As much as I missed blogging when I was on my forced hiatus, there were certain things (and people) I didn’t miss in the least. One such person is an antivaxer who goes by the ‘nym Levi Quackenboss. She is without a doubt the epitome of the Dunning-Kruger effect and the arrogance of ignorance on steroids. Although there have been so many examples of these tendencies in Quackenboss, perhaps the lowest point I remember her hitting, the most despicable thing she ever did, was when she attacked and doxed a 12-year-old boy who posted a pro-vaccine video. Hilariously, the 12-year-old boy, named Marco Arturo, so brilliantly put her in her place in response, dropping the mic on her. Less amusingly, she was also the antivaxer who just couldn’t keep her mout shut and, a week before the election last year, bragged about how Andrew Wakefield and a couple of other antivaccine activists had met with Donald Trump in Florida in August 2016, later transmitting antivaccine demands to him. Perhaps the most hilariously embarrassing thing she did was to try to attack John Oliver after his epic and amazing segment on the antivaccine movement. Epic fail, as usual.
So I suppose it’s not too surprising that Quackenboss would manage to get my attention again. This time around, I find her aggressively ignorant and hostile blather a useful tool to illustrate various antivaccine tropes. This time around, her post is 21 alternative rituals to the baby well check. Don’t worry. I won’t go through all 21 of them. They’re not so much the point, anyway, as they are the usual mixture of the probably harmless (like using cloth diapers) to the dangerous (refusing the vitamin K birth dose). What’s more important is the leadup to them, the “rationale,” so to speak.
The key idea behind the article (if you can call the disjointed mish-mash of pseudoscience and bad arguments “thoughts”) is that vaccination is a “ritual” and the reason antivaxers “lose” because they don’t have the same sort of powerful “ritual.” She bases it on something Liam Scheff said in this video:
Liam Scheff was a fairly prominent HIV/AIDS denialist. He was noted for, among other things, having appeared in the HIV/AIDS denialist film House of Numbers. Contrary to Quackenboss’ portrayal of him, he could be a nasty piece of work, complete with making legal threats. He died earlier this year of a rather mysterious year-long illness that he attributed to complications of a dental procedure, complications whose exact nature was never made clear but involved tinnitus. He was also beloved by antivaxers, basically being one of them.
I can see why Quackenboss liked Scheff’s video so much Scheff makes arguments every bit as coherent as hers, as in incoherent. She starts out by describing her elation at the “CDC whistleblower” story three years ago, thinking that, as more “revelations” came out surely the mainstream press would pick up on the story and “blow open” the “coverup” at the heart of the CDC. Basically, this conspiracy theory is at the heart of Andrew Wakefield’s conspiracy propaganda movie masquerading as a documentary VAXXED. The reason it never “broke through” is because it is a conspiracy theory that, when examined closely, has no plausibility or evidence to support it.
I also can’t help but point out that, in the battle for accepting science, scientists are actually at a disadvantage. The human brain is hard-wired to leap to accepting correlation as causation. It’s also hard-wired to to love our babies, to be extremely protective of them. These two characteristics of human behavior conspire to make the antivaccine narrative very compelling: Stories of babies regressing into autism after vaccines easily trump the science that shows that vaccines do not produce a higher risk of autism. If anything, I find it gratifying and amazing that the antivaccine narrative hasn’t completely taken over. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have far more traction than is good for society, but thus far science has done surprisingly well against the lizard part of the human brain.
But back to Sheff. Like so many antivaxers, Scheff takes a germ of an idea that could be reasonable and then runs straight off the cliff with it. In this case, he laments that antivaxers can’t “win,” that their evidence can’t “break through,” because of the cultural narrative that vaccines are good and because vaccines are a “ritual.” Obviously, it never occurs to him that the reason that antivaccine arguments don’t “break through” is because they are utter BS, rooted in pseudoscience, confusing correlation with causation, and the willful misinterpretation of existing science. To him, it’s this:
“You don’t question huge cultural stories, and the story is always the same: ‘This is how we do it. We didn’t always do it this way, but we learned to do it this way, and now we live in the best of all possible worlds.’
Despite disease outbreaks in highly vaccinated populations. Despite diseases caused by the ingredients of vaccines. Despite autism. Despite causing polio by spraying DDT.
‘We live in the best of all possible worlds.’
Their side gets all the support they want because the entire media operation– the church, the government– believes this. No one is going to admit that we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds.
And this is the most crucial point that nobody talks about: the anti-vaccine side doesn’t know what to offer in the place of vaccination.
There is something to the power of cultural narratives. Any cultural anthropologist will tell you that. However, Scheff basically impressed Quackenboss with a gross simplification of what cultural narratives are. For one thing, his obsession of “the best of all possible worlds,” which is, of course, a religious concept. So you know it won’t be long before the “vaccination = religion” angle shows up. But first, Scheff lays down a whole lot of antivaccine pseudoscience, including the claim that vaccines cause disease, the “toxins” gambit, the claim that vaccines cause autism, and more. Hilariously, he asks, “Didn’t scarlet fever go away because of sanitation?” Actually, no. Scarlet fever is no longer a major scourge because of antibiotics that prevent strep throat from progressing to scarlet fever. To be honest, I’m not sure why he brought up scarlet fever, given that there is no vaccine against scarlet fever.
