V is for Vaccine: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Del Bigtree rile up an antivaccine demonstration against SB 276

Last week, I wrote about an incident that happened last Wednesday when a antivaxer named Austin Bennett smacked California Senator Richard Pan from behind. Bennet was charged with assault and then, showing himself to be the worst client ever for a lawyer, promptly went on Facebook Live and started ranting about why he did it, how evil vaccines are, and how evil Dr. Pan supposedly is for having been the co-sponsor and driving force behind SB 277, the bill that became law in 2015 and eliminated nonmedical personal belief exemptions to school vaccine mandates. SB 277 worked, too, at first. However, as I warned right after the bill passed, it wasn’t long before, following the trail blazed by Dr. Bob Sears, a cottage industry of antivaccine quacks and antivax-sympathetic doctors started writing nonmedical exemptions for scientifically unsupportable indications such as a family history of autoimmune disease, having an older sibling with autism, or for bogus diagnoses of MTHFR mutations supposedly causing “susceptibility to vaccine injury.” As a result, the number of medical exemptions soared beyond what one would expect based on the prevalence of actual conditions that are contraindications to vaccination. This brings us to SB 276 and “V is for Vaccine.”

Basically, as I described a couple of weeks ago, SB 276 is Dr. Pan’s attempt to fix the deficiency in SB 277 that permitted this cottage industry of quack-written bogus medical exemptions to flourish, an effort that has brought the Church of Scientology into the fray opposing the bill. Basically, SB 276 would would require the health department in California to annually review immunization reports from schools, to identify schools with an overall immunization rate of less than 95%, physicians and surgeons who submitted five or more medical exemption forms in a calendar year, and schools and institutions that do not report immunization rates to the department. It would also require a clinically trained staff member who is a physician, surgeon, or a registered nurse to review all medical exemptions meeting these conditions, authorizing the State Public Health Officer to review the exemptions identified by that staff member as fraudulent or inconsistent with established guidelines. The department can report physicians issuing fraudulent or scientifically unjustified medical exemptions to the state medical board. It’s not perfect, as it was a bit watered down from the original version, but it would definitely shine a light on antivax quacks writing bogus medical exemptions, which is why antivaxers hate it.

Because the bill appears to be on the verge of passing the California legislature, antivaxers are getting desperate. As a result, yesterday antivaxers held a “V is for Vaccine” protest at the California State Capitol. It’s an effort that antivaxer Josh Coleman, the “brain” behind Star Wars cosplaying antivaxers descending upon Disneyland and V-cosplaying antivaxers descending upon San Diego Comic-Con earlier this summer:

As an aside, in my neck of the woods, there were antivaxers invading the Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise a couple of weeks ago cosplaying 1950s-era Bobby soxers, because, you know, antivaxers want to take us back to the 1950s in terms of infectious disease, back before there were vaccines against measles, polio, mumps, rubella, Hib, and a number of other potentially deadly infectious diseases:

You get the idea. Antivaxers have turned into cosplaying protesters. In any event, here’s what “V is for Vaccine” was to encompass:

“Surround the Capitol”? That sure doesn’t sound intimidating, does it, to surround the Capitol and wait for lawmakers and employees to arrive for work. As some people noted at the time, given the history of violent rhetoric from antivaxers, this “V is for Vaccine” rally really was a cause for concern, particularly given the recent attack on Sen. Pan by Austin Bennett.

Some people posted examples:

Apparently the heat based on Bennett’s attack and people calling out violent rhetoric of the antivaccine movement, because the organizers of the “V is for Vaccine” rally felt the need to write a statement:

There’s so much disingenuous bullshit here. (Sorry, but there’s no other good word to describe it.) Of course, given that antivaccine pseudoscience is rooted in conspiracy theories, it’s not in the least bit surprising that the first move of the organizers of “V is for Vaccine” was to invoke a conspiracy theory, claiming that Austin Bennet’s attack was, in essence, a false flag operation designed to cast antivaxers in a bad light. I have news for them: There is no need for a false flag operation. Antivaxers are quite good at casting themselves in a plenty bad light all by themselves. They don’t need any help from Dr. Pan, me, or any other vaccine advocate to look bad. All we have to do is to report what they say and do, and they look bad, because what they say and do is bad.

