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Blaming failure to promote anti-vaccine views on “progressivism”

Every so often on this blog I get in the mood to take on a post on the anti-vaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism. Over the three years of its existence, I’ve seen some truly bizarre posts, ranging from one blogger blithely discussing how he took his daughter to Costa Rica for stem cell quackery to treat her autism to rants against journalists who have the temerity to point out that the scientific evidence out there does not support the idea that vaccines cause autism to attacks on perceived enemies of the anti-vaccine movement in which these enemies have their heads crudely Photoshopped into a photo of people sitting down for a Thanksgiving feast of dead baby. Indeed, given the cannibalistic “tribute” to its enemies last year, I shudder to think what the loons at AoA will come up with this year, given that Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away, although I must admit that I do wonder how AoA can top portraying its perceived enemies as cannibals.

Sometimes, however, I come across a post that is so completely off the wall that I don’t know what to think of it, at least not initially. True, such posts always proceed from the idea that that vaccines cause autism, that the government and big pharma are out to suppress that forbidden knowledge, and that various “biomed” quackery can “cure”–or, as the “autism biomed” likes to call it, “recover”–autistic children. However, sometimes what the post says comes at this concept from such a bizarre angle that I don’t honestly know what to think. Such was the case when I perused AoA over the weekend and came across a post by Dan Olmsted entitled Dan Olmsted On Why Progressives Don’t Get Autism. He begins with an assertion that strikes me as bizarre, to say the least:

The midterm elections have ushered in a period of reflection and reckoning for the nation’s liberal-left movement that today usually describes itself as “progressive.” As The Huffington Post bluntly put it, “Progressive Heroes Go Down to Defeat.” Especially given health care reform’s big role in the election debate, this reckoning ought to include the biggest health problem facing the next generation and hence the nation: Autism.

But first, progressives have got to come to grips with their abject failure to “get” the autism issue.

My first reaction to this passage was a big fat “WTF?” First off, how is autism the “biggest health problem facing the next generation”? What about heart disease? Cancer? Stroke? Chronic pulmonary disease? Combined, these diseases are the top four causes of death and disability in the U.S. With the first Baby Boomers hitting age 65 next year, we are starting a 20-30 year stretch in which diseases of the elderly are going to skyrocket. Speaking of diseases of the elderly, what about Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia? These, too, are expected to skyrocket. With the aging of the population, whether President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) is significantly altered or not with Republicans in control of the House, as a nation we will be straining to care for victims of these diseases for the foreseeable future. Yet, Olmsted declares autism to be the “biggest health problem” facing the nation. Don’t get me wrong; I understand that the costs of caring for autistic children is high, but even a study from a few years ago estimated it to be less than the cost of caring for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, mental retardation, anxiety, and anxiety and very similar to the costs of caring for people with schizophrenia. For comparison, in 2006 Michael Ganz estimated the yearly cost of caring for patients with autism to be on the order of $35 billion while the same cost for patients with Alzheimer’s disease was estimated to be $91 billion.

Be that as it may, what really seems to be eating at Olmsted is that his recent book with Mark Blaxill, Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-Made Epidemic doesn’t appear to be making much of a splash. You’ll see what I mean soon. First, however, it’s revealing to see Olmsted blame the failure of his and Blaxill’s on–of all things–progressivism. I kid you not. Olmsted blames the failure of his anti-vaccine message to resonate on progressivism:

One key part of the progressive agenda of the last century has been improving health – and especially children’s health – through mass vaccination against deadly diseases. And now come a new group of people, autism parents, who allegedly want to roll back all this progress so long in the making. And how do they want to accomplish this nefarious (and nebulous) goal? By questioning the consensus that genes cause autism, and by claiming that the environment – and plausibly some aspect of the very same mass vaccination campaign — is implicated in autism’s epidemic rise. Cleverly labeling these concerns “anti-vaccine” and, implicitly, anti-progress, makes it easy to ignore a fundamental truth — that every ideology including progressivism can go too far, get hijacked by forces that should be its natural enemies, and fail to understand what is required at a particular historical moment.

