A pharma shill here, a pharma shill there, pharma shills everywhere! [Respectful Insolence]

November 25, 2015 Orac

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the antivaccine movement over the decade-plus that I’ve been following and commenting on it, it’s that there are many flavors of antivaccine beliefs. These range from the “loud and proud” (and, invariably, incredibly stupid) antivaccine activists who aren’t afraid of the label. They’ll tell you that they’re antivaccine and back that assertion up by demonizing vaccines as not just ineffective but downright toxic and deadly. On the other end of the spectrum are what I like to refer to as “vaccine averse,” parents who have heard the message of the antivaccine movement and believed it enough to have internalized its fear of vaccines but are not necessarily antivaccine (although some are). In the middle are what I like to refer to as the “I’m not anti-vaccine, I’m a vaccine safety advocate” antivaccinationists. They are definitely antivaccine, but they are a bit more pragmatic. They know that being perceived as antivaccine is a bad thing, and they avoid that label like the plague, even as they spew misinformation about vaccines virtually indistinguishable from that of the “loud and proud” contingent. These pragmatists include in particular prominent antivaccine activists who crave legitimacy, such as Barbara Loe Fisher, J. B. Handley, and, of course, Dr. Bob Sears.

The hilarious thing about these “flavors” of antivaccinationist is that the latter two are often in conflict. I described this as far back as 2008, when the die-hard antivaccine loons were interfering with the desire of Jenny McCarthy and the rest of the organizers of the “Green Our Vaccines” march on Washington to present themselves as legitimate vaccine safety activists. In this way, antivaccinationists can be their own worst enemy, so much so that the aforementioned Dr. Bob Sears is apparently unhappy and took to Facebook yesterday to express this displeasure whose message and tone can easily be gleaned immediately from its title, Time to End the Witch Hunt.

First, some background is in order. Last week, Pomona College came under rather severe criticism for hosting an event ostensibly to discuss the newly passed California Law SB 277, which will eliminate nonmedical exemptions to vaccine mandates beginning with the 2016-2017 school year. To give you an idea of the flavor of the event, I simply note that the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism advertised it, as did antivaccine activist Jennifer Margulis, who, not coincidentally, appeared with Dr. Bob and other panelists. The group was to discuss “Beyond Vaccine Wars,” billed as a “discussion on vaccination policy, looking at the intersection of public health, individual choice, and the role of our government.” Other panelists included Hilary LaConte, President, Governing Board, Claremont Unified School District and Associate Director of Public Policy Analysis Program at Pomona College, and Alexander Capron, University Professor, Scott H. Bice Chair in Healthcare Law, Policy and Ethics, Professor of Law and Medicine, Keck School of Medicine, Co-Director, Pacific Center for Health Policy and Ethics. It looked like the classic “tell both sides” fallacy that pitted two pro-science advocates versus two antivaccine cranks.

Since I didn’t see this panel discussion and I haven’t seen video of it yet anywhere, I’m not going to deconstruct the conference itself. Such was not my purpose anyway. Rather, my purpose was to express amusement at Dr. Bob’s discomfiture. Apparently, someone on “his side” has been directing the “pharma shill gambit” at him because he is insufficiently radical, and Dr. Bob doesn’t like it. Oh, no, not one bit. After complaining about all the “mental energy” it takes him to combat SB 277, Dr. Bob launches into a story that, I must admit, sent delicious chills of schadenfreude up and down my spine:

But within this fight, you know what else I have to spend mental energy on? Trying to figure out why certain people in our movement continue to point fingers at some of the most effective advocates and leaders, criticizing them for being too “mainstream”, and accusing them of being influenced by Pharma. Why do people have to be witch-hunters? Why do some feel the need to publicly declare that so-and-so or the leaders of such-and-such group are not to be trusted, or are working with Pharma? And what are their true intentions or motivations in accusing people? What gives anyone the right to make such serious accusations without any proof? That crosses a line – a very big line. And when it comes to vaccines, why does it need to be all or nothing with this movement? If you support personal liberties and informed consent, it shouldn’t matter what personal vaccine choices you make for your family, or what message you support.

The witch hunt started way back in June when one particular person in this fight decided she would accuse a few of our colleagues of being under the influence of Pharma. Since it was only one person, I didn’t think much of it. But it’s continued since then, and a few others have joined in, and just last week the same finger-pointer encouraged people NOT to attend the Pomona College Student Union event on “Vaccine Wars” I was invited to speak at. She warned online (and to who knows how many countless people verbally) it was indirectly sponsored by friends of mine who are apparently working for Pharma and are providing me with Pharma-approved messaging. I know, right? It was put on by Pomona College. So, Pomona College is Pharma and actually wanted ME to speak there? Sounds a little bit . . . um, I won’t say.

