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Old guard antivaccine activist J. B. Handley loses his best platform to spread misinformation

J. B. Handley and Orac go way back (to 2005), when Orac first encountered Handley’s brand of blustering, arrogantly ignorant antivaccine pseudoscience. Lately, Handley’s been blogging over at Medium. A couple of weeks ago, Medium kicked him off its platform for violating its TOS. Schadenfreude ensues.

I hesitated briefly about whether I wanted to write about this or not, largely because I didn’t want to do what I considered to posts in a row in which the target, so to speak, was “too easy,” but I changed my mind. The reason is because the subject of this post is someone whose history with me goes way, way back to near the very beginning of this blog. I’m referring to J. B. Handley. And by “way back,” I mean way back. For instance, here’s the first time I ever mentioned him. It was nearly 13 years ago. Back in the old days, he’d even show up in the comments from time to time. Thanks to the heads up from a certain feathery dinosaur, I learned something about Handley that piqued my interest, namely that Medium.com kicked him off its platform. Before I discuss what’s happened recently, however, let’s review a little history.

Those of you who haven’t been reading this blog for more than a few years might not be familiar with Mr. Handley, because he hasn’t been nearly as prominent, and I haven’t mentioned him nearly as often as I did in the early days of this blog. True, I did mention him in the comments just the other day, and deconstructed one of his antivaccine rants a bit as recently as November, but back in the old days, he was a frequent presence on the blog as an example of someone promoting antivaccine pseudoscience. For instance, there was the hilariously bad phone poll that Mr. Handley tried to represent as evidence that unvaccinated children were healthier than vaccinated children, all the way back in 2007. Then there was the time he tugged on Superman’s cape by taunting me with a very bad study in monkeys purporting to show that thimerosal causes autism. Then there was the time he created a website called Fourteen Studies, in which what Mr. Handley attempted (and failed) to deconstruct what he believed to be the seminal studies showing no correlation between vaccination and autism.

Through it all, Mr. Handley won friends and influenced people with a bullying, obnoxious, “bull in a china shop” demeanor, in which he attacked first and never asked questions, sometimes launching vicious personal verbal attacks on reporters. His bluster was frequently full of macho posturing, complete with impugning the manhood of his male targets by calling them “pussies,” which was also reflected in the misogyny he demonstrated towards female reporters who crossed him. He even once implied that Paul Offit must have slipped reporter Amy Wallace a roofie. (Wallace had written a story critical of the antivaccine movement.) In particular, he hates academics and intellectuals like Steven Novella and myself:

I’m not intellectually intimidated by any of these jokers. Their degrees mean zippo to me, because I knew plenty of knuckleheads in college who went on to be doctors, and they’re still knuckleheads (I also knew plenty of great, smart guys who went on to be doctors and they’re still great, smart guys).

I chose a different path and went into the business world. In the business world, having a degree from a great college or business school gets you your first job, and not much else. There are plenty of Harvard Business School grads who have bankrupted companies and gone to jail, and plenty of high school drop-outs who are multi-millionaires. Brains and street-smarts win, not degrees, arrogance, or entitlement.

I bet Mr. Handley voted for Donald Trump. At the time, I also couldn’t help but point out that in medicine being from a great medical school gets you into a really good residency and not much else. In any case, perhaps the most famous quote from J.B. Handley was when he referred to antivaccine icon Andrew Wakefield as “Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ rolled up into one.” Perhaps the most hilarious incident involving J.B. Handley, however, occurred in 2010, when he thought that the autism blogger who uses the pseudonym of “Sullivan” was really Bonnie Offit, Paul Offit’s wife. He made an offer:

Bonnie Offit, or Sullivan for that matter, I have a simple offer:

If you can produce a dad with a child with autism with a remarkable grasp of the medical and scientific literature who blogs under the name Sullivan, a man who has an inordinate grasp of the details of your husband’s patents, lawsuits, published studies, and web habits, I will make sure that the pauloffit.com website is given to you and your husband for good.

In fact, if you can produce this father, I promise to never, ever publicly write about or utter the name “Paul Offit” again.

I’m waiting, Bonnie, and I have a funny feeling I will be waiting a very long time.

