Of all the oddities of the embryonic election campaign is the candidacy of Marianne Williamson. We’ve last met her, she was a guest on Bill Maher’s television show. At the time, all I knew about her was that she was some sort of New Age spiritual advisor (in other words, grifter). Her performance in the first Democratic Presidential debate, held a month ago was truly bizarre, but for some reason she remains popular in Hollywood. As I noted at the time, she was full of fluffy, gauzy, New Age woo, and none of that changed at the Democratic debate. That she is utterly unqualified to be President is not the least bit in doubt, and fortunately her odds of becoming President are slim and none.
Indeed, Marianne Williamson is full of woo, representing herself as the “wellness candidate,” a self-described “bitch for God.” She’s known best for her self-help books and gained popularity after befriending high-power celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Cher, and Elizabeth Taylor. She’s written 13 books, given TED talks, and was famous for being Oprah Winfrey’s spiritual advisor (whatever that means). She’s also won support from various celebrities, like Alyssa Milano:
Late Tuesday, actress Alyssa Milano, who has rebranded as a political activist in recent years (replete with a CNN column and podcast), tweeted that she would be attending Williamson’s fundraiser in Beverly Hills. “I’m going to my first fundraiser of the election cycle and it’s [email protected] I know. I know. But she’s the only candidate talking about the collective, soulful ache of the nation & I think that’s an important discussion to have.” Milano, who also teased Williamson’s appearance on an upcoming episode of her podcast, was promptly ratioed, with critics upbraiding the Charmed star for boosting a candidate with a long history of espousing dangerous anti-science views.
Of more interest to me is her stance on vaccination. Why? Because, through her fame, her attacks on vaccine mandates, and her non-denial denials that she is antivaccine. Before I discuss her antics in the last month or so, let’s take a trip back to 2015, when she was on Real Time With Bill Maher. At the time, all while claiming she’s “not antivaccine,” she laid down a veritable cornucopia of antivaccine tropes, such as “too many too soon,” that “if you had any skepticism whatsoever [towards vaccines], you were antiscience,” and, laying down extreme distrust of pharma as her reason for being suspicious of vaccines, while adding that the “difference between having skepticism about science and having skepticism about the pharmaceutical industry.” As I described, truly her stupid did burn brightly and continued to burn brighter still. Even as Williamson touted that she vaccinated her children, she went on about how the government had “earned our distrust” and how the “government had suppressed information” and medicine had done the same. She bristled at being called antiscience for being suspicious of the pharmaceutical industry. Her conclusion? She said that the answer is “not to call us kooks” but for the government and pharmaceutical industry to “get their acts together.”
Of course, as I’ve noted many times, this is a tactic taken straight from the playbook of the antivaccine movement, to cite (disingenuously) reasonable suspicion of the pharmaceutical industry’s previous misdeeds as a reason to be suspicions of the safety and efficacy of vaccines. As much as antivaxers conflate the two, they are not the same thing, nor is one as reasonable as the other. Whatever misdeeds the pharmaceutical industry is guilty of, they do not cast doubt on the safety and efficacy of vaccines because there is plenty of independent evidence to support the conclusions that vaccines do not cause autism, neurodevelopmental disorders, sudden infant death syndrome, allergic conditions, or any of the other myriad problems frequently ascribed to them by antivaccinationists. I also not infrequently note that, no matter how much the government or the pharmaceutical industry ever “gets its act together,” it’s never, ever enough for people like Marianne Williamson. Also, the claim that you “can’t question” oor that “questioning does not make you antiscience” is a favorite cry of the crank, given that it is not reasonable “questioning” that we are talking about.
So now it’s four years later, summer 2019, and Marianne Williamson is running for the Democratic nomination for President. Even before the Democratic debate last month, she was getting herself into trouble on the issue of vaccines.
According to this news report:
Presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, an author and self-help guru who will appear on the Democratic debate stage next week, apologized Wednesday night after she attacked mandatory vaccinations as “draconian” and “Orwellian” at a Manchester, N.H., event. “To me, it’s no different than the abortion debate,” Williamson said at the event, according to a tweet from an NBC News reporter. “The U.S. government doesn’t tell any citizen, in my book, what they have to do with their body or their child.” After a request for comment from the Los Angeles Times, Williamson acknowledged making the remarks and said she misspoke.
Hilariously, in addition, her response was to post a Tweet containing a video segment from her 2015 appearance with Bill Maher that I so lovingly deconstructed at the time.
Her “apology” on Twitter was in reality a not-pology:
Notice how there’s a “but.” She “understands that many vaccines are important and save lives.” She “recognizes there are epidemics around the world that are stopped by vaccines.” Of course, the “but” is coming. It always does:
I also understand some of the skepticism that abounds today about drugs which are rushed to market by Big Pharma. I am sorry that I made comments which sounded as though I question the validity of life-saving vaccines. That is not my feeling and I realize that I misspoke
There’s the tell for antivaxers. The antivaccine trope here is the “but big pharma” qualification to her statement of belief in vaccines, as in, “I know vaccines can save lives, but big pharma.” It’s the same sort of thing she did on The View, where the panel badgered her about vaccines (and appropriately so, in my opinion), leaving her frustrated:
Williamson was challenged last month in a contentious interview on “The View” over her previous statements calling vaccine mandates “draconian” and “Orwellian.” “My sloppiness in talking about that was a self-inflicted wound,” Williamson said. But she added “The View” co-hosts treated her unfairly. “I said to Joy Behar during the break, ‘Why are you doing this? I’m a liberal,’ ” Williamson said. “ ‘Why are you doing this?’ She said, ‘What are you talking about? I’ve always been good to you.’ I said, ‘Until today you have been.’ I don’t understand it.”
