I’ve been an observer and student of the antivaccine movement for nearly a decade now, although my intensive education began almost seven years ago, in early 2005, not long after I started blogging. It was then that I first encountered several “luminaries” of the antivaccine movement both throughout the blogosphere and sometimes even commenting on my blog itself. I’m talking about “luminaries” such as J.B. Handley, who is the founder of Generation Rescue and was its leader and main spokesperson; that is, until he managed to recruit spokesmodel Jenny McCarthy to be its public face, and Dr. Jay Gordon, who, although he swears to high heaven he is not antivaccine, sure could have fooled me. At the very minimum, “Dr. Jay” is a credulous apologist for the antivaccine movement; at the worst, he is practically a card-carrying member. Then there were many more through the years: Barbara Loe Fisher, Sallie Bernard, various bloggers from the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism, and even the new generation of antivaccine activists, such as Jake Crosby, who is, if anything, even more annoying than the old generation.

Why am I mentioning this? The reason is simple. Over the years, I think I’ve come to learn just about every antivaccine trope, canard, strategy, and argument there is. At least, I know all the major ones, nearly all of the minor ones, and even quite a few of the obscure ones. As a result, I’m rarely surprised anymore, even when of late antivaccinationists have taken to referring to supporters of science-based medicine as “vaccine injury denialists,” a term antivaccine activist Ginger Taylor notably used in “The Role of Government and Media,” a chapter in the anti-vaccine book Vaccine Epidemic: How Corporate Greed, Biased Science, and Coercive Government Threaten Our Human Rights, Our Health, and Our Children, which was edited by Louise Kuo Habakus and Mary Holland. Now, Taylor uses the term frequently on her blog in a hilarious bit of Pee-Wee Herman-like, “I know you are, but what am I?” (That actually might be a topic for another post entirely.) So when I see people writing about the tropes and tactics favored by the antivaccine movement, I know I’m quite qualified to judge whether they know what they’re talking about or not, as I’ve spent nearly a decade in the trenches on Usenet and in the blogosphere.

Anna Kata of McMaster University appears to know what she’s talking about.

Kata is the author of a recent article in Vaccine entitled Anti-vaccine activists, Web 2.0, and the postmodern paradigm – An overview of tactics and tropes used online by the anti-vaccination movement. Her opening sets the stage:

Vaccinations are a significant public health achievement, contributing to dramatic declines in morbidity and mortality from vaccine-preventable diseases [1]. However, by reading certain websites, one might be persuaded to think the opposite – that vaccines are actually ineffective, useless, or even dangerous. These are merely some of the arguments posed by the anti-vaccination movement, an amorphous group holding diverse views that nevertheless shares one core commonality: an opposition to vaccines. The popularity and pervasiveness of the Internet today has facilitated the transmission of such beliefs.

Many people search online for health information, and the information found impacts patient decision-making; it is therefore essential to understand what is shared online. This paper provides an overview of how the new generation of the Internet (Web 2.0) and its emphasis on user-generated content has combined with characteristics of the current postmodern medical paradigm, creating a new environment for sharing health information. The anti-vaccination movement has taken advantage of this milieu to disseminate its messages.

She immediately launches into a discussion of how Web 2.0 has proven to be a two-edged sword in medicine. While, as I’ve discussed before, paternalism is on the decline and medicine is moving towards a model of shared decision-making between the physician and patient, a process facilitated by the availability of more high quality information about health on the web than has ever been so easily available before, that movement can easily be hijacked by the dark side of Web 2.0. While 20 years ago, medical knowledge was largely bound to textbooks, journals, and medical institutions, today, not only is it available on many websites but even the primary literature is in many cases available to the public, thanks to laws requiring that NIH-funded research be deposited in PubMed Central and that clinical trials and their results be deposited in ClinicalTrials.gov. Unfortunately, the power of the Web 2.0 to empower patients is also the power to confuse and misinform. As Kata points out, postmodern attitudes, in which science-based medicine is just “another way of knowing” can combine with new “expert systems” in which people without advanced training come to think themselves just as much “experts” as the real experts. Although Kata doesn’t mention it, it’s the Dunning-Kruger effect writ large, the arrogance of ignorance.