The challenge was accepted, and J.B. lost when Sullivan outed himself. To his credit, Mr. Handley did live up to his end of the bargain. He did keep his promise not to mention Dr. Offit—for a while. Eventually, he just couldn’t help himself and went back to attacking Dr. Offit. For instance, here he is just last month referring to Dr. Offit as the “spokesperson for the vaccine industry”:

Most people think that Jenny McCarthy formed the antivaccine group Generation Rescue, but in reality it was J.B. Handley and his wife, both of whom fervently believed that their son’s autism was caused by thimerosal in vaccines. In its early days, Generation Rescue was all about the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal, which was in many childhood vaccines until the end of 2001. It’s not on the Generation Rescue website any more, but it’s preserved in quote form in an early post from the ScienceBlogs version of Respectful Insolence (and on Archive.org)

Generation Rescue believes that childhood neurological disorders such as autism, Asperger’s, ADHD/ADD, speech delay, sensory integration disorder, and many other developmental delays are all misdiagnoses for mercury poisoning.

When you know cause, you can focus on cure. Thousands of parents are curing their children by removing the mercury from their children’s bodies. We want you, the parent, to know the truth.

Of course, as the years rolled by after the elimination of thimerosal from nearly all childhood vaccines, it became harder and harder to blame autism on thimerosal, and Generation Rescue…evolved…to say:

Our children are experiencing epidemics of ADD/ADHD, Asperger’s, PDD-NOS, and Autism.

We believe these neurological disorders (“NDs”) are environmental illnesses caused by an overload of heavy metals, live viruses, and bacteria. Proper treatment of our children, known as “biomedical intervention”, is leading to recovery for thousands.

The cause of this epidemic of NDs is extremely controversial. We believe the primary causes include the tripling of vaccines given to children in the last 15 years (mercury, aluminum and live viruses); maternal toxic load and prenatal vaccines; heavy metals like mercury in our air, water, and food; and the overuse of antibiotics.

The antivaccine movement, including Generation Rescue, is nothing if not…adaptable. The only fixed view that never changes is that it must be vaccines that cause autism (and autoimmune disease, diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome, etc.). Everything else is fungible.

It wasn’t until around 2007 that Mr. Handley, seeing an opportunity to make his little antivaccine crank group more prominent, had Jenny McCarthy appointed President of Generation Rescue. She became the face of the organization, such as it was, and still is its face to this day. The Handleys faded into the background. Beginning around 2011 or 2012, Mr. Handley disappeared (for the most part) from blogging and social media.

Then, in 2015, he reappeared, spewing revisionist history about the group he had co-founded. It wasn’t long before I noticed him posting on Medium.com defending the antivaccine propagandafest disguised as a documentary, VAXXED, even going so far as to claim that the attacks on VAXXED “backfired.” Consistent with his previous activity, he’s very big on anger, too, as well as claiming he’s not “antivaccine.”

Since his reemergence, oddly enough, instead of his old stomping grounds at the antivaccine crank blog known as Age of Autism, Handley’s favored medium in which to publish his antivaccine screeds has been Medium.com. Now I’m going to be honest here. I don’t really “grok” Medium. Is it a blogging platform? What makes it different than, say, Blogger or WordPress? Medium claims:

Medium taps into the brains of the world’s most insightful writers, thinkers, and storytellers to bring you the smartest takes on topics that matter. So whatever your interest, you can always find fresh thinking and unique perspectives.

I don’t know. I signed up for a Medium account. I could easily post stuff there. That doesn’t suggest any sort of filter. I like to think that I’m a pretty damned good writer, but, even if I weren’t, signing up for Medium wouldn’t be any different. After all, Handley, who is hardly what I would characterize as a good writer, posted to Medium for over two years before his account was suspended.

Which brings us back to the beginning. I said that a certain feathery dinosaur had turned me on to the news that J.B. Handley’s Medium account had been suspended. Kent Heckenlively, who used to be a regular at AoA but took a big step down to an even more wretched hive of scum and quackery run by Patrick “Tim” Bolen, is all over it:

Sometimes he reminds me of Obi Wan-Kenobi from Star Wars. I need to ask him the right question before he will give me an answer. I have tried to be a good padawan.

Which is why when he recently mentioned to me that he had been kicked off of MEDIUM, my ears suddenly pricked up. He had laughed at my stories of my talk at the Commonwealth Club of California being cancelled because of protests, my being banned from Australia for three years, and the recent shadow-banning by Facebook.