And, as in 2015, Marianne Williamson pulled the “questioning” gambit:
Any time there is a medical intervention, there is both benefit and risk,” she said. “Government must come down on the side of public health.” “Having said that, I understand that many areas having to do with food, health and safety are places where Americans have questions,” she added. “And I don’t believe that questioning should be squashed. There is intelligent nuance that should be respected.”
Of course, it is not “questioning” or “intelligent nuance” that is being “squashed.” The “questioning” of vaccines by antivaxers is not in any way based in “intelligent nuance.” It’s based in pseudoscience, bad science, cherry picked evidence, and logical fallacies. In any event, Williamson has been catching a lot of criticism, and rightly so. Apparently this week, it got on her nerves, as she Tweeted:
Amusingly, one response was spot on:
I must admit, I found Williamson’s statement rather amusing. Quoting Einstein doesn’t make you pro-science any more than quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. makes one not racist. Even more hilariously, it was immediately pointed out that Williamson has a history of spreading fake quotes by Albert Einstein in her books, a lot of fake quotes.
It’s also generally a bad thing if you feel the need to deny that you are a “cult leader” or deny that you are “antiscience.” If you feel the need to deny it, chances are very good that you are, in fact, at least one of the two. Indeed, this 1992 article by Martin Gardner about her and A Course in Miracles, published in Skeptical Inquirer is quite revealing:
Williamson’s theme song is “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” The word love must appear in her book more than a thousand times, in such sentences as “We are all part of a vast sea of love…Love is a win-mode…Only love is real. Nothing else actually exists…Love is to people what water is to plants.” Here some more gems of Marianne’s mushy metaphysics: “We are pregnant with possibilities…Nothing occurs outside our minds…If God is seen as electricity, then we are his lamps…Gray clouds never last forever. The blue sky does…Time does not exist…We’re always perfect. We can’t not be….Sickness is an illusion and does not actually exist.”
So basically, at least since the early 1990s, Williamson has basically been a New Age guru. Maybe not a cult leader, but she’s definitely way out there and has been for a long time. She’s also into The Secret and its Law of Attraction, the concepts that just wishing hard enough for something will result in the universe granting it to you.
She’s also still antivax, her claims otherwise notwithstanding. I admit that I thought she probably wasn’t hard core antivax. Then she had to go and Tweet this, which made me realize that I was mistaken:
Ah, yes, leave it to Marianne Williamson to fall back on the most favorite trope of antivaxers, a variant of the “I’m not antivaccine; I’m pro-safe vaccine” gambit so beloved of Jenny McCarthy. This particular variant does the same sort of thing that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. does when he declares himself “fiercely pro-vaccine” before launching into antivaccine misinformation. In this case, she channels antivaxers by insinuating that vaccines are responsible for the rise in prevalence of chronic illnesses, when they are demonstrably not. She then channels antivaxers ranging from Rob Schneider to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in attacking the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 as somehow giving big pharma “freedom from liability” for adverse events due to vaccines, which is utter nonsense.
All the NVCIA requires is that vaccine injury cases go first through a special court first, and the funding of that court comes from a surcharge on vaccines. Moreover, unlike standard court, the Vaccine Court pays all the reasonable legal expenses of complainants, win or lose, which is a hell of an advantage of Vaccine Court over standard court. Basically, Vaccine Court is a much easier mechanism for parents of children with real vaccine injuries to be compensated. Notice how Williamson refers to the NVCIA as the “vaccine protection law.” I suppose I should give her credit for not calling it what antivaxers frequently do, the pharma protection law. Not surprisingly, she also cites the $4 billion paid out over 30 years as evidence that vaccines are somehow horribly unsafe, when in reality when taken in context of the billions of doses of vaccines to hundreds of millions of children given during that time it’s not really that large a figure.
Also note Williamson’s clever conflation of two things that aren’t related, the opioid addiction crisis and vaccines. Yes, there is considerable evidence that pharma had a hand in stoking the opioid crisis in the name of profits, but that has no bearing on the safety of vaccination. After all, we have copious evidence that vaccines are safe and effective that comes from many sources independent of pharma from many nations. There are multiple large epidemiological studies including many hundreds of thousands of children that have failed to find an association between vaccination and autism. Her ploy here is nothing more than poisoning the well. Similarly, the claim that the CDC refuses to do more research is a straight up lie. If that were the case, how come there are so many studies on vaccine safety funded by the CDC? Why are there two active surveillance systems (the Vaccine Safety Datalink and the Clinical Immunization Safety Assessment project) and one passive surveillance system (Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System)?
No, Marianne Williamson is definitely antivaccine. She can deny it all she wants, and she might fool those not familiar with antivaccine misinformation, pseudoscience, and logical fallacies, but she doesn’t fool me, and she doesn’t fool anyone who is familiar with the tactics and tropes of the antivaccine movement. Fortunately, there’s virtually no chance that she will become President, but before she drops out she is likely to spread antivaccine misinformation while denying being antivaccine. Don’t let her fool you. She’s not saying anything about vaccines that I couldn’t find on Age of Autism or other antivaccine blogs or social media accounts.