Crosby’s labyrinth, or why I couldn’t stop myself from replying to the vaccine conspiracy theorist to end all conspiracy theorists.

Earlier today, Jake Crosby posted this comment on one of my recent posts about Jenny McCarthy. (For those of you lucky enough not to know who Jake Crosby is, here’s his entry in the Encyclopedia of American Loons and here’s a link to Orac’s posts about Crosby.)

“I think [public health decisions] should be based on scientific evidence. I’m never going to waver in this.” [Note: He’s quoting me here.]

Well isn’t that just funny? I brought up scientific evidence to you that CDC of all agencies produced associating earlier MMR vaccine exposure to autism, and asked you if you thought CDC should retract its conclusion of no association that’s completely contradicted by the results.

You refused to respond, called the study I plugged “insignificant minutia,” said my question was “devoid of facts,” complained of my past criticisms of you online and ultimately refused to answer my question.

So then how can you make the following claim that: “…this isn’t a matter of the heart, it’s one of the mind” when you take criticism you don’t have a response to so personally?

Speaking of which, of the “dozens” of studies you claim prove vaccines don’t cause autism, IOM only uses four to say thimerosal doesn’t cause autism and four to say thimerosal doesn’t. This is an organization that has been caught saying it will never come down that autism is a true side effect of vaccines before looking at any evidence, and it obviously does not even think most of your “dozens” of studies are any good. Pretty bad, don’t you think?

I initially wrote what follows as a response to Crosby but decided it was worth getting of my chest once and for all…so here goes:

Jake, as I told you the first time you accosted me at a talk, in New York City in June 2011 — you remember that, right? It was the time you refused to shake my hand and instead jabbed me in the chest in front of dozens of people — I’m happy to engage in a rational discussion with anyone who’s interested.

The problem is, you’ve shown repeatedly you have zero interest in rational discussions — or facts or reality, for that matter.

One out of myriad examples of this is your insistence that I was somehow involved at removing you from a PRIM&R conference in 2011. To review the situation: I couldn’t make the conference because my daughter had been born, prematurely, the previous day. In an effort to fulfill my obligations, I Skyped into the conference from an empty hospital room to give two talks — one to the entire conference and one to PRIM&R members at an invitation-only reception. For whatever reason, you decided to crash the invitation-only reception. At that point, my connection was so poor that I couldn’t even get a video link at and was limited to audio — and even that kept cutting out. During the Q&A period, you stood up and began a long, rambling, accusatory “question.” In the middle of it, my connection cut out yet again. By the time I was able to patch back in, the conference organizers had asked you to leave. The *first thing* I said when my audio was back on was that I wished they hadn’t done that because my preference is always to let hecklers hanghoist themselves on their own ridiculous petards.

Now, let’s look at how that played out:

I’m giving an audio-only talk via Skype from a hospital room in Boston.
You launch into one of your monologues.
My audio cuts out momentarily.
You’re asked to leave.

I’m giving an audio-only talk via Skype from a hospital room in Boston.
You launched into one of your monologues.
Despite my never having asked you to leave a talk that I was physically present at, I panic when I hear your voice in a room 400 miles away.
I hang up my Skype connection.
I track down the cell phone number of someone in the luncheon.
I call that person and tell him/her I won’t come back on the line until you’ve been removed.
I also tell the person to claim that the decision to ask you to leave hadn’t come from me.
This person agrees.
I re-start my connection.
In an effort to cover my tracks, I make up a story about my connection cutting out.
In a further effort to cover my tracks, I say I wish you’d been allowed to stay.

That’s a sad, paranoid, through-the-looking-glass explanation for a very simple chain of events — but you’re so convinced that it’s true that you’ve been talking about it for the past 19 months.

So you see, the reason I don’t respond to your “questions” is because I don’t know how to engage with someone whose entire worldview is based on some kind of anti-Occam’s razor. Let’s call it Crosby’s labyrinth: Factual, verifiable, and straightforward explanations should always be jettisoned in favor of ones requiring fantastical flights of fancy and massive, multi-layered conspiracies. Just for fun, let’s look at another of your favorites: Your top-notch investigative work into why I wrote The Panic Virus.

I became interested in a topic.
I researched it.
I wrote about it.