[…]

J.B. really liked the platform of MEDIUM, starting in September of 2015, writing twenty-seven articles, and amassing more than 1.5 million views. In addition, MEDIUM named his a “Top Health Writer” for his work.

Heckenlively’s hero worship of Handley is almost as nauseating as Handley’s hero worship of Wakefield. In any case, on March 23, 2018, J.B. Handley received an email from Medium telling him that his Medium.com account was “in violation of our rules” and that, although he could log on and see his articles in order to export them to a new platform, his account would show up as suspended to everyone else. If Heckenlively is to be believed, Handley tried to find out why his account had been suspended, but got no answer.

Handley himself confirmed the suspension:

As much as I despise Handley, I must admit some empathy with him in this. This sort of opaque behavior is frustratingly the norm on the part of social media companies. On the other hand, Handley was spreading antivaccine and autism pseudoscience, with the arrogance of ignorance that led him to think that he actually understood the science he was mangling. In any case, here are Medium.com’s rules. I wondered which rule Handley had run afoul of, and then I saw this:

We do not allow posts or accounts that glorify, celebrate, downplay, or trivialize violence, suffering, abuse, or deaths of individuals or groups. This includes the use of scientific or pseudoscientific claims to pathologize, dehumanize, or disempower others. We do not allow calls for intolerance, exclusion, or segregation based on protected characteristics, nor do we allow the glorification of groups which do any of the above.

Hmmm. Handley definitely used pseudoscientific claims, but did he use them to “pathologize, dehumanize, or disempower others”? For Handley to have his account suspended, someone must have complained. I learned from the almighty Wayback Machine that Handley’s last post for Medium.com was published on March 10 and entitled Every Child By Two bites the hand that feeds them.

Frustratingly, Archive.org does not have the article archived. So I don’t know the specific reason why Handley was kicked off Medium. However, it turns out that Handley also posted it on Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s World Mercury Project. There’s a whole lot of nonsense there, in which Handley fancies himself not just a scientist but a lawyer, but nothing that I could see potentially violating Medium’s TOS.

While it still irks me that social media companies like Medium are so opaque in how they deal with suspending or terminating accounts for violating their TOS, I can’t help but feel a little schadenfreude over Handley’s being so unceremoniously booted from Medium. Clearly, he got way more visibility there than he had ever achieved posting at AoA or on RFK, Jr.’s website, given his bragging about over a million impressions in the two and a half years he was there. Now he has to run his own blog, J.B. Handley Blog, just like the rest of us. His free speech hasn’t been curtailed, because, although he has a right to spread his pseudoscientific misinformation and bile online, he doesn’t have a right to a specific platform to do so. Getting booted from his blogging platform couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. If he gets tired of hosting his own site, he can always slink back to AoA, where he started and where his combination of pseudoscience, bluster, and quackery belongs.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

31 replies on “Old guard antivaccine activist J. B. Handley loses his best platform to spread misinformation”

D’oh! Handley’s single-issue, antivax vote helped to produce these results under Trump:

National Institutes of Health: Director Francis Collins (“Study after study has found no link between autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine—or any vaccine for that matter.”)

HHS: Secretay Alex Azar (Former US president of Eli Lilly, and, as general counsel of HHS, participated in the Autism Omnibus Proceeding that denied more than 5000 claims of vaccine injury.)

FDA: Commisioner Scott Gottlieb (Stated that the a putative connection between vaccines and autism was “thoroughly debunked.”)

CDC: Director Robert Redfield (Stated that “vaccination is important and needs to be fully utilized” and termed his efforts as an Army doctor to convince leadership to vaccinate “every individual in the armed forces” against hepatitis B “the most important thing I did in my life.”

I had been under the impression that Medium.com was more than just a blogging platform. I first heard of it when your ScienceBlogs colleague Ethan “Starts With a Bang” Siegel started posting his content over there. But while I have never read any of Handley’s stuff, I had seen signs that their quality control was less than rigorous. If they really do allow anybody to post over there, that would explain the lack of quality control.

I agree that the opacity of social media platforms is a problem. Handley’s ban may not even have been due to something in the last article he posted; it could have been something from weeks or months earlier that somebody belatedly noticed. Only Medium.com know, and they aren’t telling.

