The following is a three-part series on how anti-vaxxers have fed off of science communications missteps to become an energised movement. It is based on observations from watching a day of speeches from the anti-vaxx gurus during the Truth About Cancer Live conference. This first part looks at how the anti-vaxx guru emerged from the 1970s-80s style Praise-the-Lord TV preacher and the tools they use in their naturopathic faith healing. Part Two considers how certain failures in science communications on vaccines has created the monster of the enraged anti-vaxxer. The final part shares some lessons learnt for vaccine communicators.
I had the opportunity to watch a live-streaming of the recent Truth About Cancer Live, a three-day conference in the US bringing together the leading lights of the anti-vaxx lobby, the naturopath supplement-mongers, the juicing therapists and the golden gurus of the “don’t trust your doctor” cult. I got to witness a venerated who’s who of woo, from Andrew Wakefield to Robert Kennedy Jr to Jeffrey Smith to David Avocado Wolfe. I had only planned to watch the erudite Edward F Group III bang on about vibrations and cleansing but like a bad accident, I could not look away and watched an entire day of the conference.
Before you conclude how the Risk-Monger seriously needs to get a life (you’re right), I must admit it was informative on many levels. As the wide range of speakers each intuitively promoted their products and books, I was piecing together the narrative holding their stories together. What I saw was how their logic was tightly woven around a fear of industry research and innovation and a desire to return to the purity and innocence of nature (one that was shattered by technology): an Eden, a redemption, a purification. What I saw was a reaction to the uncertainties they felt were an affront to our spiritual and emotional core. What I saw was how these snake-oil salesmen were filling a gaping hole in the market with anxiety, ignorance and mistrust.
Fine, nothing new about this … but what I also saw was how science communications has failed to provide the support and reassurance a large population of vulnerable people were seeking. In this sense, what I saw was how these anti-vaxx demons are perhaps of our own making.
“Praise the Herb”
My first observation while watching Ty Bollinger’s “star-studded” conference was the underlying Pentecostal nature of the event. Growing up at a time when late-night TV consisted of PTL Club preachers with their hands held out towards the screen, I recognised the fire and brimstone tone of salvation and faith-healing in most of these naturopath medicine men.
But this is a new faith.
The audience and the gurus have moved from seeking salvation from Satan to a deliverance from the evil of the Big Pharma cancer and vaccine industries (through supplements … available now online). The preachers have moved from selling snake oil to branding essential oils; from the healing powers of Jesus to the healing powers of activated charcoal; from the demons of Satan to the diabolical scientists. Their robes are now white but they still preach from superstition and fear quoting from an expanded Bible on herbs and lifestyle. These faith healers with mail-order naturopathy diplomas and YouTube and Facebook accounts barely missed a step into the 21st century.
A certain Christian Fundamentalist residue remained in the Truth About Cancer sermons for those in the flock who may feel it is better to have as many spiritual sources of purity as possible sorting them out. What was more interesting to observe is how the preponderance of evil remains the same. Man (through technology, science and the greed of business) is threatening the spiritual well-being of humanity. The Promised Land, salvation, is found in being one with nature, preordained and without man’s intervention. Science is a fallen angel.
This flock is ready to fight the heathens of science following their gurus as they barnstorm on this mission of mercy. These zealots are not about facts or reason. I am not sure even “faith” properly describes what underpins the anti-vaxx movement. They are seeking salvation and on that road to purification they must remove the obstacles of regulators, companies, science and technology.
I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.
A Narrative of Collusion
The best way to lose trust in a social media-driven world is to be perceived as not telling someone what they want to hear. People like anti-vaxx producer/filmmaker Del Bigtree are adamant the US government health agencies are involved in a huge cover-up on vaccine safety on behalf of the greed and irresponsibility of industry.
The anti-vaxxers are very good at putting a worm into any kernel of truth. Bigtree, in his speech, declares that Big Pharma is colluding with the government. Indeed in 2005 President Bush called in the heads of pharmaceutical companies to discuss vaccines but the reason was to try to restore US vaccine manufacturing capacity. After the SARS and avian influenza outbreaks (and the need to develop an anthrax vaccine post 9.11), regulators realised they did not have the vaccine production capacity to ramp up supplies should a pandemic arise. The US could not even meet domestic flu vaccine supplies.
This was during a period when pandemic panic was the Armageddon story of the day. Pharmaceutical companies, facing mounting vaccine-related litigation costs, simply voted with their feet and pulled out of the US markets. Thanks to tort lawyer greed, vaccines were a loss-making venture. The only way manufacturers would return to the market would be if the US government created a shield that covered any litigation consequences (actually, I would suggest tort reform but I suppose they had tried that and the lawyers were too clever).
But anti-vaxxers then twisted this story of public health protection into evidence of collusion.
Anti-vaxxers are adept at twisting perceptions to their advantage and manipulating facts and reality. Any misstep by any vaccine authority or science communicator will be picked up, amplified and processed into conspiracy campaign material. Every utterance and every action is held up under their microscope of madness. These gurus are relentless and unforgiving, but in that sense, valuable. What I learnt from watching a day of anti-vaxx speeches is where science communications needs to do better. In Part Two, I take the anti-vaxx manipulations and reverse-process them into an assessment of how to address, sorry to say, our communications failures.