Anthropologist Underground

Anthropologist Underground
October 13
I'm Terrie Torgersen Peterson. I hold a BA in Anthropology from the University of Wyoming. I've done archeological field work at Haluzta in Israel, San Juan River cliff dwellings in the American Southwest, and in the Big Horn Canyon in Wyoming. I'm currently a writer and stay-home mom to two gorgeous, laughing children. I enjoy exploring the intersection of science and culture and my own life as ethnography. I also write for and You can email me: anthropologistunderground [at] gmail [dot] com.


DECEMBER 7, 2009 9:01PM

The Cannibalizing Babies Gambit

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 I realize that it's inconsistent to draw attention to something I think we should all ignore, but this is a great example of the way an insular, self-validating culture evolves increasing extremism over time. 

Ad Homenim is a type of argument that dismisses the validity of a claim based on unrelated personal characteristics of the proponent of the claim.  For example, I could make (and support) the claim that, for a variety of reasons, responsible stewardship of natural resources is a good idea.  An extractive industry lobbyist climate change denialist could then argue that because I'm a girl, I lack credibility.  See how easy that is? It completely diverts attention from informed discourse.  

The abusive ad hominem involves insulting the opponent or bringing up unrelated character flaws that have no bearing on the argument at hand.  Back to the environmental stewardship example, an opponent could claim that I don't know what I'm talking about because I choose not to work (for pay). Or they could even frame it differently to increase the negative impact: ... she can't even hold down a job.  

Because the overwhelming scientific consensus doesn't support their claims, proponents of pseudoscience and medical woo often employ ad hominem attacks on actual doctors and scientists. They can't argue on scientific grounds so they try to divert attention away from the lack of scientific validity. This is the first line of argument in the anti-vaccination culture. 

I wrote previously about Amy Wallace's Wired Magazine article which employed solid scientific data to debunk common anti-vaccination claims. Angry vaccine denialists immediately responded to her article with ad hominems, misogyny, threats of rape, sexual innuendo, and other unrelated attacks.  JB Handley is the head of Jenny McCarthy's prominent anti-vaccine organization, Generation Rescue. Handley's blog is called Age of Autism.  He is a very public and enthusiastic spewer of ad hominem. He was firmly behind the threatening tone of the attacks against Wallace.  Further, his claims that vaccines cause autism are unsupported by rigorous scientific scrutiny.  He is unqualified to make medical claims, and he appears to be an irredeemable bastard. When challenged on the scientific evidence, he loses sphincter control and spews excrement all over the place. This tactic serves to weaken his position by eliminating what slim theoretical credibility he may once have had. 

The misogyny gambit lacks imagination, creativity, and rational thought.  It's a tired, pathetic knee-jerk temper tantrum perpetrated by men who lack the ability (or desire) to understand even basic science. Threatening sexual violence is glaringly manipulative. Predictably, Age of Autism has devolved even further from basic civil discourse.  Orac of Respectful Insolence describes it here:

Look, I get it. I get why J.B. Handley likes to launch a full frontal assault on me periodically. I'm not all warm and cuddly and accommodationist. When I see pseudoscience, stupidity, and nastiness on the part of the anti-vaccine movement I don't mince words about it. I call stupidity stupidity and despicable behavior despicable behavior. Sometimes it it causes me some mild trouble. But, attacks by cranks aside, I've never seen anything like what AoA posted the other day. It was so over-the-top that even bloggers who don't normally pay that much attention to the anti-vaccine movement, bloggers like Rebecca "Skepchick" Watson took notice before even I did. Basically, whatever nastiness the anti-vaccine movement has thrown my way, it's never done to me what it's just done to a friend (Steve Novella), a scientist I admire (Paul Offit), and two journalists (Amy Wallace and Trine Tsouderos) who've earned my respect for having written hard-hitting, science-based exposes of the anti-vaccine movement and the anti-vaccine autism "biomed" movement, as well as others who clearly don't deserve this degree of hate and abuse.
It's never portrayed me as eating babies as part of a Thanksgiving feast. That's right. AoA thinks its a load of yucks to paint its enemies as cannibals eating babies.
Even as someone who has become as jaded as I have when it comes to the behavior of the anti-vaccine movement, I was amazed by just how vile this latest post from Generation Rescue is. I realized that the anti-vaccine movement hates us defenders of science-based medicine, but I hadn't realized the depth of the hatred, but it flowed out in torrents in the comments after this post. Misogyny, hatred, anger, and pseudoscience, all mixed together in a toxic brew, and I plan on pointing out some examples. No doubt AoA expected me and others to be outraged, but what I am, more than anything else, is depressed. That human beings can think such things based on so little evidence is truly depressing--and saddening.

I did go look at the photoshopped image of the baby feast.  Not only was it childishly terrible design work, the entire premise is silly.  It was bigoted ignorance writ large. (In real life the  vaccine deniers are actually responsible for the deaths of real babies.) Many comments were predictably nasty, unscientific and misogynistic.  A few AOA devotees spoke out against it. The entire post was so low brow that AOA has since removed it .  Of course many skeptics have cached the image and comments. 

What I find fascinating is that emotional dogma, completely divorced from reality, is such a bedrock principle of that culture that some number of AOA editors approved publication of the image.  In so doing, AOA satirized themselves and solidified their image as ignorant, anti-scientific cranks. This is not the way to go about getting scarce research funding diverted to repeatedly debunk their vaccine safety boogeymen. Unfortunately the anti-vaccination circus also diverts attention from beneficial autism research. It's uncomfortable to witness self-flagellation.  As always, they have demonstrated that they have nothing to add to a scientific discussion of vaccination policy.  In my view they deserve to be ignored. 

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vaccines, culture, ad hominem

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Sounds like you are doing something right to be attacked in such a gratuitous manner.

To fully understand what you are up against, you might want to move over and check out a more ethnological perspective on cult type behavior.

This sort of social phenomenon is rather common. If they are tossing in rape threats, that is another glaring clue.

Start with the simple notion that they are asserting propositions that are inherently unfalsifiable. Once they no longer pretend to be involved with science, what is left?

Go girl.
Nick, your comment is awesome! I'm really sorry I worded my post so poorly. I'll go clarify. The crazies responded to Amy Wallace with threats etc. (I fly well below the radar...). I agree that being attacked like that is a sign that you've hit a nerve.

It is a cult, and your point about the unfalsifiable assertion is spot-on.

Thanks for reading!
hear, here.

what's to add? One hopes that real science progresses, well-designed studies increase in number, and their few marginally credible claims are investigated with due diligence. And if they add marrying trees, eating worm feces, stealing grandma's lipstick, and fixing girl's softball games for profit to the list of our "crimes", we might, just might, see them lose credibility among some of their True Believers.