Yah, I had never heard of it until Ethan went there (and ultimately to Forbes, whereupon he fell off my radar). I never quite figured out what it’s deal was.

Same here, I lost track of Ethan when he went over to Forbes. Forbes apparently requires tracker/stalker-bugs in order to access its content, and I’m not going to lower my security settings to let those (and other malware) in, so, no Forbes for me. That’s no loss, there’s plenty of stuff to read online without having to submit to malware risks.

Well, I have an account there, and, just for yucks, started a post. I’m now half tempted to republish couple of “best of Orac” posts at Medium and see what happens.

You can find Handley’s article: “Every Child By Two bites the hand that feeds them” at Robert Kennedy Jr. website, World Mercury Project. https://worldmercuryproject.org/news/every-child-by-two-bites-the-hand-that-feeds-them/

As usual, making bogus claims that anyone pro vaccine is bought and paid for by “Big Pharma”. ECBT has received grants from Pharma companies, no strings attached, they also get money from many individuals, CDC, etc; but Age of Autism, National Vaccine Information Center, etc. have received money from Joe Mercola, Lee Silby, etc. all for-profit purveyors of naturopathic products. And another recent article on World Mercury Project, “The Changing Face of Vaccinology” states: “Given that vaccines are one of the pharmaceutical industry’s most profitable product lines, with no product liability and 84% growth in global vaccine revenues predicted for 2014-2020, more are in the works.”

As I wrote in a recent article on Science-Based Medicine, “The So-Called Vaccine Debate: False Balance in The San Diego Union-Tribune”, vaccines, on the whole, represent a minuscule portion of world pharmaceutical revenues, that the companies would make more if kids got sick, and that it is absurd to use profit as a litmus test for anything since everything we purchase is sold for profit, both beneficial, neutral, and harmful things.

Judah Folkman devoted years pushing the idea that cancer needs to generate its own blood vessels. When small, nutrients and waste can diffuse through the cell membrane; but once a tumor grows, the inner cells would dies if this was their only means, so angiogenesis. Folkman was responsible for development of angiogenesis inhibitors, one of the weapons in our war on cancer. He owned over 50 patents, became quite rich, was on talk shows, etc. promoting his ideas. Perhaps some idiotic naturopath may claim that cancer doesn’t work that way; but for most of us, the fact that Folkman was responsible for development of a weapon against cancer and it was profitable gets, at least from me, a “well deserved”. I wonder how many people with cancer reject angiogenesis inhibitors as part of their therapy because Folkman became wealthy?

I’m not an oncologist, so if above not correct, I hope Orac will make corrections in a comment.

“I wonder how many people with cancer reject angiogenesis inhibitors as part of their therapy because Folkman became wealthy?”

They use the fact that Dr. Offit got compensation by he and his partners selling their patent for money as a way to demonize him. Just today someone responded to a comment of mine at SBM with: “Did paul offit have a conflict of interest when he sold his share of the
rotateq patent while he was an advisor to the cdc on vaccine practices?”

Except Dr. Offit was no longer a member of ACIP at that time. I even found some ACIP meeting minutes to prove it:
https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/acip/meetings/downloads/min-archive/min-jun08-508.pdf

Obviously, the truth means nothing to them if it conflicts to their preferred narrative.

Paul Offit NEVER owned the patent. It was owned by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Their policy, as is usual in most non-profits, is to share what they received for patent with the researchers. CHOPS provides medical education, seed money for researchers and facilities, and free care to poor children, so, I guess they could have just given the patent away; but the vaccine would still have been produced by some for-profit company, so, why shouldn’t a quality non-profit benefit from what their in-house researchers have accomplished?

I repeat, Paul Offit NEVER owned the patent!

And, again, everything sold in US is for-profit, so a bogus argument. Even if Offit owned the patent, the vaccine works, that is, if one bases their judgment on science, so, just as with Folkman’s angiogenesis inhibitors, why shouldn’t someone who devoted 25 years as Offit did to researching and developing the vaccine be rewarded? As I pointed out in my article, pediatricians are among the lowest paid of the medical professions, so, without the vaccine if Offit had chosen one of the higher paid specialties his income over 25 years would have been the same.

Thanks for the clarification. I guess I should say was that they were compensated for their twenty five years of work.

