I realize that I sound like the proverbial broken record (and that many of the younger people reading this might not even know what that reference means), but I’ve been at this a long time. I was countering quackery and antivaccine pseudoscience on Usenet back in the 1990s into the early 2000s and then have been blogging about it since 2004. I like to think that two decades of combatting antivaccine misinformation have given me some perspective, which is why I sometimes get so frustrated with so many “reasonable” doctors, scientists, and pundits who, before the pandemic, had paid scant, if any attention to the antivaccine movement, and are shocked—shocked, I say!—to discover the conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric that I’ve been documenting for nearly two decades. Some of them who had paid a little attention would sometimes even periodically castigate me for being a “frenzied, self-righteous zealot” who supposedly couldn’t tell the difference between vaccine-hesitant parents and antivaxxers, never mind the number of times I’ve discussed exactly that difference.
The complaints by these oh-so-“reasonable” people continue, a year and a half into the pandemic. What brought this to my attention is the reaction to an op-ed article in the New York Times by Tara Haelle published yesterday and entitled This Is the Moment the Anti-Vaccine Movement Has Been Waiting For. I’ll start with a brief (for me) discussion of the article, and then move on to some reactions on social media that, whether the people expressing such annoyance at Haelle’s message know it or not, follow a tired, well-worn playbook for apologists for the antivaccine movement. It’s a sentiment that has long annoyed me in that it’s apparently based, above all, on the apologist’s desire to be “reasonable” and bend over backwards to consider “both perspectives.”
From my perspective, I might quibble a bit around the edges of the article, but from the article’s core, I see that Haelle “gets it,” as you can see from the very first passage in the op-ed:
As the coronavirus began pushing the nation into lockdown in March 2020, Joshua Coleman, an anti-vaccine campaigner who organizes anti-vaccine rallies, went on Facebook Live to give his followers a rallying speech. He laid out what he thought the pandemic really was: an opportunity.
“This is the one time in human history where every single human being across this country, possibly across the planet, but especially in this country, are all going to have an interest in vaccination and vaccines,” he said. “So it’s time for us to educate.”
By “educate,” he meant to spread misinformation about vaccines.
The approach that Mr. Coleman displayed in his nearly 10-minute-long appearance — turning any negative event into a marketing opportunity — is characteristic of anti-vaccine activists. Their versatility and ability to read and assimilate the language and culture of different social groups have been key to their success. But Mr. Coleman’s speech also encapsulated a yearslong campaign during which the anti-vaccine movement has maneuvered itself to exploit what Mr. Coleman called “a very unique position in this moment in time.”
Haelle also “gets” what a lot of people, even on “our side,” don’t get, mainly how the antivaccine movement has successfully co-opted the language of right wing populist movements and used it as an “in” to recruit those sympathetic to such views and the conspiracy theories associated with them. Antivaxxers have even gone so far as, more or less, to fuse with QAnon, join COVID-19 antimask and “anti-lockdown” activists and conspiracy theorists, and buy into the election “fraud” conspiracy theories spread by former President Donald Trump and his supporters. Let’s just put it this way. When you see a lefty antivax leader like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. addressing a far-right rally in Germany, you can see how thoroughly this “joining of forces” has gone.
Over the last six years, anti-vaccine groups and leaders have begun to organize politically at a level like never before. They’ve founded state political action committees, formed coalitions with other constituencies, and built a vast network that is now the foundation of vaccination opposition by conservative groups and legislators across the country. They have taken common-sense concepts — that parents should be able to raise their children as they see fit, and that medical decisions should be autonomous and private — and warped them in ways that have set back decades of public health advances.
She also correctly cites the Disneyland measles outbreak and the reaction to that outbreak that resulted in the passage in California of SB 277, the law that eliminated nonmedical “personal belief exemptions” to school mandates as a sea change in the area of antivaccine messaging. I might quibble a bit with the narrative in that the flirtations between antivaxxers and right wing activists had begun and picked up speed years before antivaxxers mobilized to oppose SB 277 in California. Indeed, there’s long been a right wing/libertarian strain of antivaccinationism going back to General Bert Stubblebine III’s Natural Solutions Foundation and earlier. More recently, but still years before the “coming out” of the antivaccine-pandering to antivaccine fringe of the Republican Party as the mainstream face of the party. Before I get to the “reasonable” apologists for antivaxxers, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane.
