Sep 24 2009

Conspiracy Mongering at Age of Autism

Orac thinks Jake Crosby is just a “crazy mixed up kid.” I am not inclined to be so generous. I have no personal knowledge of Crosby, so all I have to go by is his blogging over at Age of Autism. He recently wrote a two part blog that is nothing more than a malicious conspiracy-mongering grab-bag of logical fallacies, sloppy reasoning, and sloppy journalism – all in the name of anti-vaccine pseudoscience. Maybe he is just an innocent tool, but it really doesn’t matter – he’s responsible for the absurd vitriol he had dumped onto the blogosphere.

Orac has nicely deconstructed the nonsense in Part I of Crosby’s rant. But there is a Part II, and Crosby threw into his follow up a regurgitation of the personal attacks that J.B. Handley had previously made against me.

In the words of the immortal Bugs Bunny, “Of course you know this means war.”

Weaving a Conspiracy

The entire two-part blog is based upon the naive premise that finding tenuous connections among science bloggers, skeptics, and skeptical outlets means that they are all involved in a deep dark conspiracy. Further, that any connection, no matter how tenuous, to any other organization or corporation means that the science blogger is in fact a shill for such organizations. This is conspiracy-mongering at its most childish and uninformed.

This type of thinking is common and is sometimes referred to by psychologists as hyperactive agency detection – humans have a tendency to see an invisible hand working with deliberateness to control events. When in reality, more often than not shit just happens. There is a chaotic complexity to reality that conspiracy theorists ignore or deny. They have a pathological need for the simplicity of the one conspiracy to explain all.

I won’t repeat Orac’s description, but the summary is this – Crosby thinks that Seed Magazine’s science blogging collective is somehow behaving as a coherent organization with a unified purpose – a dark purpose to deny the dangers of vaccines in service to their Big Pharma masters. If this were a B-movie plot I would think it was contrived and simple-minded. I happen to know many of the science bloggers at Seed Magazine personally, and I have no reason to think that they are anything other than completely individual and independent bloggers just doing what they do.

And neither does Crosby. Let’s be clear – he presents no actual evidence for corruption, influence, or conflict of interest among Seed bloggers. He has no evidence to present that Orac or anyone else has taken money in exchange for voicing or suppressing certain opinions. What Crosby is doing is classic conspiracy-mongering – playing up coincidental, innocent, or tenuous connections in order to create the vague impression that something sinister is going on.

All of this is a deliberate distraction from the fact that the scientific evidence does NOT support a connection between vaccines and autism. AoA’s obsession with these kinds of personal attacks and innuendos rather than substantive scientific arguments (and even when they try to address the science they slip into the ad hominem logical fallacy) is why they are nothing but cranks.

Now It’s Personal

Of course, when someone pulls this kind of conspiracy mongering against you personally, it brings into crystal clear relief the inane absurdity of this kind of reasoning.

A good example of this is the brilliant spoof, Was the Death Star Attack an Inside Job. The authors do an awesome job of weaving the plot details into the impression of a conspiracy. Sure – the Death Star, the most sophisticated battle station in the Universe, was destroyed by an untrained pilot who happened to be Darth Vader’s son, and Darth Vader just happened to bounce clear of the explosion – you get the idea.

This gives you a taste of the personal conspiracy accusation because viewers of the Star Wars movies know the true story better than any character in the movie, and we also understand the need for plot devices. Therefore we can intuitively understand the absurdity of someone with the limited perspective of an average storm trooper in the movie trying to understand events through the lens of a conspiracy theorist.

But on to Crosby’s weaving me into his fantasy conspiracy:

An interesting connection I found was the link between Adam Bly’s “Science”Blogs and another collection of blogs, “Science”BasedMedicine. Both blogs share some bloggers and views on the vaccine-autism controversy. Some bloggers who typically use pseudonyms on “Science”Blogs go by their real names on “Science”BasedMedicine, as if to give the impression that there are more bloggers posting with this position than there actually are. The person who founded “Science”BasedMedicine, Steven Novella, an assistant professor of neurology at Yale who specializes in injecting Botox, is also a Scientific Advisor to the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH).

Cue the drama prairie dog…dum dum dummmmm!!!

