How antivaxers deceptively don the mantle of “vaccine safety activists”

One of the most frequent talking points used by the antivaccine movement is that its members are “not anti-vaccine,” but rather “pro-safe vaccine” or “vaccine safety activists.” I first encountered that talking point over ten years ago, when I first heard Jenny McCarthy say it. Since then, I’ve heard any number of antivaccine activists use variations on the talking point over many years and in many circumstances. It’s understandable in a way. Antivaxers know that society frowns on antivaccine views—and quite rightly so, given the danger such views pose to public health; so they have to convince themselves that they aren’t really antivaccine. Also, there is a wide variation in how far down the antivaccine crazy trail various antivaxers have gone. In a way, I grudgingly respect antivaxers who say it loud and say it proud that they’re antivaccine, because at least they’re honest and not deluding themselves. Most antivaccine activists struggle mightily to convince themselves that they are not antivaccine, and, quite possibly, some of them really aren’t. However, over the years, I’ve discovered that, if you push one of these “I’m not antivaccine, I’m pro-vaccine safety” types enough, they will almost always reveal their true antivaccine proclivities. Of course, I always make the distinction between the vaccine-averse and antivaxers. Most parents who hesitate about or refuse vaccines are probably not antivaccine; they’re just afraid, thanks to misinformation and pseudoscience promoted by antivaxers.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is one of those antivaxers who claim they are “not antivaccine” but rather vaccine safety advocates. In 2015, he was risibly proclaiming himself “fiercely pro-vaccine.” Last week, he was pulling the oldest crank trick in the book, issuing a vacuous and deceptive “challenge” to provide the “One True Study” that shows thimerosal in vaccines is safe, all the while misrepresenting the science and fear mongering about vaccines to an extreme degree. Meanwhile, Robert De Niro, who himself has unfortunately fallen for the delusion promoted by the “not antivaccine” crowd, gave this interview with Sharyl Attkisson, who started out as the CBS antivaccine correspondent and ended up a full bore conspiracy theorist. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was there too. The fun clearly deserves some not-so-Respectful Insolence.

For instance, after having jumped the gun and claimed after their meeting in January that President Trump had offered him the chair of a new “vaccine safety commission,” leading the Trump administration to deny that any such offer had been made, RFK Jr. is still at it:

Sharyl: Kennedy personally met with Trump last month. But after Kennedy talked to the press about it he says the Trump administration walked back the plan.

Kennedy: I’ve been contacted three times by the administration since then. And they tell me that they’re still going forward with a commission. But all I can say is to tell you what the president told me. He specifically told me that he knew that the pharmaceutical industry was going to cause an uproar about this and was gonna try to make him back down and he said “I’m not gonna back down.” They tried during the campaign and I didn’t back down then, and I’m not gonna back down. But I can’t tell you what will happen.

As I like to say, how can you tell when RFK Jr. is lying? His lips are moving. Given how Trump has totally caved to pharmaceutical industry desires for profits and is considering only candidates for FDA commissioner who would neuter the organization, I find this assertion by RFK Jr. to be…highly questionable.

Meanwhile, RFK Jr.’s new BFF Robert De Niro chimes in. First, he reiterates that his son is “on the spectrum.” Then, we learn, reading between the lines, that it was De Niro’s wife Grace Hightower who almost certainly convinced him that vaccines cause autism. We also learn that De Niro doesn’t consider himself to be antivaccine, even though he’s been spewing antivaccine tropes in public for nearly a year:

No I’m not anti vaccine, and as Bobby Kennedy said very eloquently, that’s that’s like a witch, you know You’re a witch! It’s like the Salem witch trials, all of a sudden you’re anti-vax. That’s a lot of baloney, a lot of malarkey. That’s ridiculous. I’m not anti-vax. I take vaccines all the time and my kids have gotten vaccinated. But there’s something wrong and it’s gotta be fixed.

And there you have it: The disingenuous lament of antivaxers everywhere, namely outrage at being characterized as antivaxers. As I like to point out, the fact that an antivaxer allowed their children to be vaccinated does not mean that they are not antivaccine. Here’s the question to ask whenever you see someone like Robert De Niro make this claim: What made you think that there was a vaccine safety problem? Did you vaccinate your kids after you learned that your child was “on the spectrum”? In RFK, Jr.’s case, I’ve pointed out more than once that his youngest child was born in 2001, four years before he went antivax. As for De Niro, he didn’t become antivax until well after his child “on the spectrum” had been diagnosed as being “on the spectrum.” Lots of antivaxers vaccinated their children. That claim means nothing.

Unfortunately, the “I’m not antivaccine” gambit works. For example, Pratik Chougule eats it up in an article for The American Conservative entitled Why the Kennedy-De Niro Vaccine Challenge Matters. My first temptation was to provide a retort that this idiotic “vaccine challenge” doesn’t matter. Actually, that was my second inclination as well. My third inclination was to point to this article as yet another example of how antivaccine quackery is the pseudoscience that transcends political boundaries and how, in 2017, conservatives seem to be the most receptive to antivaccine talking points.