Many of the the antivaccine people and groups whom I’ve long monitored tend to be anything but liberal politically. For example, the Canary Party, a rabidly antivaccine group that still pushes the idea that toxins in vaccines are responsible for autism and all sorts of health issues and that autism “biomed” quackery is the way to cure vaccine injury teamed up with the East Bay Tea Party as early as 2012 to oppose vaccine mandates in California. Moreover, the Canary Party was known for sucking up to former Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), with one of its major financial backers, Jennifer Larson, contributing a lot of money to Issa’s campaign (indirectly, of course) in order to buy influence and win a hearing by his committee examining autism and focused on vaccines as one potential cause. Fortunately, Issa’s hearing, which took place in 2012, was a bust. Before that, the foremost antivaccine legislator in Congress was Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), who, as a believer in the discredited idea that the mercury in the thimerosal preservative that used to be used in several childhood vaccines caused autism, abused his position as the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in the late 1990s and early 2000s to drag CDC officials before his committee and castigate them not taking the claimed link seriously enough or even for covering it up.
Let’s just say that there’s a reason why in 2018 I started calling the Republican Party the “antivaccine party.”
As an aside, I’ve frequently pointed out that the common narrative that the antivaccine movement is primarily a bunch of crunchy, hippy-dippy lefties was never correct, despite its promulgation several years ago by people like Samantha Bee, who really should have known better. Fortunately, Haelle doesn’t fall into this trap, noting about the fight over SB 277:
Anti-vaccine activists of all political stripes pushed back — hard — against the bill. When they found that inaccurate claims about vaccines didn’t sway California legislators, they shifted gears and asserted that removing nonmedical exemptions impinged on their freedom to raise their children as they wanted. In the late-Tea Party era, that argument had traction.
I’ve been discussing this very tactic for years and years now. Again, appeals to “parental choice,” “freedom,” and fear of government overreach have been a part of antivaccine messaging ever since I started paying close attention to the antivaccine movement around the turn of the millennium. I had even noticed increasing appeals to these messages before the Disneyland measles outbreak. However, as Haelle points out, SB 277 was a sea change. Before SB 277, right wing populist messaging, although a prominent part of antivaccine propaganda, was not dominant. Afterward, it rapidly became dominant, to the point that by 2019, a few months before the pandemic hit, antivaxxers in California were teaming up with right-wing militia groups. As Haelle documents, this team-up has become, more or less, a fusion, to the point where conservatives who are “not antivax enough” risk backlash from the GOP base.
Moreover, it’s been at least six years in the making, as she points out:
Those of us who have followed the anti-vaccine movement for years know that’s been the plan all along. Although the movement’s leaders could not have known a pandemic was coming, they were more ready to take advantage of the moment with their messaging than public health experts and policymakers were to combat it.
It is at this point that I like to point out my own prior naïvété on this issue. There was a time that I believed that, if a really bad infectious disease ever started sickening hundreds of millions of people and killing millions, threatening to cause the collapse of healthcare systems in many areas of the world, antivaxxers would see the value of vaccines and come around. (I suspect that I was not alone in this foolish belief.) By the time the pandemic hit, though, the doubling down on their beliefs and increasing militancy on the part of antivaxxers in response to efforts to encourage vaccination sparked by the Disneyland measles outbreak and the epidemic of measles in countries like Samoa had disabused me of my prior optimism. I had by then realized that antivaccine ideology is at heart a conspiracy theory in which vaccines are harmful but “they” don’t want you to know The Truth. Given how conspiracy theorists rarely believe in just one conspiracy theory, it’s not surprising that antivax conspiracy theorists would gravitate to the many conspiracy theories that sprang up with the pandemic, and vice-versa.
Enter the “reasonable” people acting as unwitting apologists for antivaxxers:
No doubt Allison Krug, if she sees this, will strenuously object to my characterization of her as an apologist for the antivaccine movement (even as an unwitting one), but, as much as she denies it, that’s what she’s functioning as when she Tweets criticisms of articles like Haelle’s. Above all, antivaxxers crave legitimacy and to have their concerns, no matter how bizarre and based in pseudoscience and conspiracy theories, be taken seriously and viewed as “reasonable” (or at least as not unreasonable). Between the first draft of this post and my final edits, I had actually toned down my criticism. I’d originally had a different title for this post (and for people like Krug) in mind. I leave speculating about what that title might have been as an exercise for longtime readers.