Still they keep repeating the lie that he was a member of ACIP when RotaTeq was approved. That still needs to be challenged. Especially after the CDC put back the meeting minutes archive (it was hard to link to a couple of years ago).

Plus I add on the bonus of getting to call those anti-vax folk who perpetuate the lie by calling them dirty commies because they don’t believe someone should be paid for decades of labor. 😉

It is highly possible that Handley’s posting of personal contact information in his last post on Medium was the reason he has been banned. This is a tactic that people such as him use to try to encourage others to send intimidating messages to those who support the science behind vaccines. It is a clear violation.

IMHO we should stop hedging about Pharma vax profits and turn that into a positive:

“Yes, Pharma makes lots of money on vaccines. Excellent! That’s called ‘doing well by doing good.’ It’s one of the few cases where someone is earning oodles of dough by doing something that saves millions of lives and prevents suffering on an enormous scale. And it’s certainly better than making your loot by selling quack remedies and power placebos that do exactly nothing or worse.”

If we go on the offensive like that, I’ll bet it takes less than two years before antivaxers stop using the “pharma makes money” gambit.

” this epidemic of NDs”

Right, I don’t like the increase of naturopathic doctors myself.

” the world’s most insightful writers, thinkers and story tellers”

Well, I can agree with the story teller part.

It always amuses me when people like Handley, Adams or Null ( see “Meetings with Remarkable Minds” prn.fm) talk about the “smartest” or “most advanced” as if they could distinguish who is intelligent or not. After all, they think themselves brilliant. Andy is a paradigm shifter. They believe Linus Pauling’s breakthrough concerning vitamin C and acid alkaline diet dreck.
Judging one’s own and other people’s abilities is a part of executive functioning which anti-vaxxers lack big league.

My theory is that Mr. Handley got booted for posting up private contact information of one of the people (not me) in a picture on his blog post about ECBT. I didn’t complain, and I don’t know who did, but I think Medium takes disclosure of personal cell phone numbers pretty seriously.

Mr. Handley already started his own blog.

Now that you mention it, that could very well be the reason. The funny thing is, I didn’t even notice it because I didn’t click on the picture of the email Handley included in the post, and the text there was too small in the thumbnail.

Orac, I think there’s also a decent chance he may have run afoul of this, from Medium.com rules:

“Related conduct
We do not allow posts or accounts that engage in on-platform, off-platform, or cross-platform campaigns of targeting, harassment, hate speech, violence, or disinformation. We may consider off-platform actions in assessing a Medium account, and restrict access or availability to that account.”

For example someone has a Medium account, and then has their own blog elsewhere, where they promote Nazi BS: the Nazi blog comes to Medium’s attention, so Medium kicks them off its platform.

Someone may have reported him for something he said elsewhere, or Medium.com may have found on its own. The guy certainly has “track record,” so there’s plenty to report.

I don’t like opaque rule-sets and I don’t trust algorithmic robo-judges, but at least in this case they made the right call.

Handley fancies himself not just a scientist but a lawyer

There is an old saying about people who act as their own lawyers: Anybody who does so has a fool for a client.

Although I certainly agree that social media platforms should be more opaque with regards to their decisions (Facebook is one of the guiltiest parties), I think that this whole Russian bot scandal has made everyone scared. And, although I have zero evidence in support, I have to wonder if websites like Medium are now purging their websites of anything that doesn’t meet some standard (back to opacity). I feel mixed about it – if there is some segmentation of websites, then people like us may not be bothered to comment on nonsense on websites we don’t like.

@SkepticalRaptor: Presumably, you meant that you agree that social media platforms should be less opaque with regards to their decisions.

Looks like LaHood deserved to lose for other reasons than being antivax. But I’m sure it helped cement his reputation as a nut with San Antonio voters.

Dammit. He doesn’t have a comment section on his new blog. I was going to head over there and comment so we can get his banning of me over with quickly. He blocked me on Medium.com after I refuted his claims on a post point-by-point. (Medium.com allows you to comment right next to the paragraphs instead of at the bottom, like WordPress does.)
I do wonder from time to time if Mr. Handley and company keep in touch with Desiree Jennings, the cheerleader who could run backwards but not walk forwards and who developed a British accent from the flu vaccine.

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