I must admit, this one blew my mind! Olmsted’s unhappy that his movement has been unable to convince scientists and physicians that vaccines cause autism; so he blames “progressivism” as being a huge part of the reason. While it is probably true that mass vaccination as a means to improve the health of children derives from a progressive impulse, there is without a doubt a large contingent within the anti-vaccine movement that consists of people who would be characterized as liberal or progressive. Think Bill Maher, for example. Think Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Bastions of anti-vaccine sentiment can also be found in areas loaded with affluent liberals, such as Marin County, San Francisco, New Jersey (where at least one of the bloggers for AoA can be found, along with Louise Kuo Habakus, about whose anti-vaccine activism AoA bloggers have approvingly written in the past).

None of this is meant to say that the anti-vaccine movement is primarily a liberal movement, as conservatives sometimes try to paint it. For example, there is a very strong strain of anti-vaccine activism within the “health freedom” movement, which bases its support for “alternative” medicine on more–shall we say?–Libertarian impulses. Then there are conservatives such as Representative Dan Burton, who is profoundly anti-vaccine, having abused his position to try to promote the concept that vaccines cause autism and who is now, apparently, set to do it again now that the Republicans have regained control of the House. As I’ve said before, anti-vaccine lunacy is the quackery that knows no political boundaries. Both liberals and conservatives are pefectly able to find reasons to fear vaccines, particularly in the conspiracy theories they use as the basis for their fears. Conservatives, for instance, distrust big government and paint anything that smacks of mandatory vaccination programs as big government trampling their freedom, while liberals tend to distrust big pharma and as a consequence to use conspiracy theories based on the nefarious activities of pharmaceutical companies, sometimes in concert with government, as the basis of their paranoia. Regardless of whether or not there is a greater tendency to hold anti-vaccine views among liberals or conservatives, one thing’s for sure. Olmsted’s argument seems to be that progressives reject his anti-vaccine views.

As though that were a bad thing!

Indeed, if Olmsted were correct, it would reflect very well on progressives that they don’t fall for his pseudoscience. Oddly enough, having come to view resistance to his anti-vaccine message as deriving from progressivism, Olmsted nonetheless urges progressives to join him in his anti-vaccine cause:

At THIS moment, what’s required of progressives is a willingness to listen to literally thousands of these parents, and hundreds of scientists and doctors, who are trying to tell the medical industry – trade organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, government public health officials at the FDA, the CDC and NIMH, pharmaceutical companies – that something is badly amiss. The message is pretty simple, really: In creating an undeniable public good, those responsible for taking care of children’s health inadvertently unleashed a monster – epidemic levels of developmental and chronic illnesses in this generation of children.

Except that they didn’t. Science doesn’t support Olmsted’s assertions that vaccines are responsible for “epidemic levels of developmental and chronic illnesses in this generation of children.” This makes it particularly hilarious to see Olmsted opine:

So please, don’t paint me with the anti-science, anti-progress, know-nothing brush that too many progressives love to wield whenever this issue comes ’round to the undeniable implications of autism’s recency and rapid rise. Mark Blaxill and I have just written a 300-plus page book with 700-plus footnotes, laying out the history of the disorder and its roots in the commercialization of a new mercury compound in the 1930s (“The Age of Autism – Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-Made Epidemic”).

If the shoe fits…

Personally, I love it when cranks brag about the lengths of their books and the number of footnotes they use, as though either were any indication that the actual content of a book is scientifically valid. After all, cranks have always confused the number of footnotes with research rigor. If those footnotes are nothing but references to the same crappy studies, it means nothing other than that the crank has, as expected, referenced a whole lot of crappy, pseudoscientific studies. Alternatively, pseudoscience boosters will quote decent studies but misrepresent what they mean, co-opting them to the service of their pseudoscience. Fortunately, in this case “progressives” appear to have caught on and haven’t bought into Blaxill and Olmsted’s pseudoscience, leading Olmsted to whine:

It’s doubly disappointing to see traditionally progressive outlets – from Salon to Daily Kos to The Atlantic to National Public Radio and PBS – ignore the evidence presented in our book and so many other places, twist the facts they can’t deny, belittle those who believe otherwise including beleaguered autism parents, and glibly trumpet tired reassurances that the concern over vaccines has been “asked and answered,” that “study after study” has refuted any relation, and that continuing to point out disturbing patterns of evidence to the contrary endangers children and infants.

