A couple of months ago, right before TAM 9, I took note of a rather disturbing post by one of the regular bloggers on the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism. Basically, the post was worrisome because in it Kent Heckenlively portrayed those who oppose anti-vaccine pseudoscience as “wicked,” even quoting Psalm 94, which is a psalm that calls upon the Lord to bring his vengeance upon the wicked and destroy them. He also invoked Stephen King’s novel The Stand. Normally, this wouldn’t be such a big deal, except for its timing. Most skeptics will know that The Amazing Meeting is a yearly meeting of skeptics that takes place in Las Vegas every year. In The Stand, the climactic battle between good and evil takes place in Las Vegas and ends in a nuclear conflagration that destroys the city. The timing of Kent’s post, although probably coincidental, was nonethless rather disturbing, particularly given the emphasis on countering anti-vaccine lunacy.
Fortunately, nothing happened, and a good time was had by one and all at TAM. In the wake of his post, Kent Heckenlively backed off from his frankly apocalyptic language and imagery; that is, he backed off until now. For, what to my wondering eyes should appear yesterday on Age of Autism but a post by Kent entitled Faith. It would appear that Mr. Heckenlively is returning to that same sort of language. In a way, though, his post is instructive in that it makes explicit the link between religion and anti-vaccine beliefs. Kent begins with an anecdote:
My wife often says I’m “the believer” among the two of us. In her mind faith comes easily to me, but when she sees the inequities of the world, the difficulties so many deal with on a daily basis, it’s difficult for her to summon much belief in a divine entity.
He then goes on to explain how hard it is to maintain a faith in God in the face of the difficulties of raising his daughter with autism. This is the same daughter, I feel obligated to note, whom he has subjected to quackery such as that provided by a Costa Rican stem cell quack clinic, as well as whose story he has defined as a constant search for means to cure her that has led him to subject her to a seemingly never-ending string of dubious medical tests and treatments. His observation of how difficult his life is because of the strains of raising a daughter with multiple severe disabilities leads him to ask:
Why would God let a child be born if they were going to come down with autism? My daughter with autism/seizures is thirteen years old. My son who is neuro-typical is eleven. My daughter’s condition is so severe that the four of us have never gone out to a restaurant. We have never been on a family vacation. When I walk in the door after work I know my daughter will probably have been tantrumming for at least a half hour, a condition which is only remedied by putting her in my car, and taking her for a long drive. My wife would ask, where is God in that domestic scene?
I realize that anti-vaccine activists won’t believe me, but I sympathize. Really, I do. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to raise a daughter with severe autism plus various other chronic medical problems. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I don’t know if I could meet such a challenge if it were presented to me, which is why those who do earn a measure of respect from me. Yes, even anti-vaxers. Even so, that measure of respect does not mean I’ll lay off when such parents promote anti-vaccine pseudoscience, and Kent has done that in spades time and time again. Also, regardless of how much I might feel for Kent’s travails trying to care for his daughter, he views me and people like me as “wicked” because we oppose anti-vaccine pseudoscience. That, I cannot ignore.
Kent’s view of skeptics who support vaccine science aside, Kent does have a solution to let him continue to believe in God without blaming him for the plight of his child. Not surprisingly, he invokes the common excuse that “we can’t see all of God’s plan,” but more oddly, he appeals to free will:
Lately I’ve come to a new approach, one that satisfies my need to believe in a higher power, but also acknowledges the wickedness I often see in the world. For I can call it nothing less than wickedness when the medical community refuses to perform a study of the neurological health of vaccinated and unvaccinated children. It is nothing less than wickedness when those who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome/ME are told they are not physically ill, but suffer only from a mental illness.
My new approach is simply “free will.” God gave us all free will. It has consequences. People can choose to do bad things through the exercise of their free will, and others will suffer as a result. It’s true that God made the world, but we’re the ones who live in it. This world and what we do in it is the responsibility of the human race.
Note that this is nothing more than a toned down version of his previous post, in which he views those who oppose him not as being just wrong, but “wicked” or evil. The only part he’s left out is that in this post he isn’t quoting Psalms appealing to God to destroy the wicked. And there’s the difference between Kent and me. I don’t view Kent as evil or wicked, even though what he advocates regarding vaccines can potentially have dire real world consequences for public health, up to and including the deaths of children from vaccine-preventable diseases. I don’t even view him as evil or wicked for what he does as he searches for “cures” for his daughter. I view him as wrong. I view him as well-meaning, kindly even, but exceedingly misguided. In contrast, Kent has stated on more than one occasion, most recently in his current post, that he views those who disagree with him as “wicked” for not wanting to do a “vaxed versus unvaxed” study. He says this even though our reasons are that (1) the gold standard study of that type, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, would be profoundly unethical; (2) a population-based retrospective study would be exceedingly difficult, expensive, and impractical; and (3) there is no compelling preclinical or epidemiological evidence suggesting that such a study would be fruitful. For adhering to science and ethics, apparently we’re “wicked.” We’re “evil.” At least, we are in Kent Heckenlively’s eyes.
So what’s his solution to the problem? Unfortunately, it’s the most ineffective solution you can imagine:
But as much as this is a world of free will, God still watches over us, and I believe He responds to prayer. Prayer is also an act of free will. And so on this Sunday I encourage you to pray for good things in the weeks ahead. I ask you to pray that those who are trying to help us will gain an advantage over those who would leave us in darkness.
Yeah, that’ll work. On the other hand, it might make Kent feel better and, of course, all righteous, which is the main purpose of prayer in this sort of a situation anyway. If he’s going to pray for something, he should choose to pray that scientific enlightenment will find its way into his mind and those of his fellow bloggers at AoA. The likelihood of that prayer being answered is about the same as the likelihood that “righteous” antivax “investigators” will gain an advantage over science. Certainly, they won’t gain it based on science, anyway. But at least if a prayer that Kent and his AoA cobloggers achieve scientific enlightenment were seemingly answered, it would be a very good thing indeed.