The antivaccine conspiracy theory narrative: You want it darker?
Some of you might have been wondering just WTF has been going on here on the old blog, given the relative paucity of posts over the last week and the „reruns“ from the distant past that I've been posting. I address this question because I realize that not everyone reads the comments and it's quite possible some of you might have missed it, but here in Michigan we had an enormous windstorm last Wednesday that knocked out power to 800,000+ people. Unfortunately, Orac was one of them. True, we did get the power back over the weekend, but then, in a cruel twist of fate, we lot power again on Tuesday, which is why there was no post yesterday. Even better, the power came back Wednesday morning as I was getting ready to head to Seattle to attend the yearly Society of Surgical Oncology meeting, only to die after about an hour. So that's three—count 'em—three times we've lost power in the last week, during a time period when we've had the coldest weather in March I can remember in a long time. I tell ya, I just can't win this week.
Now that that's out of the way, I can't help but make the observation that stuff happened while I was (mostly) offline. One thing that caught my eye is that Steve Novella discovered the wonder of delusion that is Kent Heckenlively. You remember Kent, don't you? I first encountered him when he was a member of the merry band of pseudoscience-worshiping antivaccine warriors over at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism. What attracted my attention was how what he did to his daughter to try to „cure“ her of her autism opened my eyes wider to the lengths to which antivaccine parents will go and how far into quackery they will delve in order to „save“ their child. In Heckenlively's case, he hit is daughter's grandparents up for $15,000 to take her to a dubious stem cell clinic in Costa Rica for „stem cell“ injections directly into her cerebrospinal fluid. Not surprisingly, it didn't work.
Let's just put it this way. Heckenlively is so far off the ranch that even that apparently even that wretched hive of antivaccine scum and quackery that is AoA is insufficiently conspiratorial. I can only conclude that because I don't recall the last time I saw him post anything at AoA and, more importantly, he how appears to have found a home with Patrick „Tim“ Bolen, a.k.a. Hulda Clark's pit bull, at least back when Hulda Clark was still alive. Clark, if you remember, proclaimed that all cancer and AIDS were caused by a liver fluke and could be cured using her „zapper,“ which always reminded me of a Scientology E-meter. In any case, I looked it up, and Heckenlively hasn't appeared in AoA since last July, while since June he's been tearing up The Bolen Report. This is not a step up. When next we see Heckenlively switch jobs, I fear we'll see him heading to the next logical place, Mike Adams' Natural News. Really, it's where he belongs. But I digress.
In any case, Steve used a post by Heckenlively published earlier this week entitled A Vaccine-Free World?… to note that the antivaccine narrative just gets darker. And he's right (as usual). The antivaccine narrative has been steadily getting darker and darker in the 12 years that I've been actively paying attention and writing about it. However, seeing Steve's post, I couldn't help but channel Leonard Cohen's last album before he died, which was entitled You Want It Darker. Remember, this is an album made by a man who knew he was going to die soon.
Yes, antivaccine activists do want it darker. Also remember that in any story (and that's what conspiracy theories are, in essence) there is a victim, a hero, and a villain. Guess who plays these roles in Heckenlively's fantasies? You'll see in a moment. In the meantime, join him on his magical mystery tour of his dark fantasy:
Remove all vaccines from usage for a period of five years, study them in laboratories and in animal models, then create a system to slowly introduce one vaccine at a time and monitor for long-term effects before even thinking of introducing a second vaccine. Oh, and while that’s being done, immediately REPEAL AND DON’T REPLACE the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act which currently gives pharmaceutical companies COMPLETE IMMUNITY FOR HARM DONE BY THEIR PRODUCTS.
Steve didn't really dwell much on this part of Heckenlively's screed, but I want to. What it demonstrates is just how fully deluded he is. He has utterly and literally no clue just how massively unethical such a plan would be. The reasons are numerous and range from the incredibly simple to grasp to more complicated. Basically, it is unethical to perform an experiment in which children are intentionally left unprotected from common dieseases that can be prevented by vaccines. Worse, Heckenlively's plan would take not just years, but likely decades, during which diseases like measles, mumps, diptheria, and pertussis would predictably come roaring back. After all, that's what happened in the UK when Andrew Wakefield's campaign to discredit the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine, aided and abetted by the complicit tabloid press, resulted in plunging vaccine rates. Measles, once eliminated, came roaring back. The same thing happened in Europe. Thus far in the US we've managed to avoid a resurgence as enormous, but there are worrisome signs that that could change, such as the Disneyland measles outbreak and declining vaccine uptake due to increasing numbers of personal belief exemptions to school vaccine mandates in Texas. Add to that other outbreaks, such as in my very own state, and it's hard not to conclude that herd immunity is hanging by a thread in too many places where critical masses of the vaccine-averse and antivaccine reside. There are, of course, many other problems besides ethics with Heckenlively's idea, not the least of which is how utterly expensive and impractical it would be.
