Antivaxers marched on Washington last week. It was less than impressive.

Last week, I took note of something that antivaxers hadn’t done in nine years, specifically a “march on Washington.” Back in 2008, Jenny McCarthy and her then-boyfriend Jim Carrey led a rag tag rogues’ gallery of antivaccine activists on a march and rally that they called “Green Our Vaccines.” The name of the rally, of course, derived from a common trope beloved of antivaccine activists that I like to refer to as the “toxin gambit.” It’s basically a Food Babe-like fear of those “evil chemicals” writ large in a claim that vaccines are packed full of horrific chemicals that are Making Our Babies Autistic—and/or making them asthmatic, diabetic, or even dying of sudden infant death syndrome. It’s a profoundly scientifically ignorant gambit in that the dose makes the poison and the amount of the various scary-sounding chemicals to which antivaxers like to point in vaccines is tiny and safe. For instance, antivaxers love to point to formaldehyde as one of those horrific toxins, and it’s true. There are tiny amounts of formaldehyde in some vaccines left over from the process of inactivating the virus. However, the human body makes formaldehyde as a normal byproduct of metabolism in amounts that far surpass that contained in any vaccine.

Nine years later, the rally is called Revolution for Truth, and the “march” and “rally” (if you can call it that) took place on Friday. I thought about ignoring it completely after my one post, but since the antivaccine movement is one of my main topics, I find it hard to let things go without one last post on this rally. Part of the reason is that the rally surprised me. No, it wasn’t the content of the speeches and signs that surprised me. Much of it was very similar to what occurred in 2008, although the cast of characters was largely different, with only Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Barbara Loe Fisher having appeared at both events. Also in the post-SB 277 world (SB 277 is the new law in California that banned nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates), there was a lot more talk about “freedom,” and in the world of our very own Antivaxer-in-Chief, President Donald Trump, the rhetoric was much darker and more dire than in 2008. None of this is what surprised me though. What did surprise me is that, if anything, the turnout for the Antivaccine March on Washington, 2017 edition, appeared to be much smaller than the Antivaccine March on Washington, 2008 edition. Don’t get me wrong. The 2008 march attracted at most a few hundred people, but by comparison the photos of the 2017 March made the 2008 march look like the the crowd for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech by comparison. (Antivaxers love to compare themselves to civil rights figures like Nelson Mandela or MLK.) I mean, take a look at the photos in this STAT News story, and you’ll get an idea. Then compare to the photos from nine years ago, and you’ll see what I mean.

Also, take a look at this photo on Twitter:

I honestly did not expect that. News coverage described the crowd as in the dozens, not the hundreds. Unfortunately, as I’ve been describing before when I lamented the politicization of vaccine mandates such that antivaxers are increasingly co-opting the rhetoric and messaging of the Tea Party to equate school vaccine mandates as tyranny and “vaccine choice” as “freedom,” thus undermining what has until recently been a broad, bipartisan agreement about public health. For example:

For their lobbying day on Thursday, the activists had agreed to wear shades of the American flag: Red if they’d had a loved one injured by vaccines, and white if they were there in solidarity. (They were supposed to wear blue if a loved one had died from a vaccine injury, but STAT didn’t see anyone in the group wearing that color.)

Dressed in a red sweater and seated in a wheelchair, activist Marcella Piper-Terry teared up as she talked about her own chronic pain condition and her young adult daughter’s seizures and Asperger’s syndrome. She believes those injuries stem from vaccines.

What? They couldn’t find a single antivaxer who thought that vaccines killed their child?

As tiny as the group was, we can’t be complacent, as we can’t say that they might not have an effect in the age of Donald Trump:

The day of demonstrations followed an intense lobbying push on Thursday. Activists held 80 meetings on Capitol Hill, many of them with staffers for members of Congress, according to Irene Pi, an organizer from Arizona. Among their goals: Push President Trump to establish a vaccine safety committee led by Kennedy.

“We’re being heard, and we’re going to enact change,” activist Jena Dalpez said.

Fortunately, that remains to be seen.

Because of the rain, unlike the rally in 2008, the speeches for Revolution for Truth took place indoors as the Washington Press Club, the very same place where a few weeks ago Robert F. Kennedy Jr. issued his ridiculous “thimerosal challenge.” And what a bunch of speeches that this small band of antivaxers and a few reporters sat through, including Rebecca Robbins of STAT News:

Because of the length, I must admit that I didn’t watch all the speeches—or even close. Even a cursory listen told me that it was a lot of the same ol’, same ol’. For instance, Kent Heckenlively’s speech in person was even worse than it was in print in all caps:

Yes, he referred to vaccines (or vaccine scientists; I’m not sure which) as “monstrous” evil and “unbelievable” wickedness. You get the idea. This is what most of the speeches were like.

For instance, here’s Scientology’s the Nation of Islam’s Minister Tony Muhammad:

We’ve met Muhammad before, and his speech here isn’t much different than the speech he gave a year and a half ago at a protest at the CDC. There are a lot of references to “satanic forces” and conspiracies, as you would expect. In fact, as I went back and looked at my old post about that CDC “protest,” it occurred to me that “Revolution for Truth” reminded me, more than anything else, of that CDC protest more than the “Green Our Vaccines” rally.

