Anti-Science

The Misogyny of the Anti-vaccination Cult

Last month, the anti-vaccination crowd showed their true anti-woman colors when responding to a piece in Wired magazine that detailed their idiocy. The Wired journalist was Amy Wallace, and because she is a woman the backlash against her immediately took the form of violent sexual imagery. Generation Rescue’s J. B. Handley suggested that Wallace had been drugged and raped by Paul Offit, a man who has literally saved millions of lives developing and promoting vaccines.

Science bloggers responded with appropriate horror, including Orac and Isis highlighting the misogyny and calling for it to end. Unfortunately, those pleas were ignored.

Dr. Rachie just Tweeted this link to Age of Autism, that den of pseudoscience and Dark Ages-like fear and superstition. WARNING: you may lose your appetite.

The post includes a poorly Photoshopped picture of prominent science-based medicine proponents feasting on a dead baby. The guests are journalist Alison Singer, the NIMH’s Tom Insel, journalist Trine Tsouderos, skeptic Steven Novella, and the aforementioned Amy Wallace and Paul Offit.

Think that’s bad? Wait until you get to the comments:

ageofautism2

ageofautism1

It’s pretty shocking, really, considering that the anti-vaxx crowd likes to pretend to be busy helping mothers and caring for children. When you really look at what they’re doing, though, this sexism is not at all surprising.

I’ve discussed the female-focused idiocy of the anti-vaxxers in past talks, like at SkepchickCon: people like Jenny McCarthy have long trumped their “mommy instinct” as the ultimate victor over, uh, what’s it called? Oh yeah, “medicine.” And “science.” McCarthy decided to ignore the advice of the medical community and instead turn to pseudoscience when her son was diagnosed with autism. Over on autism.about.com, the About expert is Lisa Jo Rudy, a mother with an autistic child who has become very critical of McCarthy and her ilk. In one essay, she explains that mothers are not “magical beings,” referring to the supernatural “mommy instinct” that relies on the mythical women’s intuition that we’re all supposed to possess, independent of reason.

You see, women, and in this particular case mothers, aren’t able to handle science and logic and reason. That’s for menfolk. And so, mothers must rise above science by using their intuition to magically determine what’s right for their children. But as Lisa Jo points out, when you’re a mother and you’re told this lie and you look inside yourself and find not magic but confusion and fear, you suddenly are made to feel like less than a woman. Look how Jenny McCarthy was so sure of herself, so sure of what to do for her child! What’s wrong with you, if you don’t know? Rudy writes:

One of the toughest aspects of parenting a child with autism is the sense of being all alone. But it seems that we, ourselves, are making it worse – by imposing impossible standards and then criticizing those who make choices that are different from our own.

Woman-on-woman misogynistic pseudoscience. When will it end, people?

(EDIT: Orac has posted some more info on this issue here.)

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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55 Comments

  1. Wow, I haven’t brought myself to click on the baby-eating link yet, but I’ve still lost my appetite.

    It’s more than a little depressing, that despite the anti-vaxxers distinct lack of evidence, coherence or sophistication in debate, they managed to convince people of their claims…

    *sigh*

  2. More disturbing is that those comments are showing up with the approval of a moderator.

    I guess their only criterion whether a post is allowable is if it’s anti-vaxx in content.

    Well, if you’ve got not real science to support your argument, you resort to photoshop and dick jokes.

  3. @davew:

    I still get the impression the backlash was particularly more vitriolic because of the fact Amy Wallace is a woman.

    Or perhaps you’re right, and because she is a woman, there was an opportunity to tap into a whole subset of insults that was left unused on Steven Novella and Paul Offit.

  4. She’s winning because the women of Generation X in the US are largely taking one large step back. Its a generation of vapid baby obsessed bimbos who have hoisted this woman up on their shoulders. Shame… I like smart chicks

  5. I’m with davew here.

    Also I think it’s important to remember that blog comments usually have a very low signal to noise ratio and that if one is to convince the fence-sitters its unwise to lump them in with the idiot hate-mongers in one big “anti-vaccination crowd”.

  6. @davew: Interesting. Do you not see a difference between the way men are criticized and the way women are? Why is it that when a woman is involved, the insults take a turn for sexual violence? Is it a coincidence that Amy Wallace’s critics have resorted to calling her a cunt and a whore and a prostitute?

    I’ll be honest, I’m having trouble imagining a scenario where that’s not misogyny.

  7. @capheind: The anti-vaxxers aren’t winning because they’re baby-obsessed bimbos. They’re effective because they prey upon the fear and mistrust of “big Pharma” and the government, and they prey upon the idea that mothers should be separate from science and the real world.