Or, in other words, “Waaaaaahhhh! No one is reading or believing our book!” It’s hard not to feel a distinct sense of schadenfreude. I haven’t read the whole book, but I’ve had a chance to read the introduction and a couple of chapters, and it’s hard for me to say that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer couple of guys. The book is badly written, not well argued, and pummels the reader over the head with pure anti-vaccine views, recycling the same nonesense Olmsted has been promoting since at least 2005 and that AoA has been serving up on a daily basis for three years. In other words, it’s exactly what one would expect from Blaxill and Olmsted.

No wonder no one is interested, and Blaxill and Olmsted blame everyone but themselves for that. That’s hardly a “progressive” attitude. The problem isn’t that progressives don’t “get” autism; it’s that they appear to “get” the anti-vaccine movement as represented by Blaxill and Olmsted all too well.

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]

27 replies on “Blaming failure to promote anti-vaccine views on “progressivism””

Evidently, Olmsted thinks that political ideology should guide someone’s views, and not the strength of the evidence.

Is it possible to interpret his statements any other way?

As I read that last quote from the article, I couldn’t help but think, “Project much, Dan?”

Also amusing is that Olmsted praises Fox News for “getting” the anti-vaccine message. As Brian Deer pointed out in a comment on my piece over at Silenced by Age of Autism, this is the Fox News owned by Rupert Murdoch, which also owns the Times that employed Deer to investigate Wakefield.

Dan Olmsted On Why Progressives Don’t Get Autism

First he can’t find any autistic Amish, and now he can’t find any autistic progressives?

Where I live, anti-vaccination attitudes are most likely to be seen in well-known affluent ‘liberal-left’ communities within my municipality (e.g. the Glebe).

There are, I am sure, some Canadian conservatives who are against mass vaccination. But they are, I dare say, outnumbered by ‘progressives’.

So right off the bat, Olmstead’s arguments strike me as being off the mark.

It’s doubly disappointing to see traditionally progressive outlets – from Salon to Daily Kos to The Atlantic to National Public Radio and PBS – ignore the evidence presented in our book and so many other places…

You know Dan, some people might stop and wonder why the expected outlets aren’t doing what you expect them to do. Maybe it’s because you are actually wrong?

I guess I see why they always end up with conspiracy theories to explain why people don’t believe them. They cannot imagine that they are actually wrong, therefore they must come up with an alternative explanation for why so many people don’t take them seriously.

Hint to anti-vaccine cranks on why writing big books doesn’t get you kudos or credibility: a mountain of manure in a expanse of effluent is no more appetising than a dollop of dung in a puddle of piss.

Special Masters: unbeaten home and away. They rule.

If desperation truly is the world’s worst cologne, Dan O. must be really, really stink right about now.

The sad thing is that folks like Olmsted, Kirby, et al., are basking in the echo chamber of AoA. They think that treatises like this matter.

*Au contraire*!: as a proud *liberal*, who lives in one of the aforementioned bastions (and frequently traipses around the other), it irks me that we are portrayed as _New Agey, Economic-Know-Nothings_ and _crunchy, “natural-living”, Bach-Flower-Remedy-swilling, anti-vaxxers_. ((True: in NJ, we *do* have Kuo Habakus in Red Bank/ Middletown, and in *my very own county* ( shudder) both Deirdre Imus’ “research center” @ HUMC *and* Dr.& Ms. Oz- as I just learned from the Record 2011 Dining Out Guide- but then we also have *Princeton* and *pharmaceutical* corporations))

Dan should check out the Progressive (sic) Radio Network (.com) : it features internet radio shows for “true” progressives, like hosts anti-vaxxer Mayer Eisenstein, anti-psychiatrist Peter Breggin, and “health freedom” fighters like network creator, Gary Null and his new “best bud”, Mike Adams ( now relocated in Tucson ). I am told that they will be doing “investigative reports” and “whistle-blowing” involving governmental, medical, and environmental wrong- doing as well as starting a new political party for “progressive” “libertarians” who advocate** for freedom *from* governmental intervention in health issues ( read : no regulation/ no FDA / no CDC, etc.) and a flat tax. Seriously.

