I know that a lot of you like John Oliver and watch Last Week Tonight with John Oliver , and I do too. In particular, I love how he devotes 20 minute segments of his show to intelligent long form comedy about all sorts of issues, including scientific and medical issues, including issues that I never would have thought I was interested in. Indeed, there are lots of times when he covers news stories better than the news media. So when he did a segment on vaccines last night—and a segment that was longer than his usual major segments—you know I would be incredibly interested. Here’s a video of the segment. I encourage all of you who can to watch it. (I know, I know, it’s geofenced, which means many of you outside of the US might not be able to believe it):
Watch it and be amazed. It’s so good that any criticisms I might have of it are relatively trivial. There were a number of hilarious lines, like describing vaccines as injecting “science juice” and making fun of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. for bragging about how he’s spent decades trying to get mercury out of fish and has never been called “anti-fish” and therefore shouldn’t be called antivaccine. Sorry, RFK Jr., you are antivaccine as hell, and I laugh derisively every time you describe yourself as “fiercely pro-vaccine.”
There’s so much win in this piece, from Oliver’s discussion of Andrew Wakefield, to his noting that antivaccine views span the political spectrum, to his mockery of Rep. Dan Burton (who about 15-20 years ago routinely held hearings on “vaccine safety” blaming vaccines for autism), to his discussion of the nature of the scientific evidence finding no link between vaccines and autism, to his concluding remarks in which he empathizes with vaccine-hesitant parents, to his evisceration of “Dr. Bob” Sears and his “alternative vaccine schedule,” to his explanation of how antivaccine pseudoscience is like Whac-A-Mole in which no matter how much you refute antivaccine misinformation the more misinformation is presented, and his final remarks explaining that if he can overcome his fears and vaccinate his child (who was born prematurely) then everyone can. He even comes up with a fantastic way of explaining the fallacy of the middle ground, which I’ll leave you to see for yourself, and of turning antivax arguments back on the people making them. In comparison the things about me that irritated me are minor, such as how Oliver referred to antivaxers as “skeptics” multiple times in the early part of the segment and referring to a “debate.” That just grated on me because antivaxers are not skeptics, and this is not a scientific debate. It’s a manufactroversy.
But, hell, that’s nitpicking. (I can’t help it; it’s what I do sometimes when it comes to science.) Oliver and his crew are brilliant. Sure, I could have wished for a bit more about Wakefield, such as how his research was paid for by a lawyer looking to sue vaccine companies for “vaccine-induced autism” or a minute or two on the movie VAXXED. (Seriously, can you picture what Oliver could have done with the VAXXED bus segments Polly Tommey and Del Bigtree routinely post to Facebook?) But, hey, choices had to be made, and there’s no way you can cover everything in a 25 minute segment.
An excellent indication of just how well Oliver and his team covered the topic comes from the tears of antivaxers. One antivaxer in particular really, really, really didn’t like Oliver’s vaccine segment. Remember Levi Quackenboss? She’s the one who first bragged about how Donald Trump met with Andrew Wakefield in August while campaigning in Florida and what she hoped for from Trump. She also attacked a 12-year-old boy online because he made a video making fun of antivaccine beliefs. She’s really, really hilarious (unintentionally so, of course) when she gets upset at campaigns by the government to encourage vaccination.
This time around, she’s penned a screed entitled John Oliver, you unfunny schmuck @iamjohnoliver. It is a wonder to behold if you enjoy watching antivaxers get all worked up over being criticized:
So you went on your show yesterday to attack people who either stop vaccinating their children or never vaccinated in the first place. It was a 27-minute angry, condescending, sometimes-loony but never-funny rant.
Someday, John, you’re going to realize that it is not acceptable to attack the parents of children killed or disabled by vaccines, and that is exactly what you did yesterday.
Of course, this is a standard antivax position whenever their pseudoscience is criticized: Poor, poor pitiful me! You meanie! You’re making fun of mothers who’ve suffered! Of course, any fair viewing of Oliver’s segment would conclude that that’s not what Oliver did at all. He made fun of Wakefield, sure. He made fun of RFK, Jr., definitely. He made fun of Dan Burton, certainly. He made fun of “Dr. Bob” Sears, absolutely. They’re all more than fair targets (particularly RFK, Jr.’s “anti-fish” nonsense). But guess who he didn’t make fun of? That’s right, he didn’t make fun of parents who are vaccine-averse. He understands that there’s a spectrum of antivaccine beliefs, and he aimed his message at the vaccine-averse. Indeed, at the very end of the segment he went out of his way to relate to them, describing his fears of parenthood, his 19-month-old son who was born prematurely after a difficult pregnancy, and how he’s afraid of everything. His final appeal was that if he “can overcome the temptation to listen to the irrational shouting of his terrified lizard brain” then he believes that everyone can. It was pure empathy.