For example, get a load of how Chougule is entirely too credulous when it comes to antivaccine talking points:

Trump’s central point that diagnoses of autism have skyrocketed alongside an increase in childhood vaccination is not in dispute. The term “early infantile autism” was first introduced in 1943 based on clinical observations of eleven children. When Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger published a groundbreaking paper on autism a year later, it drew little attention, and, indeed, was only translated and annotated into English in 1991. Possible links between immunization and autism did not draw much comment in subsequent years because mass vaccination itself was not yet a common practice. It wasn’t until 1949 that the combined diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DPT) vaccine was licensed in the United States for pediatric use, and it was only around this time that large-scale vaccine production for public health became feasible.

This is ridiculous in that the increase in autism diagnoses has almost certainly been due to a combination of more intensive screening, diagnostic substitution, and increased awareness. Chougule is buying into the myth promoted by the antivaccine movement that there is an “epidemic” of autism and that “something”—wink, wink, vaccines, nudge, nudge—must be responsible. It’s even more ridiculous because Chougule characterizes antivaccine “luminaries” that include Andrew Wakefield, Jennifer Larson, Mark Blaxill, Andrew Wakefield, Jennifer Larson, and Gary Kompethecras as “experts.” No, I’m not joking. Chougule called them “experts.” Kompethecras is an antivaccine chiropractor, while Mark Blaxill doesn’t have any scientific expertise whatsoever and is totally antivaccine. Andrew Wakefield is, of course, Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced gastroenterologist who committed scientific fraud in order to promote the idea that the MMR vaccine increased the risk of developing autism. When you unironically characterize such people as “experts,” you’ve already proven yourself too clueless to take seriously.

So, excuse me when I laugh out loud when Chougule writes:

Why then are vaccine skeptics treated with such contempt in establishment institutions? There are, it is true, growing numbers of writers such as the science journalist Maggie Koerth-Baker, who, after advancing the conventional narrative on vaccines, decided to study media reporting on the issue. She ultimately criticized her colleagues in Aeon for their failure to acknowledge that vaccine rejection can be a “rational choice.” Yet standard accounts, insofar as they even mention the genuine debate among experts on vaccine safety, often ignore the science informing these objections. Nor do they grapple with personalized approaches to vaccine decisions that, as Prof. Maya Goldenberg argues, are not ignorant per se but can produce cost-benefit analyses that depart, in individual cases, from public health orthodoxy.

Lest you think that Chougule is reasonable here, I can’t help but note that he links to über-quack Joe Mercola when referencing a “genuine debate among experts on vaccine safety.” Let’s just put it this way. If you reference Joe Mercola unironically as a legitimate source of science information, you’ve lost—and lost big time. I’ll admit that it’s not as bad as referencing, say, Mike Adams, but it’s pretty damned bad. It shows that you either (1) don’t know how to evaluate a medical source, (2) are supportive of quackery, or (3) both. Let’s just put it this way. Mercola became rich as hell selling supplements and quackery and has used some of that wealth to support Barbara Loe Fisher and the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) and thinks that incentives to increase vaccination rates are a bad thing.

Ditto Brian Martin:

In a recent paper in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics, Prof. Brian Martin found evidence not of a conspiracy, but rather of a pattern of “suppression of vaccination dissent”—one that made Andrew Wakefield “subject to a degradation ceremony, a ritualistic denunciation casting him out of the company of honest researchers.” Martin argues that challenges to free inquiry, while prevalent throughout mainstream science, are particularly serious in the case of immunization. Because “vaccination is a signifier for the benefits of modern medicine,” questions about vaccination are treated as “a potential threat to the public perception that credentialed experts unanimously endorse vaccination.”

Brian Martin, you might recall, has demonstrated his antivaccine proclivities disguised as “skepticism” about medicine and vaccines. He was the thesis advisor for Judy Wilyman, whose thesis was so full of antivaccine pseudoscience and quackery that it provoked outrage from real scientists and physicians the world over. Not surprisingly, antivaccine activists misrepresented criticism of Wilyman’s thesis as “suppression of dissent.” “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!” indeed.

Chougule is basically a useful idiot for the antivaccine movement. He uncritically buys the utter BS that people like RFK Jr. are selling. After all, if you can’t (or refuse to) recognize RFK, Jr.’s stunt for what it is, a rather obvious con designed to promote his fundraising, then you’re not so very smart after all. That’s always the problem, too. Hard core antivaxers like RFK Jr. and his ilk lay down this story that they are “vaccine safety activists” when everything about their history belies that claim, and seemingly well-meaning but clueless celebrities like Robert De Niro become vaccine-averse and then ultimately fall into the antivaccine orbit, often becoming antivaxers themselves. Meanwhile, useful idiots in the press still fall for the con, years after it should have become obvious that it’s a con. The two then combine to amplify the antivaccine message, leading parents who lack the scientific background to recognize the pseudoscience and nonsense for what they are and might also be predisposed to accept the fear mongering based on distrust of pharma or government, to become vaccine averse and, in the worse case scenario, antivaccine themselves. Whether RFK Jr. truly believes he is “not antivaccine” and is in fact “fiercely pro-vaccine,” I don’t know. Probably he does. But there’s nothing to test him—really test him—on that now, as his youngest child is now a teenager and we don’t know if he would vaccinate a young child. My guess is that, as is so often the case, if the rubber could hit the road again and RFK Jr. had an infant, he wouldn’t vaccinate. Why? Because he really is antivaccine.