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J.B. Handley of the anti-vaccine group Generation Rescue: Misogynistic attacks on journalists who champion science

There’s been something I’ve been meaning to write about all week, but only just got around to it. There were lots of other things going on at my other online locale, and this topic is such old hat for so many that I really wasn’t sure if it was worth bothering with. My reluctance may also be, sadly, because I’ve become a bit jaded at the nastiness that anti-vaccine groups such as Generation Rescue (i.e., “Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey’s Autism Organization”–at least these days) and its erstwile founder J.B. Handley routinely lay down when someone points out that the emperor has no clothes, that vaccines do not cause autism. I’m referring, of course, to Amy Wallace, who wrote what is the best example of an article in the mainstream media about the anti-vaccine movement that “gets it.” The article was called An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All and appeared in WIRED Magazine.

It was a thing of beauty. There was no false “balance” that puts cranks pushing dangerous pseudoscience on the same plane as real scientists like Paul Offit. There was even a section calling out purveyors of vaccine misinformation. Several luminaries of the the anti-vaccine movement were there, including ones discussed frequently on this blog, like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. But that wasn’t all! There was even a section on how to debunk anti-vaccine canards. What more could an advocate of science-based medicine ask for?

When I first read Wallace’s article, I knew she was going to be in for a rough time. The anti-vaccine movement doesn’t take kindly to criticism. Indeed, I even warned the publicist who had e-mailed a bunch of bloggers, including me, about the article that I hoped she was ready for a “shitstorm” (the exact word I used). After all, I’ve been the target of J.B. Handley’s wrath on more than one occasion. He’s particularly fond of trying to poison my Google reputation when I annoy him sufficiently, and one time either he or someone inspired by one of his attacks on me actually e-mailed my cancer center director a link to his screed. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if J.B. posts another similar smear after this post.

In any case, the publicist said she and Wallace were ready. Well, as an interview on NPR with Wallace has shown, the “shitstorm” has arrived, and it is just as disgusting and vile as the term implies, complete with misogyny and sexism. Fellow SBM blogger David Kroll pointed out how effective Wallace’s article was, and now a list of attacks on Wallace has been compiled from Wallace’s Twitter feed:

I’ve been called stupid, greedy, a whore, a prostitute, and a “fking lib.” I’ve been called the author of “heinous tripe.”

J.B. Handley, the founder of Generation Rescue, the anti-vaccine group that actress Jenny McCarthy helps promote, sent an essay title” “Paul Offit Rapes (intellectually) Amy Wallace and Wired Magazine.” In it, he implied that Offit had slipped me a date rape drug. “The roofie cocktails at Paul Offit’s house must be damn good,” he wrote. Later, he sent a revised version that omitted rape and replaced it with the image of me drinking Offit’s Kool-aid. That one was later posted at the anti-vaccine blog Age of Autism. You can read that blog here

Stay classy, J.B. Stay classy.

That’s exactly the behavior from Mr. Handley that we’ve come to know and despise. Indeed, J.B. recently smeared our very own Steve Novella. This is the sort of behavior that we expect from the anti-vaccine movement:

I’ve been told I’ll think differently “if you live to grow up.” I’ve been warned that “this article will haunt you for a long time.” Just now, I got an email so sexually explicit that I can’t paraphrase it here. Except to say it contained the c-word and a reference to dead fish.

I’ve already discussed how Paul Offit has suffered from attempted intimidation and death threats from the anti-vaccine movement. In this, the anti-vaccine is very much like the Animal Liberation Front or other animal rights groups, wielding intimidation to keep scientists from speaking out. Their level of understanding science is about at the same level, as well. But it’s not just Paul Offit. I’m currently reading Michael Specter’s new book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. (Why is it that books like this always require such a long and unwieldy subtitle? Heck, even Suzanne Somers’ book is called Knockout: Interviews with Doctors Who Are Curing Cancer–And How to Prevent Getting It in the First Place. Word to publishers: Stop it! But I digress.) In Denialism, Specter includes a solid chapter about the anti-vaccine movement, Vaccines and the Great Denial, and in that chapter he describes how Marie McCormick, who led the Institute of Medicine panel that produced a seminal report in 2004 scientifically exonerating vaccines as a cause of autism suffered from similar harassment. She now has a guard posted near her office.

It’s the M.O. of the anti-vaccine movement. Unable to win on science, they try to win through intimidation and smears. As a result, scientists are reluctant to go into autism research, because they quite understandably don’t want the hassle of dealing with the attacks. Ditto vaccine science. After all, all one has to do is to look at the examples of Paul Offit and Marie McCormick to understand why public health officials shy away from getting involved and especially from speaking out in defense of science and against fear mongering. The same is also true of journalists. Indeed, the reaction of the anti-vaccine movement to Wallace’s piece makes me wonder if part of the reason for so much of the false balance and the apparent reluctance of journalists to call out Jenny McCarthy and put her on the spot in an interview has anything to do with the fear. It’s a possibility.