** which Null pronounces *avvocate*.


Yeah, Sonoma county is a fairly wealthy, hardcore, blue-to-the-bone Democrat area and has some of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S. according to an L.A. Times story
back in May. West county is especially awash in woo with an amazing number of homeopaths, naturopaths, TCM and reiki practitioners. This “blame the progressives” dog just won’t hunt. It’s more like, blame the moderates, as the fringes of both the left and right lap up the conspiracy theories like, well . . . like crazy.

He is just trying to jump on the Tea Party train and benefit from that media excitement after the recent elections. Glenn Beck loves to bash progressives, so if he conflates vaccines with progressives he stands to gain support from the people that soak up Beck/Fox’s fear mongering. The fact that group will often take on progressive hate without any evidence whatsoever, it’s just an added benefit.

Unfortunately for him, he will have to distance the group from the Huffington Post and Robert Kennedy to succeed. That’s the problem with tying politics to the issue, you risk alienated half your supporters anytime you pick a side.

…what’s required of progressives is a willingness literally thousands of these parents, and hundreds of scientists and doctors, who are trying to tell the medical industry…that something is badly amiss.

What is actually required is that cranks like Olmsted need to start listening to the literally millions of parents and thousands of scientists and doctors who say that the evidence strongly indicates that vaccines don’t cause autism, and that they should start looking elsewhere.

As Ms. Rachael Maddow pointed out on her program a few nights after the election: Of the 50 or so members of the Blue Dog caucus (“conservative” Dems) in the House, half of them lost their races. Of the 80 or so members of the Progressive caucus of Dems in the House, 4 lost their races. Hmm, by my math 50% > 5%. But what do I know, I’m not paid the big bucks to be a blithering idiot and write nonsense.

@ Pareidolius : ironically, although I come from a ( mostly) agnostic, liberal, business/ science educated family ( with artistic leanings), I seem to like visiting rather woo-drenched areas, such as SF/N.CA and the Hudson Valley**. Must be the scenery ( you probably know the scenario : first the artists come , then the affluent – woo, boutiques, and fine dining follow *en suite*)

** ancient stomping grounds for some of my ancesters.

C S Lewis said that, if you can only come up with a psychological explanation for your opponent’s stubborn insistence on holding the wrong belief, you are excused the effort of showing that the belief is in fact wrong. Olmsted is trying that tack, unaware that it doesn’t work in science. In science, you still have to do the work of proving your position on the facts.

“Conservatives, for instance, distrust big government and paint anything that smacks of mandatory vaccination programs as big government trampling their freedom, while liberals tend to distrust big pharma and as a consequence to use conspiracy theories based on the nefarious activities of pharmaceutical companies, sometimes in concert with government, as the basis of their paranoia.”

It sounds to me like the thing both parties have in common is pathological distrust of authority. Maybe a better way to put it is they don’t seem to know how to distinguish between earned and unearned authority. The former would be peer-reviewed research; the latter would be stuff like NaturalNews.

I am a little disturbed by how many people I encounter who have, not healthy skepticism (which requires actual intellectual discipline) but simple rejectionism or contrarian distrust. Maybe “paranoia” is the most appropriate word, even if it has the most depressing connotations.

I would like to point out that “progressive” and “conservative” aren’t mutually exclusive, especially in historical contexts. Teddy Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan were broadly “progressive”. Such “progressive conservatives” can be reasonably described as social reformers adhering to “traditional” or libertarian values.

How long before Olmsted and Blaxill cry that they are being “censored” because nobody will buy their poorly written, error-filled book? It seems the next (il)logical step from their initial “people disagree with us – they are censoring us!” and subsequent “the media aren’t listening to us – they are censoring us!” messages.

In truth, their book isn’t selling well – and neither is their message – because it is not supported by the data (or history). It also isn’t written very well, although I may be interpreting their high errors-per-page rate as poor writing – in my “biz”, the former is the latter.

