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Enablers of the vaccine-autism manufactroversy

I realize that this week in practically every new post I’ve been mentioning TAM7. It hasn’t exactly been intentional, believe it or not, at least aside from my recap a on Tuesday and my request for photos from those of you who attended. Oddly enough, although I mentioned how proud I was to be part of the Anti-Anti-Vax Panel discussion, where I joined Joe Albietz, Steve Novella, Mike Goudeau (skeptic, juggler, entertainer, producer, and writer who has an autistic child), Harriet Hall, and Derek Bartholomaus, I didn’t really discuss some of the thoughts that the panel’s discussion inspired in me.

One of the issues that came up over which there was somewhat of a disagreement is exactly how to deal with prominent antivaccine activists, people such as Jenny McCarthy. The majority opinion seemed to be that being too blunt or hurling insults is ineffectual if we want to change their minds. I took a slightly different tack. Yes, we want to persuade people that vaccines are safe and that the claims of the anti-vaccine movement that vaccines are loaded with toxins and cause autism are just not true. Yes, being too free with the insults is not likely to contribute to reaching that end. Yes, we risk being perceived as just as nutty as the anti-vaccine movement we oppose if we become too nasty. On the other hand, I pointed out that there is a profound difference between the two main groups that we need to deal with. First and foremost are those parents who hear the lies of the anti-vaccine movement, are scared, and wonder if there is anything to all this talk of vaccines causing autism. Who can blame them, given the vitriol against vaccines, big pharma, and the government, all coupled with convincing-sounding testimonials about “vaccine injury” that emanate from the anti-vaccine movement? For these parents who have been frightened by this rhetoric, understanding and calm are important. I would never insult such parents for not knowing whether there is anything to the hysterical rhetoric of Generation Rescue, Jenny McCarthy, J. B. Handley, and their ilk. After all, at least two people whom I respect, one of whom is quite likely considerably more scientifically savvy than I am, initially fell for anti-vaccine propaganda and only came back to reason and science after a prolonged flirtation with pseudoscience and quackery. In their cases, great patience can pay great dividends.

In marked contrast, quite frankly, Jenny McCarthy and her ilk have gone so far down the rabbithole of pseudoscience that they are almost certainly beyond redemption. They spew so much misinformation with such enthusiastically burning stupid, and they continue to do it after having been corrected time and time again, having been shown time and time again where they are in error, not just by me but by many, many others. Worse, they are a threat to public health. They really are. Consequently, I do not feel any compunction about letting loose on them with both barrels when they delve into the deepest depths of burningly stupid pseudoscience and advocate rank quackery (for example, chemical castration to “make chelation therapy work better” for autism) that can harm or, as has happened before, even kill autistic children. In these cases, Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them…”

Anti-vax ideas are definitely unintelligible propositions, and they are not distinct.

My little five minute introductory talk for the panel was entitled: “I’m not ‘antivaccine'”:The biggest lie.” What I wish I had said was that whenever you hear anyone preface his or her remarks with, “I’m not anti-vaccine,” it’s 99% likely that what will follow is the most ridiculous anti-vaccine nonsense you can imagine. Whether it’s confirmation bias or selective memory, I don’t know, but it’s a rule of thumb that has never failed me, and that single phrase is about as good of a slam dunk identifying mark of an anti-vaccine loon as I can think of. I don’t necessarily think that it’s necessarily a lie, either. Some anti-vaccine activists appear really to believe that they aren’t ant-vaccine, which is why I provided a handy-dandy list of questions to ask someone who piously proclaims that she is not “anti-vaccine” in order to help the audience identify an anti-vaccinationist:

  • You say you want safer vaccines. OK then, please, define “safe enough. What rate of complications for specific vaccines would be “safe enough”? What rates of various infectious diseases against which these vaccines protect would be acceptable in order to balance the risk-benefit ratios?
  • You castigate vaccines for having “toxins.” …what “toxins” would you remove? Be specific, and provide evidence that these “toxins” actually cause harm at the levels used in vaccines.
  • What specific evidence would it take for you to accept that vaccines are safe relative to the risk of disease and to vaccinate your children and urge your friends to vaccinate theirs?

Suffice it to say that no one has ever given me a specific or coherent answer to any of these three questions.

One topic I wish I had had time to address (or had had the foresight to mention) is enablers of the anti-vaccine movement. These are people who either lack the scientific knowledge and critical thinking skills to see what a load of bollocks anti-vaccine arguments are or are so assiduously dedicated to fence sitting that they have a fence pole permanently lodged in their nether regions. Worse, because the anti-vaccine movement depends upon sowing doubt about the effectiveness and, above all, the safety of vaccines, these fence-sitters by default give aid and succor to the anti-vaccine movement by contributing to the appearance of “reasonable doubts” about vaccines. The reason I bring this up is that I saw a perfect example of enabling the anti-vaccine movement by refusing to take a side in a post by Lisa Jo Rudy of About.com’s Autism Blog. Her post is entitled Is It Possible to be a Vaccine-Autism Moderate?

Before I discuss specific points from Rudy’s post, let me just cut to the chase and tell her the answer to her question. The answer is no. It is not possible to be a vaccine-autism “moderate” any more than it is possible to be a “moderate” regarding creationism versus evolution, homeopathy versus science, the Holocaust versus Holocaust deniers, 9/11 as it happened versus the warped view of “9/11 Truthers.” In other words, in the battle of obvious pseudoscience versus science, “moderate” is nothing more than either the fear of taking a stand or insufficient understanding of the science to realize that one side is science and one side is fairy dust. Being a “moderate” means giving far more credence to pseudoscience than it deserves, and that’s exactly what vaccine-autism “moderates” like Lisa Jo do.

That’s one reason why I refer to Lisa Jo Rudy as an enabler of the anti-vaccine movement. Get a load of how she starts her post:

There seems to be no end in sight to the debate over whether vaccines, in one way or another, actually cause children to become autistic. In fact, over the past three years, the debate has actually intensified, with believers on both sides lining up on opposite sides of “town,” virtual pitchforks and torches in hand.

Note the false equivalence. Lisa Jo has fallen completely for the manufactroversy that is the “debate” over whether vaccines cause autism. (They don’t, at least to a very high degree of certainty based on the best science we have.) A manufactroversy (short for “manufactured controversy) is an intentional campaign to give the appearance of a legitimate scientific controversy when in fact there is none. That vaccines are not associated with autism and vaccination is not correlated with autism is not in dispute among reputable vaccine and autism scientists. It is the anti-vaccine fringe over at Age of Autism, Generation Rescue, Vaccine Liberation, JABS, et al that keep fanning the flames of the manufactorversy, just as creationists try to cast doubt on evolution. Then there are enablers (sometimes called accommodationists) who try to tell us that they are remaining “agnostic” about these issues, just as Lisa Jo does as she explains what a “vaccine moderate” is:

On the one hand, I acknowledge readily that the vast preponderance of science-based evidence makes it highly unlikely that there is a consistent, large-scale direct connection between vaccines and autism. No, I don’t think that kids who begin developing autistic symptoms six months after a vaccination are likely to be vaccine damaged. No, I don’t think that an intolerance to wheat or dairy proves anything relative to vaccines (though of course I think it’s a great idea to take a child with food intolerances off the offending food!). What’s more, I am certain that any risk to the general population from vaccines is less than the risk from a resurgence of diseases like polio and diphtheria.

How nice. How seemingly reasonable. If Lisa Jo had only stopped there, I’d be completely down with her. But she can’t. She’s so pathologically driven to please both sides that she pleases no sides. She also labors under the fallacious belief that, just because she catches flak from both sides, she must be closer to the truth than either side.

She’s wrong, of course, and using a logical fallacy to boot. That’s known as the the “middle ground” fallacy, argument from moderation, the false compromise fallacy, the grey fallacy, or the fallacy of the golden mean, which is exactly the logical fallacy that Lisa Jo plumbs the depths of:

On the other hand… knowing that there are risks and benefits related all medical treatments, and knowing that there are children who are badly injured by vaccines overall, I believe that a very small number of autism-related claims of vaccine injury are probably for real. I suspect it is possible to create safer vaccines, to revisit the vaccine schedule with potential injuries in mind, and to discuss vaccinations intelligently with concerned parents. I can’t understand what stands in the way of a well-conceived study that (at least in theory) shows that unvaccinated children are diagnosed with autism at the same rate as vaccinated children. I’d love to see some research into possible vulnerabilities that could lead to vaccine injuries. And I am baffled by the apparent unwillingness of the medical mainstream to seriously investigate credible anecdotal evidence of vaccine-related regression.