Kata also correctly identifies most of the common tropes and tactics of the antivaccine movement. First, the tactics:

  1. Skewing the science. This involves cherry picking studies, denigrating science that doesn’t support an antivaccine viewpoint, and endorsing bad science that supports antivaccine agendas.
  2. Shifting hypotheses. Otherwise known as moving the goalposts, this involves continually changing the standards of evidence deemed necessary to convince antivaccinationists of vaccine safety so that they can’t be met and constantly coming up with new causation hypotheses that share only one thing in common: it’s always about the vaccines.
  3. Censorship. This is an extreme characteristic of the antivaccine movement. For instance, Age of Autism does not allow dissenting comments. The Autism One yearly quackfest routinely kicks out those its organizers perceive as enemies, even though they follow the rules and don’t disrupt anything. In the meantime, they go absolutely–if you’ll excuse the term–apeshit when one of their own is asked to leave a scientific function. We’re seeing this in action right now, as AoA and its hanger-on Ginger Taylor are both going nuts over Paul Offit’s and Seth Mnookin’s having asked AoA’s one trick pony irritant to leave and Offit’s accurately characterizing him as a “stalker.” I’d take their complaints slightly more seriously if the antivaccine movement didn’t so ruthlessly censor its perceived enemies and refuse to let them anywhere near their crank venues.
  4. Attacking the opposition. The antivaccine movement is particularly incessant in this tactic, in my experience. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been attacked or had antivaccine cranks try to cause me annoyance at my job by e-mailing my bosses. A year and a half ago, a bunch of antivacicne cranks, “inspired” by a false accusation of an undisclosed conflict of interest from Jake Crosby, tried to get me fired from my job through a campaign of e-mails, phone calls, and letters to the board of governors at my university. And what I’ve experienced is minor indeed compared to what someone like Paul Offit has experienced.

One tactic I think Kata left out is one that I’ve noted before. It’s not a tactic unique to the antivaccine movement, but antivaccinationists certainly use it. I’m referring to crank conferences gussied up to look like legitimate scientific conferences. For example, we have the yearly quackfest known as Autism One every year in Chicago around Memorial Day. Recently, Autism One has joined forces with the health freedom movement, combining an Autism One conference with the Health Freedom Expo from March 2-4, 2012 in Long Beach, CA. In this, we might be seeing an even more obvious sign of the scientific bankruptcy of antivaccinationists in that Patrick “Tim” Bolen will be featured on a “Vaccine Panel.” I thought that having Dan Olmsted chair a panel called Malfeasance in the Media that includes Tim Bolen, David Lewis, and Andy Wakefield was bad enough. After all, that’s a group that could give the masters’ how-to-do-it course on media malfeasance.

Oh, and “movie night” is going to feature the Burzynski movie, as well.

Now, here are the tropes:

  1. “I’m not antivaccine; I’m pro-safe vaccines.” Yes, indeed. This one is the biggest, baddest, most irritating trope of all, repeated by everyone from Jenny McCarthy to J.B. Handley to Barbara Loe Fisher. A variant of this is to liken vaccines to cars and say that “I’m not ‘anti-car,’ I just want safer cars.” Not a good analogy. A better equivalent would be if they demanded absolute safety of cars and refused to use them unless GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, et al swear that they’ll never be injured in a car crash.
  2. Vaccines are toxic. A.k.a. “the toxin gambit.”
  3. A demand for absolute safety.
  4. A demand for absolute “proof” that vaccines are safe.
  5. “Vaccines didn’t save us,” one of the more intellectually dishonest of many intellectually dishonest tropes used by these cranks.
  6. Vaccines are “unnantural.”
  7. Choosing between “vaccine injury” and disease. Jenny did this famously when she said vaccination are a choice between autism and infectious disease and that she’d take the measles.

Kata lists more of these tropes, and this is one case where I can’t think of any that she missed, at least not major ones, except for perhaps the recent coopting of the term “denialism” for their own, as Ginger Taylor does when she uses “vaccine injury denialist” as a trope. Kata also didn’t emphasize the concept of “misinformed consent” enough, in which under the guise of “informed consent” antivaccine pseudoscience is used to make vaccines seem more dangerous and less effective than they actually are.

Kata closes by remembering a famous quote by J.B. Handley, in which he likened Andrew Wakefield to “Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ all rolled up into one,” after which she concludes:

Such a statement is a reminder that finding common ground with those who question, fear, or crusade against vaccines is no easy task. Their arguments are constantly shifting and evolving – this has been furthered by the fluidity of the Internet and social media. While acknowledging and correcting flawed arguments is important, an approach that moves beyond providing “the facts” is likely needed. With the anti-vaccination movement embracing the postmodern paradigm, which inherently questions an authoritative, science-based approach, “facts” may be reinterpreted as just another “opinion”. This issue is as much about the cultural context surrounding healthcare, perceptions of risk, and trust in expertise, as it is about vaccines themselves. For these reasons it is possible the minds of deeply invested anti-vaccine activists may never be changed; therefore it is for both the laypersons with genuine questions or worries about vaccines and the healthcare professionals who work to ease their fears that keeping abreast of the methods of persuasion discussed here is essential. Recognizing anti-vaccine tactics and tropes is imperative, for an awareness of the disingenuous arguments used to cajole and convert audiences gives individuals the tools to think critically about the information they encounter online. It is through such recognition that truly informed choices can then be made.