So what happened? Not much. There was, as far as I’m aware, no violence. What “V is for Vaccine” resembled, more than anything else, is every other antivaccine rally I’ve ever seen, with a couple of exceptions. There were fewer handmade signs and more professionally printed signs, and the demonstration was a bit bigger than Jenny McCarthy’s “Green Our Vaccines” march on Washington 11 years ago and much bigger than most other antivaccine rallies. Even so, it wasn’t by any means a huge rally, a few hundred people. As of this writing, there’s been very little press coverage of the rally (good!), but The Sacramento Bee did publish a report last night. Noting that there were a few hundred protestors, the report mentioned the attack on Dr. Pan last week by Austin Bennet and added:

Pan on Wednesday connected that kind of threatening activism to the organizer of the Capitol rally, activist Joshua Coleman. Coleman has posted Youtube videos showing himself following and trying to confront Pan at events. Coleman has also created printed signs and t-shirts of Pan with a red “Liar” stamp covering Pan’s face. Coleman also made the news in 2015 in a dispute over parking at a Roseville elementary school that led neighbors to call the police. “They allow someone like Josh Coleman, with his history, as the leader and organizer of this,” Pan said. “If you really are changing, then you have to reject Josh Coleman… and say, ‘no more,’ and they haven’t done that yet.” When asked about his videos of Pan on Wednesday, Coleman said, “I think I do ride the edge just a little bit, but I don’t view them as agitating. I view it as pushing the truth in a creative way, and sometimes a slightly aggressive way, but it’s all peaceful and it’s all legal.”

So what happened at the rally itself? The two main speakers are men whom anyone who’s been a regular reader of this blog more than a couple of months would recognize, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Del Bigtree. RFK Jr., as you recall, frequently refers to himself as “fiercely pro-vaccine” even as he lays down the most toxic and easily refuted antivaccine tropes there are, while Bigtree is prone to histrionic, even violent, rhetoric, up to and including saying that antivaxers should, like the Founding Fathers, be ready to “die for liberty” and asking antivaxers who own guns what they’re waiting for and adding “now’s the time” for guns. As I settled down to watch the Facebook videos, I wondered if Bigtree would tone down the rhetoric or not.

Here are a couple of videos, first from We Are Vaxxed:

And a shorter clip:

The We Are Vaxxed clip of the “V is for Vaccine” rally is much longer, over two hours, and shows a lot of scenes of antivaxers wandering around, being interviewed, and saying how much they hate vaccines—cough, cough, I mean how much they love freedom—before the main speakers came on. The second clip starts with Del Bigtree introducing RFK Jr. to the crowd. Before I discuss what they actually said, I note that the rally instructions were for doctors to wear white coats, nurses to wear blue scrubs, and everyone else to wear red shirts with anti-SB 276 slogans on them. As I noted before the protest, I thank the antivaxers for making it easy to identify doctors and nurses who have no business taking care of children (or anyone else, for that matter) and who should lose their licenses. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any white coats, although I did see some blue scrubs. However, given antivaxers’ newfound love of cosplay, I couldn’t be sure that many of the protesters wearing blue scrubs actually were nurses. The scrubs looked just too crisp and brand new, and it’s easy to buy scrubs.

Many of the protesters recycled the same signs used in the Star Wars cosplay protest and the V is for Vendetta cosplay protest, all of them chock full of antivaccine tropes that I’ve refuted here more times than I can remember. We’re talking really scientifically ignorant ones, like how it’s impossible to eradicate measles with a live virus vaccine (hint: it ain’t); that vaccines aren’t tested against placebo controls (how many studies would they like me to cite from PubMed to prove that lie wrong?); that vaccine manufacturers are free from liability (they ain’t); that vaccines are made with “aborted fetal cells” (not really); and many more.

So let’s get to the speeches. Del Bigtree started out with an appropriately (for an antivaxer) obsequious and fawning introduction for RFK Jr. RFK Jr., for his part, launched a variation on a common antivaccine denial of being antivaccine. Basically, he related a story about how he’d spent 35 years trying to cut down the pollution from coal-burning power plants in order to get the mercury out of the fish, adding, “But no one ever called me ‘anti-fish.'” If that isn’t worthy of a facepalm, I don’t know what is, but the crowd ate it up, as he added, “As soon as I said we ought to get it out of the vaccines as well, they called me antivaccine. I said to them, ‘I like to have seatbelts in automobiles. It doesn’t mean I’m anticar.'”

