J.B. Handley, Generation Rescue, and attacks on critics

I am writing this because a colleague of mine has been attacked, specifically, our fearless leader Steve Novella. J.B. Handley, Founder of “Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey’s Autism Organization – Generation Rescue” (whose usurpation by Jenny and Jim was apparently done in an opportunistic fashion but has had a consequence that must be galling to J.B., namely that some interviewers apparently think that Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, not J.B. and his wife, are the true founders of Generation Rescue), did not like something that Steve wrote and in his characteristic fashion, has responded with a vicious ad hominem attack. Normally I wouldn’t feel obligated to put my two cents in, as Steve is more than capable of taking care of himself in a scientific argument and quite able to refute anything J.B. can throw at him. Moreover, whenever J.B. Handley attacks someone in a fashion this nasty, it is an excellent indication that the person he is attacking has scored some serious points against him. Indeed, I have twice been on the receiving end of J.B.’s tirades on the Generation Propaganda blog Age of Autism. On one occasion, he referred to me as the “worldwide wanker of woo,” and on another occasion seemed to think that I criticized Generation Rescue so harshly because I “don’t like full page ads,” rather than because I hate pseudoscience and anti-vaccine nonsense. When criticism really hits a nerve with J.B. Handley, he lashes out in a characteristic fashion. Clearly Steve’s reasoned, level-headed criticism of the latest Generation Rescue anti-vaccine propaganda initiative did just that.

In this case, however, I feel some explanation is in order because I feel a bit responsible for having brought J.B.’s wrath down upon Steve. First, a little history (albeit recent history) is in order. As I described in detail last week and the week before, Generation Rescue, with Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey at the fore, sometimes with J.B. himself, has mounted an impressive anti-vaccine propaganda effort. It started with a media tour promoting her most recent paean to anti-vaccine pseudoscience and autism quackery written with “co-author” Dr. Jerry Kartzinel. The book is entitled Healing and Preventing Autism: A Complete Guide, and three weeks ago Jenny McCarthy and her boyfriend Jim Carrey showed up on Larry King Live to tout a truly incompetent and intellectually dishonest “study” that purported to find that U.S. children are the “most highly vaccinated children in the world” and that that’s correlated with our higher autism rates. I would have none of it. Next, Generation Rescue introduced its equally intellectually dishonest “Fourteen Studies” website, which launched dubious attacks from pseudoexperts on fourteen of the major studies that failed to find a correlation between vaccines and autism or thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism. I wrote a lengthy post for SBM describing the utter intellectual and scientific bankruptcy of the entire enterprise.

Now, to go back a little further, J.B. and I have a bit of a history dating all the way back to when I first became interested in the antivaccine movement in 2005. This history, however, had played out entirely on my other blog, where as many readers here know, I blog under a pseudonym. Handley consistently thought that by “outing” me (as cranks as varied as antivaccinationists and creationists had done before) he would somehow frighten me into silence. My persistence over four years shows how well that worked. In any case, we at SBM had discussed divvying up both the studies that Generation Rescue hated (the fourteen studies) and the highly dubious studies they liked, several of which I’ve discussed in detail, showing why they were so bad. As a part of this, Steve did a followup post on one specific study, the one that is often referred to in the literature as the “Danish study,” that failed to find a correlation between mercury in vaccines and autism. Characteristically, Steve did an excellent job.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. One week after I posted my deconstruction of J.B. Handley’s “Fourteen Studies,” I reposted a modified version of the same post on my other blog. I explicitly did this as an experiment whose hypothesis was that J.B. would only attack my pseudonymous persona and would not attack me under my own name, because doing so would rob him of his ability to whine about my blogging under a pseudonym. Never mind that my pseudonym is perhaps the worst-kept secret in the medical/scientific blogosphere. (It also didn’t hurt that I was away at the AACR Meeting in Denver and needed some easy material because I didn’t have time to blog.) As predicted, J.B. didn’t bite at the first version. Also as predicted, he did show up in the other version, saying:

What the hell is wrong with your brain? Why is this such a hard concept for you to grasp? How did you get to be so stupid?

