J.B. Handley is the media’s go-to guy for crazy quotes, or what editors like to call “balance”. By his own estimate, Handley, who founded the radical anti-vaccine group Generation Rescue, has spoken with a hundred or more reporters over the years, and his half-baked conspiracy theories and junk science rarely disappoint. A Handley quote is to a dull public health story what an overturned semi-tractor trailer is to a monotonous road trip.
But Handley met his match last Friday in New York Times senior medical reporter Donald McNeil, a 32-year vet of the Grey Lady. McNeil has reviewed plays, written about the environment, and filed stories from 49 countries. He’s also witnessed the terrible price of contagion during his travels in the Third World: AIDS, malaria, avian flu, SARS, mad cow disease and other killers. Clearly, this man has been around the block a few times.
McNeil was writing an article about Autism’s False Prophets, Dr. Paul Offit’s page-turner about the phony autism cure industry and the hucksters who keep it viable, and the book’s impact on the debate over the nation’s vaccine program. He wanted a quote from Handley, who rates a mention or two in Offit’s book. We’ll let J.B. take it from here:
The interview began…Donald McNeil was a pleasant guy from the outset, clear and straightforward in his goals. He mentioned Offit’s book, that there was certainly some controversy, and what did I think about it all.
I think my initial answer surprised him. To paraphrase myself I said:
“Offit’s book is a disappointment. For something like autism, where none of our health authorities have any explanation of cause or cure, we have a whole community of doctors and parents who are actually recovering children. And, without ever treating an autistic child, interviewing a DAN! doctor who treats them, or exploring the several hundred case reports of complete recovery and thousands of stories of improvement, without ever looking into any of this, Offit says its all bullshit. I just don’t understand how someone who considers themselves a doctor could do that.”
And here is what I am going to tell you about Donald McNeil: he was completely and utterly clueless. He’d never heard kids actually recover. He’d never heard of cases of children, now neurotypical, with detailed medical records and case reports charting their recovery. He didn’t know tens of thousands of kids are truly recovering from autism and being treated by doctors with medical degrees just like Offit.
Bluster and misdirection are a favorite tactics of Handley and other anti-vaccine activists, and they usually work on reporters who are new to covering autism, and imagine that yes, there could be thousands of children who have been cured of autism spectrum disorders. Somehow I don’t think McNeil was having any of it.
The conversation continued. He said Offit has a simple position on our community: greedy lawyers and opportunistic doctors prey on desperate parents, and that’s all we are. What did I think of that?
I told him Vaccine Court lawyers are paid by the hour, as far as I knew, so hard to fathom they are chasing a great fortune. On the quack doctor side, I took him through my own neighborhood. Six kids with ASD at my son’s school. Three completely recovered, all from the same doctor. Doctors don’t stay in business very long without results, and I have seen some great results. Has he ever looked? Of course he hasn’t. He had no idea.
That’s not much of a defense. Vaccine court lawyers do indeed bill by the hour, and are paid if they win or lose, no matter how improbable their claims. Kathleen Seidel has covered their abuses well, and gives an eye-opening overview of the process here.
On the quack doctor side, the overwhelming evidence, gleaned by researchers around the world over several decades, says that autism currently has no cure, and is not associated with vaccines. But J.B. Handley, the P.T. Barnum of confirmation bias, will have none of that.
We went on to the next topic, which was probably my favorite. I took him to task on the sweeping statements he and his colleagues make that the science proves “vaccines don’t cause autism.” I took him through how every single study Offit and others cite only compare vaccinated kids to other vaccinated kids… I explained how important it is to look at unvaccinated kids, something people like Offit never advocate doing.
There’s a reason that best and brightest vaccine researchers don’t advocate comparing vaccinated kids to unvaccinated – there aren’t enough totally unvaccinated kids in the US to get a meaningful result, and it’s not necessary. Handley of course buys the urban myth that the Amish don’t vaccinate – his editor at the Age of Autism, Dan Olmsted, fabricated that story three years ago.
But none of this matters to Handley and his posse. As long as he can spoonfeed “balance” to the media, Handley will be cooking up his own reality, and stewing in his own juice.