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

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.