If there’s one thing I’ve tried to do on this blog, it’s to hammer away at each and every one of these common anti-vaccine tropes, as well as the not-so-common ones as well. The reason is that I don’t want them to be able to spread these tropes unopposed and unanswered, although the antivaccine movement is so protean and I have a day job that it seems like a Sisyphean task in which progress appears minimal. Yet the skeptic movement and physicians like Paul Offit appear to have had some effect, particularly in the wake of Andrew Wakefield’s downfall. At least anecdotally, I see less antivaccine propaganda making it into mainstream media reports, less blatant false “balance,” in which antivaccine propagandists are given equal voice with scientists as though there were two equivalent sides to the argument, and more skeptical articles that refute antivacicne myths and expose antivaccine autism quacks. Kata is right. The basis for such progress is the wide dissemination of good science about vaccines, refutation of the misinformation spread about vaccines, and shining the light of day on the various quacks who take advantage of the antivaccine movement. It’s not enough in and of itself, but it’s a start.


  1. #1 Krebiozen
    January 27, 2012

    Reading through Lewsis’s list of credentials again, it seems clear to me that he may have some expertise in colonic biopsy procedures and infection control associated with these procedures. Expertise in collecting biopsy samples is a very long way from being an expert on interpreting those biopsy samples once they have been sectioned and examined microscopically.

    It requires years of training to be able to differentiate the normal inflammation found in gut biopsy samples from the abnormal inflammatory processes found in inflammatory bowel diseases. I see no evidence at all that Lewis has had any such training.

  2. #2 lilady
    January 27, 2012

    “Reading through Lewsis’s list of credentials again, it seems clear to me that he may have some expertise in colonic biopsy procedures and infection control associated with these procedures.”

    Not according to the NY State OPMC in the matter of Dr. Goldweber…see my posting above at # 194. Lewis was “disqualified” as an “expert witness” in the basics of infection control practices.

    Lewis also lied on his CV about his being rated as a “top ten reviewer” by the “Annals of Internal Medicine” Journal. He did “review” some articles, but “reviewers” are required to be Medical Doctors, which he isn’t.

  3. #3 Linder
    January 27, 2012

    I see narad the canadian flouride inhaler is drunk again. Still seeing kesbumps are we? I told you to try the vaccum cleaner. Narad are you drinking pepsi fetus drinks again? If you lay off the floride and the pepsi fetus drinks, you will be normal like me.

    My brother Sir Brave Robin Wingnut, the most holy knight of kesbumpville shall smite thee with his charm,dimples, chesthair, and chainmail. Thou art herefore cursed. Henceforce thou shalt drinketh colloidal floridated fetus pepsi from a lead cup and shall be known as Huge Hairy Hoghead from the depths of liberalville. Thou shalt inject thinself with all maners of evil aluminum vaccinations and shall become autistic upon the first injection. Henceforth the future of narad will be composed of little hoghead brats with an IQ of 7 due to their father’s ingestion of scientific marvels.

    Chemtrails and camp fema not included. This has been a paid advertisement from the Intersteller Evolutionary Hairy Gay Communist Flouride detainment Brigade, a paid subsidiary of Ted Turner’s Foundation for the Advancement of Fetal Fluid Soft Drinks and the Aspartame Consumption Agency.

  4. #4 Jerry Atric Jr.
    January 27, 2012

    “Orac has said he is going to be cracking down on sock puppets”

    I see Chris has beeing talking to his imaginary friends again. I bet Chris loved Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood. Let’s make believe!
    I see narad is still seeing kesbumps in his sleep again. Must be either the floride level in his canadian water or some of America’s fetus pepsi has made it to canada already.

  5. #5 Jerry Atric
    January 27, 2012

    NJ the floridated canadian does not seem to understand that I get my meds at GNC like normal people. I blame most of my mental illness on the long time struggle to free my self from the prescence of left wingers. In the 1980s it wasn;t much of a problem, but ever since AL GORE invented the internet, marxist has either tripled or has the appearance of tripling. That in and of itself can drive a sane mind mad. The only cure is to fixing the mental illness of liberalism is to annoy them into submittance and then chnage their mind back to the way normal people think.

    THese liberals seem to think that Europe is some type of sin free utopia, lest they forget that Europe is the bastion of sin filled demonic marxist ideals that has caused more problems than has solved. This idea of one man working to pay another man to sit on his butt at home and play the victim card has gotten old. Time to put the bum to work or make the bum hungry. And we aint; talking union labor either. Let him come down south and see how the real world is. That yankee labor union gestapo crap only raises prices for everyone else and cuases headaches for everyone else. so called wall street protestors protest “the rich” and “greedy” all day. Little do they realize that union bosses are among the richest greediest bastards on the planet.