  8. I agree that it is misogyny. However, as I pointed out months ago, I have also been disgusted with the misogyny directed at Jenny McCarthy.

    She is an idiot, and not an expert because she is a mother. However, the fact that she posed topless in a magazine, or was a model, has nothing to do with it.

    I disliked the Jenny McCarthy song, because I thought it had weird creepy sexual overtones. And when HEIDI ANDERSON thinks something has weird creepy sexual overtones, that is saying something.

    I also really hate when people trash Oprah for being fat. So what? She’s fat! It has nothing to do with what is wrong with her.

    I just wish we could keep all criticism about the people’s ideas and work, not their bodies or gender.

  9. I wonder if they can be sued for libel, for that picture. Sure, they can claim that it’s “parody”, but I would think that the idiots who commented on it would indicate that it’s not being taken as such… and to argue that is not the case, they’d have to argue that their readers are not reasonable people.

  10. @capheind:

    Do you REALLY like smart chicks? Or only smart chicks who are also hot?

    The one problem I have with the whole “you can be smart AND sexy” thing is this: Does a person have to be sexy or attractive to be worthy of attention? Can a woman be smart and ugly and still have worth in the skeptic community?

  11. @heidiho: Can a woman be smart and ugly and still have worth in the skeptic community?

    A little off the original topic, but I think that a person becomes attractive or more attractive, whether you first thought them to be or not, the smarter they are. At least to me. I have friends who might be considered kind of plain on first viewing, but the longer I know them the more beautiful they appear to me -maybe because I’m judging their brains more than their looks? I’m not sure, but the reverse is also true because I have friends who were at first stunning to me and the more I found out about them, the less attractive they became.
    But this is just my experience and may not describe anyone else’s real scenarios.

  12. @heidiho: Relax! The answer is yes, attractiveness is a collection of biological and semi-biological (social on a biological framework) characteristics. Attractiveness in general is a metric for other important characteristics in a mate and in someone you rely on, including immune system and other factors.

    I am not attractive, and at no point has that been an advantage to me. While a physically subpar but intellectually adequate (I hope) person such as my self is of value to the skeptical community that does not make me a necessarily good mate or a good candidate for public intellectual (although Sagan and Dawkins aren’t lookers either). Capeheind didn’t even bring up smart and sexy, but smart and sexy has a place in the realm of human existence, and because of that you should let it be. IMHO

  13. @Vengeful Harridan (Elexina):
    I agree. I have also had the same experience of changing my view on someone’s attractiveness based on getting to know them. What I have NOT done is require men to please my aesthetics before I listen to them.

    @Opcn:

    Gotta tell you, I really hate being told to relax after expressing an opinion.

    And I AM attractive. I just have found that when many men say they want a smart chick, they mean I want a smart chick who also looks like Heidi Klum.

  14. @heidiho: I assure you that doing something that you hate was not my intent. I also did not mean to imply anything about your physical attractiveness. What is wrong about men wanting Heidi Klum? If a man says he likes women with big breasts or long hair but does not include the fact that she must not be an asshole is it any worse? It seems like the natural order of things to want it all, and it seems like it would use lots of time and space to list all the characteristics we are looking for in a mate every time we listed one.

  15. @Rebecca: The misogyny is clear and blatant, great post Rebecca.

    It is good to hear that one of the “experts” at About-dot-com is fighting the good fight and reflecting current science and some rational thought. Unfortunately there are other About-dot-com experts who operate on the fringes and make recommendations that are anything but scientific and who have been constantly challenged by real experts. One specifically is Mary Shomon who advocates many treatments and ideas about thyroid disease and thyroid cancer that are dangerous and not based in current scientific research. I wonder what it takes to get an About expert gig.

  16. @Opcn:

    I did not think you were calling me unattractive. It’s just that you put in there that you were unattractive, so I thought we were clarifying our attractiveness level.

    Also, I will be ok :) I have a remarkably thick skin and twisted sense of humor.

    There is nothing wrong with men wanting a woman who looks like Heidi Klum. Good luck with that!

    I do get annoyed at geek conventions when unattractive men who have clearly never seen a real woman naked start talking shit about ugly women.

    I have dated “commercially attractive” men and unattractive men, and found no difference in intelligence, personality, or sexual performance. I just wish some men were as open minded.

  17. @Rebecca: Interesting. Do you not see a difference between the way men are criticized and the way women are? Why is it that when a woman is involved, the insults take a turn for sexual violence? Is it a coincidence that Amy Wallace’s critics have resorted to calling her a cunt and a whore and a prostitute?

