How “they” view “us”: Colton Berrett edition

One of the reasons skeptics do what they do is to prevent and mitigate harm by sound warning bells about pseudoscientific and false beliefs that can cause harm. Certainly, that’s one reason why I do what I do. Deconstructing stories, testimonials, claims, and pseudoscientific studies by, for instance, antivaccine activists can provide a counterpoint to what otherwise would be emotional and seemingly plausible appeals that could influence fence-sitters. However, as much as we view our motives as good and pure, you can be assured that antivaxers and others promoting pseudoscience do not view us that way. I’ve often written about how “they” view “us.” Not surprisingly, they do not view us as sincere, honest people only trying to do good. Quite the contrary, to a jarring degree. I was reminded of this again this week, and as a result thought that it might be a good idea to revisit the topic of how “they” view “us,” given that it’s been nearly three years since I last discussed the disconnect between how we view ourselves and how those whose misinformation we combat view us.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the tragic case of Colton Berrett, the 17-year-old boy who four years ago developed transverse myelitis. The disease initially rendered him quadriplegic and landed him in the hospital for a month and a half. Prior to his illness, Colton was a highly active 13-year-old who enjoyed motocross and a variety of other sports. By all reports, he was happy, healthy, and on his way to a fantastic life. After his illness, it took months and years of intensive physical and occupational therapy for him to regain enough neurological function to be able to walk. Unfortunately, he never regained use of one arm and regained only partial use of the other, while remaining dependent on a portable ventilator that weighed 15 lbs and that, because he couldn’t lift it due to his disability, he characterized as his “ball and chain.” Even more sadly, it appeared that Colton had regained all the neurologic function that he was likely ever to regain. Even so, he still seemed to be managing to lead a pretty active life within his new limitations, and he had a loving family with the means to provide him with the best opportunities possible. It wasn’t enough. To make a tragic story even worse, according to his family, on January 5, 2018 Colton apparently committed suicide. You have to have a heart of stone not to feel empathy to the point of tears for Colton and his family.

Not surprisingly, throughout it all Colton’s family sought explanations for why he suffered this horrific disease. It’s human nature, after all, to want to know what caused a disease that so dramatically harmed one’s child, and transverse myelitis is a rather mysterious disease with a number of etiologies ranging from autoimmune to infectious to that most frustrating of all medical descriptions, idiopathic, which basically means, “We don’t know what caused it.” Unfortunately, that very human characteristic led his mother to vaccines. The reason is that Colton had received the last of the three shot series of Gardasil a little more than two weeks before he started complaining of the initial symptoms of transverse myelitis. As was explained both by myself and Skeptical Raptor, it was highly unlikely that Gardasil caused Colton’s transverse myelitis based on the lack of evidence linking any vaccine to the disease, the fact that Colton received the first two shots in the Gardasil series with apparently no problem, and the timing. Transverse myelitis of the type suffered by Colton tends to be a rapid, fulminant disease that doesn’t wait two weeks after the inciting event to take off. Is it possible that Gardasil caused Colton’s deterioration? Yes, barely, but it’s incredibly unlikely. None of this, unfortunately, stopped antivaxers from immediately declaring Colton to have been “sacrificed” to Gardasil and to promote a message of absolute certainty that Gardasil killed Colton Berrett. The message began a mere three days after his death, with James Lyon Weiler blaming everyone and everything from Paul Offit to big pharma to the government to Dorit Rubinstein Reiss to Peter Hotez to fascism for Colton’s demise.

When I first learned of Colton’s death a couple of weeks ago, I was reluctant to write about his story and held off. The reason was not so much that I had any doubt about my conclusion that it is incredibly unlikely that Gardasil resulted in Colton’s death. Rather, it was because I didn’t know the story, and I also knew that blogging about it so soon after his death was perilous. However, as the blog posts, Facebook posts, and Tweets ranting about how “Gardasil killed Colton Berrett” mounted, I noted exactly zero skeptical posts as recently as a few days ago. As a result, I was alarmed that no one else was stepping into the breach. Because the narrative regarding Colton was being entirely driven by the most radical elements of the antivaccine movement, I therefore felt an obligation to do my part to counter that narrative. So, reluctantly, I dove in and produced my post. Yes, my view of myself in this case was of the reluctant warrior suiting up once again to take on what I knew would likely be a very unpleasant but necessary task.

Not surprisingly, my post and motivations were not seen this way by many. Indeed, to say that my post was not well-received by antivaxers is even more of an understatement than usual. A word of background is in order here. I don’t get very many antivaxers commenting on this blog any more. Back in the old days, there used to be a lot, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have accumulated a savvy bunch of regular readers who have no patience or tolerance for antivaccine pseudoscience and quackery. They have my back, and they generally take care of countering the worst antivaccine nonsense in the comments, thus freeing me to produce new content. I like to think of it as a symbiotic relationship. They get my pearls of Insolence, Respectful and, when appropriate, not-so-Respectful, and I get their insight and cover. In any case, it was not long before I started seeing comments like this one by someone named Margaret Pickering:

You are a despicable human being. There is NO doubt that the Gardisil vaccine cause his illness and the weight of that over the course of the past 4 years caused his suicide. Get off your damn high horse and face some facts. Gardisil is maiming and killing our children every day.