To which I replied:

As I predicted when I posted this, JB was a no show elsewhere but a show here. I wonder why. I also wonder why he didn’t also show up at Steve Novella’s takedown or the takedown published by a “friend” of the blog a week ago.

Thank you, JB, for confirming my hypothesis, though. I do appreciate it, and you are always welcome to comment here and on my “friend’s” blog.

The next day, J.B. Handley launched a nasty personal attack on Steve on Age of Autism, the antivaccine propaganda blog, which appears to be a wholly owned subsidiary of Generation Rescue where J.B., along with his merry band of antivaccine zealots including David Kirby, Dan Olmsted, Kim Stagliano, and others, regularly blogs.

Now do you see why I feel a bit responsible? I suspect that my amused tweaking of J.B. led to his shifting his frustration to Steve, who is far nicer and more civil than I usually am when dealing with nonsense on the order of what Age of Autism and Generation Rescue regularly serve up.

Certainly, though, I’m not worried that Steve couldn’t handle himself against a booster of pseudoscience like J.B. Steve was more than able to write a devastating response to J.B.’s attack that eviscerated his every point, and I can’t wait to see what the skeptical rogues on The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe will say about this. However, having had a bit more–shall we say?–history with J.B., certain aspects of his attack caught my attention.

First, this:

I don’t know Dr. Novella and I certainly having nothing against him personally, but I was stunned by the utter lack of knowledge and critical thinking that went into his critique of our new site.

I find it amusing that apparently J.B. doesn’t read his own blog because last July Age of Autism published a response by Hannah Poling’s father Dr. Jon Poling to Steve’s discussion of the Hannah Poling case, to which Steve responded. It was actually a pretty big deal. Here’s a little hint to J.B. that I learned long ago blogging: Search your own blog for any person or topic you’re thinking of writing about to make see if you’ve addressed the topic or person before, and, if you did, what you or your coblogger said. Most amusing about this misstep, J.B.’s self-absorption is showing. Apparently if he hasn’t heard of someone (or has but forgot about him), that person is insignificant. Be that as it may, this passage, more than any other, boils down J.B.’s mindset. It’s pathognomonic of him and explain much about why he hates us “pointy-headed” scientists so much:

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, 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 he might be wrong or that the reason he is viewed with such disdain among scientists is because, well, he is wrong. But not just wrong, spectacularly and arrogantly wrong about the science. As both Steve and I have pointed out, it is the arrogance of ignorance.

J.B. also clearly doesn’t understand the nature of academic medicine and science. He seems to think it’s some sort of cushy ivory tower where a Ph.D. guarantees one a career. He’s so wrong on this one that he is, as they say, “not even wrong.” However, as I am in a benevolent mood, I’ll educate J.B. a bit on what it takes to be a academic faculty at a major university. First off, a Ph.D. (or an M.D.) doesn’t guarantee anything. Making a parallel to the business world, sure, it helps to have a Ph.D. from a good school. It’ll help to get a good postdoctoral position. However, once you’re in your postdoc, no one really gives a rodent’s posterior where you went to school, and, if you’re an M.D., once you’re in your residency, no one cares anymore where you graduated from medical school. They really don’t. All they care about is how well you do where you are now.

In fact, science is every bit as Darwinian a career as business, with the exception that the rewards are not financial, nor is a scientists’s worth measured by money, which appears to be the be-all and end-all for how J.B. views success, given his remark about millionaires. After fighting to get into a good Ph.D. program, a freshly minted scientist needs to fight to get a good postdoc. Once there, he has to produce. He has to demonstrate his worth by doing good science and publishing in good journals. Then, because obtaining an entry-level faculty position has become intensely competitive, a new Ph.D. often needs to do two or even three two- to three-year postdocs in order to amass enough of a track record to entice a university to take a chance on him with a lab and a startup package. Finally, once a new scientist has a faculty position, he has in general around three or four years to obtain independent research funding to cover at least 50% of his salary as a condition of tenure, or he will be fired and have to start all over again looking for a new faculty position, which will be harder to find after having failed to gain tenure at one institution. Worse, over the last few years, getting that initial grant has become harder than ever. In the past, scientists who failed to gain tenure often ended up working for pharma, but in the current climate pharma has been downsizing. There now exists an underclass of underemployed Ph.D. scientists, who may be poorly paid adjunct professors with no hope of any permanent work.