Of course, such an experiment might—I repeat, might—be justified if there were massive and overwhelming evidence that the current vaccine schedule was causing horrible harm to huge numbers of children. The evidence, however, would have to be so obvious and irrefutable that not even Paul Offit or I could deny it. Even then, under such a circumstance, we would still want to figure out a strategy to determine what is causing harm that wouldn't inevitably result in wholesale outbreaks of infectious disease. Of course, if you're Kent Heckenlively, you believe the situation is just that apocalyptic and the evidence that irrefutable. That's where he and much of the antivaccine movement diverge with reality. They express sentiments like this:
We know that vaccines are causing MASSIVE DAMAGE to the health of our young and contributing to the massive epidemics of chronic diseases among those of working age and the dementias of the elderly. Don’t believe me? Just read the vaccine safety inserts. I hear Alex Jones and InfoWars are going to be doing their own series of special reports on THE VACCINE SIDE EFFECTS LISTED ON THE INSERTS. (That’s just the things the pharmaceutical companies admit!) I’m looking forward to that. Worried that it’s “Fake News?” That’s easy to remedy. If you have any questions, just go to your local pharmacy and ask for the inserts yourself.
Ah, yes, the appeal to the package insert. We should figure out a name for this logical fallacy, if someone hasn't already. Oh, yes, the ancient reptilian Skeptical Raptor already has, argumentum ad package insert. Oh, wait, that was me. (We'll just have to share the credit.) In any case, as Steve, and the Raptor (and I) have pointed out, package inserts are legal documents, not scientific documents. They are designed to cover the asses of the pharmaceutical companies, not to dispassionately list adverse events definitely linked to the vaccine or drug. Pretty much every bad thing that happened to any participant in the clinical trials leading to the licensing of a vaccine or drug is listed, whether that bad thing had anything to do with the vaccine or drug or not. Heckenlively, who loudly proclaims his JD (even though he doesn't practice law), should know that, but instead he says things like “ In the legal system, such admissions are considered “clues.” Um, no. such „admissions“ are there for one purpose and one purpose only, to protect the pharmaceutical company.
Of course, in Heckenlively's world, the nonexistent horror he describes is not due to negligence. Well, that's not entirely true. There is negligence there, or at least there was to begin with. However, after that, the reason this „suffering“ continues is because „They“ want it to. Remember what I said about every story needing a victim, a hero, and a villain? Well, the victims in Heckenlively's world are the children. Clearly, the villain is…well, it's not always clear exactly who is the villain, but it is always some combination of pharmaceutical companies, the government (usually the CDC, but often the FDA as well), state medical authorities, politicians who support school vaccine mandates (because, in Heckenlively's view, they are in the pockets of big pharma, natch), and the medical profession, all of whom deny based on science his evidence- and science-free beliefs that vaccines are horrifically harmful. Guess whom, that leaves as the hero? You guessed it:
But I thought when people like me raised our voices and claimed vaccines were harming the human species, that somebody in a position of authority in government or science would do some proper investigation. However, as I researched my book, INOCULATED: How Science Lost its Soul I had to confront some dark truths about the corruption of the American body politic. No matter how cynical I was about whether people in our government cared about children with autism, and the wholesale destruction of our species by vaccines, I wasn’t cynical enough. We tried to work with our health authorities. They turned a deaf ear.
So the battle lines are drawn. I did, however, forget one other villain, namely the press. After all, the press has increasingly (and correctly) treating antivaccine activists like Heckenlively as the fringe loons they are. So they must be paid off. I just saw a particularly telling article on that score, although it was not by Heckenlively. Rather, it was by Anne Dachel, published over at AoA, and entitled, Dachel Wake Up: Julia Belluz Is CDC's Company Gal!, which basically accuses an excellent journalist who's done some great stories on health and medicine as being in the pockets of pharma, along with the CDC. Because in Heckenlively's world, no one could ever be pro-vaccine unless it was because he or she was in the pocket of big pharma.