One thing that I found strange about “Revolution for Truth” is that Andrew Wakefield wasn’t there, even though a lot of people involved in his antivaccine propaganda film VAXXED were there. For instance, here’s one of the parents featured in VAXXED, Sheila Lewis Ealey:

At least she’s honest enough to state plainly that she is antivaccine and to assert that there is “no such thing as a save vaccine.” (That kind of blows the cover off of, for instance, the organizers of the rally and RFK Jr.’s claims that they are not antivaccine,” especially given how the crowd roared its approval to both lines. I’ve observed in past antivaccine conclaves that proclaiming oneself antivaccine and saying there’s no such thing as a safe vaccine are two guaranteed applause lines.) Of course, she couldn’t resist throwing in some Biblical stuff about how before vaccines “people were living, and they were living up to 200 years of age and beyond.” The dead silence after that statement showed that it was just a bit too batshit nuts, even for people who are so antivaccine that they are willing to travel from all over the country to Washington, DC to participate in a protest like this. That’s saying something. After all, these are people who didn’t bat an eye at Ealey’s likening the Dredd Scott decision regarding slavery to the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, which created the Vaccine Court and the primary method of compensating people who suffer legitimate vaccine injury. To her, the NCVIA made children “property, not people,” just as the Dredd Scott decision reinforced that slaves were property, to enthusiastic applause. When she then likened antivaxers to the “new abolitionists,” the crowd went wild. Wow. Hyperbole much? Well done, Ms. Ealey! Fortunately, your bit about how before vaccines people lived 200 years made even the die-hard antivaxers who applauded your references to slavery go silent. She also revealed how parents arguing for “parental rights” with respect to vaccines think.

And here’s Brian Hooker, the biochemical engineer turned incompetent epidemiologist and statistician who loves “simplicity” in statistics, with all the screwups that flow from that:

And, of course, here’s the producer of VAXXED, Del Bigtree himself, whom we’ve met many times before:

Bigtree spends some time in the middle of his talk sarcastically beating up on a woman who didn’t buy into the pseudoscience, quackery, and conspiracy mongering of the rally. Particularly hilarious is the part where he brags about how he doesn’t care if there’s a reporter doing a “hit piece” and that he’ll stand in front of any camera “any day of the week” because “we’re telling the truth.” Um, no, Del. You might think you’re telling the truth, but in reality you’re spewing easily debunked lies, weaving them together into a tapestry of misinformation and pseudoscience that can be hard to penetrate if you don’t—as I and some other skeptics do—have deep background knowledge of the specific threads of misinformation used to weave that tapestry. You are a propagandist, like Leni Reifenstahl, only much less talented. He then plays to the audience by referencing in contrast Paul Offit, who quite understandably got a bit pissed off at a VAXXED “reporter” who was bothering him in a hospital cafeteria while he was eating. It’s a disingenuous comparison, of course. There’s a difference between being a camera-hungry publicity hound of a crank desperate to speak to the press and being a real scientist tired of being hounded by antivaxers wherever he goes. Of course, disingenuous is how Bigtree rolls. It’s how he’s always rolled.

Of course, the main attraction had nothing to do with VAXXED. It was RFK, Jr., the environmentalist turned antivaccine crank since sometime around 2005. Specifically, he’s a member of the mercury militia branch of the antivaccine movement, which is the branch that passionately believes that the mercury in the thimerosal that was used as a preservative in some childhood vaccines was responsible for the “autism epidemic.” Never mind that thimerosal was removed from nearly all childhood vaccines in 2002 and in 2017, 15 years later, autism rates have not plummeted. Here he is again doing what he does best, blustering, deluding himself by claiming he’s “not antivaccine,” and spreading antivaccine pseudoscience hither, thither, and yon:

Notice one thing he didn’t mention? Hopes were high among antivaxers that RFK Jr. would announce the “vaccine safety commission” that Donald Trump asked him to chair. (Or so he claimed; the transition team denied it that he had been offered anything, but that didn’t stop him from running straight to the press to brag about how he would chair a Presidential commission on vaccine safety and/or autism.) One would think that, if it were confirmed that there would be such a commission, this “rally” would have been the perfect place to announce it.

Through it all, various antivaccine activists laid down a barrage of misinformation so thick and convoluted that Duane Gish himself would be proud. Examples were relayed on Twitter, such as:

Toni Bark’s claim is, of course, utterly without a basis in scientific or clinical evidence. No surprise there.

There were also calls for measures that are clearly unethical and dangerous, such as this:

All the while they deny that they’re antivaccine while saying things like the statements above and Tweeting things like this:

Sure. You’re not antivaccine. Ri-ight… Whatever you say…

In the end, as surprised as I was that this was the case, I was glad that the 2017 version of the antivaccine “march on Washington” fizzled even worse than the 2008 version. Of course, the 2008 version had actual celebrities. Even though Jenny McCarthy was at best a C-list celebrity then, Jim Carrey was still arguably A-list. They also did their march in June and were fortunate enough to have a beautiful sunny day. Even so, I would have thought that in the world of Donald Trump, antivaxers could have done better. I’m glad they didn’t.

On the other hand, remember images like this:

That’s a photo of antivaxers meeting with Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Chair of the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, whom Del Bigtree lobbied last summer, complete with a copy of VAXXED for him. Whether Chaffetz is just playing the marchers or really is sympathetic to their viewpoint and demands, such as a demand for an “independent” vaccine safety commission, it’s a bit worrisome that antivaxers appear to have such easy access to such a powerful Congressman, particularly in the context of their apparently having the ear of the President.

Stay frosty, my friends. The Revolution for Truth rally might have been an embarrassing bust, but the real threat advocates of science and public health have to look out for exists in photos like this and what they tell us.