I do have to admit that I was quite amused by J.B.’s attack on Wallace in the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism, though. It was full of whining and bits that show such a complete lack of self-awareness on J.B.’s part that it was truly hilarious to behold. Here is a sampling:

  • “Ms. Wallace appears to have gone exclusively to Google University to research her feeble attempt at describing a very complex topic.” I just about spit out my coffee all over my lovely MacBook Pro when I read this. Given that the “spokesperson” for Generation Rescue, Jenny McCarthy, is perhaps the best known user and abuser of the University of Google, a use and abuse that have led her to make gut-bustingly funny manglings of science like this, J.B.’s statement took my irony meter and fried that sucker into a puddle of molten metal and rubber, and even that was quivering in fear of another assault.
  • “I grow so weary of pointing out the same logical fallacies, misstatements, and outright factual errors that many journalists make when covering this debate, it’s going to be a struggle for my stamina to analyze her tripe in detail.” This is one of the rare areas where I’m in agreement with J.B., just not in the way he thinks. In fact, I think I’ve used that very sentence, or a variation thereof, when beginning more than one post about some nonsense published on J.B.’s anti-vaccine blog Age of Autism, because I do get tired of pointing out the same logical fallacies, misstatements, and outright factual errors that each and every blogger at AoA–nay, every anti-vaccine zealot I’ve ever encountered!–routinely parrots. J.B. is no exception; in fact, he spews more than usual, for instance his monumentally not-even-wrong project “Fourteen Studies.” But I keep doing it, because, well, it’s become my duty. In fact, I’m going to have to exercise some of that patience and stamina right here because J.B once again serves up a huge heapin’ helpin’ of logical fallacies, misstatements, and outright factual errors. As usual.
  • “The main targets of our movement are the CDC, AAP, and vaccine makers. Offit is an annoying sideshow, nothing more. He’s annoying because of articles like yours. He didn’t cause my son’s autism, and he has nothing to do with my son’s recovery.” For Dr. Offit’s supposedly being someone that J.B. doesn’t consider very important, who is an “annoying sideshow,” J.B.’s blog and organization sure do expend a lot of verbiage attacking him. In fact, a quick Google search for “Paul Offit” in the domain ageofautism.com pulled up over 1,000 hits. Just this week, J.B. launched a hilariously off-base attack entitled Dr. Paul Offit, The Autism Expert. Doesn’t See Patients with Autism? So hilariously self-unaware was J.B. in that post that earlier this week I seriously thought of doing a parody of it substituting Andrew Wakefield for Paul Offit. After all, Wakefield doesn’t see children with autism either. He’s been a “researcher” (and a truly incompetent, compromised, and likely fraudulent one at that) ever since he finished his training. These days, Wakefield lends his anti-vaccine cred to Thoughtful House, where he can’t see patients because of that pesky problem of having decided to flee the consequences of his large part in the promotion of the myth that the MMR vaccine causes autism, resulting in a plunge in vaccination rates and the resurgence of measles in the U.K. over the last decade, and not having a medical license. Sadly, other things got in my way. Or maybe not so sadly. I’m better at humor and sarcasm than parody.
  • “Offit actually has proven to be quite helpful – he’s the poster boy for the other side, which means his faults become the other side’s faults.” Project much, J.B.? Actually, it’s J.B. and his ilk who try to make Offit the poster boy for all the imagined and exaggerated faults fo the “other side.” Besides, every conspiracy movement needs a villain. For 9/11 Truther’s it’s the U.S. government (and sometimes the Mossad). For creationists, it’s Richard Dawkins. For the anti-vaccine movement, it’s Paul Offit, for much the same reason that Richard Dawkins is made into the villain by creationists and fundamentalists. They both dare to speak out against popular pseudoscience and don’t back down.

In his post, it’s also hard not to point out that J.B. does inadvertently demonstrate why any reasonable person should consider him anti-vaccine:

Why are you boring readers with misguided psychobabble? You could have used this time to read some of the science on our side of the fence which is also peer-reviewed! Clean water, toilets, and refrigerators eradicated disease, or at least 98% of it, I’ll give vaccines credit for the final 2% — and a whole lotta’ autism, allergies, and other demylenating illnesses.

Wow. Just wow. I’d really like to see what “peer-reviewed” evidence from “his side” that J.B. has that shows that it was not vaccines but rather clean water, toilets, and refrigerators that eradicated “98%” of infectious disease or that vaccines cause a “whole lotta autism allergies, and other demyelinating diseases.” Here’s hint one for J.B.: Peer-reviewed doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good research. It’s a minimum standard, and the “research” that J.B. cites has, without an exception that I’ve ever seen, been uniformly awful. (Monkey business, anyone?) As I pointed out with the most recent assault on science by the anti-vaccine movement, namely the execrable monkey study being touted as evidence that thimerosal in the hepatitis B vaccine causes “neurological damage” (an anti-vaccine code word in its “research” for “autism”), peer reviewers are routinely mislead by various studies by anti-vaccine cranks because they don’t know the subtext for these studies.

