2016: The year bullshit was weaponized

This will almost certainly be my last post of 2016. Unless something so amazing, terrible, or just plain interesting to me happens between now and tomorrow night, I probably won’t be posting again until January 2 or 3. Many bloggers like to do “end of year roundup”-type posts that list their best or most popular post, trends noted in 2016 relevant to their area of blogging interest, or predictions for the coming year as their last post of the year, but that’s never really been my style. I don’t remember the last time I did a post like that, and I’m too lazy today to bother to go and look it up, given that I’ve now been at this blogging thing for 12(!) years, my very first substantive post having gone live December 12, 2004.

That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes become contemplative as the year ends, and if there is a year that makes me contemplative as it finally shuffles off ignominiously into history, it’s 2016. Indeed, I’m having a hard time figuring out where to place 2016 in the annals of badness. Certainly it ranks up there in my lifetime. The last time I thought about it, I concluded that 2016 has been the worst year since at least 2001, and 2001, of course, was the year that roughly 3,000 people died in coordinated terror attacks on New York and the Pentagon, leading to the “war on terror,” the Patriot Act, the invasion of Iraq a year and a half later, and a whole lot of really bad things. Given the results of the election, we can’t know how bad this year truly is, but I rather suspect that fifteen years from now in 2031 we’ll be arguing over which year was worse, although, truth be told, 2017 is likely to be the real year to worry about. However, 2016 was still plenty bad. In essence, 2016 was the year bullshit was weaponized.

If 2016 were a person, it would be Mike Adams, the alternative medicine “entrepreneur” huckster who got his start selling Y2K scams in the late 1990s and for whom no conspiracy theory is too outrageous and no quackery is too ridiculous. Indeed, just check out his site now, and you’ll see that, among the usual antivaccine crap and rants against science-based medicine, Mikey is peddling conspiracy theories about President Obama trying to start World War III before January 20, referring to him as “quite literally a ‘sleeper cell’ agent who has been trying to destroy America from day one” and how the feds are supposedly probing NaturalNews.com and InfoWars for DDoS attacks to take them down. That’s because 2016 is the year that saw the rise in belief in conspiracy theories like the ones Adams peddles and their elevation into mainstream prominence, thanks to a presidential candidate and his followers who believe them, including all sorts of antivaccine nonsense. We now have a President who not only believes conspiracy theories like that but believes that vaccines are a “monster shot” that causes autism and has met with, of all people, Andrew Wakefield to discuss vaccine policy. 2016 was a year when Deepak Chopra castigated our new President-Elect for not being sufficiently reality-based. At the time, I said that irony meters everywhere exploded, but, having observed Donald Trump a while longer, I’m not entirely sure that he isn’t less reality-based than Deepak Chopra. We all make mistakes, I guess. That doesn’t change the fact that Trump appointed a man to run the Department of Health and Human Services who belongs to the premiere crank medical “society” in the US, the Association of American Physicians and Scientists (AAPS), which is still cranking out antivaccine nonsense as we speak, while the top to candidates to run the FDA include a man who doesn’t think the FDA should require evidence of efficacy before approving a drug versus a man who is, quite literally, a pharma shill. No wonder I fear for science policy, and that doesn’t even consider climate science.

If 2016 were a blog post, it would be this one, Autism Rates Skyrocket Since SB277 Took Hold In California or this one, Autism Rates in California Schools Jumped As Much as 17% Among Kindergartners Since Mandatory Vaccine Bill Was Signed. The idea is that SB277, the bill that eliminates nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates, has already increased autism rates in California. Never mind that the bill was only signed into law in the summer of 2015 and didn’t take effect until the 2016-2017 school year. Never mind that the median age of diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders ranges from 3 years, 10 months for autistic disorder to 6 years, 2 months for Asperger’s, meaning that, even if vaccines cause autism (which they don’t), the earliest we could expect to have a chance of detecting an increase in autism prevalence potentially related to SB 277 for at least two or three years after the law took effect; i.e., 2019 or so. Even then, it would be ridiculous to attribute such a marked increase in autism prevalence to SB 277, given that at most SB 277 could only be expected to increase vaccination rates by a few percent. Why? Because less than 10% of California kindergarten children aren’t fully vaccinated and there will always be at least a couple of percent of children who need medical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. That means that, at most, SB 277 will increase vaccine uptake a few percentage points, single digits. That’s enough to make sure that herd immunity isn’t compromised, but, even if you buy into the pseudoscientific belief that vaccines cause autism, it’s not enough to cause a massive increase in autism prevalence as massive as these two reality-challenged antivaccine loons are claiming. Of course, given that vaccines don’t cause autism, these are even dumber posts, perfect for 2016.

Or maybe this post by—who else?—Mike Adams best encapsulates 2016, The top 10 most outrageous science hoaxes of 2016. Indeed, when I first got the idea for this post, I thought that I would spend the whole post deconstructing these “top ten” science “hoaxes,” but, as I wrote, my viewpoint switched to, “Why bother?” It’s the same old, same old, some “hoaxes” so ridiculous that they are practically self-refuting, like the claim that the EPA intentionally poisoned the children of Flint, MI with lead in their drinking water in order to cause brain damage and, well, I’ll let Mikey tell you:

The result of all this was the mass poisoning of mostly African-American children with a toxic heavy metal that’s well known to damage cognitive function and impede learning. What a great way to raise more democrats! It’s all part of the new “science” of keeping the sheeple dumbed down so they will keep voting for corrupt criminals like Hillary Clinton. Instead of “let them eat cake,” the new progressive Jon Podesta version is, “Let them drink lead!”