    NJ is nice. Methinks he shares the same symptoms as chris in that he lacks a few chromosomes. Not to mention that I believe our fetal fluid soft drinks has reached his glorious european empire by now. That much is evident by the way people think over there. They always think that someone owes them something. Socialists are so greedy. They always want what belong to someone else. Actually they could be prosecuted for stealing. Thou shalt not steal, mr commie man. Instead thou shalt partake of fetal fluid soft drinks laced with aluminum and sodium floride. Make you even stupider than you already are.

  6. #6 Remnant of Justice
    January 27, 2012

    Just so that you all know, you have made a contribution to my cause at my own site. Thank you.

  7. #7 Chris
    January 27, 2012

    Brave Sir Robin Wingnut, you are still an idiot. Your obsession with Narad and myself is obvious. Get help, and not from those cans of beer you are presently downing.

  8. #8 NJ
    January 27, 2012

    Chris, Rob Hood has a long history of sharing his undertreated symptoms at Greg Laden’s blog and has started haunting Jason Rosenhouse’s of late:


  9. #9 Agashem
    January 27, 2012

    Is it just me or are the trolls getting more insane?

  10. #10 Narad
    January 27, 2012

    This idea of one man working to pay another man to sit on his butt at home and play the victim card has gotten old. Time to put the bum to work or make the bum hungry. And we aint; talking union labor either. Let him come down south and see how the real world is.

    OK, so let me get this straight. You tired of paying other men to sit on your butt, so you want something more in exchange or to starve the “help.” OK, this is very good, Rob Hood, KE5BMP, there’s definitely a niche market for this sort of writing. You might want to move the union bit to a different paragraph where it might flow better, though, because it interrupts the natural progression to the figurative masterstroke in which your disobedient servant must ultimately “come down south” and “see the real world.”

  11. #11 lilady
    January 27, 2012

    “Is it just me or are the trolls getting more insane?”

    The redneck from Eupora Mississippi has been been drinking too much of his bathtub gin.

  12. #12 Chris
    January 27, 2012

    Narad, you are a very scarey person. That was hilarious.

  13. #13 lilady
    January 27, 2012

    Yes Narad is superb…but then there is so much “material” to work with.

  14. #14 Chris
    January 30, 2012

    Yesterday this conspiracy trope was posted:

    … I had a friend who we all thought was nuts. He kept going on about the CFR, the Bilderbergers, the Council of Rome, the Rockefellers and the like. We thought he was a raving lunatic and made fun of him behind his back. All you have to do now is read the papers to see that he was actually right. Well, maybe not US papers, but European papers and news outlets freely talk about, not only the existence of these societies, but how they influence public policy against the will of democratic process. They operate behind closed doors and secretly plan policies that elected governments implement against the will of the people. Conspiracy? Yes. Exaggerated? No. If you think for a minute that government agencies are trying to help Americans live healthier, then why do they perform unethical experiments without consent? Why do they attack raw milk producers and do nothing about prescription drugs that are killing 10′s of thousands? Why do they attack supplement companies while allowing GMO to infiltrate the food supply without any labeling when their own scientist have reported the dangers and been ignored? The evidence is so overwhelming that it beggars belief that you can ignore it all!

    How many can squares does that cover in anti-vax bingo?

  15. #15 Grant
    February 7, 2012

    I’m experiencing an interesting run of flipping anecdote/evidence as a troupe in an article over at my blog (linked on my name). This guy is basically making out that skeptics (his label) are using anecdote in defence/attack (when most often they’re not when read correctly) and that by implication that this somehow justifies the stances of those pushing for various ‘natural’ or ‘alternative’ remedies. (Anyone is welcome to—politely—join in.)

  16. #16 Katherine V.
    February 10, 2012

    In my psychology class we just learned about pseudoscience and the tactics people use to scam others. I also went to http://www.avn.org.au/ where I was instructed to look under that “Vaccination Information” portion on the website. Some of the things these people state to be true is just unbelievable. I encourage you to look as well. I am not saying that there aren’t some harmful vaccines out there, but I do believe that many of them are wonderful. I must admit that looking at my “Ways of Recognizing Pseudoscience Checklist” which has conisisted of things like having claims for things that cannot really be tested, multiple reasons why they might have been wrong, and having testiomonials other than real evidence, the website I listed above was a huge offender. I think it is wrong to try to make others fear something with such little evidence and especially if it is something that could help them in the long run.

  17. #17 Chris
    February 10, 2012

    Katherine V., many of us are very familiar with that website. It is even mentioned a couple of times in the first ten comments to this article.

    You may be interested in this article: AN anti-vaccination group that spread false information and risked the safety of children is fighting efforts to force it to warn parents that its claims are not medical advice.

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