Antivaccine nonsense Autism Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery

Winning friends and influencing people the Handley way

You may have noticed that I’ve been laying off the antivaccination movement recently. Indeed, it’s been over two weeks since I last mentioned the topic, and then I only did so by briefly citing a post by Steve Novella. For this blog, aside from vacations, that has to be a record.

Truth be told, periodically I get really burned out on the topic, as I’ve pointed out from time to time. I frequently make jokes about the thermonuclearly burning stupid that regularly emanates from such “luminaries” of the antivaccine movement as Jenny McCarthy, David Kirby, Dan Olmsted, J. B. Handley, and others. It’s not an exaggeration. Under the relentless assault against science and intellect by such neuron-apoptosing black holes of idiotic pseudoscience, even Orac’s circuits need the occasional respite. Fortunately, around the time a respite was required, news on the antivaccine front went pretty quiet. Whether it’s a pre-Christmas lull or just a regression to the mean (if you know what I mean), there just isn’t much happening right now–certainly not much that’s motivated me to write about it–which, by the way, is a very good thing indeed. When I feel compelled to write about this topic often, it’s usually an indication that the antivaccine brigade is at work endangering public health.

Still, morbid curiosity guarantees that, even when things have been as blissfully quiet as they’ve been for the last two or three weeks, sooner or later I can’t resist taking a peak over at that repository of antivaccination lunacy, that the Age of Autism. I know, I know. You probably wonder why I subject myself to the concentrated, intelligence-sapping moronicity on a semi-regular basis. Sometimes I wonder myself, actually. Surely it can’t be good for my critical thinking skills. Consider it the price I pay for combatting this nonsense. I pay it willingly–well, most of the time anyway. Also, it’s rather like a slow motion train wreck. Being human, I can’t resist looking; eventually my willpower wanes, be it from lack of sleep, one beer too many, or whatever.

So it was that last night when I checked back in with our friends at AoA. I don’t know why. A whim took me and I did it. In any case, I found J. B. Handley, Founder of Generation Rescue (who’s now seemingly relegated to second banana status in his own organization since it became “Jenny McCarthy’s Autism Organization“), demonstrating his mad skilz at winning friends and influencing people in the media, specifically Donald McNeil, a reporter for the New York Times. Mr. McNeil apparently had the misfortune of doing a phone interview with him, which J. B. described in a post he so characteristically entitled Some New York Times Reporters are Just Ignorant.

Somehow I don’t think our friend J.B.’s been reading much Dale Carnegie lately, although I can understand why Mr. McNeil may have wanted to interview him. As a blog acquaintance put it, “A Handley quote is to a dull public health story what an overturned semi-tractor trailer is to a monotonous road trip.” And Handley probably didn’t disappoint, if his account (below) is any indication.

After completely dissing another New York Times reporter named Gardiner Harris (who, by the way, happens to “get it” when it comes to the vaccines-autism fear mongering so beloved of J.B., which is probably what enrages him so) and briefly describing Mr. McNeil’s background covering SARS, diseases of the poor, and mad cow disease, this is how our old “friend” J.B. described him:

Oh good God, I thought, this guy is drinking the kool-aid like the other New York Times reporters. Just for fun I Googled “Donald McNeil New York Times Paul Offit” and wouldn’t you know, the quote machine has been very busy with Mr. McNeil, featured in nearly every article he has written on anything anywhere to do with vaccines. See for yourself.

Here we go again with the obsession antivaccine zealots have with Dr. Offit. For some reason, to them he’s Satan Incarnate, the Evil One, the Root of All Evil, Cthulu, Sauron, and Emperor Palpatine all rolled up into one. Other scientists attack antivaccine lunacy, but there seems to be reserved for Dr. Offit a special sort of visceral hatred on the part of people like J.B. that’s actually a bit frightening to behold. It goes far beyond any reasonable dislike based on what Dr. Offit has actually done, which is to defend science against pseudoscience and stand up for the vaccine program. Of course, people like J.B. don’t see it that way. To them, Dr. Offit is an evil big pharma minion hell bent on poisoning our babies in order to line his pockets with that filthy big pharma lucre.

But back to Mr. Handley’s description of his encounter with Mr. McNeil:

And here is what I am going to tell you about Donald McNeil: he was completely and utterly clueless. He’d never heard kids actually recover. He’d never heard of cases of children, now neurotypical, with detailed medical records and case reports charting their recovery. He didn’t know tens of thousands of kids are truly recovering from autism and being treated by doctors with medical degrees just like Offit. From his perspective there’s a lie by Andy Wakefield, one death from chelation, and a bunch of quackery. Substance to what we are actually saying and doing? He had no clue.