In short, I see reason on all sides of the issue — though I stand squarely in neither camp.

No, not standing in “either camp” does not make you right in matters of clear-cut science. It makes you too wishy-washy to make a decision, especially since I know that you have been corrected on multiple occasions. Indeed, AutismNewsBeat provided a most excellent, autism-related retort to Lisa Jo:

Lisa, is it possible to be a “refrigerator mother” moderate? There is logic on both sides, and no one can prove conclusively that autism is never caused by distant parents. In fact, Bettleheim’s hunch was based largely, if not entirely, on anecdotal evidence and supposition.

Similarly, no one can prove that a very small number of autism-related claims of vaccine injury aren’t for real.

So how can you close the door on Bettleheim’s legacy, while leaving the metaphorical refrigerator door open to the unproven and discredited notion that vaccines cause autism? I’m not seeing the logic.

That’s because there is no logic, only a huge logical fallacy in Lisa Jo’s post. Worse, in the comments, she even admits that the faith-based belief that vaccines cause autism leads parents to subjecting their children to all sorts of quackery. Despite that, she maintains her doggedly neutral stance, even while in essence admitting that there is no science to show that vaccines cause autism.

As skeptics, unfortunately see this sort of behavior all the time for all sorts of pseudoscience. In particular, we see it in the infiltration of quackademic medicine into academic medical centers in the U.S. Physicians, who, unlike Lisa Jo, really should know better, take a relatively neutral stance towards pseudoscience such as homeopathy or acupuncture and pure religious woo like reiki. Like Lisa Jo, they either do not know enough about the science to know that they are pure quackery or they are so open-minded that they’ve allowed their brains to fall out. The result is that pure woo is being “integrated” with science-based medicine.

I think part of the problem is that these “enablers” have far too much faith in the rationality of their fellow human beings. They do not realize just how easy it is for us human beings to be misled by anecdotal evidence, confusing correlation with causation, confirmation bias, regression to the mean, and any of the other numerous pitfalls and biases in human perception and thinking that the scientific method was developed to overcome. We humans are to some extent rational, but to an even larger extent irrational. Scientists understand that this means them, too, and thus understand the necessity of the scientific method, proper controls, proper experimental design, and methodology designed to minimize the effects of these cognitive shortcomings.

In contrast, non-scientists (and even physicians and some scientists) have a hard time believing that a belief that is so passionately held by so many (such as creationism, anti-vaccinationism, or belief in homeopathy, for example) could be completely irrational or not based in science and fact. Consequently, they place far more weight on nonsensical beliefs than they deserve, simply because they have a hard time believing that so many people can hold nonsensical beliefs. In that, they tend to fall for a form of argumentum ad populum coupled with the fallacy of false moderation, concluding that, just because a lot of people believe something very passionately, there must be something to it and, in the process, giving far more weight to pseudoscience and quackery than they deserve. This results in their portraying an ideological controversy as though there is actually a real scientific controversy when there is not. Such is the case with the vaccine-autism manufactroversy, just as it is with creationism-evolution manufactroversy.

In the process, unfortunately, their inability to take a stand for science prevents them from joining any effort to oppose loons like Jenny McCarthy or turning their seeming reasonableness to the task of convincing parents who may have been frightened by anti-vaccine rhetoric that they need not fear.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

128 replies on “Enablers of the vaccine-autism manufactroversy”

The fence-sitters, the concern trolls, and the shruggies. Yes, they are a significant problem. They don’t promote either side directly, but their very loud posturuing about not holding an opinion really only benefits one side of the “debate” — the anti-vaccine side. The anti-vaxxers will say that this is because vaccine-advocates are of a “with us or against us” mentality, but that’s not true. The truth is that the anti-vax argument is largely based on sowing doubt about the efficacy of vaccines. Therefore, a person who refuses to form an opinion because of doubts is definitely supporting the anti-vax position, whether they realize it or not.

These are people who either lack the scientific knowledge and critical thinking skills to see what a load of bollocks anti-vaccine arguments are or are so assiduously dedicated to fence sitting that they have a fence pole permanently lodged in their nether regions.

This reminds me of a great song from the Alan Parsons album “Try Anything Once”. The song is “Turn It Up”, and it’s about speaking out when something needs to be said. My favorite bit from the song:

It’s no good you trying to sit on the fence
And hope that the trouble will pass
Because sitting on fences will make you a pain in the ass.

The whole song is excellent.

Lyrics, Audio Clip

The question remains: How do we counteract the Jenny McCarthy nonsense? I don’t think we can completely eradicate the probably neurological tendency toward “belief”. Education in science and logic are the only hope I see and that is long term even if the will was there to institute a rigid program. Our devotion to religious freedom will always interfere with attempts to educate.

Terrific post and it’s particularly good to see an American use the phrase ‘load of bollocks’ confidently and in an appropriate context.

One of the more encouraging findings of the Pew/AAAS survey last week was that 69% of the public support mandatory childhood vaccinations

http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/528.pdf

Of course there will also be a lot of people who think that vaccines are a good thing but are against making them mandatory, a postition popular with those who favour a small state. The Pew survey result indicates that despite all the anti-vaccination propaganda of the past few years and the easy ride and in some cases support that anti-vaccinationists have been given by some sections of the media there is still overwhelming public support for childhood vaccination.

This is something that must be remembered by those engaged in the debate. There is no need to pander to the anti-vaccination position, since that can only serve to raise more doubts than it eases.

While I certainly don’t think scientists should get angry or shouty when dealing with anti-vaccination campigners, the contrast between their aggressive and rude behavior and the scientists likable and reasonable behavior is not an asset that should be thrown away lightly, I don’t think scientists should hold back from pointing out just how foolish and dangerous they are.

Of course there will also be a lot of people who think that vaccines are a good thing but are against making them mandatory, a postition popular with those who favour a small state.

Indeed, I actually oppose mandatory vaccination, except conceivably in the case where an epidemic were imminent.

However, there is a middle ground here that I think is quite reasonable: Entirely eliminate the religious exemption for kids attending public schools. Want to forgo vaccination? Fine, but don’t bring your kids ’round here! And of course I would hope there would be strong pressure on private schools to adopt a similar policy.

Anecdotally, it is my impression that the difficulty of getting the religious exemption and/or finding alternative schooling already results in a significant number of parents who have been (understandably) affected by the anti-vaxers scare tactics, to just give in and vaccinate anyway. If the religious exemption weren’t even an option, that would mean that the only parents who would avoid vaccination would be the ones who were so hardcore they were willing to homeschool — and those people aren’t reachable anyway.

I’ve never understood religious exemptions anyway. So, the only way we’ll let you get out of the draft/forgo vaccination/take peyote/etc. is if you admit you have absolutely no rational reasoning for your decision? Um, okay… In the case of the draft, it’s particularly messed up that people who chose to be pacifist for secular ethical reasons got less leeway than people who chose to be pacifist because their mythology told them so.

Parents have *empathy* with the Jen-creature-maybe a way to counter this (a parallel to educating parents of people with SMI)is to find well-educated(or professional) *parents* or family members of children with autism(or their writing).This way, it’s not just some *cold scentists*(as if that were a *bad* thing),but a *mother*(a father,a sister, etc.)relating their experiences and instructing the public(e.g.read James Laidler,MD of AutismWatch).I also suspect that the whole “education problem” includes not just “lack of”,but “mistrust of those with it”.

While I certainly don’t think scientists should get angry or shouty when dealing with anti-vaccination campigners, the contrast between their aggressive and rude behavior and the scientists likable and reasonable behavior is not an asset that should be thrown away lightly, I don’t think scientists should hold back from pointing out just how foolish and dangerous they are.

Actually scientists, and others, should be angry. If a person is not angered that anti-scientific luncacy is putting lives at risk then what will make them angry ?

I’m not anti-vaccine.

In fact, I’m pro-vaccine. I just wanted to mess with Orac’s 99% statistic.

Hi Matt, perhaps I didn’t phrase my point very well. There’s nothing wrong with being angry at what anti-vaccionationists say, it’s one of my usual responses, and anger is a very good motivator! What I had in mind was more giving in to the anger and therefor appearing aggressive and unreasonable in interviews etc.