My uncle is a Harvard Law School professor who specializes in negotiation and mediation.
The Washington-based mother-in-law of the founder of the Autism Science Foundation, which supports science-based medicine and opposes vaccine conspiracy theories has, at various times, taught mediation workshops at HLS.
One of the mother-in-law’s colleagues serves on the board of the Autism Science Foundation.
In a shocking coincidence, my uncle (whose entire career has focused on negotiation and mediation) and the mother-in-law (who founded the Center for Dispute Settlement) have both served on the board of the Consensus Building Institute.
The mother-in-law and her colleague have looked into the backgrounds of everyone they’ve ever worked with, served on a board with, or had professional dealings with in an effort to find someone with a relative who will write propaganda for them.
They learn that my uncle has a nephew who is a journalist.
They explain their scheme to him.
He thinks that’s a brilliant idea.
He approaches me.
I decide to risk my professional reputation by signing up to write a book supporting a worldwide conspiracy of governments, doctors, scientists, public health officials, and, apparently, my uncle and two people he’s crossed paths with over the years.

That is stone-cold insane.

Finally, in regards to the Harvard Stem Cell Institute’s “Does the public believe in science?” forum you’re referring to your comment, I didn’t say that one or another of your questions contained “insignificant minutia” and was “devoid of facts.” As I suspect you know — although it’s possible that you’ve so completely embraced your alternative reality that you’ve lost the ability to actually hear what people are saying to you — I said your entire M.O. was to harp on insignificant minutia and, when that didn’t work, trot out one or another argument that was devoid of facts. It’s a sad, sorry rabbit hole you live in — and I have no interest in spending any time there.

Addendum, July 29, 2013: Crosby’s latest bit of alter-reality fantasizing has to do with our first encounter, at the World Science Festival in 2011. Here’s what actually happened: When Jake approached me, I stuck out my hand, which he refused to shake. I said I thought it was sad that he was so obsessed with vaccine conspiracy theories that he couldn’t bring himself to agree with me that there needed to be better services provided for people and families dealing with autism. He walked away. Then he came back to make a final point about his “proof” that I was on the take — and when he came back, he marched over and jabbed me in the chest.

Now, Jake’s fevered imagination has produced another blog post — this one titled, “Seth Mnookin Claims My Handshake Was Jab in His Chest.” On one level, it’s the most perfect distillation yet of his approach to the world: Take something that happened in full view of a room full of people. Flip it on its head. Hope that by repeating the Crosby-world version of events enough times, someone, somewhere will believe that what he’s saying is true.

At this point, Jake’s story is more sad that anything else. He was goaded into penning outrageous, paranoid screeds by the vaccine-advocates-are-cannibals crowd at Age of Autism. When Crosby’s paranoia reached its natural conclusion — assuming that Age of Autism itself was part of the conspiracyAoA kicked him to the curb. Now he’s wandering in the wilderness, hoping that by including my name in the titles to his posts, someone will notice him throwing a tantrum in the corner.

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19 Responses to Crosby’s labyrinth, or why I couldn’t stop myself from replying to the vaccine conspiracy theorist to end all conspiracy theorists.

  1. Tj says:

    Well said, Seth. The workings of the Anti-vacc lunatic fringe are tragi-comic like a Shakespeare play but infinitely less entertaining and infinitely more dangerous to public health. *sigh*

  2. Todd W. says:

    Nice writing, Seth. I like that term, Crosby’s Labyrinth. Will have to make it stick.

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  4. lilady says:

    Poor Jake. Prior to his going rogue and turning on his handlers at AoA., each and every one of his “six-sixty-six hundred degrees of separation” and stalking exploits blogs, were welcome additions to AoA.

    You should have revealed your conflicts of interest, Seth. :-)

    And Jake, should have revealed his less-than-six-degrees-of-separation from Kevin Bacon. :-)

    Jake’s maternal uncle is Alex Cranberg who was appointed by Governor Perry as a Regent for the University of Texas:

    *Kevin Bacon is an adjunct professor at the University of Texas-Austin, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs:

    *Someone* should have been hitting the books and preparing his thesis for his MPH-Epidemiology degree at GWU, rather than cyberstalking and physically stalking the subjects of his blogs.

    *Wrong Kevin Bacon?