Seeing J.B. call anyone “completely and utterly clueless” brings to mind the old Usenet adage, “Pot. Kettle. Black.” Way to go, though, J. B., not even waiting to see what Mr. McNeil actually–oh, you know–writes about Dr. Offit’s book before going on the attack! How predictable! All I can say to Mr. McNeil is: Welcome to the club! And to Mr. Handley: Take a look at what I wrote about Autism’s False Prophets, of which you, by the way, are one.

After having been cybersquatted by Mr. Handley and subjected to one of his pathognomonic all out attacks replete with adolescent mockery of my appearance, all I can say in addition is that this is utterly typical behavior for Mr. Handley when confronted with skepticism or science that he can’t answer or someone he can’t sway or just doesn’t like. It doesn’t really matter if that person is polite or obnoxious (the latter of which, admittedly, I sometimes am, and as apparently Gardiner Harris is also). As Mr. McNeil found out, being civil won’t protect you from one of J.B.’s tirades either if you happen not to buy into his antivaccine nonsense. In any case, sometimes obnoxiousness is not only an appropriate response to dangerous pseudoscience like the antivaccine movement, it is the required response, especially when the target is someone who is clearly beyond persuading with the aforementioned Dale Carnegie techniques. Although it had only just come into being when Thomas Jefferson was alive, Jefferson might well have been referring to the antivaccine movement when he said, “Ridicule is the only weapon that can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them.” It would be one thing if Handley and his ideological soulmates could make a coherent case based on actual science and epidemiology for their demonization of vaccines, but they can’t.

Mr. Handley also frequently makes the claim that there are so many “recovered” autistic children, brought back to “normal” by the quackery–excuse me, “biomedical interventions”–favored by Jenny McCarthy. Many advocates of the scientifically discredited idea that vaccines somehow cause autism claim that there are “hundreds” or even “thousands” of “recovered children.” Oddly enough, they can never seem to produce even the least compelling form of evidence for this claim: convincing medical anecdotes that pass muster as publishable case reports. Believe it or not, anecdotes are an acceptable form of medical evidence. They’re just the least reliable form and can really serve only as a mechanism of hypothesis generation. Also, there is a huge difference between real medical anecdotes and testimonials. In marked contrast to the sort of testimonials favored by the antivaccine movement, a medical anecdote consists of a carefully documented case report with objective measures.

J.B. continued:

We went on to the next topic, which was probably my favorite. I took him to task on the sweeping statements he and his colleagues make that the science proves “vaccines don’t cause autism.” I took him through how every single study Offit and others cite only compare vaccinated kids to other vaccinated kids. I asked him to try and name any other drug on the planet where they try to assess adverse events by only looking at people who have received the drug in question. I explained how important it is to look at unvaccinated kids, something people like Offit never advocate doing.

His answer?

“Looking at unvaccinated kids would be immoral.”

Now, let me explain. Donald McNeil, senior medical writer at the New York Times, didn’t even know unvaccinated kids exist. He thought I meant you would do a study where you told parents not to vaccinate their babies. The idea that unvaccinated kids live in the US or that they need to be considered came from left field. He’d simply never considered such a simple notion and, I’m guessing, never realized all the science from the other side only looked at vaccinated kids.

Unfortunately, J.B.’s idea of “studying unvaccinated kids” produces worthless “studies” that wouldn’t pass even the most minimal muster of science. Such “surveys” are guaranteed to find a “positive” result, especially when so incompetently analyzed. In any case, I have to wonder: If such a study were done and found absolutely nothing, nada, zip, no difference between vaccinated and unvaccinated populations in autism rates or rates of any other neurological problem that J. B. and his merry band of antivaccinationists attribute to vaccines, would J.B. admit he was wrong and apologize for promoting antivaccine views that endanger public health? I doubt it. That’s the difference between a zealot and a scientist. I realize that Mr. Handley will never believe this in a million years, but if I were to see properly designed scientific clinical trials and epidemiological studies that showed that vaccines or thimerosal in vaccines were associated with a demonstrably increased risk of autism, I’d change my mind and start to wonder if there were actually something to this proposed connection. I really would.