Note the strawman that Krug wields like a cudgel against Haelle. It’s a painfully obvious one, too. In fact, I went back and reread Haelle’s post, and nowhere did I see any sort of characterization of the antivaccine movement or the vaccine-hesitant as “anti-thought.” Moreover, Krug completely misunderstands the very nature of the antivaccine movement, past and present. From my perspective of nearly two decades countering the antivaccine movement, Haelle is one of the journalists who most “gets it.” Her primer on how antivaxxers successfully co-opted right wing messaging and, in a mutually beneficial arrangement, right wingers embraced antivaccine messaging in order also to support their opposition to mask mandates and “lockdowns” (and, truth be told, to any public health intervention that requires government or collective action) should be required reading. Moreover, she understands how antivaxxers coordinate their messaging, to great effect.
Unfortunately, Krug is not alone in being an unwitting apologist for the antivaccine movement:
Lucy McBride also misunderstands the nature of the antivaccine movement, and in a manner that I’ve seen many times before dating back to long before COVID-19 was even just an outbreak of a mysterious viral pneumonia in Wuhan, China in late 2019. This is a fundamental category error that’s been made by “reasonable” antivaccine apologists like Krug and McBride. In brief, they conflate the vaccine-hesitant with the antivaccine movement, and it is that mistake that leads to their seeming willful blindness to the nature of antivaccine activists. They conflate the vaccine-hesitant with the militant antivaxxers spreading the disinformation that contributes to vaccine hesitancy and the politicians pandering to those militant conspiracy theorists.
No one, least of all Dr. Peter Hotez or others quoted in the article says that we shouldn’t try to “step into the shoes” of others and recognize their complexities. On the other hand, it is very important to know who is and isn’t reachable. The vaccine hesitant (i.e., the victims of antivaccine disinformation) are usually reachable with empathy, facts, and debunking of misinformation and conspiracy theories associated with antivaccine messaging. In contrast, many of the purveyors of that misinformation (i.e., hardcore antivaccine activists like Del Bigtree, RFK Jr., Andrew Wakefield, Sherri Tenpenny, Barbara Loe Fisher, Joseph Mercola, etc., and all the antivaccine bloggers, social media influencers, and protestors) are almost impossible to reach.
Why is this the case? For some of these influencers (likely a minority), admittedly it’s all about the grift. They don’t care about science or the truth, as long as the profits and fame flow (and they might not even be true believers anyway). It is not the grifters who are the most effective messengers, though. True believers are, and most of the other leaders and influencers in the antivaccine movement, whether they also engage in antivaccine grift or not as a result of their beliefs, have internalized the misinformation and conspiracy theories behind that misinformation to the point that they have become part of their identities, much like a person’s religion or political beliefs. Do Krug and McBride think that you can change someone’s religion by “stepping into their shoes” and recognizing the “roots/complexities of their beliefs”? Or change the political beliefs of a member of a political party’s base by the same technique. They’re welcome to try, but I predict that they’ll have very limited success at best.
Also contrary to claims by so many “reasonable” critics, it’s not as though we who defend vaccines and vaccine mandates don’t realize that antivaccine beliefs are about more than vaccines. I’m going to go back to 2012 and quote an article by Mark Largent, a historian of science at Michigan State University. Ask yourselves if this doesn’t sound very familiar, indeed very much like the attacks on Tara Haelle’s article Tweeted by Allison Krug and Lucy McBride :
It is my hope that by pressing a more moderate position in this op-ed and in my book Vaccine: The Debate in Modern American (Johns Hopkins University Press) we can get more parents to vaccinate more children against more vaccine-preventable diseases. I firmly believe that the best way to do this is to actually address their concerns, not cast them as ignorant fools who mindlessly follow a celebrity. Wakefield and McCarthy would never have garnered as strong a following had there not already a substantial pool of vaccine-anxious parents whose concerns were not being adequately addressed.