  5. Pedantic Pete says:

    I’ve nothing to add to the loon defenestration, but I do have a quibble with the language:

    “…let hecklers hang themselves on their own ridiculous petards.”

    This is a common and understandable error, but my understanding is that a petard is a kind of explosive, and I don’t think you can hang yourself from it. To be hoist with one’s own petard, basically means to be lifted (i.e., blown up) by your own bomb.


    Thanks — glad you pointed it out. It’s now fixed.
    – Seth

  6. David Gorski says:

    Having now met Jake in person myself, I can now say that your description rings true to me. However, I can’t help but remember the more sinister side of his stalking. As a result of Jake’s accusation in 2010 that I had an undisclosed conflict of interest (I didn’t), a campaign by antivaccine loons was started to complain to the Board of Governors at my university about me and thereby try to get me fired from my academic job.

    Such are the “fruits” of Jake’s activities.

  7. mike7367 says:

    I really do think the anti-vaccine crowd is only loud and powerful if you look for it. What I mean is, I ask my friends and family members about it and most of them answer “what? There is a conspiracy theory about vaccines?”

    Now, I am an epidemiologist so I have an interest in all this stuff, but these people I am asking are not dumb people, they are university educated folks. So that is my saving grace when I get angry at the lying, bottom-feeding anti-vaccers: maybe most people just don’t really care about them.

  8. lilady says:

    But we do care about the impact these anti-vaxxers and their organizations have on immunization rates, the scare tactics they employ to scare parents off vaccinating their children…and the resulting cases, clusters and outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

    What I personally find as very disturbing, is not the misunderstanding of their impact by well-educated, highly intelligent friends (the civilians), it is the hands-off/live and let live/what’s the harm approach of doctors toward the so-called “celebrity doctors”, who dispense advice to their patients and through their TV appearances, through their articles in mothering magazines and through their books, about vaccines.

    Dr. Val Jones described these enabling doctors as “shruggies”.

  9. mike7367 says:

    @lilady said “But we do care about the impact these anti-vaxxers and their organizations have on immunization rates, the scare tactics they employ to scare parents off vaccinating their children…and the resulting cases, clusters and outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.”

    Totally agree. Maybe I’m the ignorant one who thinks that they aren’t that successful is convincing the world of their lies. I’m at the age now (early 30s) where me and most of my friends are having kids and all of us had our kids vaccinated, didn’t even think twice.

    I think what is most frustrating to me is when the anti-vaccers are shown concrete, scientific studies against their claims and they just dismiss them out of hand, claiming they are part of the conspiracy. Then they send a link to or prison planet as there rebuttal. Sigh.

  10. mike7367 says:


  11. John Stone says:

    It is appalling that a serious scientific publisher would give houseroom to such a column, which has nothing to do with scientific argument. I have had one or two disagreements with Jake but I don’t believe that he jabbed you “in front of witnesses”, and why mention it now instead of taking action at the time? A slight matter of character assassination aside it is a non-sequitur and ad hominem.

    Whatever, Jake made a material point about how the Institute of Medicine selected its evidence – he did not even get into how they pre-arranged it (IOM closed meeting 12 Jan 2001) –

    before we also note the fundamental problem that IOM preferred highly flawed statistical analysis to case studies of injured children (some of whom have received awards quietly from the VICP as they admitted to Sharyl Attkisson).

    “The government has never compensated, nor has it ever been ordered to compensate, any case based on a determination that autism was actually caused by vaccines. We have compensated cases in which children exhibited an encephalopathy, or general brain disease. Encephalopathy may be accompanied by a medical progression of an array of symptoms including autistic behavior, autism, or seizures.”

    An identical statement was given to David Kirby, reported in Huffington Post.

    What we are really dealing with here is journalist led science. Anyone who steps out of line has to be taken out: Wakefield, McCarthy, Crosby…If I may say so it seems me that with all the hatchet work across the media on Jenny McCarthy the real issue is that she is a parent who stood up and called a spade a spade. And the things that she described happen: they’ve even been compensated on the quiet.

    • Johnny John, you do such a great job assassinating characters. It’s amazing to me that you don’t recognize Jake’s character assassination as such. Let me guess. He’s on your side (the anti-vaccine side), so he can do no wrong. Am I right?