So let’s see: Get funded in three or four years or get fired to face a highly uncertain fate. That sounds pretty hardcore to me. I will admit that it’s easier for academic physicians in that they can always return to practicing medicine if they fail, but will no longer have a lab. I will grant that, once a scientist obtains tenure, things are easier in that he can’t be easily fired, but, trust me, if a scientist doesn’t produce and loses funding, he will find himself in a world of hurt. Schools have ways of making such faculty’s lives so miserable that they end up quitting.

J.B. also doesn’t understand the culture of science at the faculty level, either. Once someone becomes a full scientist and obtains an academic position, no one cares where he or she went to school, where he did his postdoc, or where he did his residency. Really. No one does. All they care about is whether that person does good science, publishes good science, and can get his or her science funded. In this, science and medicine are a lot like the business world that J.B. waxes so rhapsodic about. J.B. is also wrong to think that “street smarts” should win in science. They don’t necessarily, because what matters is doing good science. The scientific method is a systematized method of minimizing human bias and error, whereas “street smarts” are, all too often, all about hunches. Hunches can be valuable in science, but only as a first step. If a hunch isn’t supported by scientific evidence, it is worthless, and scientists will discard it. It may not happen as fast as we like; it may be messier than we like; but eventually it will happen. That’s the difference between scientists and J.B. Handley. No matter how cherished our hunches are, we do consider the possibility that they may be wrong, and eventually we can be persuaded that they are wrong if the evidence is strong enough. Indeed, this is perhaps the most ignorant thing J.B. said in his attack:

I have been astonished by the culture of arrogance and elitism that medical schools appear to breed in their doctors and scientists. The culture tends to produce an “us vs. them” mentality, where doctors collectively back each other up on controversial issues, typically without understanding the issue for themselves.

J.B. really hasn’t seen how cut-throat scientific arguments can be. Moreover, science actually does reward overthrowing the existing paradigm. Look at the list of Nobel Prize winners. You won’t find anyone there who won that prize because he or she simply confirmed pre-existing scientific dogma. Believe me, if a scientists provided compelling scientific evidence that vaccines or mercury in vaccines do cause autism and could show how they do it, that scientist would be instantly famous and a serious contender for a Nobel Prize. In any case, clearly the accusation of “arrogance” against J.B. really stings him. However, what else should we call it when someone, without any knowledge or training, blithely rejects the findings of science and labels them all a vast conspiracy to “hide the truth”? Or when someone thinks his “street smarts” trumps the accumulated knowledge of science thus far? Arrogance doesn’t begin to describe such an attitude, and only a lack of understanding of science could have produced this comment:

On of the most fascinating aspects of the autism epidemic is how the mainstream health community seems to get away with a stunning paradox: they are so damn smart that they are certain as to what doesn’t cause autism, but they haven’t a clue as to what does. How can that be? Why aren’t the smarts being applied to finding the cause?

This is nothing more than the classic logical fallacy of an appeal to ignorance. In other words, to J.B. because scientists don’t really know what does cause autism, then his pet view that vaccines cause autism must be plausible.

After my having dealt with J.B. online on and off for four years, one thing that’s become clear to me is that he does not understand science. He thinks he does, but he does not. He has made up his mind about vaccines and autism and is not open to evidence falsifying his belief. That is inimical to the culture of science, which is always testing scientific dogma versus reality and discarding what doesn’t line up with the evidence. With few exceptions, even the most dogmatic of scientists can be persuaded if the evidence is strong enough. In contrast, Mr. Handley clearly views science as a tool to support his conclusions and an enemy when it does not. Moreover, viewing the vaccine-autism pseudoscience through the prism of a businessman’s viewpoint, rather than a scientist’s viewpoint, to him it’s a propaganda battle to win, not a scientific question to answer. Like any good businessman, he has a product to sell, and sell it he does, using all the tools of Madison Avenue pitch men at his disposal. It doesn’t matter to him if the product is a lemon; he needs to sell it.