And this one, by someone named Elizabeth O. Warren:

HPV shots do not need to be given to children or anyone at all.. how dare you attack this boy and what happened to him b/c you are a paid shill DORIT!!!! No he didn’t die the other day from the shot he took his own life AFTER the shot destroyed his quality of life where he then felt like a burden to his family.

For someone that claims to be so smart how are you even still holding a job?

Im to the point Dorit if I ever see you in person you better pray your legs work and you can run the other way.

Liars never get far and your time is up. YOU CAN’T SILENCE US ALL!!! Especially with your week ass blogs filled with lies.

Note the threat of violence to Dorit, which was repeated in another comment:

really so how about a mother that watched his whole story? How about a mother that watches and helps 1000s of families DETOX AFTER THEY VACCINATE?? You guys are so full of shit. GUESS WHAT???? ANTI VAXER is just another name for people that followed the schedule and saw it kill their children. SO WHATS UP ORAC?? Ill meet you in person anywhere and settle this any time any place.

In some cases, antivaxers seemed to think that Dorit wrote this post. I’m not sure why. Dorit is a prolific commenter, but she has never written a guest post here, although she does contribute guest posts to Skeptical Raptor. In any case, this is what I mean, as indicated in a comment by Laura:

Dorit is such a disgusting human being. From openly supporting the idea of forced vaccination as I saw in a panel discussion she did, and now trying to push blame of fear mongering onto the Vaxxed movement. Seriously?? Why is it that people will blame EVERYTHING in the world but NEVER the vaccines! You’d be more likely to hear a doctor or a shill like Dorit blame wearing the color blue or that the wind was blowing southeast that day than to hear them blame vaccines. Makes NO sense!! Too many kids and teens and hell, adults too for that matter are being injured or killed by vaccines. How do you sleep at night Dorit??!! Oh wait, you probably sleep fine with your money made from supporting Pharma and from the fatigue from all those vaccines you’ve had to be up to date. Cause I’m sure with you speaking so strongly about being current on vaccines, you’ve obviously gotten boosters for all the ones that are new, right?!

And, of course, there was this one by someone named Jelica:

Cursed be you liars and evildoers, profit makers. Cursed be your money, may you never enjoy it! You liars…what have you done to millions of people, and us medical workers too..we are all infected with retroviruse and we have huge incidence of cancer. What fool trusts your lies? Your liars scientists be cursed too! Whatever you have let it be cursed except your children…I am sorry for them…They have scumbags for parents.

One more, this time by someone named Tonya Ankeney:

Absolutely amazing that this would be posted right after his death. Suicide or not the CONFIRMED vaccine injury of TM from the HPV destroyed this young mans life. He was dying from onset. DO you have any idea what an injury of this magnitude does to someones mind? LET ALONE THE MIND OF A CHILD?? Very little is known about TM. One thing that is known is that it CAN and IS in some cases brought on by severe reactions to vaccine. My daughter was diagnosed at almost 10 months old with ADEM and Transverse Myelitis with total permanent paralysis after a severe adverse reaction to the Hep B and DTaP vaccines. Proven and confirmed by a host of doctors and in court. Our court case was conceded, and if you don’t know what conceded means , It means without a doubt her injuries were caused by the vaccines she received in June 2003. These reactions are listed as possible side effects on these vaccines yet when it happens even those of you who keep screaming science call it a lie. Why did the SCIENTISTS list them as reactions if it is not so? The timing of this blog is horrible to say the least. Let this family mourn the loss of their child that was taken the day the HPV vaccine stole his life!

You get the idea. The general theme of the invective aimed at me boils down to a few elements. First is that I’m not just incorrect but that I’m a callous, insensitive, and downright evil person for questioning the antivaccine narrative that Gardasil killed Colton Berrett. Other elements include that I must be a pharma shill and that I’m hurting the parents and spitting on the memory of their son. Of course, the irony of this latter charge doesn’t escape me, given that I basically delayed writing about this case as long as I could stand it, hoping against hope that someone else would take up the needed analysis. Only when it was nearly two weeks after Colton’s death, with pretty much no skeptical takes in sight, did I decide that I had to write something, and even then I was reluctant. Contrast this to James Lyon Weiler, who only three days after Colton’s death, wrote a prolonged screed blaming everyone and everything he hates for having “killed” Colton. Elsewhere, on the same day, another antivaxer blamed Gardasil for having killed Colton, and even before that a semi-regular antivaxer here also blamed Gardasil.

Four days after Colton’s death, Mary Greeley posted this video blaming Gardasil for the tragedy:

A week after Colton’s death, there were videos like this one by Brandy Vaughan asking if anyone will go to jail for the “murder” of Colton Berrett:

I can’t help but note a bit of a double standard here. It’s perfectly fine—admirable, even—for people who believe that Gardasil killed Colton Berrett to glom on to his death as soon as they learn about it in order to promote the narrative that Gardasil is dangerous, using poor Colton as cautionary example and also utilizing all sorts of hyperbolic and histrionic language. Such articles are posted widely and praised. In contrast, if someone waits 12 days to post what I considered to be a measured, respectful treatment of the story that concludes that Gardasil almost certainly didn’t kill Colton, the negative reaction is swift and vicious.