Age of Autism has the misfortune of being neither fish nor fowl – it has too many obvious factual errors to be a serious scientific work and the plot is too weak (and the characters inadequately developed) to be a good work of fiction.

The book comes across as what it is: an attempt to sell on the “mass market” a hypothesis that has failed utterly in the scientific realm. Unfortunately for the authors, the mass media (and the general public) have become too accustomed to their “message” for many to be fooled. There are – in the media as well as the general public – those who will mistake turgid prose for data, just as there are gullible people who “believe” in alien abductions, Atlantis and ESP, but the majority seem to be declining the opportunity to be fooled once again.

Blaxill and Olmsted ask us to believe that a failed journalist and an intellectual properties consultant have discovered “the truth” that thousands of scientists have missed – or, worse yet, are “covering up”. This premise requires a level of conspiracy, coordination and discipline in the scientific community that only someone completely unfamiliar with scientific research could even imagine possible. Herding feral cats on meth would be child’s play compared to the effort needed to pull off this sort of “conspiracy of silence”.



That’s a bit of a disingenuous comparison, no? The more progressive Dems are more likely to be elected in states with a more progressive electorate (Scott Brown’s of the world aside). It makes sense that more moderate Democrats are at more risk for being toppled, owing to the fact they already have to bend to then center to accommodate a more conservative base.

That said, I agree that the “death of progressivism” angle that has been circulating the news is a load of bunk. The Democrats were getting voted out because of the economy, and because the American public is the most reactionary group of people around.

@ Prometheus
Every time I read Olmstead and Blaxill now, I will picture this

Getting back to the subject of the post, it continues to amuse me how Olmsted and Blaxill follow the anti-vax “scientific” methodology to the core:

1) Arrive at conclusion (“Our book is good”)
2) Generate hypothesis (“Progressives are discouraging people from buying our good bood”)
3) Pull up any and all circumstantial evidence to promote this
4) Ignore evidence to the contrary (such as the Fox News article above)
5) Lather, rinse, repeat

I live in San Francisco, and the woo available here has to be seen to be believed. I was deeply disappointed when California Pacific Medical Center, a large organization with branches all over the state and large specialty hospitals, drank the woo-laide and integrated some CAM departments in its local hospitals.

I have friends who just had their daughter who are basically keeping her away from the outside world because they are afraid of her getting exposed to pertussis. While I think they may be going slightly overboard, I understand their concerns.

It’s doubly disappointing to see traditionally progressive outlets – from Salon to Daily Kos to The Atlantic to National Public Radio and PBS

Not that it should come as any particular surprise, but Olmstead is full of crap even in his characterisation of the media landscape. While I can’t speak to the Atlantic or NPR, Salon has never struck me as particularly progressive, and DailyKos is absolutely not a progressive site. Kos is a site for Democratic Party activists, a group that ranges all the way from card-carrying syndicalists through to milquetoast liberals (though it’s true that the Kossacks got tired of the Blue Dogs, because they’re just Republicans with Ds after their names).

– Jake

a 300-plus page book with 700-plus footnotes

Indeed, the evidence linking footnote density to accuracy of information is at least as compelling as the evidence linking mercury in vaccines to autism.

I’m curious; will Mr. Olmsted be issuing further explanatory communiqués such as:

“Dan Olmsted On Why Liberals Don’t Get Autism.”

“Dan Olmsted On Why Conservatives Don’t Get Autism.”

“Dan Olmsted On Why Moderates Don’t Get Autism.”

“Dan Olmsted On Why Independents Don’t Get Autism.”

“Dan Olmsted On Why Secular Humanists Don’t Get Autism.”

“Dan Olmsted On Why Religious Fundamentalists Don’t Get Autism.”

“Dan Olmsted On Why Hamsters Don’t Get Autism.”


Hrm. “Progressive” seems to be the new “liberal.” This isn’t the first time I’ve seen it used this way. Kind of makes me wonder, I mean, sure some people could say that liberalism is a bad thing but progress? Who is against progress?

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