Hi Matt, perhaps I didn’t phrase my point very well. There’s nothing wrong with being angry at what anti-vaccionationists say, it’s one of my usual responses, and anger is a very good motivator! What I had in mind was more giving in to the anger and therefor appearing aggressive and unreasonable in interviews etc.

Fair point, although I think a bit of passion can help. Ranting during an interview will not be effective, but being controlled whilst hinting at anger under the surface might not be a bad thing. Especially if you are discussing the damage measles ,and other diseases for which there are vaccines, can do.

Then there are also the genuinely grass-roots movements of “concerned moms” who buy the quackery wholeheartedly (personality cult of Drs. Wakefield and Moulden, anyone?) and pass it on with enthusiasm to their peers; and worse yet, many “researchers” (as they bill themselves) who apparently have no training and no basic understanding of science whatsoever, but write as if they consider themselves professionals, and sell themselves to the rest of the scientifically illiterate public that way. Like this one: http://iconicwoman.com/topics/vaccination-policy/ .

These are people that share the public mistrust of government, and the new conspiracy bogeyman “Big Pharma”, and are “ordinary soccer moms” so that, like Palin, people identify with them whether or not that is deserved. It’s like Jenny McCarthy, but closer to people’s hearts. How do you counter that? The pro-evidence-based-medicine crowd doesn’t seem to be as good at the sympathy/empathy/”I’m just like you”/heartfelt outrage thing that works in a country which glorifies emotion over reason.

Then there are also the genuinely grass-roots movements of “concerned moms” who buy the quackery wholeheartedly (personality cult of Drs. Wakefield and Moulden, anyone?) and pass it on with enthusiasm to their peers… It’s like Jenny McCarthy, but closer to people’s hearts. How do you counter that?

Well, one possible answer is an equally grass-roots movement working at the very same peer-based level to spread the truth. But as I can personally attest, it is no picnic…

BTW, the “personality cult of Dr. Wakefield” was something I wasn’t prepared for. I thought he had been thoroughly discredited… but I guess the fact that he is apparently “sooooo good-looking” makes up for all that??

Man, anti-vaxers are confusing.

@Denice Walter,

I suppose that I and our band of merry woo-fighters fit the bill quite nicely for what you are calling for. I have three children on the spectrum and teach psychology and English part time for a community college. I write Countering Age of Autism and Detritus, sister blogs that focus on outing the most egregious of the articles and comments found concerning autism and vaccination and promoting more positive pieces on parenting children with autism. In addition, I co-run Raising Autism (www.raisingautism.co.nr/) and Countering AoA, a facebook group with a band of four other mothers of children with autism. We welcome any and all to our woo-free autism groups. And to our many blogs (each woman has at least one blog of her own). I hope you will check us out and join us in our fight against the woo, the anger, the bitterness and our attempts to redirect attention to positive perspectives of and more adaptive coping skills with the very real difficulties that helping our children with autism often entail.

@James Sweet:

Wakefield discredited? Not in Austin, TX! He runs “Thoughtful House” for “treatment” of autistic kids there (not sure whether he bothered getting a TX medical license, but nobody bothers him about it, apparently), and he has quite the local fan following of people who feel that he is the classic Brave Maverick Doctor ™ who genuinely has the best interest of children at heart and who is being unfairly persecuted by the Evil General Medical Council of the UK. That is how he sells himself, and it gets bought wholesale — certainly at least in part because of the widespread paranoia about government and Pharma conspiracies.

The July 10 issue of Science has an article about two resignations from the board of Autism Speaks over the organization’s support and advocacy of research into an autism-vaccination link. It is worth noting that Autism Speaks is a group that funds a great deal of worthwhile legitimate research into autism, but the board members who resigned, Eric London and Alison Singer, were concerned about the potential harm from giving apparent legitimacy to parental fears regarding autism and vaccination.

Many medical practices collectively purchase services that they cannot afford in-house full time. Payroll is one obvious example.

Would it be feasible to offer vaccine educational services to many practices in a geographic area where science is presented and woo debunked? Physicians could purchase shares in the service and sign up patients with young children or are expecting (as part of pre-natal care). The service would present maybe once or twice a month in different venues and present, answer questions, etc.

With the blog history stored here at Orac alone, a presentation could be built which presents all the studies, science and facts while spotlighting the woo, danger and lies.

The problem with manufactroversies (love that term) that involve kids is that if you’re a childless person who gets off the fence and onto the side of science, you always – ALWAYS – get hit with the argument, “Well, you don’t have kids, so clearly you don’t understand how important this is/don’t have that protective urge/don’t like kids so you aren’t willing to protect them.” And so forth. It’s an utterly baseless claim that, like false charges of racism and sexism, are intended to stop people like me in our tracks.

I don’t usually let parents get away with this. But I can’t help but notice that they always use it, and so I’m wondering how many fence-sitters out there have no kids and are not willing to deal with the crap they get when they posit that vaccines do not cause autism, child molesters are not waiting around every corner, etc.

When I was a teenager, I was one of those people sympathetic to the anti-vaccer’s arguments myself.

I was very concerned about the environment (I was in high school at the time of the Exxon Valdez accident), and I had developed a mistrust of the scientific community – not because I didn’t think science worked, but because I knew that science had been put to use for what I considered “evil purposes” – things like the Occidental Chemical accident in Bhopal, the unintended consequences of DDT, the monoculture farming and loss of genetic diversity in foods enabled by “evil big corporations” like Monsanto. So, I did believe that science worked, but I was concerned about what happened when science and Big Business worked together. If some scientists who worked for the tobacco companies had lied for years about the safety of tobacco, then why wouldn’t it be possible for other scientists to be lying about the safety of vaccinations? It seemed reasonable to me. At the age of eighteen, I was thinking that if I ever had children, I might not get them vaccinated.

Then I went to college. And while I was in college, I took some tremendously wonderful science classes for non-science majors to fulfill my graduation requirements. The class I’m thinking of specifically here is a class on environmental science. What made the class remarkable for me is that my instructor spent a lot of time teaching her students how to think about the natural world with a scientific eye in addition to thinking about it with a sense of wonder. So, I learned to think about natural systems with a “cost-benefit” sort of approach; DDT may have done horrible things to the raptor population, but if a certain area had a severe problem with mosquito-borne illnesses, that harm to raptors might still be the best possible choice out of all the possible choices. Monoculture farming might indeed be harmful to plant genetic diversity – but it might also be the best possible way to limit human malnutrition around the world. I am not saying that I now think DDT or monoculture farming are wonderful things, mind you; I’m saying that this class taught me to stop thinking about science in terms of good versus evil and wicked conspiracy theories, and to start thinking of science – and human use of science – in terms of choices that have to be made in the real world, where everything is a trade-off and everything we do has both good and bad effects, whether we like it or not.

The class also taught me that scientists can have just as much of a love for the natural world as anybody else – my instructor was an avid cyclist, and would pepper her lectures with little anecdotes about various things she’d seen while riding her bike outdoors, which I also loved.

How does that all end up converging on vaccines? Well, it affected my views in two ways: first, it made me finally realize that even if vaccines ARE “harmful”, they might STILL be a better choice than the alternative (don’t worry; I no longer even think that there’s any possible significant harm to worry about with vaccines), and second, that while some scientists might be evil, greedy, corporate shills, there’s no way that ALL scientists could be evil, greedy, corporate shills. I knew for a fact that my instructor was a scientist, and there was nothing “evil” at all about her – she even shared some of my environmental concerns. So not only were all scientists not evil, but the “non-evil” scientists were probably the only people who could help the rest of us take action against the “evil” scientists. If some Union Carbide scientist was lying about the safety of his company’s pesticide, there’s no way that I would know enough about chemistry to be able to catch his lies….but another chemist certainly would.

So, thanks to the work of a few skillful, patient science educators, I managed to develop a much more balanced, reasonable view of the benefits and dangers of all aspects of scientific work. However, I will say that I think the only reason such education was effective with me is that I began my studies already committed to a naturalistic, evidenced-based outlook on the world. Because I had an outlook on the world that said that evidence matters, I was inherently amenable to rational argumentation on things like vaccination. I think that having a positive attitude toward evidence-based argumentation is the thing that makes the difference between people whom you will (eventually) be able to persuade about vaccines and those whom you won’t. People who have a religious or mystical sort of outlook on the world may not ever be convinced, because they may not really have a commitment to the idea that evidence makes a persuasive argument.