I also can’t help but note that, in any discussion, passion and certainty often win over science, because we scientists rarely speak in absolutes because we can’t. You’ll note that I didn’t title my last post Gardasil didn’t kill Colton Barrett (although I was tempted). Rather, I entitled it Did Gardasil kill Colton Berrett? The answer is almost certainly no. That’s because, as a scientist, I can’t say with utter, 100% certainty that Gardasil didn’t cause Colton’s transverse myelitis, only that it is incredibly unlikely, based on what we know about Gardasil, transverse myelitis, and Colton’s history that Gardasil contributed to his disease. Antivaxers like the VAXXED crew are under no such prohibition and can freely state with utter confidence their false belief that Gardasil definitely killed Colton Berrett.

The pièce de résistance, however, comes from our old friend antivaxer Polly Tommey and the VAXXED crew:

You can safely ignore the first 20 minutes or so (that is, unless you want to subject yourself to some seriously painful burning stupid about influenza and the flu vaccine), complete with bogus claims that the vaccine can give you the flu. It’s around the 23:00 mark, where Tommey says she has a “mantra of ‘ignore the trolls'” philosophy, but couldn’t resist addressing—you guessed it—me. Her rationale, of course, is falls into the same sort of lines as the antivax comments, namely that somehow I’m being “disrespectful” to Colton’s mother and to the family, with her calling me “disgraceful.”

Amusingly, Tommey begins by focusing on my description of myself, the blog, and why I use the ‘nym Orac. She’s particularly taken by how I discuss my love of Blakes 7, Doctor Who, and other science fiction, intentionally emphasizing the word “fiction,” as though my longtime love of science fiction and old British SF series means that what I’m writing on my blog must also be fiction. I can’t help but point out the irony of Tommey calling my post and me “silly” (among other things) after having made such a—yes—silly characterization

After pointedly saying how she didn’t want to give me too much time or attention, Tommey then continues for another twenty minutes to give me lots of time and attention, going on and on about the VAXXED bus, how wrong I am, how disgraceful I am, and how “disrespectful” I was to the Colton family. To be honest, I didn’t listen to the whole segment but instead just skimmed the rest of it after the first few minutes, as it all became very tedious. The smarmy self-righteousness mixed with righteous indignation and nonsense was beyond epic.

The point, of course, is that, as respectful as I might try to be (and I don’t pretend that I don’t occasionally fail), as much as I acknowledge, as I did in my previous post, that “inevitably any skeptical look at the narrative being promoted by the antivaccine movement will be portrayed as an attack on the dead child and his grieving family,” my warning will be correct. Any skeptical take on the portrayal of a child as having been “martyred” to the cause of vaccination will result in angry pushback, lies about the one analyzing the story, attempts to smear that person, and, above all, the portrayal of that person as callous, cold, and indifferent to all the suffering of children that antivaxers attribute to vaccines.

Yes, some of this is just posturing. (I’m talking to you, Polly Tommey; given your history you don’t merit my respect.) However, a lot of it from others is genuine. Antivaxers and others who have drunk the Kool Aid of quackery and pseudoscience don’t view themselves as cranks who have drunk the Kool Aid of pseudoscience, but rather as victims and heroes simultaneously. Just look at some of Kent Heckenlively’s fantasies about being Aragorn, Son of Arathorn, facing down Sauron’s forces in a doomed diversionary mission at the Black Gate of Mordor, his offer to accept the surrender of pro-vaccine advocates, and his fantasy about retributive justice against all of us promoting vaccination if you don’t believe me. They believe passionately that they are in the right and that people like me are villains on par with Sauron, Darth Vader, and Lord Voldemort all rolled into one. It’s why they are so quick to go on the attack. It’s why they are so intent on doxing pseudonymous skeptical bloggers and harassing them at work. It’s why they use frivolous libel lawsuits as a weapon. It’s why they report skeptical physicians to their state medical boards for no good reason.

When you are convinced that you are absolutely in the right and that your opponents are not just opponents, but downright evil, the ends justify the means. Also, they will not believe you when you say how sorry you are for the parents of a child who has died. Still, there is hope. I like to remember when I received an e-mail from the father of Amelia Saunders, a girl who was treated by cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski for her brain cancer but ultimately died anyway. I noted at the time that we as skeptics do have to be careful to make sure our understandable anger and revulsion at what antivaccine quacks like Andrew Wakefield are not misdirected at grieving families like the Coltons. As I like to say, no one knows how he or she will react to having a child with a brain tumor (like Amelia Saunders) or a child disabled by a crippling illness like transverse myelitis (like Colton Berrett). Even so, we cannot allow the potential emotional reaction of such families silence us. The stakes are too high. We can, however, try our best to be empathetic and respectful while keeping the focus on the target, in this case, antivaccine misinformation and pseudoscience of the type being spread by Polly Tommey.