    I’ll be honest, I’m having trouble imagining a scenario where that’s not misogyny.

    Bullies will use any perceived weakness to gain power over their victim. You can be shorter, taller, fatter, thinner, lighter, darker or of a different gender. They will use it all. I don’t believe the fact that these bullies went for gender-specific insults necessarily means they are misogynistic. They might have just chosen an insult they thought would work.

    I think the distinction is important because when I juxtapose the institutionally imposed misogyny in some parts of the world to some vile words coughed up by an asshat on the internet the latter pales. I think it may also cheapen the word.

    To put this another way, when someone calls me a prick are they expressing a hatred of men? I don’t think so. Most typically they are just accurately describing my behavior using an economy of language.

    To be sure this language is vile and should not be condoned. To understand whether it is just spew or genuine misogyny, however, you’d have to climb into the mind of the asshat.

  18. @heidiho: “I have dated “commercially attractive” men and unattractive men, and found no difference in intelligence, personality, or sexual performance. I just wish some men were as open minded.” Unless you want to admit to dating more men than most women would admit to knowing I doubt you will be able to claim a representative sample or census in your study.

    “I do get annoyed at geek conventions when unattractive men who have clearly never seen a real woman naked start talking shit about ugly women.”
    Talking smack about the ugly is a different matter, but if you reread this quote a few times perhaps you will see how easy it is for any of us to accidentally tie someones attractiveness to something insulting.

  19. @ On topic

    FWIW I left a comment, paraphrased roughly too “It says these comments are moderated, but I don’t think they are” this was before reading the comment here that was basically the same thing. Guess what? I was wrong, they moderated out at least one comment, mine!

  20. I have had the Oprah argument here before but I think I might open it up again. Jenny McCarthy put her sexuality and precieved bimboness in the public sphere as a way to make money and gain attention and celebrity status. Oprah used her weight as a way to make money and up her ratings. Once someone does that then that is no longer off limits. None of the scientists or skeptics have done this. They haven’t used their sex lives, their bodies, their weight problems, their personal problems or anything from their personal lives to push a scietific or skeptical agenda. They have used science, evidence and skepticism. So the criticism of them should be limited to those areas. Jenny McCarthy and Oprah have not limited themsleves to the areas of science, evidence and skepticism. Thus they are open for criticism in areas that they themselves have placed into the public sphere.

  21. @James Fox: I wonder what it takes to get an About expert gig.

    Their process is roughly as follows: they have an initial screen of resumes, and the accepted candidates get to basically work for free for a week, writing articles at the rate they’d be expected to as “experts”. From what I’ve heard, the “winner” is partly the best and partly the most verbose of the candidates. But yeah, their “experts” are AFAIK selected by non-experts.

  22. @heidiho:

    She is an idiot, and not an expert because she is a mother. However, the fact that she posed topless in a magazine, or was a model, has nothing to do with it.

    That she’s a model is somewhat relevant in that she is a MODEL and not a doctor or scientist.

  23. @heidiho

    Is there a way to get into the control group of ugly-men-who-preform-well-sexually? I’m always willing to sacrifice my time for science.

    But seriously…”They eat Babies!” is hilarious to me. Its the oldest way to make it OK to commit atrocities against another tribe I know of. The Israelites said it about their neighbors, it was the motivation for the pogroms against the jews, including the Nazi genocide. The west said it about Soviets, the Soviets said it about the west.

    I even remember as fundamentalist Christian youth hearing that there was conspiracy by wealthy corporations like P&G to keep abortion legal so they could use the fetuses in their premium hair care line.

    Its all the same. The bad guys ALWAYS eat babies. It’s so over used it’s a cliche. Offense at it must be hardwired into our DNA.

  24. It’s hard to know how one should respond to this. I am rarely at a loss for words. If I described it as juvenille I’d be insulting children. If I described it as satanic I’d be insulting the devil. But mysogynistic didn’t cross my mind when I saw the picture. The picture is just plain horrible. I agree with Shadow, it’s the comments that are mysogynistic not the picture. The picture is just … INCREDIBLY wrong.

  25. I worry that this is a straw man. Sure what the anti-vaxers did was vulgar and disgusting but thats not the issue. The issue is not the degradation of women but science vs quackery.
    The anti vax movement is not inherently misogynistic just because a few random poster wrote something inappropriate.
    We can’t take a handful of comments and tar and feather a whole group based on the words of a few idiots. This is a side issue and although the treatment of women is important it has nothing to do with this issue.