But, hey, why stop there? He goes on to invoke the “vaccine = religion” narrative:
Vaccination is nothing if not a ritual. It is a religious, ritualized act. A ceremony. You go to someone with a white coat, who you trust implicitly, who is smarter than you, who has had more training than you.
They gain your trust by telling you it’s going to hurt a little bit, and then the hurt is going to be over. Of course, they’re talking about a simple prick of the skin, not vaccine injury. They’re just priests. They’re not students of what the ingredients are doing to your body, or they wouldn’t be doing it.
They are hallowed for enacting this ritual. It is very significant to go to a place where you have no control, to give yourself up to authority, to let them do a ritual in which you are a participant.
It makes you feel like you are part of something. You will become a member of a society that accepts a tribal ritual.
The anti-vaccine movement doesn’t have a ritual to offer. They have nothing that says, ‘You can bring your child to this non-vaccine center and we’ll bless your child with the holy oil of oregano. We’re going to do all of this as a ritual. An anti-glyphosate, anti-vaccine, anti-sugar, anti-poison ritual.’
We don’t have anything like that. We can’t compete. People who are asking for logic in medicine are missing the fundamental aspect of medicine: it is a religious ritualistic practice.
We are a far more tribal species– a far more mythology-driven, psychologically-driven species– than we are a logical species.
Well, I’ll have to admit that Scheff’s last statement is correct. We are a mythology-driven, tribal species. Logic, skepticism, and science are not the basis of how we make most of our decisions and come to most of our conclusions. If they were, there wouldn’t be much for skeptics to do. Of course, the same would be true if people like Liam Scheff and Levi Quackenboss weren’t around to try to denigrate the validity of the conclusions of science by likening scientists and physicians to priests in white coats performing rituals without which children cannot become part of society.
Unfortunately, none of this is a new phenomenon. Nine years ago, I was noting how Ginger Taylor and Kim Stagliano liked to define the term “Vaccinianity” thusly:
The worship of Vaccination. The belief that Vaccine is inherently Good and therefore cannot cause damage. If damage does occur, it is not because Vaccine was bad, but because the injured party was a poor receptacle for the inherently Good Vaccine. (ie. hanna poling was hurt when she came into contact with Vaccine, not because the Vaccine was harmful, but because her DNA was not to par or because her mitochondrial disorder was to blame.) Vaccine is presumed to have rights that supersede the rights of the individual, while the human person’s rights must defer to Vaccine.
I cautioned them both that the term they had coined sounds an awful lot like a term coined by a group of truly despicable people, even giving them a friendly word of advice about it. Surprisingly, they didn’t take me up on this advice. Oddly enough, both Scheff and Quackenboss don’t sink that low, but Quackenboss does “build” on Scheff’s “ideas” (if you can call them that) in a way that echoes Stagliano and Taylor:
Seen through this lens, how is the ritual of vaccination in western medicine different from the ritual of baptism as a requirement for eternal salvation in Christianity? Or the Hindu black pottu dot on a baby’s cheek keeping them from getting sick because people admire them too much? Or, at the extreme end of infant rituals, female genital mutilation as a mark of marriageability in Burkina Faso?
People who participate in those rituals don’t question them because they are huge cultural stories. Even if they don’t wholeheartedly believe, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
How can scientific research ever make progress when it has to adhere to the (government, big ag, chemical and pharmaceutical industries) religious tenets of ritualistic medicine?
Likening vaccination to female genital mutilation? Stay classy, there Levi. Stay classy. I suppose I should at least be relieved she isn’t comparing vaccination to rape, as some antivaxers do, or to the Holocaust, as others do. She does, however, sound a lot like the über-crank to rule all cranks, Mike Adams, who likened vaccination to a religion as well, but took it one step beyond, so to speak, likening it to the “ritualistic sacrifice of children to the ‘vaccine gods’ as a way to appease their globalist controllers, just “as the Maya high priests carried out their sacrifices in the name of ‘cosmic powers.'”
Actually, the more I look, the more I find the same sorts of comparisons as Quackenboss among antivaccinationists. For instance, one antivaccine group posted what they thought were the Vaccine Ten Commandments, such as the Second Commandment, “It is NEVER the Sacred and Holy Vaccine. Any injuries associated with the Sacred and Holy Vaccine must be coincidence, or a lie.” Then there’s John Rappoport, who lays it on even thicker:
Today, as a revival of ancient symbology, vaccination is a conferred seal, a sign of moral righteousness. It’s a mark on the arm, signifying tribal inclusion. No tribe member is left out. Inclusion by vaccination protects against invisible spirits (viruses).
The notion of the tribe is enforced by dire predictions of pandemics: the spirits of other tribes (from previously unknown hot zones in jungles) are attacking the good tribe, our tribe.