Oh, come on, Dr. Bob! Say it! Say it! You know you want to say it. They’re paranoid. They’re conspiracy mongering. That’s what they are. Such are the people with whom Dr. Bob has aligned himself, and now he expresses surprise that antivaccinationists are behaving the way antivaccinationists always do? I’m shocked—shocked I say!—that certain antivaccinationists would think that Dr. Bob isn’t ideologically pure enough.

So where does the schadenfreude come from? Simple. I don’t have any ties to big pharma, but that hasn’t stopped any of Dr. Bob’s antivaccine friends and allies to try to tar me with the “pharma shill” tag. Indeed, a former member of Dr. Bob’s fan club known as Age of Autism named Jake Crosby accused me of being secretly compromised by big pharma and having an undisclosed conflict of interest, an accusation that resulted in his fans and readers trying to get me fired from my job by deluging my bosses in complaints. So, you’ll forgive me, I’m sure, if I can’t help but take some pleasure seeing Dr. Bob become all indignant about having the same charge aimed at him and his friends by the same sorts of people who direct the charge at me and my friends and allies. At least he has nothing to worry about as far as losing his job; the worst that could happen to him as a result of being subjected to the “pharma shill gambit” is some discomfort and, if anyone believes it, perhaps a diminution of the admiration his fans currently shower him with.

There’s also the fact that Dr. Bob himself appears to believe that big pharma funded the drive to get SB 277 passed, even though there isn’t really any evidence to support such an assertion. Indeed, his very own Immunity Education Group website states:

There is a concerted effort in the legislative, medical, and pharmaceutical arenas to impose mandatory immunizations nationwide. Recent small outbreaks of diseases have provided lawmakers, the media, and well-funded medical and pharmaceutical organizations with the hype and hysteria necessary to make mandatory medical interventions acceptable to the public.

And:

Immunity Education Group was formed to provide a more inclusive and accurate counterpoint to the health information managed and circulated by pharmaceutical-funded health care entities. We seek to shift the public’s perception of infectious diseases and of our immunization system from one of fear and coercion to one of knowledge and empowerment.

OK, so he’s not directly accusing specific people of being pharma shills. That would be too crass and obvious. Even so, he is basically claiming that pharma is behind the push for eliminating non-medical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. After all, he just knows that pharma is behind the push to eliminate non-medical exemptions because…well, he just does.

Then there’s this particularly revealing exchange (click to embiggen):

Dr. Bob #1

Notice how, when Renee DiResta tries to get Dr. Bob to be consistent in his dislike of dubious accusations of being a pharma shill, but Dr. Bob will have none of it. He can’t imagine pharma being in “our” (i.e., his) ranks, but he sure as hell believes that pharma is in “our” (i.e., my) ranks because, well, he just knows.

This led to a devastating post calling out Dr. Bob on his obvious hypocrisy with respect to accusations of being a pharma shill, which are just fine with him as long as they’re directed against the enemy but not so cool when directed against the greatness that is Dr. Sears:

Dr. Bob 2

This is about as spot-on as can be. I mean, seriously. This is the same man who freely used Nazi analogies when discussing SB 277, and he’s clutching his pearls over being called a pharma shill? How pathetic can you get? Not surprisingly, as of the time I wrote this, Dr. Bob had not responded.

Of course, lest you think my referring to Dr. Bob as being antivaccine is inaccurate, check out this part of his post:

So why do I break character and come out and counter-attack these individuals now? It’s because their efforts are putting children in danger. By sabotaging events and messages, and by encouraging division, they hurt all our efforts. Now I’ve decided not to name names here, but many of you will know who I am talking about, because you have witnessed the bashing, the gossip, and the accusations yourselves. And you’ve had to witness the backlash from those who are being accused. It isn’t pretty, and it’s a waste of everyone’s time. I would say that anyone who is falsely accused of being a Pharma Witch has every right to defend him or herself. For those who don’t know details, consider yourselves lucky; it’s an embarrassment to deal with such things when children’s lives are at risk. And I hope it ends here.

So wait. Dr. Bob thinks that people attacking him as being a pharma shill are “putting children in danger.” How? The only conclusion one can come to after a statement like that is that Dr. Bob thinks vaccines are dangerous and that “forcing” children to be vaccinated will result in “putting children in danger.” Later in the post, he harps on the same antivaccine dog whistles of “parental rights” and “informed consent” (more properly called “misinformed consent” if it is done the way antivaccine activists like Dr. Bob want it done). Of course, those of us who accept science don’t see it that way. In reality, it is antivaccine-sympathetic pediatricians like Dr. Bob who, try as they will to deny it, dissuade parents from vaccinating by repeating claims of vaccine damage that are not supported by evidence, who are the ones who endanger children.

Yes, I said it, and I’ll say it again. Dr. Bob endangers children.

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