Hold on right there, RFK Jr. There’s a difference between advocating policies based on sound science (e.g., getting mercury out of fish and requiring seatbelts in cars) and demonizing a product based on pseudoscience. I’d reply this way: If you were to demonize cars as unsafe based on misinformation, pseudoscience, and bad reasoning and refuse to recommend any of them until your fallacious concerns were addressed and cars were made 100% perfectly safe, then, yes, you’re anti-car. I’ve yet to hear RFK Jr. ever say which vaccine he considers sufficiently safe and effective to recommend that all children other than those who qualify for medical exemptions, ever. Never, ever, to the best of my knowledge having followed RFK Jr.’s antics since 2005 have I heard him declare a single vaccine as safe and effective. In contrast, I have heard him ascribe “injury” to vaccines based on bad science, pseudoscience, misinterpretation of science, and outright misinformation than I can remember. On balance, then, yes, I’d say that RFK Jr. is definitely antivaccine, his denials and proclamations that he is “fiercely pro-vaccine” notwithstanding.

Naturally, to him, it’s all about persecution, “silencing” RFK Jr. and his fellow antivaxers, because, hilariously, he asserts that vaccine advocates can’t win on the science and data. (I’m sorry, I had to stop the video at that point because I was laughing too hard.) Also, because of the recent judgment against a pharmaceutical company for its role in the opiate crisis, obviously vaccines must be unsafe. Now, no one argues that pharmaceutical companies haven’t on occasion done bad things, but he’s comparing apples and oranges. Vaccines are not unsafe. Indeed, RFK Jr. spends an inordinate amount of time discussing the role of a couple of pharmaceutical companies in the opioid addiction crisis and repeatedly claiming that “I’ve seen the documents” from vaccine manufacturers and that they “make the opioid documents look like Sunday school.” My response: OK, where are these documents? What, specifically, did they say? It’s very convenient that he claims to have seen damning documents but basically tells the crowd to take his word for it how bad they are. Hilariously, he invokes the dreaded Verstraeten study gambit, that hoary old conspiracy theory about the conference at Simpsonwood in which the CDC supposedly tried to bury the results of a study that showed that mercury in the thimerosal preservative in vaccines causes autism. It’s nothing more than a variation of the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement, and, hilariously, none of these claimed documents were from pharmaceutical companies. They were from the CDC.

Not surprisingly, he also invoked another variation on the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement, the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory, complete with the “tossing data into the garbage can” flourish. (Anyone who knows about CDC retention policies and how data is retained on computers knows this story is also bullshit. The “CDC whistleblower” himself, William Thompson, has stated, “All the associated MMR-Autism Study computer files have been retained on the Immunization Safety Office computer servers since the inception of the study and they continue to reside there today.”) I’ve been blogging about that one since it developed five years ago, having had the opportunity to watch the evolution of a conspiracy theory in real time. It’s nonsense, too. That “autism signal” depended on the pseudoscientific work of a biochemical engineer turned incompetent epidemiologist named Brian Hooker. It’s the conspiracy theory behind the antivax propaganda movie disguised as a documentary, VAXXED. The whole conspiracy theory is utter nonsense.

As the speech went on, RFK Jr. became even more incoherent, trotting out basically every antivax trope in the book. At one point, he even asked:

Why are we targeting 4,000 innocent vulnerable children, when who should we really be targeting? Merck! Why are they so frightened of Merck? Why won’t they point their gun at the person who’s causing the problem, which is Merck?

Ooops. RFK Jr. apparently never got the memo about toning down the rhetoric for “V is for Vaccine,” which he later ramped up by calling Merck this “greedy homicidal vaccine company.” (Indeed, he even reiterated that, “when I say homicidal, I’m not exaggerating.”) In any event, What he’s talking about is how the majority of cases in California were among adults, and it’s true. California health officials are worried about about adults who finished their schooling before the strict vaccination requirements took effect and never got their shots. It’s a red herring, though, that completely ignores the role of schools as incubators of outbreaks when vaccination coverage falls below the level of herd immunity. It also ignores the rest of the country, where the total number of measles cases is now up to 1,215 cases. RFK Jr. knows that California can’t be isolated from the rest of the country. He chose to focus solely on California because there have—fortunately—as yet only been 51 cases in California. He even invoked Vioxx, with a claim that it killed up to a half million people, and the antivax trope about “vaccine shedding,” in which immunocompromised children supposedly are endangered by children vaccinated with attenuated live virus vaccines. I just dealt with that trope the other day.