Sorry this turned out to be so long. It’s just that helping laypersons to make sense of science is one of my pet interests.

But I can’t help but notice that they always use it, and so I’m wondering how many fence-sitters out there have no kids and are not willing to deal with the crap they get when they posit that vaccines do not cause autism, child molesters are not waiting around every corner, etc.

Maybe. Another possibility is that folks with no kids aren’t motivated to actually find out who is telling the truth, and end up as fence-sitters.

That was definitely the case with me. Before I had a son, I had heard a fair bit about the vaccine-autism “controversy” just from being a news junkie, but I hadn’t really looked into any of it. What little I got from mainstream so-called “science journalism” led me to basically adopt a stance of: Well, I’m certain the benefits of vaccines outweigh the costs, and some of the folks pushing this are a bit fishy… but who knows, maybe there is something to the link after all?

In fact, my fence-sitting stance didn’t even change immediately when I had a son. What finally changed it was after my wife had gotten scared by some anti-vax propaganda and wanted to use a delayed vaccination schedule. At first I basically shrugged and said, “As long as he eventually gets all his shots, I’m supportive of what you want to do.” My wife wouldn’t accept this, though, and pressured me to help her come up with a schedule that made sense — and as soon as I caved in and started educating myself on the subject, I became adamantly against delaying the vaccines at all. heh…

Great post Jillian! It was almost a tl;dr for me, but I’m glad I read the whole thing. I especially appreciated this:

I am not saying that I now think DDT or monoculture farming are wonderful things, mind you; I’m saying that this class taught me to stop thinking about science in terms of good versus evil and wicked conspiracy theories, and to start thinking of science – and human use of science – in terms of choices that have to be made in the real world, where everything is a trade-off and everything we do has both good and bad effects, whether we like it or not.

Bingo. People forget, for example, that Orac has harshly criticized pharmaceutical companies on his blog as well. There isn’t a “good team” and a “bad team”, except maybe in the dichotomy between those who are committed to evidence and those who aren’t. As far as “natural” vs. “artificial”, or “grassroots” vs. “corporate”, or whatever, one is not inherently better than the other. These choices do not exist in a vacuum.

Hi,

Lets get this right.

Most so called “antivaxers” are not anti-vaccine but against organomercury vaccines which may now be subjecting more babies than ever to mercury with the rising number of vaccines eg flu for the pregnant mother.

My three or so vaccines were fine for me (including smallpox vaccines) and the 60 plus now is insane. There are 3 500 000 illnesses, so we have to choose.

Giving 6 vaccines for one illness is not only insane but against the proven science of anaphylaxis.

Also for the record Jenny McCarthy only came into this war thanks to her belief in vaccinating to the current USA regulations.

Lisa Jo is not on any side and certainly is not always right but then no one is.

Who knows where autism comes from? I know of many recognised ways that it can be induced and lead is a metal less powerfully affecting the brain than mercury. Rubella virus is another way babies get autism and yet all babies get rubella vaccine of which one blog claimed significant numbers get the live virus but can’t produce antibodies.

This is not good news.

Finally soon, maybe next month I take it all you will get your untested flu vaccines? This is one measly shot and you seem to take joy in forcing 60 plus on a baby that can’t even walk or talk, let alone think of what an organomercury shot might do to them.

Jane Buergermeister has filed criminal charges against Baxter and coincidentally, at the same time and probably not associated has got the sack.

But all power to this new addition to the vaccine wars.

Most so called “antivaxers” are not anti-vaccine but

Q. E. D.

It’s sixty vaccines now? I thought you guys were complaining about thirty-six. Where’d the sixty come from?

And that smallpox vaccine was worth many of the vaccines today. I think in fact it’s even more than all vaccines combined.

Flu shot? If I can afford it. Heck, my sister said she’d get all thirty-six or so vaccines in a row while simultaneously drinking the contents of thirty-six others, provided anti-vaxers would shell out money for it. Since she has Asperger’s, we could even see if it worsened that!

And yet another fact free ramble from John Fryer, where he cannot make up his mind whether it is mercury or part of the MMR vaccine.

This is precious:

Rubella virus is another way babies get autism and yet all babies get rubella vaccine of which one blog claimed significant numbers get the live virus but can’t produce antibodies.

Oh, dear. For one thing the MMR is only given after the child is over a year old, typically around 15 months. Congenital Rubella Syndrome is from getting exposed to rubella while still a fetus.

More bogosity with:

you seem to take joy in forcing 60 plus on a baby that can’t even walk or talk, let alone think of what an organomercury shot might do to them.

What? John Fryer (ex chemist), could you kindly list those 60 vaccines, the form of “organomercury” and how much is in those vaccines?

John Fryer Chemist
That is one big load of bull without citation.

I take it if we wait for the babies to talk, that would work for you? How about all those dead of vaccine preventable illness before they learn to talk? That okay too?

What a maroon.

And yes, already in line for my flu shot.

Hi Jillian

Yes, your long blog or blog response was wonderful.

But do we have to consider things in the way your tutor thinks?

The effect of such trade offs in the long term is catastrophic.

No river in the USA is now fit to fish and eat what you catch.

Organo chlorine pesticides are persistant and are still in the ground today.

Do you ever wonder why we sleep after a meal?

Try eating truly organic food and wonder why we don’t get sleepy.

Organomercury in one flu vaccine evenly diluted can be seen destroying our brain cells.

The trick of removing ethyl mercury from classification with methylmercury to eliminate it as a toxic substance has sadly backfired and the reference levels should be reduced ten fold.

Do we need to have answers?

Those that induce sudden death or autism et al after vaccines should make better products.

The disgraceful race to rush through a new vaccine after the April Fool spin of “fatal” flu to a vaccine by August means there can be no adequate safety testing.

How can we justify 1 million SIDS and currently 12 million neurologically ill children in USA alone by 2009?

You are of course correct about Monsanto but add to that Baxter at least who have been caught out this year sending contaminated vaccines to many countries which picked the bad vaccines up and probably many that are keeping quiet as they did not.

Figures of hundreds of thousands dying from vaccine preventable illness is SPIN.

If numbers did rise, of course people would rush for the vaccines.

No country I know of uses TB vaccines. Why? There is more TB around the world today than ever. It didn’t work.

Did smallpox vaccine bring about the end of smallpox? No. The vaccine use in USA was stopped before it was made extinct. No pandemics of smallpox occurred when it remained in small pockets in countries with no vaccines in USA and many other countries.

Your risk-benefit was then used properly.

Today, economics and benefit work without regard to safety.
The arguments aren’t clear cut either way in any event
But hold to where does SIDS and autism come from?

Until we know EVERYTHING is under suspicion.

And for me vaccines come top as the number one cause.

Why is it vaccines first and not something else?

“Truly organic food?” Who’s eating inorganic food? Mmm. Pebbles. Oh, wait, those are organic too. Mmm. Plutonium.

John Fryer, you are again making stuff up.

Here are some of your claims, provide evidence or go away:

No river in the USA is now fit to fish and eat what you catch.

Love how a resident of the UK can make such a statement about a place he has never been to. So exactly where did the Copper River salmon we paid a premium price come from?

Do you ever wonder why we sleep after a meal?

Who is “we”, and do you actually fall asleep after breakfast?

Organomercury in one flu vaccine evenly diluted can be seen destroying our brain cells.

Please provide a cite showing that any thimerosal in any influenza has any effect on brain cells.

The trick of removing ethyl mercury from classification with methylmercury to eliminate it as a toxic substance has sadly backfired and the reference levels should be reduced ten fold.

You do realize that ethylmercury is completely different from methylmercury, right? One used to be used in vaccines, and the other is contained in fish.

Those that induce sudden death or autism et al after vaccines should make better products.

What evidence do you have that vaccines cause autism or sudden death. Real evidence, a cite from a real medical journal would be required (and by “real” that excludes “Medical Hypothesis” and the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons).

How can we justify 1 million SIDS and currently 12 million neurologically ill children in USA alone by 2009?

Even though I know you just made up these numbers, could you tell us how you came up with those numbers?

According the Wikipedia page of American Demographics about five million babies are born per year. Are you now claiming that close to 20% of babies born in the USA die before they are one year old?

Anyway, here is how I am going to use my two URLs:
Do immunisations reduce the risk for SIDS? A meta-analysis., which says:

Immunisations are associated with a halving of the risk of SIDS. There are biological reasons why this association may be causal, but other factors, such as the healthy vaccinee effect, may be important. Immunisations should be part of the SIDS prevention campaigns.

and Encephalopathy after whole-cell pertussis or measles vaccination: lack of evidence for a causal association in a retrospective case-control study.