Any time you see the word “sheeple” used in an article unironically and without mockery of the word, you know you’re dealing with a grade-A idiotic conspiracy theorist. The rest of the “hoaxes are a standard load of right wing, Alex Jones-style conspiracy theories, such as the idea that SB 277 is a plot by pharmaceutical companies, who claim that “vaccines pose zero risk to children (i.e. claiming they do not harm a single child…ever),” something no pro-vaccine advocate, to my knowledge, has ever claimed and that the Zika virus scare was also a conspiracy. Then, of course, there’s the usual anthropogenic climate change denial and rants about transgenderism. (I wonder if any of the lefties who share Adams’ bilge know just how viciously bigoted he is when he talks about transgender people.) The sole exception to the right-wing conspiracy mongering is one that made me chuckle, namely Adams’ unhappiness with Republicans passing a law that banned GMO labeling. I mentioned my amusement with Adams’ discomfiture back when I discussed the nomination of Tom Price to head HHS, given that Adams has reinvented himself as a darling of the alt right and a rabid Donald Trump supporter.

Finally, if 2016 to be described by a survey, it would have to be this one, which shows that Americans believe a lot of crazy things, with 31% believing that vaccines cause autism, 53% believing that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, and 36% believing that President Obama was born in Kenya. Not surprisingly, nearly twice the percentage of Trump supporters believe that vaccines cause autism compared to Clinton supporters (31% vs. 18%), although pretty equal numbers of Trump and Clinton supporters believe that 9/11 was an “inside job” (between 15% and 17%). The point is that belief in things that, objectively, are not true is widespread and always has been. Anyone who’s been involved in skepticism, either organized or not, knows this. Be it ghosts, Bigfoot, the claim that vaccines cause autism, alternative medicine quackery, 9/11 “Truth,” Holocaust denial, or any of a number of conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and pseudohistory, belief in things that can be objectively shown not to exist or beliefs that can objectively be shown noto to be true is rampant.

It’s an old problem, too. I think back to a post I wrote about cancer quackery in the late 1970s and how little has changed in the list of alternative medicine cancer “cures” over more than three decades, and I can’t help but think that three decades from now (if I’m still alive) I’ll still be seeing the same stuff. Laetrile, antineoplastons, the Gerson protocol, Hoxsey therapy, and many more were all around then and will likely still be around long after I’m dead. Similarly, antivaccine tropes have been around forever. I was reminded of this yesterday when I saw a post by John Rappaport in which he republished a chapter on vaccines from a book he wrote in 1987, AIDS, Inc.. The same antivaccine misinformation and lies are there, such as:

  • The decline in vaccine-preventable diseases like polio is mostly due to improved housing, to a decrease in the virulence of micro-organisms, but, most importantly, a “higher host-resistance due to better nutrition.” (In other words, vaccines never get the credit.)
  • In outbreaks, more vaccinated than unvaccinated children get the disease. (It’s the same way antivaccine ideologues ignore percentages, which clearly show that in outbreaks, the unvaccinated get the disease at much higher rates than the vaccinated. The only reason that the absolute numbers are higher is because so many more children are vaccinated than unvaccinated.)
  • Serious, life-threatening adverse reactions to vaccines are common when in fact they are rare.
  • Measles and polio had been regressing before the vaccines, and the vaccines had nothing to do with their elimination.

There are several more. If these lies sound familiar, they should. I’ve discussed pretty much every one of them at least once, some many times over the years. I expect that I will continue to have to do so for as long as I manage to continue this blog.

So in one respect, the revelation that people believe nonsense is no revelation at all. I’ve known it for a long time, as have skeptics and critical thinkers. What was different in 2016 is that a perfect storm of politics, anger, a presidential candidate who believes a whole lot of said nonsense, and the facility with which the Internet can be used to spread conspiracy theories and fake news conspired to overwhelm all safeguards that had previously at least kept pseudoscience, pseudohistory, and conspiracy theories from achieving mainstream acceptance. In essence, in 2016 bullshit was weaponized, and it turned out to be an incredibly effective weapon indeed.

We saw the rise of fake news, which, remember, is not the same thing as bad and/or biased reporting, given that fake news is made up nearly completely from whole cloth for profit and influence, while bad and biased reporting at least starts from real events. Unfortunately, the term “fake news” has already been devalued as people like Adams are quick to label the mainstream press “fake news” and even skeptics mistake bad or biased reporting for bad news.

What can we as skeptics do? The weaponization of bullshit is not qualitatively different from anything we’ve seen before. It is, however, quantitatively much worse, and, as always, we remain woefully outmatched. Powerful political and economic forces are behind the weaponization of bullshit. There’s no way we can match the resources they have. Fortunately, the Internet remains a great equalizer, which means that the misinformation can be countered, but that is not enough. What needs to be happen in 2017 and beyond is that skeptics and critical thinkers will need to study the BS and find ways to counter it. Countering pseudoscience and misinformation has always been a battle that will last lifetimes, but unfortunately 2016 just made it a whole lot more difficult.

Maybe Bluto showed us the way, all the way back in 1978:

OK, a really stupid and futile gesture is not the way to go, but we need to ignite this sort of spirit, even if the odds look long and the battle endless, if we are to find a way to combat the misinformation to survive the Age of Trump and minimize the damage done by him and the forces he’s weaponized.