I didn’t watch the whole We Are Vaxxed video of the “V is for Vaccine” rally because, at nearly two hours, it rapidly became tedious. There were other speakers right after RFK Jr. There was a musician whom I’d never heard of. It was all very much like previous antivaccine rallies, except that Del Bigtree, egomaniac that he is, was the keynote speaker, saved for the very end. He even started out with a joke, calling the crowd “the most attractive group of terrorists I’ve ever seen in my life.” So, yes, he addressed the issue of violence, but, predictably, used it as another example of how antivaxers are being “silenced.” Nauseatingly, he also invoked the names of those “who have been called terrorists before us,” including Caesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, and the Founding Fathers. (I’m surprised he didn’t throw Jesus in there while he was at it.) If anyone thought Del Bigtree was going to turn it down a notch or two, well, that person doesn’t know Del Bigtree. To him, antivaxers are the reincarnation of the Founding Fathers.

Bigtree, too, bristled at being called antivaccine. Instead, he proclaimed himself “pro-freedom,” saying he’s “anti-any forced injection of anything by the government in the world or the United States,” adding, “I’m anti-saline water if you want to inject it when I say no.” He even went so far as to say, “I am not a herd. I am not a farm animal. I am a free thinking human being that speaks my mind and tells my truth.” It might be “his truth,” but the antivaccine nonsense Bigtree regularly spews is not the truth. He also used the term “moronic” to describe SB 276, which is pretty damned ableist.

One thing I noticed about Bigtree’s speaking style, and it’s that he sounds more and more like a preacher. He speaks with the same repetition, the same use of the rule of three, the same sing-song cadences. It’s really, really blatant in this talk. In any case, Bigtree didn’t speak much about anything resembling science, but instead pretty much solely uses the “health freedom” movement and attacking Sen. Pan as a tool of the pharmaceutical industry. He did throw some antivax tropes in there, such as the claim that a passive reporting system, the VAERS database, is missing all sorts of vaccine injuries (notably he ignores the two other reporting systems about vaccine safety, both of which are active), the “no saline placebo” gambit, the “no vaxxed/unvaxxed study” gambit (wrong), and several others, such as the “sickest generation” trope, which is a total distortion based on two cherry picked studies that are not comparable to each other and do not jibe with other studies.

One claim Bigtree did make is that no physician will write a medical exemption if SB 276 passes. It’s a common trope among opponents of SB 276, and it, too, is utter bullshit. No physician will need to fear writing a medical exemption for scientifically supported medical indications. What Del Bigtree was really referring to are the aforementioned doctors writing medical exemptions for indications that are not medically accepted reasons for an exemption from school vaccine mandates.

If you want to know just how ignorant of science Bigtree is, he even threw evolution into the mix in a way that shows that he’s utterly clueless about evolution:

Whether or not you believe in God and that we’re created in the image and likeness of God or you’re the straight-up atheist scientist who believes in evolution, I have news for you. We’re the first species on this planet devolving apparently. 54% of our kids cannot breathe this air, eat this food, drink our water.

Again, that 54% figure is the “sickest generation” antivaccine trope, and the whole statement above rates this:

Godzilla facepalm

Or maybe:

You get the idea.

At this point, Bigtree started a chant with the crowd, “Show us the science! Show us the science!” We can only respond: We have shown you the science. We’ve shown it to you many times. We’ve shown it to you in many ways. We’ve beat our heads against the wall trying to show you the science. You won’t accept the science because it shows clearly that vaccines do not cause autism, that vaccines are safe and effective, and that vaccines do not cause all the health issues you attribute to them. You either do not understand the science or you reject the science. You are Dunning-Kruger personified. Del Bigtree is the arrogance of ignorance personified, and he demonstrated it by claiming that only he and his followers understand and that those who “haven’t read” are not there because they do not understand. Having watched this half hour speech, I can understand why Bigtree is an effective speaker, but I also realize that he’s an effective speaker in the way that a lying demagogue is an effective speaker.

Will this demonstration have an effect? Will it lead to SB 276 failing to pass? Let’s hope not. This rally, as all antivaccine rallies are, was the worst of us in terms of science, society, and understanding. Truly, RFK Jr. and Del Bigtree want to turn back the clock. They think they’re doing good, but, if they succeed, we’ll go back to the days when hundreds of children died of measles and many others suffered and even died of many other diseases.