No country I know of uses TB vaccines. Why? There is more TB around the world today than ever. It didn’t work.

You need to provide a cite. The TB vaccine was not used in the USA, but is still offered in other countries… and it was not very effective. But you need to provide actual evidence there is more now than a century ago.

Did smallpox vaccine bring about the end of smallpox? No. The vaccine use in USA was stopped before it was made extinct. No pandemics of smallpox occurred when it remained in small pockets in countries with no vaccines in USA and many other countries.

You obviously do not have a clue. Of course it being stopped being used in the 1970s in the USA, after several decades of the last smallpox case in that country.

As has been said before: John Fryer is a liar. He makes stuff up and expects us to believe him.

Has anyone addressed the autism rates in other countries with vaccination programs similar to the USA’s? It seems to me I only hear anti-vax alarmism from the USA and from the UK to a lesser extent (Wakefield’s legacy).

If childhood vaccinations were linked to autism, then we would expect to see higher autism rates in other countries, too. Right? But we don’t. Ergo …

Of course, this line of thinking may be too logical for the anti-vaxers.

Playing with John Fryer the Liar’s numbers:

How can we justify 1 million SIDS and currently 12 million neurologically ill children in USA alone by 2009?

According to Children Characteristics there are 73,357,484 children in the USA. The 12 million number you quote is 16% of the total. Funny how that number matches those children who are one standard deviation away from the mean on either the low or high side: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_deviation

Do you have any real data other than playing with the “half of all children are below normal!” game?

Shorter Wheatdog

thinking may be too logical for the anti-vaxers

The rest of your sentence was superfluous

John,

What you seem to be lacking here is a good perspective on American history. Up until about a hundred years ago or so, the mortality rate from diseases that we can now prevent with vaccines was staggering. Truly staggering. I actually teach history, so this is something I have spent a little bit of time studying. If you want to read something that will chill your blood, find some of the personal accounts of the Progressive volunteer hygiene workers in big cities from the turn of the century. These were people who were offering assistance to the ghetto-trapped poor in urban areas. In their diaries and letters, you’ll find stories about what it was like in the poor parts of Chicago and New York, and the parts of these accounts that always stand out to me is when the Progressives write about the sound of the ghettos. In the summertime, as these hygiene workers went door to door through the tenements, they had to listen to the sounds of thousands of people screaming and sobbing in grief, because every summer, thousands of ghetto children would die of horrible, horrible diseases.

What you need to remember is that if we stop vaccinating children, that sort of prodigious child mortality will return. It won’t return today, or next week, or next month, but within a few years, we will again have to deal with thousands upon thousands of childhood deaths every single year from measles, rubella, pertussis, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, you name it. We can’t really be certain that any of these illnesses has been completed eradicated in the wild – in fact, we know that many of them are definitely still around – and with all the rapid global travel we have today, if there’s some isolated pocket of pertussis or polio in some small corner of Nowhere-istan, then it is an absolute certainty that it will end up here in America. The only question would be when.

Let’s look for a minute at the vaccination question from the sort of cost-benefit viewpoint that I learned in my environmental science class. Lots of people claim that “vaccines cause autism”. Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume for a minute that this is actually true. In order to make some sort of informed decision about what we should now do, we need to know a few more things – namely, we need to know what sort of autism vaccines are causing, and in what percentage of the population vaccines are causing autism.

You may not know this, but autism is now considered a condition with a wide spectrum of presentations. In fact, when I get a student in one of my classes with autism (I’m a public school teacher), his or her special education paperwork will indicate that he/she has an “autism spectrum disorder”. Autism can range from complete disability, where the affected cannot ever really learn to communicate effectively or interact with other people, to really mild, where the affected person just needs careful direction and minimal distraction to be able to function. Last year, I had an ASD student in one of my classes, and he was pretty much fine. As long as I gave him very specific, one on one instructions about how to do his classwork, he did a fabulous job on his work. When he finished his work early, he’d take some of my upper-level textbooks off the shelf and leaf through them, because he liked to look at the pictures. He was completely accepted by his classmates, who treated him like any other student. I never even saw any other students tease him over his physical ASD presentations (he blinked his eyes more than is usual and would sometimes be a little twitchy).

To take a pretty famous example of a parent with an ASD child – just because it’s easier to discuss an example that everyone’s already familiar with – I have seen pictures of Jenny McCarthy hugging her son and walking with him while holding his hand. While I do not mean in any way at all to lessen the difficulties a parent has in raising an ASD child, this visual evidence leads me to conclude that McCarthy’s son does not have one of the more severe, debilitating forms of autism. So, even if the vaccine DID “give” him autism (a statement I don’t believe, but am just discussing for the sake of argument) it seems fair to conclude that vaccinations don’t necessarily give children severe autism.

So, if we are assuming that vaccines give a certain percentage of children a mild autism spectrum disorder, does this mean that we now automatically stop vaccinating children? I’m going to argue that, even if this were true, we would STILL vaccinate children.

If vaccines are giving 5% of children mild autism, this is STILL a better outcome than we would be facing if we didn’t vaccinate children. Because if we didn’t vaccinate children, within the span of a generation, we would be back to childhood mortality rates that we would now consider unacceptably, astronomically high. To put it in its most naked form, if I had to choose between giving your child a mild form of autism or letting my child die, I would choose to give your child autism to save my child’s life. And I’m willing to bet that any parent who is being honest would make the same choice. You would give my child autism to save the life of your own child. It’s as simple as that.

In fact, we have a real-world example that indicates that people are willing to make exactly this sort of choice when placed in this sort of situation. The older form of polio vaccine would cause a mild form of polio in a very small number of children who received the vaccination. The chance of getting polio from the oral vaccine was extremely small – nearly one in a million. I’m willing to bet anything, however, that this statistic provided cold comfort to the parents of that one in a million child who got sick from the vaccine.

So, why on earth did we continue to vaccinate children when we knew for a fact that a certain number of the children we were going to vaccinate would get sick? Simple: the number of children who got sick from the vaccine was orders of magnitude smaller than the number of children who would get sick if we DIDN’T vaccinate. I think that here in the U.S., our government used to maintain a fund that was used to reimburse the families of those who got sick from the vaccine, but I’m not sure of that – I am young enough that polio as a summertime terror never existed in my lifetime.

If the anti-vaccers were making the argument that vaccines caused a serious form of autism in a large number of children – and if that claim were actually true – then it would be time for us as a nation to sit down and critically reevaluate our vaccine policies. Of course, that would also mean we’d have to get used to having tens of thousands of our children die every year. But if all you want to claim is that vaccines may cause milder autism in some children, then it honestly doesn’t even matter whether the claim is true or not, because that claim provides no justification whatsoever for changing our current vaccine policies.

God, I’m longwinded. Many humble apologies for that.

Jillian — we don’t have to find pertussis or diphtheria in Nowhereistan. They’re right here in the USA, still in circulation. Pertussis, diphtheria, tetanus, HIB, pneumococcus, and several other bacterial diseases aren’t going to be eliminated — the bacteria that cause them don’t need us.

We’re just snack food for them, convenient if available.

Also — as long as you’re looking at the 19th century, check out the New York Department of Health records for diphtheria deaths in the birth-to-ten-years ages.

D.C. — yeah, you’re definitely right about that. I’ve talked before to doctors who work at inner-city hospitals, and they’ve told me they get a fair number of children with pertussis in their ERs. The only reason why it doesn’t spread out of those neighborhoods is because the rest of us are vaccinated. I suppose a lot of low-income parents either don’t realize they can get vaccinations for next to nothing at clinics, or they may not know about vaccinations at all. I’ve also heard they see a surprising number of kwashiorkor cases, and I even have a student attending the school where I work who has rickets – and I teach in frigging Miami! But that’s a whole other story.

There was an entire genre of literature aimed at romantic young girls in the nineteenth century where the beautiful but impoverished woman falls in love with the wealthy man of her dreams and plans her wedding, only to be stricken with consumption and wasting away in her beloved’s arms. A little poking around on Wikipedia showed me that there is still an active sanitorium in the U.S.