Oliver also noted how he knows that big pharma is not to be trusted, citing a report he did a couple of years ago about how drug companies use highly dubious and unethical methods to market their products to doctors. Indeed, Quackenboss wastes considerable verbiage recounting the conclusions of Oliver’s previous report. Since that report was also quite good, I’ll include a link to it here. It’s worth your time:
And that’s the difference between John Oliver or me and someone like Quackenboss. We can criticize big pharma for its depradations and at the same time look at the scientific evidence and understand that the overwhelming body of evidence demonstrates that vaccines do not cause autism or all the other health problems that antivaxers attribute to them. Quackenboss no doubt views me as a hopeless tool of big pharma, but if that’s the case, then why doesn’t Oliver’s previous report bother me at all? Why do I in fact applaud him for that report, just as I applaud him for his segment on vaccines?
Of course, Quackenboss doesn’t see it that way. She sees it as rank hypocrisy on Oliver’s part:
Last night your tone was one of total trust for these products from the companies you destroyed in 2015. You seemed to be able to perceive some kind of upstanding ethics behind the creation, marketing, and necessity of all vaccines. You were condescending to people who do not want to consume a sacred product made by the very same companies you railed on– the ones who have been fined billions, and whose extremely attractive sales reps make “ungodly sums of money” selling to doctors.
Maybe you’ve been putting too much aluminum in your armpits but the exact companies you tore to shreds two years ago are the companies manufacturing vaccines, heavily influencing the schedule, lobbying for state mandates, and paying none of the compensation when victims of vaccine injury win in court.
No, Oliver was not condescending to parents. He was condescending to RFK, Jr., Dr. Sears, Donald Trump, and Andrew Wakefield, all of whom richly deserved the mockery. When it came to parents, he was anything but condescending. Of course, Quackenboss is one of those whose behavior has made her worthy of little but contempt. Hell, her attacks on Marco Arturo alone earn her my contempt, at least.
Of course, from Quackenboss’ perspective, big pharma’s coming to get you, and vaccines are its favored weapon:
How do you think Merck handles the fact that only 6 in 10 girls in the US have had even one Gardasil shot? They fight everyday to get their vaccine mandated by state laws. Their product is so wonderful that they need to get legislators to shove it down our kids’ throats. And Gardasil is still a very new vaccine but the damage it’s done is substantial. Just last month a girl was awarded $11.5 million over her lifetime (not paid for by Merck) for the autoimmune disease that’s attacking her optic nerve and spine, which was caused by Gardasil. Do you think the vaccine court concedes an $11.5 M case just to get rid of the plaintiff, and that vaccines aren’t really wrecking lives?
No, the Vaccine Court has a set of “table injuries” for which compensation is basically automatic. Unfortunately, the link Quackenboss provided only describes the award, not the actual case or evidence. This girl was awarded compensation for a condition called neuromyelitis optica, which the complainants attributed to Gardasil and a flu vaccine (Flumist). It wasn’t hard to find the actual decision in the case. I read the whole thing. What I found was a case that was not that persuasive other than the seeming timing. Overall, it struck me as the Special Master bending over backwards to give the complainant the benefit of the doubt. Going into the reasons would take a lot of time and verbiage and might be better left for a potential additional post at some future date. Be that as it may, personally, I view the compensation awarded in this case to be evidence that very much argues against the antivaccine caricature of the Vaccine Court as being tilted against providing compensation to complainants who claim injury due to vaccines.
Quackenboss can’t help but bring up the Cutter incident:
I noticed that you showed a clip of the 1955 celebrations for Salk’s new polio vaccine but forgot to include the worst pharmaceutical disaster in history that followed immediately after: the Cutter Incident at the lab that produced the vaccine, which caused polio in 40,000 children, paralyzed 56, and killed 5, then further led to 113 new cases of polio and 5 additional deaths.
Guess who wrote the definitive book on the Cutter incident? Take a guess. It was Paul Offit! His book was The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis. That’s right. The man whom Age of Autism loves to refer to as a “biostitute” and “pharma shill” wrote the book on the worst vaccine incident in history. That’s how pro-science advocates roll. The man whom the antivaccine movement views as Lord Voldemort, Lord Sauron, and Darth Vader all rolled up into one is the man who wrote a book on the Cutter incident.