Mothers, the keepers of the children, are given a way to celebrate their esteemed, symbolic, animal role as “lionesses”: confer the seal on their offspring through vaccination. Protect the future of the tribe. Speak out and defame and curse the mothers who don’t vaccinate their children. Excommunicate them from the tribe.
You get the idea. Quackenboss even says the same thing:
I’ve been chatting with an LQ commenter who messaged me the other day to say that vaccination is a ritual of cleansing. Those who partake are clean, and those who do not are unclean. Heck, you’re unclean for even questioning it, even if you did partake.
They see themselves as clean and pure and see us as vile and germ ridden.
Of course, Quackenboss doesn’t see it this way because, well, she doesn’t really believe in germ theory:
There is a faction of the population who believe that “germs” seek diseased tissue as their natural habitat— the germs aren’t the cause of the diseased tissue. The “terrain theory” holds that sick people have a temporary or permanent disposition to infection caused by their environmental toxic load, inadequate nutrition, vitamin deficiencies, and stress levels. These stagnant pools within our tissues become the breeding ground for existing benign microbes to morph into pathogenic microbes.
Yes, she’s referring to Antoine Béchamp, a rival of Louis Pasteur, whose idea was that bacteria don’t cause disease, that they are harmless; that is, if you have a healthy body. Basically, Béchamp’s hypothesis was known as the pleomorphic theory of disease and stated that bacteria change form (i.e., demonstrate pleomorphism) in response to disease, not as a cause of disease. In other words, they arise from tissues during disease states; they do not invade from the external world. Béchamp further proposed that bacteria arose from structures that he called microzymas, which to him referred to a class of enzymes. Béchamp postulated that microzymas are normally present in tissues and that their effects depended upon the cellular terrain. Ultimately, Pasteur’s theory won out over that of Béchamp, based on evidence, but Béchamp was influential at the time. To be fair, given the science and available technology of the time, Béchamp’s hypothesis was not entirely unreasonable. It was, however, superseded by Pasteur’s germ theory of disease and Koch’s later work that resulted in Koch’s postulates. What needs to be remembered is that not only did Béchamp’s hypothesis fail to be confirmed by scientific evidence, but his idea lacked the explanatory and predictive power of Pasteur’s theory. Fassa is sort of correct about one thing, though. Béchamp’s idea was basically something like this:
The inner terrain includes our immune system, organ tissues, and blood cells. Those who stepped out of line from Pasteur`s dogma asserted that the inner terrain was more vital for remaining disease free than searching for new antibiotics and vaccines to kill bacteria and viruses.
As an analogy, flies don`t create garbage. But garbage attracts flies that breed maggots to create even more flies. Removing garbage is more effective than spraying toxic chemicals, which endanger human and animal life, around the house. Similarly, adding toxins to humans is not as effective as cleaning out the inner terrain.
Guess what antivaxers consider to be “toxins”? Vaccines, of course, which brings us back to the sorts of things that Levi Quackenboss recommends as rituals for antivaxers. These include the relatively uncontroversial, such as breastfeeding your baby for six months (although she can’t resist advocating continuing breastfeeding to a full year as the baby begins eating solid food) and using cloth diapers; the harmless but useless, such as waiting five minutes after birth to cut the umbilical cord, letting the child drink only filtered water or natural spring water; and the potentially harmful, such as not using pitocin, epidural anesthesia, or antibiotics to bring your baby into the world; and the dangerous, such as refusing the neonatal vitamin K shot.
It’s also not surprising that HIV/AIDS denialists and antivaxers have such an affinity for each other. They have a shared world view with respect to disease-causing microbes: Denial that they cause disease in healthy people.
Cluelessly, Quackenboss asks why her 21 points haven’t replaced vaccination for the majority of the population? Her answer is telling: They cost money. They take work. It never occurs to her that they not only can’t prevent disease the way vaccination does, but some of them are potentially dangerous or harmful. Instead, she arrogantly touts her privilege and her contempt for those who aren’t as good as she perceives herself to be, saying, “You wanted to have kids, so guess what? You need to take care of them, even if that means spending money on higher quality food, because just keeping them alive day after day isn’t cutting it.”
Then she concludes:
So the next time you find yourself in a conversation with someone who sees your child as a disease-carrying baby bat because you didn’t partake in the vaccine ritual, confidentially reassure them that you did the delayed cord clamping ritual, the vernix rubbing ritual, the probiotic ritual, the daily sunshine vitamin D ritual, and the breastmilk 12 times a day ritual, so your baby is also protected and cleansed, and they don’t need to worry themselves about it.
Except that such a baby is not protected, and parents would be right to worry about their child being exposed to such an unprotected child. Also, Quackenboss is an idiot. She doesn’t realize that alternative medicine and antivaccination beliefs are in reality all about contamination requiring ritual purification. Quackenboss was just projecting. She just doesn’t like that her ideas about ritual purification isn’t the dominant belief.