If you want to live in a densely populated area like the United States and enjoy all the nice things you can get when you live in such an area, then you have to play by the rules that make it possible for us to maintain that population density. Vaccines are a key method for making our current lifestyles possible – along with things like water treatment plants and sewage systems. Anti-vaccers are the equivalent of people refusing to use a toilet and just crapping in a bucket all the time and dumping the bucket out on the street. I don’t care how much animus you may have for the trappings of modern life – your animus does not trump my right to live in the healthiest society possible.

I shouldn’t pile on here, but it’s too tempting for me to resist. Just one of Mr. John Fryer Chemist’s comments:

“The disgraceful race to rush through a new vaccine after the April Fool spin of “fatal” flu to a vaccine by August means there can be no adequate safety testing.”

The use of quotes around the word fatal means…what? That the 263 reported H1N1-related deaths (in the U.S. and its territories so far) are fiction? No doubt Mr. John Fryer Chemist will enlighten us.

“What finally changed it was after my wife had gotten scared by some anti-vax propaganda and wanted to use a delayed vaccination schedule. At first I basically shrugged and said, “As long as he eventually gets all his shots, I’m supportive of what you want to do.” My wife wouldn’t accept this, though, and pressured me to help her come up with a schedule that made sense — and as soon as I caved in and started educating myself on the subject, I became adamantly against delaying the vaccines at all.”

This reminds me of how when I was about 16 or 17, while I understood the evidence supported vaccination, I was getting involved in autistic advocacy, and so found myself both countering anti-vaxxers and talking to them in a way that wouldn’t alienate them – a balance of politics sort of way. So at first, while I understood that there was absolutely no reason to delay vaccinations or spread them out, I would occasionally make a reference to such a thing (as better than not vaccinating) in order to placate people concerned about vaccinations and also the target of my own messages. This was before I realized the risks of spacing out the schedule (namely that babies would be more susceptible to vaccine-preventible diseases), so I realized that just supposing “oh, well if you’re uncomfortable with vaccines, you can space them out” isn’t a good answer, especially since babies are more prone to the worst effects of these diseases. This whole “delaying the vaccines” idea probably gets a lot of people who are nervous about vaccines but not enough to deprive their kids of the immunity to vaccine-preventable diseases, to delay them, since they figure the kids will get them eventually and it would be “the best of both worlds”. No, not when you have been realistically informed about the (unlikely) side effects (that don’t include autism) and the harmful potential of delaying immunity from the diseases.

However one chooses to articulate, it is better that an idea be distinctly conveyed, so that it can be agreed or disagreed with, the points discussed and the evidence examined. Otherwise, when one effective presents an evidence-based viewpoint and an anti-vaccine viewpoint, and says that they are in between, they are not helping to reconcile, but to obfuscate the issue and on the tipping point, the anti-vaccine is what is promoted, even if both perspectives are offered, and presented as both your own.

I am a life-long fence-sitter, one who would always hesitate to take a position because I preferred unity and calmness among everyone, sometimes enough that I would downplay the truth in order to be conciliatory. This is something in myself that I have had to fight and fight hard to become an advocate. Yes, the tact is a good thing to keep, so long as you don’t bend over backwards and drop the evidence and your values to appease everybody (which is never really possible, even among your own community, whether that’s the advocacy community, local community, etc.). The key is to take a stand, have sound reasoning behind it, and to explain it in terms that are as clear and not insulting as you can. There are niches for taking a rougher examination of those unscrupulous woo-sters (such as this blog), though I would never show this blog to my aunt for instance, who’s into a number of woos, but is often receptive to logical reasoning, and I think of her as a generally reasonable person with a few blind spots in areas she doesn’t know about (I think the Internet can help facilitate people’s blind spots, although surely before the Internet they would just go to the local health food store or to a book store, snake oil peddler, or someone handing out pamphlets at a bus stop, in addition to word of mouth – but apparently there’s something called a “brown recluse spider first aid kit” or something that is some herbal goo, and some people in California coast where Loxosceles reclusa doesn’t even have a population, so while in an extremely rare event one in California may be bit by l. reclusa, especially if they had recently moved from a state where it lives, such as Missouri or Texas, there are many times when a necrotic lesion is assumed to be due to a brown recluse, even if they didn’t even see a spider bite them – anyway my aunt apparently saw this on the Internet and mentioned that doctor should have it in the hospital, apparently stemming from the idea that it wouldn’t be accepted due to a prejudice against herbal products or something, which is the main point of my run-on).

“No country I know of uses TB vaccines. Why? There is more TB around the world today than ever. It didn’t work.”

TB immunisation is compulsory in France. You have to have it to place your children in school. Have you heard of France? It’s not the only one either. Ever heard of South Africa.

Just to point out one more lie from our “Chemist” friend. A stupid, pointless, easy to falsify lie.

I wish I could be as absolute and confident in my views as you, Orac — or as the “true believers” in any perspective, from fundamentalist religion to absolute faith in anything labeled “science.”

The truth is, I will never be able to shut the doors as firmly as you do. And I notice that you include in your list of items on which the door is slammed not only “true woo” but also accupuncture, which has been well-documented as a useful tool for pain relief.

My fear is that our culture of science seems to mean “if we science-oriented thinkers all agree, then we have discovered the truth.” But consider the many, many revolutionary breakthroughs that seemed nonsensical to scientific peers until they’d been fully researched.

From radium to penicillin, we’ve found scientific truth in the oddest and least likely places. Sometimes we’ve discovered the truth by absolute accident — and often the discoverers went through hell while trying to prove themselves right. Thomas Kuhn’s History Of Scientific Revolution tells this story very well indeed.

On the specific subject of autism, I think it’s clear that there is no one “autism.” There are, instead, a wide collection of symptoms which, IMHO, are probably caused and treatable by a very wide variety of factors.

It seems clear to me that there is a group of people with “autism-like” behaviors who are also physically ill — most with fairly severe GI symptoms. This group may be small, but that doesn’t make them non-existent (heaven knows their parents speak up!).

I don’t believe that there’s any way you, ANB, or anyone else can claim that they fully understand the etiology of what I would term “autisms.” If we knew, we’d all be in agreement, and could move on. Could some of these autisms be related to vaccines? My guess is that very few are — but I don’t rule out that possibility, especially given that vaccine damage is NOT unheard of by any means.

Meanwhile, a lot of the blog you cite also focuses on the issue that vaccines clearly have rare but dire side effects. I’m not sure why we wouldn’t want to do all we can to lessen or eliminate those side effects, which include outcomes that are far more frightening than, say, Asperger syndrome.

Best,

Lisa Jo Rudy (Autism.about.com)

Lisa Jo Rudy
Acupuncture is NOT proven. Studies point overwhelmingly to a placebo effect. If it makes you feel better and you have the extra cash, go for it.

As for the ‘rare but dire side effects’ of vaccines: Autism is NOT one. No proof anywhere with the exception of liars like Wakefield. The other, rare and real side effects are well worth the risk to prevent the diseases the vaccines were designed for. Should we stop looking to make vaccines even safer? No. But the money fools like Jenny McCarthy have siphoned from real research might have helped in the effort. Instead it is wasted down the woo rabbit hole. Do not kid yourself that a 100% safe anything exists where human diversity is part of the equation. Take you best shot, back the best science and you will come out ahead as a population.

Lisa Jo,

I’ve seldom seen so many straw men argument in a single post. I did, however, expect from you the “fundamentalist” scientist ploy, in which you falsely label confidence in the science thus far as “belief.” Here’s the difference: I will change my mind if someone can show me some science as compelling as all the basic science, epidemiological studies, and clinical data that have failed to find even a whiff of a link between vaccines and autism or thimerosal and autism. The issue has been studied time and time again, and time and time again the answer has been the same. The only exceptions are poorly designed studies carried out by the likes of Mark and David Geier, etc.

Next, my inclusion of acupuncture was quite deliberate. I used to think there might be something to acupuncture, but then I actually read the scientific literature extensively. It is very clear that any effects of acupuncture are placebo effects. Here’s a sampling:

http://respectfulinsolence.com/2008/08/the_largest_randomized_acupuncture_study.php
http://respectfulinsolence.com/2009/05/another_acupuncture_study_misinterpreted.php
http://respectfulinsolence.com/2007/09/yawnanother_acupuncture_study.php
http://respectfulinsolence.com/2008/04/sham_acupuncture_is_better_than_true_acu.php
http://respectfulinsolence.com/2008/12/yet_another_acupuncture_metaanalysis_gar.php
http://respectfulinsolence.com/2009/01/can_we_finally_just_say_that_acupuncture.php
http://respectfulinsolence.com/2008/02/yawn_still_one_more_overhyped_acupunctur.php

No, Lisa Jo. Acupuncture is woo. Just like anti-vaccine lies.