  26. The post includes a poorly Photoshopped picture of prominent science-based medicine proponents feasting on a dead baby.

    You mean we don’t eat dead babies? All the fun of skepticism is gone. My world is a bleak, empty shell.

    In all seriousness, I can’t tell whether they believe you need your mommy instinct to be a scientist or whether science is a complete lie to be trumped by the mommy instinct.

    That’s what happens when you try to paint the veneer of science on something you know is scientifically false. Self-confusion.

  27. Before I even looked at the comments, I guessed this would devolve into a “sexism” vs “not sexism” fight again.

    Bingo.

    Back on topic, at least their vile message seems to be turning a whole lot of people off. From the comments:

    “This is the first time I visited your page and I will not visit it again. Between the word Epidemic & the photo, I could never take you seriously or trust in any information you provide. I have three boys with Autism and have never thought of Autism as an Epidemic. The Swine Flu is an Epidemic NOT Autism. My 8yo with Asperger’s once heard a commerical about a fundraiser to find a cure for Autism, he words were “no way, I am keeping my Autism”. I can’t even comment on the photo but to say it is just sick.”

  28. @halincoh: Er, I didn’t at all mean to imply there was anything misogynistic about the picture. The misogyny is in 1. the anti-vaxx leaders’ previous comments 2. the community’s reaction in the comments and 3. the inherent misogyny of “women’s intuition” and “mommy instinct” that encourages women as a whole to ignore science and reason.

  29. From my friend Louise Bach Capps:

    Disgusted? Take action!
    http://counteringageofautism.blogspot.com/2009/11/since-aoa-admits-its-just-blog-it.html

    And I’ll paraphrase my original tweet here: No one in the thinking autism community takes Age of Autism seriously. The baby-eaters photo is a good example why, as was J.B. Handley’s Encyclopedia Dramatica-worthy misogynist attack on journalist Amy Wallace.

    Thank you for calling out AoA’s ongoing misconduct.

  30. This woman-on-woman pseudoscience-based misogyny has been going on a long time. We call it the “autism wars,” and it’s essentially autism’s version of middle-school cliques. You’re not allowed in the “mommy” clique or “Mother Warrior” clique if you vaccinate. You’re simply not…quite. I blogged this a few weeks ago.

    http://daisymayfattypants.blogspot.com/2009/11/vaccines-feminism-autism-motherhood.html

    Thanks for writing in defense of science, common sense, and womanhood. I have to admit, I hadn’t seen one of those quotes you highlighted. Detestable, indefensible behavior. The gall and bitterness from that quarter can be overwhelming. I second shannonrosa and say, if you find it offensive, please take action:
    http://counteringageofautism.blogspot.com/2009/11/since-aoa-admits-its-just-blog-it.html

  31. Once upon a time, when I still wasted energy in anti-vaccination Autism forums, I was accused of ‘only trying to appeal to men’ when I presented scientific evidence for both the safety of vaccines and the evidence supporting a genetic cause for Autism.

    The basic gist was that women only pretend they’re intelligent so that men will want to fuck them, which includes the assumption that women are so desperate for man desire that they will carefully disguise their own pathetic (and apparently inherent) stupidity.

    These accusations were hurled solely by women. I can only shudder with envy over their ability to display such ignorance despite their inborn need for man lust. Oi.

  32. As of this morning, AoA has pulled, not just the image, but the entire post relating to the image. I am dying to find out how the discussion about this issue went behind closed doors. Did it really take them this long to recognize their own self-sabotage?

    If anyone finds out any info into their reasons for pulling the post, please let us over at Gotham Skeptic know! http://www.nycskeptics.org/blog/?p=1582

  33. “You see, women, and in this particular case mothers, aren’t able to handle science and logic and reason. That’s for menfolk. And so, mothers must rise above science by using their intuition to magically determine what’s right for their children.”

    Oh dear, not this again.

    A similar school of thought seems to have been popular in the feminist movement(!) some time ago, though that covered far more than just children. Roughly the same idea, though – science was something fundamentally male, created to oppress women, and therefore must be rejected outright in favour of what women naturally know and understand through being female. (Oh, and any woman who didn’t come to the same conclusion hadn’t thought about the issue hard enough or was lying.)

    That particular school of thought mostly died out a long time ago. It’s interesting, though – presumably both came from the same underlying ideas…

  34. I don’t know if anyone on here has notice or has posted this already, but the link to the baby-eating image now goes to a blank .html page. I guess they decided that picture was tactless. I hope somebody has saved that picture somewhere so it can be used as an example of the lengths to which the anti-vaccinationists will go to promote their crap.

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