Again, no one, least of all I (or Haelle or anyone else pushing back against antivaccine disinformation) argues seriously that we should “dismiss” concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine or attack the vaccine hesitant as fools. That didn’t stop Largent from engaging in false balance, even going so far as to refer to “extremists for and against vaccinations,” as though they were equivalent. (You can see that same sort of rhetoric from the oh-so-“reasonable” doctors arguing, in essence, that the risk from COVID-19 is so low in children that we don’t need to vaccinate them and shouldn’t really be concerned.) As I said in my post at the time, this is the fallacy of the golden mean, or, as I like to call it, the fallacy of false balance, and this is the same fallacy that Krug and McBride appear to be falling prey to.
This category error is one that has reared its ugly head repeatedly going back years and years. Indeed, I recall writing at length about it when Alice Dreger took me to task and portrayed me as a frenzied self-righteous zealot for an article I had written three years before (that’s 2012, people!) about the difference between respecting parental concerns about vaccination and pandering to antivaccine fears and conspiracy theories. Here’s what Dreger wrote:
In his work, Largent refuses to take sides with either a) the anti-vaxxers, who think vaccines cause disorders such as autism, or b) the anti-anti-vaxxers – let’s call them the vaccine zealots – who think any parent who resists any vaccination is a dangerous idiot. Even though Largent is easily as “pro-vaccine” and pro-science as I am, among the frenzied zealots his sympathy for resister parents has marked him out as a heretic.
Notice how Dreger portrayed Largent’s refusal “to take sides” with either antivaxxers or those whom she smeared as “zealots” who view any vaccine refusenik as a “dangerous idiot” as an unalloyed good, a trait to be admired. I did not and do not find such studied “neutrality” to be an admirable stance. Also, in her “bothsides-ism,” Dreger destroyed yet another of my irony meters given how she also accused “vaccine zealots” of using overwrought, emotional, and insulting language, even as she falsely portrayed pro-vaccine advocates as mindless zealots attacking parents using overwrought, emotional, and insulting language.
Sadly, even now, “reasonable” commenters often seem unable to see the difference between respecting the concerns of the vaccine-hesitant, be they about the COVID-19 vaccines or any other vaccine, and pandering to antivaccine conspiracy theories. They seem unable or unable to recognize or acknowledge the difference between the two. Let’s just say that it is very possible to do the respect the concerns of the vaccine-hesitant without falling into the trap of pandering to antivaccine fears. In a way, these “reasonable” critics understand that most people refusing vaccines are not antivaccine, but they seem obstinately unwilling to recognize that there are real antivaxxers and that these antivaxxers are a major influence that contributes to vaccine hesitancy and sometimes converts the vaccine-hesitant int0 antivaxxers.
As one person put it on Twitter:
Exactly. Kudos, too, for the explicit comparison of antivaccine beliefs to a cultish religion.
Unfortunately, this oft-repeated appeal to being “reasonable” and to “moderation” that unintentionally (or, I suspect on occasion, intentionally) erases the difference between the purveyors of misinformation (hardcore antivaxxers) and the victims of that misinformation (the vaccine-hesitant) applies to a lot of science communication that seeks to refute pseudoscience and science denial. (I’m thinking of a followup post discussing this.) Moreover, it is quite possible to walk and chew gum at the same time; i.e., refute the disinformation and conspiracy theories promoted by the true believers and grifters who fuel vaccine hesitancy and to employ facts and science with empathy and understanding to work to change the minds of the vaccine-hesitant. Lumping together the true believers and grifters who spread vaccine misinformation with the victims of that misinformation ignores the different strategies necessary to deal with each.
Finally, the chances of success using empathy, facts, and careful debunking of misinformation are much higher with the merely vaccine-hesitant than with antivaxxers, for whom such techniques are so unlikely to be effective as to be rarely worth the effort given that the same effort could sway lots more of the vaccine-hesitant, who are far more numerous. That is exactly why conflating vaccine-hesitancy with antivaccine activism and thereby portraying them both as “reasonable” (or, again, as at least not unreasonable) is not at all helpful. Quite the opposite, in my view. This error provides conspiracy theorists with statements from oh-so-“reasonable” people granting them the legitimacy they crave by conflating the reasonable concerns and fears about COVID-19 vaccines expressed by the vaccine-hesitant (many of whom come from disadvantaged communities with a history of mistreatment by the medical profession that makes their distrust understandable) with their utterly bonkers pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Again, there is another term for people who do this other than “‘reasonable’ apologist.”
Tara Haelle is correct, too. The COVID-19 pandemic is the moment antivaxxers have been waiting for, and they’re taking full advantage of it.