Next, you use the “science was wrong before” argument. This is best refuted by these articles:

http://skeptico.blogs.com/skeptico/2005/11/science_wrong.html
http://www.skeptics.org.uk/article.php?dir=articles&article=science_has_been_wrong_before.php

This is a gambit beloved of anti-vaccine cranks and, indeed, cranks of all stripes. Here’s the problem again: Show me the evidence that science is wrong in this case.

Finally, you use another logical fallacy. Indeed, I liken you to a pyromaniac in a field of straw men, the biggest straw man of which is your claim that I (or ANB) have ever made the claim that we “understand completely” autism and ASDs. We most categorically have not. What we have said is that there is no good evidence to suggest a link between vaccines and autism. That we know to a high degree of certainty what does not cause autism does not in any way imply that we know what does cause autism, nor did we ever make such a claim. In any case, science is always provisional. It can be changed, but changing it requires evidence–evidence the antivaxers do not have.

In other words, your argument rests on multiple logical fallacies (straw men, false dichotomy, and, above all, the classic argument from ignorance, which states that, because we do not know something with absolute certainty we must assume that it is a strong possibility that it is true), not to mention a massive misunderstanding of science. Simply because we cannot ever completely prove a negative, you seem to be arguing that there is still a scientific controversy (that’s the argument from ignorance). The problem is that, while we can never absolutely prove the negative (that vaccines absolutely, positively, never cause autism), we do have sufficient evidence to conclude that vaccines are so incredibly unlikely to be a cause of autism that provisionally it is reasonable to conclude that they do not. You then top that off by the logical fallacy of the golden mean, in which you try to assert that the “right” answer must lie somewhere between the anti-vaccine position and the scientific position that asserts that there is no compelling evidence linking vaccines with autism. Would you try to do the same thing with the Holocaust and Holocaust deniers? I doubt it? 9/11 history versus the 9/11 “Truth” movement? I doubt it. Evolution versus creationism? I doubt it. Yet you do it with the anti-vaccine movement versus science.

The reason most people use the “golden mean,” I suspect, is that assiduous fence-sitting allows them (1) not to commit to a position and (2) (most importantly) to feel “superior” to the “fundamentalists” and paint themselves as being the “rational” ones trying to find a middle ground between two warring factions. All it does in reality is to demonstrate that their critical thinking ability and understanding of science are very deficient. Compromise may often represent the best course in politics, but it is a fallacy to carry it over to matters of science. Moreover, because the tactics of the anti-vaccine movement involve sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD), your fence-sitting and expressing doubts plays into its hands perfectly. By taking the (falsely) seemingly “reasonable” course, you make yourself the perfect tool of the anti-vaccine movement, though you don’t realize it.

If there is another panel about the anti-vaccine movement, I will be using you as exhibit A of enablers of the movement.

@ Jillian; @ DC: Exactly.In Brooklyn,NY is a national historic 19th century cemetary(Green-wood):being rather scenic with romantic era statues and buildings,it gets many tourists. I was taken there as a teenager and was shocked to see the the *ages* of those buried there.Young women, infants, children,young adults.Idea for an anti-anti-vax ad? Actress strolls through,looking at grave stones,she asks:”Why so many children and young people?”

Call me paranoid, but there’s something creepy or altogether too naff about Lisa Jo’s post. It almost reads as some sort of reporter set-up.

Then again, it’s past midnight here in Australia. I may be just annoyed that we are getting trounced in the cricket.

Orac notes the fallacy of the golden mean.

It is human nature to believe in that. Don’t think for a moment that groups like Generation Rescue (and 9/11 truthers and holocaust denialists) don’t understand that quite well.

Generation Rescue’s mission is quite clear: convince as many people as they can that vaccines cause autism. They then use the results of their public relations campaign to say, “well, so many people believe vaccines cause autism, there must be some truth to it.” It is disingenuous and circular.

The fact of the matter is that Geneation Rescue lies. They aren’t after the truth, but after convincing the public.

Lisa, I recently asked you a number of questions on your blog. I didn’t intend those to be rhetorical.

Lisa, can you answer a couple of simple questions?

1) Did thimerosal cause an epidemic of autism?
2) did MMR cause an epidemic of autism?

If you can’t answer those very clear questions with a “no”, you haven’t looked at the data. There is no claiming “there could be validity in either side” to those questions.

My fear is that our culture of science seems to mean “if we science-oriented thinkers all agree, then we have discovered the truth”.

We couldn’t ask for a clearer demonstration of complete lack of understanding of rudimentary science or the scientific method.

While on the surface, this appears to be logicalesque, expressing fear of an argument from popularity, it really applies to people who don’t understand how science works as a methodology, and is therefore a straw man argument. No real scientist claims that because scientists agree that no link (epidemiological or biological) has been demonstrated for autism and vaccines, it is therefore true. That scientists agree, scientifically speaking, is an effect (irrelevant to the science itself), of understanding the data that does not reject the null hypothesis.

If Lisa Jo would learn how to look at the data, as well as understand the data, she might not have to fall back on (and project to others) her own emotional appeal (fear).

Lisa Jo’s background is theology – she earned a masters of divinity from Harvard. Her reluctance to close the door on vaccines reminds me of Pascal’s Wager – that we should be open to God’s existence not because of any putative proof, but because it is the safest bet.

Orac, maybe you’d like to reference some of these studies involving autism and vaccines. You seem to be sharing Paul Offit’s delusion about their having been done

epidemiological studies, and clinical data that have failed to find even a whiff of a link between vaccines and autism. The issue has been studied time and time again

I’m only aware of studies involving the MMR and thimerisol. If I’m not mistaken there are a few other vaccines protecting our vulnerable children from deadly, killer diseases that are only a plane ride away

Lisa Jo states:

My fear is that our culture of science seems to mean “if we science-oriented thinkers all agree, then we have discovered the truth”.

Three problems with this “concern”:

[1] Science is about “fact”, not “truth” – if you want “truth”, study religion. Scientific “facts” are generated by data, not simply made up by “science-oriented thinkers” sitting in armchairs. If the data support a particular hypothesis, model or theory, then it is accepted (by “science-oriented thinkers”) as provisionally valid unless (or until) new data shows it is wrong.

[2] Concensus among “science-oriented thinkers” is irrelevant. Even if 99.9% of “scientists” believe something, all it takes is one person with data to overturn that “belief”. To be sure, it won’t happen overnight and it won’t happen without a number of other people coming up with the same results (anyone can make a mistake), but the success story of science isn’t that it never makes mistakes but that it automatically corrects those mistakes.

[3] Finally, Lisa Jo seems concerned that a consensus of “science-oriented thinkers” might be wrong about a scientific “fact”. Her alternative seems to be a consensus of “non-science-oriented thinkers” – such would be the most accurate description of the “vaccines-cause-autism” movement. How this would be an improvement is left to our imaginations.

Lisa Jo gives equal weight to the scientific opinion of scientists and the non-scientific (one might even say anti-scientific) fears, imaginings and rumors of actors, businessmen and reporters. It is only in fiction (in which category Lisa Jo’s writings belong) that people who are utterly unschooled in a field are able to make “startling discoveries” that the “dogmatic mainstream” have overlooked.

Rather than being “neutral” by giving “both sides of the story” equal weight, Lisa Jo is giving the “vaccines cause autism” side more weight than it is due by this (false) comparison. The vast preponderance of data available today indicate that vaccines do not cause autism. The only “data” suggesting that they do consists of a few discredited (and possibly fabricated) “research studies” and the “narratives” (i.e. anecdotal evidence) of some (not all, by a long shot) parents.

This is not a case of two equally valid “sides” – it is a case of a hypothesis (“vaccines cause autism”) that is clearly dying for lack of supporting data. Attempts to breathe life back into this “dead parrot” hypothesis by claiming that it has the data it lacks are have been futile.

Lisa Jo is taking a slightly different path in trying to revive this hypothesis by claiming that data are irrelevant, that “truth” (I prefer “fact”) is merely a consensus of the beliefs of “the people” and that “science-oriented thinkers” are no better at ascertaining scientific “fact” (“truth”, to her) than any other group. This sort of muddled post-modernistic thinking is typical of the “vaccines cause autism” movement.