Here’s another thing that J.B.’s comment makes me wonder about. He gets very indignant when he is called anti-vaccine. He inevitably whines that he is not “anti-vaccine” but “pro-safe vaccine” or some variant thereof. I have to wonder, though. If J.B. really thinks that vaccines are only responsible for a mere 2% of the elimination of infectious disease–I mean, really, really believes it right down to the depths of his soul–why doesn’t he just come right out and admit that he’s anti-vaccine? After all, if he believes that vaccines cause an “epidemic” of autism, demyelinating diseases, and allergies, all for the benefit of a mere 2% when it comes to infectious diseases, then why not just say he is against vaccines because they don’t do any good and do a lot of harm? That’s what he just said, and I have no reason to believe he’s lying. Let’s put it this way. If I believed as J.B. apparently does, if I believed that vaccines were responsible for at most 2% of the elimination of infectious diseases and at the same time caused an “epidemic” of autism, demyelinating diseases, and other severe consequences, you can bet that I’d come out and say I was against vaccination. It would be a reasonable stance based on unreasonable beliefs about the dangers of vaccines. But I don’t believe anything of the sort. The scientific evidence simply doesn’t support J.B.’s assertions. I also suspect that, deep down J.B. doesn’t entirely believe these things either. If he truly does believe that vaccines do so little good and cause so much harm, his self-delusion would have to exceed even his obnoxiousness. Maybe it does.

After all, the evidence that vaccines played a major role in the elimination of diseases is incontrovertible. Smallpox was not eliminated by better sanitation and refrigeration. It was eliminated by a vaccine. The incidence of measles didn’t plunge dramatically primarily because of better sanitation or refrigeration; it plunged because of the introduction of an effective vaccine. (Unfortunately, this progress is being endangered by the misinformation being spread by the likes of J.B. Handley and the pseudoscience of quacks like Andrew Wakefield.) The incidence of invasive Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) disease didn’t plunge in the early 1990s because of better sanitation or refrigeration. Sanitation and refrigeration were just fine in the late 1980s. The incidence of severe Hib plunged because of a vaccine–indeed, to the point where younger pediatricians have never even seen a case of HiB. This is a good thing, although I’m not so sure J.B. would agree. Either that, or he’d try to claim that it wasn’t the vaccine, which is nonsense.

J.B. also can’t stand strong, principled disagreement with him. Like all people, he doesn’t like to be told he is wrong. The difference is that he reacts to criticism by attacking the person doing the criticism, not by refuting him with evidence. That’s because he can’t use evidence; his position is unsupportable by science. J.B. also has a huge amount of what appears to me to be a mixture of envy and contempt for the scientists who tell him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Indeed, this is what he’s written:

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.

In other words, as I said before, to J.B., it’s all about “elitism.” He honestly seems to believe that the reason the scientific community doesn’t accept his wild beliefs that vaccines cause autism is because of elitism and groupthink, not because the scientific evidence doesn’t support that belief. Unlike the case for scientists, it never occurs to him that maybe–just maybe–he might be wrong. It never occurs to him that the reason he is viewed with such disdain among scientists is because, well, he is wrong. But not just wrong, spectacularly, dangerously, and arrogantly wrong about the science. Truly, he is full of the arrogance of ignorance, and thinks that his success in the business world (or, as he puts it, his “brains and street smarts”) means that he can figure vaccines out. He can’t. Brains and street smarts count for little in science without a background understanding of science and acceptance of the scientific method, neither of which J.B. has.

One thing Amy Wallace gets completely right is described in her interview with NPR :

Wallace calls part of the discourse that has followed her article “a bullying tactic.” She points to JB Handley, founder of Generation Rescue — which contends that too many vaccines are given too soon and blames autism on vaccines — for many attacks against her in the blogosphere. She says such tactics dissuade many scientists from taking a stand in the debate. It is important to speak out against those tactics, she says, adding that she has been commenting regularly about the issue on Twitter.

Indeed it is important to stand up to bullies, and Wallace has done just that.

At this stage, I have to wonder if the anti-vaccine movement is becoming its own worst enemy. As the science keeps marching in that shows no connection between vaccines and autism and lends no support to the concept that vaccines are ineffective and dangerous promoted by the anti-vaccine movement, groups like Generation Rescue are becoming more shrill and even more quacktastic than ever. In doing so, they further marginalize themselves. Quite correctly, their behavior leads reasonable and scientific people to dismiss them more and more. Unfortunately, when that happens, all that leaves is abuse and bullying as tactics to intimidate those who speak out against them.

Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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