There are no links between Science-Based Medicine and Adam Bly or Science Blogs. I know, because I started SBM all by myself. It was my idea, and I created it. When I did so I invited medical science bloggers I knew and respected to blog with me at SBM. That was the entire process. Some of the people I invited were new to blogging, and others already had their own blog or contributed to other blogs. The reason for this is that I wanted some experienced and some new bloggers. Since Science Blogs has a large number of popular science bloggers, it is not shocking that I recruited from some of the bloggers over there.

The reason that science bloggers at SBM and at Science Blogs express the same opinions regarding the vaccine-autism claim is because we all honestly believe that the science does not support a link – we generally interpret the evidence the same way. That’s because it is the correct opinion. You might as well accuse students who got the correct answer on a test of copying from each other because they all gave the same answer.

There is also an amazing uniformity of opinion among science bloggers regarding creationism – that’s because we all know it’s bunk. In fact, I invite you to read Crosby’s rant and replace in your mind “creationism” for the anti-vaccine nonsense he is defending and you will see how apt the analogy is.

Crosby also ignores any disconfirming evidence – the many bloggers at SBM who do not also blog for Science Blogs and who have a long and documented career defending science in medicine. It’s pretty clear to anyone who actually reads SBM what our philosophy is.

I also find it amusing that Crosby repeats Handley’s childish attempt at poisoning my reputation by stating that I “specialize in injecting Botox.” This is simply wrong. I am a specialist in neuromuscular disease, and also direct the general neurology clinic. One half day a week I do inject Botox for certain neurological disorders – it is simply one therapeutic modality in which I am skilled. But Handley tried to make it sound like there is something sinister about injecting Botox (ignoring the fact that his favorite celebrity, Jenny McCarthy, sings the praises of Botox for cosmetic indications) – failing to point out that I use it for established neurological indications. Crosby’s emphasis of this is either ridiculously sloppy on his part, or deliberately deceptive – a misguided attempt, as with Handley, at poisoning the well.

Crosby next goes on to the fact that I have been an adviser to the American Counsel on Science and Health (ACSH). The implication, again, is that I am somehow getting my marching orders from them. This is dangerously close to libel, and Crosby has absolutely no evidence (because none exists) of any conflict of interest between me and ACSH.

My association with that organization is simply that they asked me to be a scientific adviser and I agreed, because I liked their anti-tobacco activism. I advise them – they have NEVER communicated to me (other than form letters about their activities), I have never met with or even had a conversation with anyone from ACSH, they have never given me a single dime or any other remuneration, or made any attempt at all to influence the content of my writing. I advise them, they do not advise or influence me – at all.

Crosby has made no evident attempt to find out what the nature of the relationship is, or to substantiate his implications. He is not after the truth – he simply wants to provide cover for the quacks and cranks over at AoA by giving them a justification for dismissing opinions they don’t like.

What Crosby is doing is the typical witch hunt that cranks have perfected over the years – superficially researching the kinds of innocent and tenuous connections that all academics accumulate over the years by giving lectures and advice to organizations, corporate or otherwise, in order to generate the impression of conflict or corruption where none exists.

Crosby ignores the fact that I have a long and documented career as a skeptic. My opinions on a long list of science topics are easy to access, argued in detail and referenced.

Crosby is essentially accusing me of being a shill for industry – which is clearly meant to be defamatory against my character and integrity. I am issuing a public challenge to Crosby – either show specific documentation that I have ever been paid by anyone in order to take or promote a specific opinion on any topic – or publicly retract your defamatory statements and apologize.

If Orac is correct and Crosby is just a mixed up kid in over his head, and is redeemable, then maybe Crosby will see the error of his ways and apologize. I suspect that he won’t. He certainly won’t come up with any legitimate evidence against me, because none exists.


Whether just a misguided kid (a soft if patronizing attitude) or a dedicated crank, Jake Crosby has written a vile example of conspiracy mongering specifically to provide cover for dangerous antivaccine loons. There is no excuse for this sloppy journalism, superficial research, unethical accusations, and flagrant hypocrisy.

Of course, part of the purpose of such writing is to get bloggers like me wasting my time defending myself against baseless accusations. So I might as well turn the tables a bit against AoA. They spend a great deal of time hunting for superficial connections they can use to disparage those who disagree with them, meanwhile they advertise and make money from promoting the unscientific treatments that are promoted as an alternative to the science they smear.

It’s a revitaPOP conspiracy, I tell you.

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