Sorry to come from an on-and-off Netroots Nation plus moving-inspired break to write about vaccinations again, but seriously, there is something screwy going on with the anti-vaccination crankery out there. At Netroots Nation, the most expensive booth—easily the most expensive booth—in the exhibit hall was an anti-vaccination booth. It was tall, and they had a set of volunteers in matching uniforms, and the booth had a number of widescreen HD TVs blasting anti-vaccination crankery about how mercury in vaccinations causes autism. It doesn’t. I’m sure other baseless assertions were being tossed around, because the first sign of crankery is that when the argument is proven completely false, hang onto your conclusions (in this case, vaccines cause autism) and change the arguments. Lawrence Lessig called out the anti-vaccination cranks during his speech, and castigated them for exploiting the vulnerability of the parents of autistic children, so I’m glad they were confronted in some way. I thought about it, but couldn’t for the life of me think of what such a confrontation would look like, or what results it would produce.
We were so curious about how this organization (called the National Vaccine Information Center) dedicated to full-blown crankery got so much money to have such a nice booth. Jesse walked up and asked them while they were breaking down who their donors were, and apparently, they were really cagey about it, moving between arguments about protecting privacy to implying that non-profits don’t generally disclose that information. I know that’s not true, but I’m not sure how to research where to find donors, so if any commenters have advice, it would be greatly appreciated. I checked their tax returns from last year, and they made a little over $300,000, which isn’t chump change, but still seemed low for what they were able to put into this booth and the fliers at Netroots Nation. Since there’s so many big Hollywood stars involved in anti-vaccination crankery, I wouldn’t be surprised if money was coming from that area. Which leads one to wonder idly if Scientology is involved in any way.
Of course, what we may be looking at is the same problem that pro-choicers have with facing off with anti-choicers in the funding wars. Being full of shit is actually not that expensive. In that particular battle, pro-choicers are at a communications disadvantage because such a high percentage of donations to the cause go to services. Anti-choice organizations are about propaganda, not services, despite what they claim about crisis pregnancy centers, which are about giving the appearance of offering services without actually doing so. Anti-vaccination cranks have the same advantage—all their money goes into communication their message, so they can really make that part of it expensive and pretty-looking.
The alliance between anti-choicers and anti-vaccination cranks seems natural, and really it was just a matter of time before they joined causes. Ostensibly, they’re in opposition—anti-vaccination cranks hide behind “keep your hands off my kid” libertarian arguments, and anti-choicers are of course all about using the government to control people’s lives. But if you look past that, you see their similarities. Both are fundamentally hostile to science and rationality, and have these beliefs that the world is going to hell in a handbasket because all these crazy science-y people can’t leave well enough alone. There’s no reason to think the anti-vaccination people are hostile to women, of course, which is the red flag that runs liberals away from anti-choicers, but leaves them vulnerable to anti-vaccination cranks. Both will flail around, grabbing at any argument—no matter how nonsensical—to bolster their foregone conclusions. Both tap into and exploit people’s fears about modernity.
Because this alliance is natural, there’s exactly no way this HPV vaccination stuff is going away any time soon. It’s like the perfect place for the “punish the sluts” people to join up with the anti-vaccination people. Unfortunately, such a powerhouse of nuttery means that their bullshit concerns are going to be elevated into the mainstream media in ways that they don’t deserve. It would be funny, if it weren’t for the fact that all this energy means more and more kids are going without vaccinations that could protect them from very scary and often fatal diseases.
But what tends to bother me is that most cranks and exploiters out there have base motivations that explain their behavior really well. Anti-choicers are traditionalists who are either openly misogynist are at least sentimental about traditional gender roles. Psychics and alternative health goobers are in it for the money. And while there are a lot of people in the anti-vaccination movement that are motivated by the fact that they have children who are autistic, and they’ve convinced themselves that this is helpful, I’m still confused. Why this and not put your efforts into something that’s more useful for autistic people? Why not agitate for better treatment or research into the real causes of autism? I just don’t know.