No such data exist, however. Indeed, if anything, each new study that comes out only strengthens the support for the hypothesis that there is no connection between vaccines and autism and that vaccines do not cause autism. Of course, it’s impossible ever to completely prove a negative, but what we can say with a high degree of certainty is that, even if there is a potential mechanism by which vaccines might contribute to autism, it is an infinitesimally small contribution; otherwise we would almost certainly have detected it in currently published epidemiological studies.

Having happily dissed a reporter from the New York Times, Mr. Handley then couldn’t resist following up his demonstration of winning friends and influencing people by taking it to new heights in a post entitled Donald McNeil of NY Times Responds With an Early Gift, in which he published an e-mail by Mr. McNeil pointing out his errors in his first AoA post on their encounter, saying:

I wrote in my post that I said:

“Many of us on our side of the debate get threats, too, we’re just not wimps who whine about it. It comes with the territory.”

I considered my representation of the conversation to be a paraphrase of what I’d said, and Mr. McNeil’s notes are certainly more accurate. So, what I actually said was:

“I’ve received, not death threats, but emails threatening my physical safety on numerous occasions. I just don’t complain about them to all the world like a giant pussy.”

I deeply regret this error and vow never again to say I called Paul Offit a “wimp” when I actually called him a “pussy.” AoA editors, please accept my deeply held apology. And, Mr. McNeil, I’m very sorry for any confusion or professional damage this may have caused you.

Nice misogyny there, J.B.! Handley must not think much of women to use “pussy” as a derogatory term, wouldn’t you say? I would. Sure, he’ll deny that his use of a vulgar term for female reproductive anatomy as an insult means that he thinks little of women. Maybe he even really believes he is not misogynistic. But if he’s not misogynistic, then why does his preferred insult designed to paint Dr. Offit as a coward or wimp involve comparing him to a part of female anatomy?

But here’s where J.B. really shows his cluelessness:

I am shocked by my own inability to handle the facts and I apologize deeply to Mr. McNeil. While I claim that Mr. McNeil said, “Looking at unvaccinated kids would be immoral,” what he actually meant, as his email makes fully clear, is that, “Leaving kids unvaccinated (ie, in order to study them) would be immoral.” The difference between those two statements? I haven’t a fucking clue, but let the record show the Mr. McNeil was not only misquoted, but felt the misquote made him look “stupider than the truth would have.”

(I left the profanity in intentionally.)

J.B. has actually said something I agree with: He doesn’t have a clue. Of course, I find it most telling indeed that Mr. Handley apparently can’t tell the difference between saying that leaving kids unvaccinated in order to study them would be immoral and saying that studying unvaccinated kids would be immoral. It rather suggests that he really does equate “studying unvaccinated kids” with intentionally leaving kids unvaccinated in order to study them, at the very least subconsciously. After all, there is nothing inherently immoral about studying unvaccinated children if their vaccination status was preexisting and their parents won’t vaccinate them, but it is indeed totally unethical for investigators to leave children unprotected by vaccines intentionally as a part of a trial.

To drive home his cluelessness even more, though, J. B. concluded:

I hope, and I can only pray, that the New York Times will print, for all their readers to see, that a father of a child with autism called Paul Offit a pussy.

There we go with the macho posturing and misogyny again. There we go with the obsession with Dr. Offit again. Or, to sum it all up, there goes J. B. again.

Looking at J.B.’s behavior, I’m puzzled. I can’t for the life of me figure out what good he thinks insulting a NYT reporter could serve–especially before that reporter has even written the story for which he interviewed J.B.. The time between the research and the writing of a story is a time when hurling about such insults might negatively influence how the story comes out. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot with a 12-gauge! I can only think of two explanations. Either he’s “playing to his base” and being the “big hero” standing up to the evil New York Times, which is viewed as an enemy because in general it’s taken a pretty science- and evidence-based position on the vaccines/autism manufactroversy, or he’s intentionally poisoning the well because he wants the story to be as critical of him as possible, allowing him to paint himself and his group as misunderstood, persecuted victims instead of the cranks they are. In any case, I hadn’t been aware that the NYT was working on a story about Dr. Offit’s book. I can’t wait to see the story now. Maybe I’ll even blog it.

If there’s one thing this incident has shown me, it’s perhaps that not paying attention to AoA for a couple of weeks is a very good thing indeed. At least my neurons weren’t crying out in pain for that time period. Maybe I’ll have to go back to blissful ignorance of what the band of antivaccine loons over at AoA are up to. It’ll be good for my mental health.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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