One key aspect of these dark conspiracy theories is the „hidden knowledge“ narrative. Yes, the CDC, FDA, big pharma, and medical-industrial complex might have bamboozled the sheeple, but there are people who know, man. They've WOKEN UP (to borrow Heckenlively's all-caps):
I don’t care how much the mainstream media, funded by the waning pharmaceutical dollars continues to whip up hysteria, it won’t work. We all see the casualties in our schools, in our homes, and on our streets. A brutal reckoning is coming for those who have allowed this harm to children to take place.
Now do you see where all the comparisons with Nazis, the Holocaust, and death camps come from? People like Heckenlively truly believe that vaccines are so evil and those who promote them even more so. But Heckenlively imagines himself to be so much better than that. Elsewhere he as written about VAXXED, Andrew Wakefield's antivaccine propaganda film disguised as a documentary. Hilariously, his friends were…less than receptive.
I have been astounded by the response of some long-time friends who when I say, “Hey, there’s this documentary about a whistle-blower at the CDC and the cover-up of the link between vaccines and autism, do you want to come and see it?” They act like I’m denying the existence of God. No, scratch that. If I asked them to come to a movie about an atheist, I’d get a better response. In very poignant emails back to me they have said that they will not even put at risk their “fugitive and cloistered virtue” (to steal from the poet, John Milton) by exposing themselves to the possibility that the government is lying to them.
Or maybe they recognize a ridiculous conspiracy theory when they see one. Kent has some smart friends. I wonder why they're friends with Ken, given that he must harangue them frequently about his antivaccine beliefs. Of course, the most important part of the conspiracy theory is hope and how it allows people like Heckenlively to view themselves as heroic crusaders against evil. For example, I've cited how Heckenlively shares one characteristic with me. (Embarrassing, but true.) He really, really loves J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, so much so that he actually wrote this back when he was still a regular at AoA:
When I watch I imagine myself as Aragorn, taking the Dimholt Road under the mountain, clutching the sword, Anduril, Flame of the West, offering a deal to the souls of the dishonored dead if they would join me in battle. I picture myself as Aragon, astride my horse in front of the Black Gate, telling my troops, I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down, but it is not this day! This day we fight! Then I jump off my horse, and with the setting sun behind me, a reckless, almost manic glint in my eye and a crooked grin, I am first to charge into the enemy army.
This is, of course, one of my favorite scenes from both The Lord of the Rings books and the movies. In it, the last heir of Isildur, Aragorn, had brought his forces to the Black Gate of Mordor to challenge the Dark Lord Sauron to battle, not with any hope of victory, but as a diversion to distract the Eye of Sauron long enough to allow the hobbits Frodo and Sam to cross Mordor and reach Mount Doom, there to destroy the One Ring, the source of Sauron’s evil power, by throwing it into the molten lava in the Crack of Doom. Aragorn, Gandalf, and his companions fully expected to die in the effort, and it looked as though they would do just that after hordes of orcs issued forth from the Black Gate and the battle was joined. They were saved because Sam and Frodo did reach Mount Doom and the ring was destroyed, thus destroying Sauron’s power and causing his armies to flee, before the hordes of Sauron’s orc’s could destroy Aragorn and his vastly outnumbered force. The point, of course, is that Heckenlively views himself (or fantasizes himself) as a heroic figure from the world of epic fantasy like Aragorn. Walter Mitty-like, Heckenlively fantasizes that it’s him leading a doomed mission to the very Black Gate of Mordor, knowing he’s unlikely to come out of it alive, in order to give others the chance to defeat the great evil against which he strives.
And, have no doubt, victory is the only outcome that Heckenlively envisions:
Here’s how the Vaccine-Autism war ends. We win. They lose. The memory of what they have done will cling to their children for generations to come, like the children of Nazi war criminals who were horrified by the crimes of their parents. And what about us? We were the resistance. We were the freedom-fighters. We fought to protect the future. And we will tell our stories.
