster: The most famous antivaccinationist in the world, Andrew Wakefield, the man whose fraudulent 12 patient case series published in The Lancet claiming to find an association between vaccination with the MMR vaccine and regressive autism 1998 launched a thousand autism quacks and so frightened British parents that MMR uptake plummeted and the measles, once all but eliminated, came surging back. The damage is only now beginning to abate, with a recovery of MMR uptake. More recently, Wakefield has teamed up with Del Bigtree and Polley Tommey to make an antivaccine documentary, VAXXED, that is nothing but deceptive propaganda. Oh, and he’s also been trying to convince the African-American community that the MMR is dangerous and their children, particularly boys, are more sensitive to its evil autism-causing effects than Caucasians. In late January, when he was featured on the Conspira-Sea Cruise, Wakefield’s movie must have been in post-production or basically finished.

Still, according to Dickey, the conspiracy world was well represented, between tracks:

The week’s seminars appeared to be split into two broad categories. There were those with a magical or highly new age component: “Astral Possession, Psychic Vampirism, and Exorcism,” “Gaia-Sophia, Timelines and Global Alchemy,” “How to Control the World with Mind Machines.” And then there were those that detailed concrete, terrestrial dangers: “Are GMOs and Roundup Causing Disease in Millions?” “Vaccinations: Do You Really Know What’s Coming Through That Needle?” A subset of the second group concerned itself with the U.S. legal and banking systems. Unfortunately, the nightly UFO watches had to be canceled because the man who was to lead them had recently suffered a stroke.

Bummer. If I were on that cruise, I’d definitely want to hang out for the UFO watches. Of course, one wonders how well the passengers could see UFOs on a brightly lit ship with a lot of regular people just there for a vacation who were likely more in the mood to party than anything else.

Besides Wakefield, there was one speaker on the cruise whom I’ve discussed before, Len Horowitz, who attended with his girlfriend Sherri Kane. When last we encountered Horowitz and Kane, they were pushing what I like to call a “zombie meme,” namely that the early polio vaccine, contaminated with SV40, caused an “epidemic” of cancer. It didn’t. It turns out that Horowitz is into a lot more quackery than that, as Dickey describes after a hilariously on point brief description of him:

Len bore a strong resemblance to the Count from Sesame Street, if you had frozen the Count in 1974 and dressed him in Hawaiian shirts. A former dentist from New Jersey with a degree in public health from Harvard, he is most well-known for writing a 1996 book that theorized the AIDS and Ebola viruses are genocidal weapons engineered by the U.S. government to depopulate the planet through vaccination programs. On the cruise, however, he would be lecturing on the key to lifelong health and world peace: the “miracle frequency” of 528 hertz.

According to Len, everything in the universe emits vibrations, and all the positive, life-affirming forces (including the green/yellow light in rainbows) “resonate” at a frequency of 528 hertz. Therefore, all music should be tuned in 528 hertz, rather than the 440 hertz of standard tuning, which he asserted was an evil plot imposed by the Rockefeller Foundation to militarize the world’s populace. Len believes that standard tuning aggravates the pineal gland, making all of us emotionally distressed, sicker, and more destructive. He called this “musical cult control.”

Vibrations. It always has to be vibrations with quacks.

The antivaccine movement being one of my areas of expertise and specialization, naturally that part of Dickey’s article that most interested me was her account of Wakefield’s talk. She noted early on that Wakefield observed, “The story of my life is basically how to take a perfectly good career and flush it down the toilet,” That’s very typical of Wakefield, full of self-pity but also atypical in that it demonstrates at least a little self-awareness, something you normally don’t associate with him.

Now, here’s what surprised me. Wakefield is antivaccine. There’s no doubt about it, based on his history, his utterances and writing, and, of course, his movie VAXXED. However, if there’s one thing about Wakefield, it’s that he has always tried to project a more “reasonable” (superficially, at least) image, avoiding the more inflammatory and nutty rhetoric associated with the more—shall we say—enthusiastic antivaccine activists. None of this stopped him from contributing to the creation of the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory and producing a movie with one of the more fevered antivaccine conspiracy theories out there, but he made the film with plausible deniability that he is antivaccine and frequently repeats that he is not antivaccine, usually before saying something really antivaccine.

But he doesn’t usually go this far:

The seminar began. For an hour, Wakefield paced in front of a projection screen, which ballooned his shadow to giant proportions. Slides of children born without arms and others screaming in pain flashed behind him.

“Your bodies are owned by Big Pharma,” he said. “It’s turning into a science-fiction movie.” The audience gasped and shook their heads in disbelief. “This will be the end of the United States of America.” During the Q&A portion, Wakefield added, “This is a deliberate eugenics program, a deliberate population-control program.”

This is hard core antivaccine conspiracy theorist territory. These sorts of statements are the purview of Mike Adams or Gary Null, not (until now) Andrew Wakefield. As Matt Carey notes, these sorts of claims might play well on a conspiracy cruise with an audience full of believers in the Illuminati, crop circles, New World Order conspiracies, and quackery of various kinds. Wakefield is usually very careful never to say something like that in public, where he can be overheard and reported on, and his statement publicized.

One of the most amusing parts of the story is how during the cruise the sea was pretty choppy for long periods of time so that many of the attendees of the Conspira-Sea Cruise became seasick. As that happened, they became crankier and more paranoid. Eventually, they became less…welcoming… of Dickey and her photographer Dina Litovsky. For instance, Wakefield asked them not to attend a screening of VAXXED, then called Injecting Lies. Some other speakers asked them to leave their panels. Then Len Horowitz confronted them:

“I want you to see something!” he shouted as he tried to force a packet of papers into her hands, then mine. They were articles from Popular Mechanics debunking bad science. Apparently Len and Sherri had been up all night Googling the magazine and printing out documents in the ship’s computer center. There was also a Wikipedia entry that linked the magazine’s parent company, Hearst, to the Lagardère Group.

I tried to laugh it off and go around him, but Len wouldn’t let me pass.

“Look at this!” he shouted, his face contorting with rage. “Look at this! This is why you’re here! You’re here in bad faith!”

Larry Cook, who had also been milling around in the hallway, stepped in front of Len to keep him from lunging at me.

“Get your hands off me!” Len shouted at him. “Get your f–king hands off me!”

Armed with a camera, Sherri darted out from behind Len and chased me around the hallway, demanding that I explain myself. As I tried to block my face from the camera, I got trapped against the wall between Len and Larry, who seemed seconds away from a full-on brawl.

“If you don’t stop this, I’m calling security,” Larry said. Len then challenged Larry to a fistfight in the ship’s gym.

Larry Cook is an antivaccinationist and Wakefield groupie who attended the cruise specifically to meet his hero. Later, Wakefield invited them back to his third appearance, but they declined. Later they learned that his plan had been to “ambush” them with excerpts from Popular Mechanics. No doubt the conspiracy theorists probably wouldn’t have liked one of Popular Mechanics’ greatest accomplishments, its magisterial debunking of 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Basically, reading Dickey’s account didn’t really teach me anything I didn’t already know, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. It was also particularly useful for having caught Wakefield with his mask down labeling vaccines as a “eugenics program.” I’m sorry, Andy. You don’t get to call yourself “not antivaccine” if you’re promoting nonsense like that.