Moreover, the entire culture at the Age of Autism is an increasingly paranoid echo chamber. Just look at some of the comments there:

Dr. Novella buries his nose in literature, but he fails to recognize the political backstories that skewed the studies. And he hasn’t had face time — or G.I. time — with any kids on the autism spectrum. His selective ignorance is not only arrogant, it’s life-threatening. (Nancy Hokkanen)

Novella is part of the HealthFraud crowd, started by Barrett who was the cover for the AMA when its dirty tricks dept had to go underground.

To see what sort of operation is going on it would help to study the COINTRELPRO operation of the FBI.

His comment “including the Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics, The American Medical Association, the Institute of Medicine, and the March of Dimes.”

is just the old authority ploy, or ‘lying with the truth’. Blair was the master, of course. (john)

And, my favorite:

Novella, I believe, is one of the members of the “Quackwatch,” along with Gorski (aka Orac, aka Dirtbag, aka whoever knows how many other aliases he hides behind), Probert (aka TheProbe, aka Freespeaker), Kevin Leitch, and numerous others. I find it deliciously ironic that they claim to be a group of people concerned about quackery in all of its forms (and, they even have the cute little “superhero” names to prove it), and they are the biggest quacks of them all! (Craig Willoughby, who has abandoned any prior pretense of rationality.)

I love the adoration of my fans, much as, I suspect, Steve does. Word to Craig: I don’t have any other aliases than the two you know about. I’m also terribly, terribly hurt that you consider me a “dirtbag.”

I presented these examples to show just how inimical to science the entire Age of Autism crew is. If science doesn’t jibe with their beliefs, then everyone who criticizes them is part of some huge conspiracy by The Man (in the form of the CDC, AAP, big pharma, and the government) to suppress The Truth. Personally, I often joke that I wish there were such a conspiracy, because I want in on some of that filthy big pharma lucre for doing what I would do anyway: Writing about pseudoscience and quackery. Maybe I could even quit my day job and sit around in my shorts all day blogging. Alas, it is not to be, and I have to blog in my spare time.

In the end, I feel rather sorry for J.B. Sure, he’s rich. Sure, he gets to pal around with celebrities these days. However, he labors under the delusion that vaccines caused his child’s autism and that various forms of “biomedical therapy” (a.k.a. autism quackery) will cure it. He may never believe me when I say this, but it would actually be fantastic if scientists could find so obvious and simple a cause of autism as vaccines; if that were the case, doctors could change their practice to correct the problem. That’s what we do when we find out that a treatment is causing harm. Moreover, if all the dubious “biomedical” interventions actually worked, it would mean that scientists would have a huge leg up in figuring out what the cause of autism is; they do not, and so scientists do not, and doctors still have only limited options of relatively weak efficacy for treating autistic children. Worse, J.B. is in the position to do so much good for autistic children, but instead he chooses to use his wealth and business savvy to promote pseudoscience that is not just harmful to autistic children, but potentially harmful to all children through its discouragement of vaccination and the increasing risk of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases that follow from his antivaccine activism.

But more telling is J.B. reaction to criticism. In the case of Steve he relies primarily on ad hominems and distortions. In the case of me, he’s utterly ignored my criticisms of his “Fourteen Studies” website, at least not those written under my own name. Whether it’s because he doesn’t want to give me the satisfaction of responding or because he’s embarrassed at realizing that he’s behaved exactly as I had publicly predicted, I don’t know. In any case, rather than addressing actual substantive criticisms, he routinely chooses to lash out at critics when they score direct hits on his nonsense, digging any dirt he can at the University of Google and slinging the mud far and wide. That should tell you all you need to know.

Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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