He even fantasizes about pro-vaccine activists as French nobility dragged to the guillotine to have their heads lopped off during the French Revolution and hopes for some „reasonable“ (i.e., compliant“) provaccine advocates, whom he contrasts to the French aristocracy before the Revolution:
The white majority in South Africa knew they were losing to Nelson Mandela’s call for justice and they took actions which averted a catastrophe. Even though the British ended up fighting a war with us, there were voices in England who thought that the whole affair was utter madness. Eventually, their views prevailed. Hell, even some Nazis could see where Hitler was leading them after D-Day and tried to change things by blowing him up.
He's even offered pro-vaxxers a way out in a post entitled, I Will Accept Your Surrender:
I've made this offer several times in the past. I'm making it again. I am willing to accept the surrender of those who have perverted science, harmed a generation of children, and even as of this late date are willing to harm more children so as to not to upset the balance of their lives. It must be truly troubling for those who continue to fuel the epidemic of autism and other chronic diseases that even though you still maintain the trust of those in the media, the scientific community, and most of the people in politics, an amazing 39% of the population in a recent Fox News poll believe parents need to have the right to decide how and whether their children can be vaccinated. You see, I've interviewed enough scientists that I understand the world in which you operate. Although you tremble in fear when you confront the dark questions at the heart of why so many children and adults suffer with chronic diseases, you feel quite comfortable making others cower as has been done to you. It must really annoy you when you fulminate against us as if we were some extremist group, that somehow you can't get the rest of the population to fully buy it.
I politely decline to surrender. Writing about this, I realize that perhaps Steve dwelt a bit too much on the darkness in the antivaccine conspiracy theory. Yes, I've referred to the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement as the idea that, somewhere in the CDC, big pharma, and the medical profession, „They“ know that vaccines cause autism and all sorts of harm to children. That's why the whole „CDC whistleblower“ conspiracy theory was so powerful. It tapped deep into the fantasies of antivaxers; he claims that data potentially showing a link between vaccines and autism were covered up by the CDC. However, darkness alone isn't enough. Who would continue to believe in a conspiracy theory where there is nothing but darkness and overwhelming forces arrayed against you that you have no hope of ever defeating? No, it's the hope of ultimate vindication, of victory, that sustains the antivaccine conspiracy narrative. It's the fantasy of fighting a heroic battle against all odds. It's the fantasy of one day actually winning that epic battle. It's the fantasy of being able to administer their version of „justice“ to their enemies, in which evildoers admit their evil can atone and join the resistance and those who are defeated are punished for their „crimes“ after the resistance wins. This is both a light and dark vision. It's a vision of light in that (to antivaxers), it's justice. Those responsible for the „crimes“ imagined by antivaxers will be forced to admit their crimes and pay for them. It's a dark vision in that this „justice“ not infrequently involves retribution. It's not for nothing that Heckenlively perseverates over Nazis and chose the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution as an example of retribution.
It's a very powerful narrative that taps deep into something buried at the heart of human nature. It's also pretty much immune to reason. It's a conspiracy theory that's potent even in „normal“ times. However, we are not living in normal times. Donald Trump, who has a long and sordid history of antivaccine statements, is the President, and that gives people like Heckenlively even more hope that they are winning:
Let’s talk about what’s really causing the Vaxxers to lose their f******* minds. Donald Trump won the American election. He doesn’t trust the pharmaceutical companies and he is going to put into positions of power those people who don’t trust them, either. The free ride is over. Hell, he even nominated Robert Kennedy, Jr., member of a legendary Democratic dynasty and well-known environmental lawyer, to head a Commission on Vaccine Safety and Scientific Integrity.
I guess Trump's distrust of the pharmaceutical industry is why he promised to loosen FDA regulations and then appointed an honest-to-goodness pharma shill as the FDA Commissioner, causing pharma to breathe a sigh of relief and proclaim, „Thank God it's Gottlieb!“ (Antivaxers were never too strong on consistency.) Also, it's not at all clear that RFK, Jr. was appointed to anything; all we have is his word for it, and you know what that's worth. (Not much.)
I fear what will happen when antivaxers like Heckenlively finally realize that Trump is very likely not going to do what they want him to, other than perhaps around the edges. It could be scary. After all, another part of many conspiracy narratives is betrayal by someone viewed as an ally.
Wed, 03/15/2017 – 22:00