Quackenboss also drops a major straw man:
Do you seriously think you are self-educated enough on the topic of thimerosal to tell your 5 million viewers with 100% certainty that the mercury in fish is bad and the mercury in vaccines is good? Do you honestly believe that mercury was removed from most of the childhood vaccines– not because it was a highly unethical experimentation on children– but because there was “intense public concern” so pharmaceutical companies “spent time and energy solving a problem that never existed?”
Actually, yes. That was exactly why it was removed. In 1999, Dr. Neal Halsey was head of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ vaccine advisory committee and instrumental in persuading the CDC to recommend the removal of thimerosal from vaccines even though there wasn’t any real science to show it to be dangerous. Indeed, the CDC committee was initially not at all enthusiastic about Dr. Halsey’s recommendations because they didn’t see any science compelling enough to warrant urgency. However, through force of will during several conference calls Dr. Halsey ultimately won the day. What seems to have happened is that, absent sitting in a room with all the players, members of the CDC got the impression that a “snowball” was growing in favor of doing something. Members later said that they were extremely skeptical but that with Dr. Halsey dominating the conversations and the inability to see the body language of other members of the committee, they didn’t realize that they were not alone in their extreme skepticism about the advisability of “doing something now.”
Unfortunately, banning thimerosal absent compelling evidence that it caused harm was a fantastic example of the “precautionary principle” run amok, in which a ban was recommended “just in case.” After all, parents not unreasonably think, if the CDC and AAP recommended removing thimerosal from vaccines, there must have been a reason. Maybe there was something wrong that is now being hidden! Reassurances by the CDC that the recommendation was “just as a precautionary measure” designed to “make vaccines even safer” were not particularly convincing in comparison. Actions speak louder than words, after all. In other words, although antivaccine advocates were agitating about thimerosal in the late 1990s and likely would have continued to do so, the ultimate magnitude of the thimerosal scare in the U.S. was largely a self-inflicted wound on the part of the CDC and AAP. Quackenboss’ little rant shows how that decision continues to provide fodder for antivaxers to use in their fear mongering.
And, of course, there have to be ad hominems:
And John, I can’t even go down the rabbit hole of how ridiculous you look using a clip of Seth Mnookin, a former drug dealer and burglar who once bit a police officer, but if you’d like to know more about your expert witness you can read about him here.
And as for Alison Singer, who appears toward the end of your clip, you do know that she was staunchly vaccines-cause-autism until she was blinded by the cash offered her to publicly switch sides, right? In fact, it was only in 2001 that the New York Post wrote:
“Alison Tepper Singer, a former vice president in NBC’s desktop video division, faulted the ‘ER’ episode for its ‘complete belittling of another viewpoint,’ she told The News. Singer resigned from NBC in 1999 when her older daughter was diagnosed with autism.
“‘It was so irresponsible and so callous and so heartbreaking for parents who are dealing with this issue that I found it sad,’ she said of the ‘ER’ episode.”
Yes, the woman you featured to bolster your stance once said that people like you completely belittle other viewpoints. And you do.
What the hell? Lord knows I’ve had my problems with Alison Singer in the past, but if there’s one thing she didn’t do in the John Oliver vaccine segment it was to “completely belittle other viewpoints.” Go back and look for yourself if you don’t believe me. Her appearance is at around the 16 minute mark. Singer states that she thinks it was worthwhile to examine the question of whether vaccines cause autism, but that at some point there’s “just so much evidence” that they don’t. That’s hardly “completely belittling” another viewpoint. It’s basically saying that she doesn’t regret examining whether vaccines cause autism but that she’s moved on because there was no evidence to support her concept. As for Seth Mnookin, none of what Quackenboss says about Mnookin has anything to do with whether his views on vaccines are correct or not.
Quackenboss then finishes with what I like to refer to as the fantasy of eventual validation:
You were once a thought leader for many people, John. But last night you exposed yourself as being a thought sayer, reading a script. It was shameful and disappointing, and one day you’ll look back and realize you were on the wrong side of history in the most public way possible.
That day is coming soon.
No, it’s not. It’s really not.
It’s at this point, near the end of my post, that I’ll reveal a secret that will drive Quackenboss nuts if she actually sees this post. I had input into this segment. One of the researchers for Last Week Tonight contacted me back in April about this segment. We had a conversation that lasted over an hour, and I sent the researcher a bunch of links. Much of what we discussed ended up in the segment. I also referred her to a number of other sources, although I don’t know which of these she contacted.
Choke on that, Levi Quackenboss.