  12. mike7367 says:

    I can’t believe some people come on to these sites and defend people like Wakefield and McCarthy. Let’s clear a few things up:

    Wakefield was stripped of his license because he injected his own opinion into a paper and said vaccines may cause autism. Have you read his paper? If you haven’t, this is what the conclusion says:

    “We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described.”

    His evidence showed no association, as he himself wrote in the paper. Then he just added in a line or two about how despite this, he thinks there is a link.

    Jenny McCarthy argued that there was Thermasol in the MMR vaccine….there wasn’t. She also believes her child is a crystal child (or something like that) – a higher level on the evolutionary ladder than the rest of us.

    Families get compensated if their child is the one in a million who had a predisposition to something in a vaccine and suffers Encephalopathy. Not if they get Autism.

  13. lilady says:

    Mr. Stone: Why are you still dwelling on that IOM meeting at the Simpsonwood Conference Center? You are aware, aren’t you, that the article that Robert F. Kennedy wrote for Salon. com was retracted, after Seth Mnookin analyzed Kennedy’s article and found it redolent with false facts? Just in case you haven’t read’s retraction and scathing rebuke of Mr. Kennedy, here it is…

    Sunday Jan 16, 2011 01:01 PM EDT
    Correcting our record
    We’ve removed an explosive 2005 report by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. about autism and vaccines. Here’s why

    By Kerry Lauerman

    “In 2005, Salon published online an exclusive story by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that offered an explosive premise: that the mercury-based thimerosal compound present in vaccines until 2001 was dangerous, and that he was “convinced that the link between thimerosal and the epidemic of childhood neurological disorders is real.”

    The piece was co-published with Rolling Stone magazine — they fact-checked it and published it in print; we posted it online. In the days after running “Deadly Immunity,” we amended the story with five corrections (which can still be found logged here) that went far in undermining Kennedy’s exposé. At the time, we felt that correcting the piece — and keeping it on the site, in the spirit of transparency — was the best way to operate. But subsequent critics, including most recently, Seth Mnookin in his book “The Panic Virus,” further eroded any faith we had in the story’s value. We’ve grown to believe the best reader service is to delete the piece entirely.”

    During November, 2012 Congress held an autism hearing, which was supposed to address the unmet needs of the autism community. Thanks to an interview, between your Media Director Anne Dachel and Brian Hooker that appeared in AoA, we were made aware of the wining and dining of the members of that Congressional committee and their wives, multiple times, by Mr. Hooker and the disgraced and discredited former medical doctor Andrew Wakefield, to change the “agenda” of that sham Congressional hearing. These same Congressmen appeared at McCarthy’s Autism One/Generation Rescue Conference, held May, 2013…after some generous contributions were made to the Congressmen’s PACs and or reelection committees.

    Mr. Kennedy also was a keynote speaker at that Conference and informed his audience that he has an entire book set to be published that purportedly exposes the dangers of Thimerosal that were deliberately hidden by the CDC and others in government. According to Jake Crosby and your colleagues at AoA, Kennedy threatened to publish his new book “at the end of this summer”, if Congress did not set up a series of investigative hearings. We in the science community have waiting patiently for Autism One to put the video up on their websites, where Kennedy made those statements and made that threat “to publish his book”.

    According to Jake, Kennedy invested $100,000 to researchers to prepare the manuscript and has invested another $100,000 for editing/publishing costs. Jake is “concerned” that Mr. Kennedy has squashed his book and believes that Mr. Kennedy has backed away from his allegations of science fraud by the CDC and government employees.

    Please let Jake know, that I for one, agree with him that Kennedy should publish his book, so that we all can evaluate the content of Kennedy’s book for accuracy and review.

    P.S. IMO, you are playing a dangerous game with Jake Crosby, who has scads of information on you and on AoA, that you might find embarrassing to see published on Jake’s blog or Bolen’s blog.

  14. Mary Davis says:

    My son 1 1 /2 after receiving mmr vaccine still had it in his intestinal wall. Have a note from that doctor that he never has to have a booster. Something is seriously wrong with this picture. Seth I hope you are right

  15. lilady says:

    I think there is “something wrong with the picture”, that you commented on.

    Why would a doctor test for the measles vaccine strain in your child’s intestinal wall, when simple blood tests are recommended to test for measles, mumps and rubella immunity after vaccination with the MMR vaccine?

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