If Lisa Jo (or the movement she enables) wish to change the scientific “paradigm” on autism and vaccines, she (or they) should try to generate some actual data – not merely claim that data are irrelevant.

Prometheus

James Sweet @22,

Bingo. People forget, for example, that Orac has harshly criticized pharmaceutical companies on his blog as well. There isn’t a “good team” and a “bad team”, except maybe in the dichotomy between those who are committed to evidence and those who aren’t

Thank you. I think there is a small but definite percentage of amoral people who think nothing of harming others for their own personal agendas and this is where the problem is started, then compounded by the rest of us who do or say nothing.this percentage is everywhere , in and out of corporations, anti and provax, on either side of most arguments;its up to us to call the b.s. on both sides.As for John,yes, France and Mexico use the BCG among several other countries.Uh, no that sleepiness after eating is a well defined medical phenomena associated with changes in blood distribution after stimulating the gut.I don’t have enough room to address the errors in the the rest of the post but, Jeez, read up before you post again will you? And Sid, dear sweet Sid.All you have to do is read over a few of your own posts, here in the last few months to see your contradictions for yourself.I can’t decide whether you have a horrible untyped progressive dementia or are just a pathological liar.

Finally, Lisa Jo seems concerned that a consensus of “science-oriented thinkers” might be wrong about a scientific “fact”. Her alternative seems to be a consensus of “non-science-oriented thinkers” – such would be the most accurate description of the “vaccines-cause-autism” movement. How this would be an improvement is left to our imaginations.

D’oh! How did I forget to address this aspect of Lisa Jo’s sad attempt to equate the “vaccines cause autism” belief system with the science that has utterly failed to find any whiff of a connection? She seems to think that relying on shoddy science, testimonials, and fear would somehow be the equal of relying on science. Another fallacy.

Ah the mystery contradiction gambit. Perhaps you’d like to enlighten me.

Um, it took me a whole 15 seconds on PubMed to find more references than I could copy to studies on the possible side-effects of pertussis vaccines, just as an example, Sid. If you don’t think these exist you cannot possibly have looked.

Most so called “antivaxers” are not anti-vaccine but against organomercury vaccines which may now be subjecting more babies than ever to mercury with the rising number of vaccines eg flu for the pregnant mother.

This is kind of dumb. How could vaccines be exposing “more babies than ever to mercury” when mercury preservatives are no longer used in any infant vaccines?

Giving 6 vaccines for one illness is not only insane but against the proven science of anaphylaxis.

You’ll need to cite where the “proven science” is published that shows that multiple vaccines cause anaphylaxis. You might also want to consider that vaccines in general expose one to no more (and in many cases, much fewer) antigens than the common cold. So if exposure to a lot of antigens were a risk factor for anaphylaxis, there would be a lot of anaphylactic reactions to colds. Have you ever seen one. Note also that anaphylactic reactions are very distinctive (and not associated with autism, by the way). They generally require emergency care, so it is the sort of thing that gets noticed. So where is the evidence for a big increase in anaphylactic reactions?

Who knows where autism comes from?

Nobody knows for sure, but there is strong evidence of a very powerful genetic component.

I know of many recognised ways that it can be induced and lead is a metal less powerfully affecting the brain than mercury.

Yet there have been many documented instances of both lead and mercury poisoning, and in neither case is autism a result.

Rubella virus is another way babies get autism and yet all babies get rubella vaccine of which one blog claimed significant numbers get the live virus but can’t produce antibodies.

Rubella vaccination declined in England following the Wakefield scare, with no effect on the incidence of autism.

Ah the mystery contradiction gambit. Perhaps you’d like to enlighten me.

Uh, read your own posts;no gambit, O Wise One, simply your citing of the studies in prior posts that you now say your’re not aware of.

Not having a degree, or a huge amount of tertiary education, I am not as well versed scientifically as I would like to be. I also feel helpless in the face of such overwhelming publicity given to the anti vaccination mob.

I have read a lot of the literature and references. I sort of understand them, but again, not being especially ‘scientific’, have trouble conveying them into lay-terms.

But I have learned enough to decide that the science is as right as I can tell and the anti vaccination stance just does not add u. I defend vaccination, and have never backed away from intervening when seeing people trying to bullshit others (Mums at school with babies, expecting mums etc).

The other day I was searching (in vain) for a copy of Autism’s False Prophets (for further education), when I happened upon a copy of THAT ^)*&^ing book “Healing and Preventing Autism”. In the health section no less.

I was so bloody mad, I picked it up and hid it in what I thought was the least popular place in the bookshop – the accountancy reference section (apologies to Accountants).

I had thought of complaining to the bookshop, but being a large franchise, why should they care? It’s a book and it sells. The two kids behind the counter were (a) supremely disinterested, and (b) not in a position to do anything about it.

I just wish there was more I could do actively. That being said, I will continue to promote and point people to the relevant blogs and websites in an effort to try and expose ‘seekers’ to the facts, not the fiction.

Orac, you continue to be an inspiration.

@Dr P

Uh, read your own posts;no gambit, O Wise One, simply your citing of the studies in prior posts that you now say your’re not aware of.

You’re speaking gibberish

@Annie: I have an extra copy of AFP (bought one, then won a copy). If you would like it, I’d be happy to send it to you. Send me an email at triskelethecat(at)gmail(dot)com.

Hey, if absence of the causal agent works in homeopathy, why not in vaccination?

On a more serious note, if fetal and infant mercury exposure is implicated in autism, there are more significant mercury pathways for that exposure: studies have found that mercury in the maternal bloodstream passes to the fetus through the placenta, and through breastmilk to infants.

That suggests some testable hypotheses: children in the same whose mothers have higher rates of mercury should have higher rates of ASD, and/or the rate should also vary with the duration of breastfeeding. Assuming there is an effect, it might also shed light on the significance of mercury exposure in utero or post-natal.

george, that type of study has been done. You can try looking it up in PubMed. Look up the Faroe Islands (different kind of mercury compound, but you get the idea).

Back to “What to do with Jenny McCarthy?”: IMO, we slap her down. HARD. No, Lisa Jo, her opinion is NOT worth listening to. Nor is her boyfriend’s. Nor are any other lay-parents, for that matter, although they for the most part aren’t out pretending to be experts. I have, in fact, been very critical of the medical organizations for not taking a strong enough stand against pseudo-experts who are putting our children’s health at risk. My usual line is that in response to any statement made by JM etc, the AAP and/or CDC needs to put out a counter statement like “The current vaccination schedule was created by internationally recognized experts in the areas of children’s health and diseases, and is constantly under evaluation. We do not rely on the advice of washed up nude models nor two-bit comedic actors.”

OTOH, folks like Jay Gordon, Bob Sears, Andrew Wakefield and even JB Handley need to be handled a little more delicately, because one could claim that they are also “health experts.” They are wrong, of course, but they are in a different category.

Notice that even Amanda Peet doesn’t say, “Vaccinate because I say so,” but instead says, “Listen to our doctors.”

“Giving 6 vaccines for one illness is not only insane but against the proven science of anaphylaxis.”

Do you mean prophylaxis?

Do you mean prophylaxis?

No, the original statement was included for shock value.

Wrong again,Sid;read your old posts that cite the SAME articles you say you now have never heard of; I’m not going to do your work for you but take the time or don’t post talking of gibberish.Hint; multiple studies, not just MMR,no evidence of autism.

Can one be a moderate about facts? Can one be a “math moderate”? Can one be a moderate about gravity?

Michael Goudeau had a great response on the panel when asked how we can counter Jenny McCarthy’s popular appeal.
“I’d be glad to show my tits!” Look out, Jenny.

Can one be a moderate about facts? Can one be a “math moderate”? Can one be a moderate about gravity?

Michael Goudeau had a great response on the panel when asked how we can counter Jenny McCarthy’s popular appeal.
“I’d be glad to show my tits!” Look out, Jenny.

I have wondered sometimes if the following sort of approach might make a positive impact on the “fence-sitters”….

Ask them to consider, just for a minute, what if vaccines really did cause some form of autism in some children. Ask them what type of autism they think it might cause (there’s a vast, vast spectrum of autism disorders out there). Ask them how many children vaccines might cause autism in – what percentage of the vaccinated population, in other words.

Then show them mortality statistics for children from the pre-vaccine era. Explain to them that if we stop vaccinating children, it would be reasonable to expect us to revert to something similar to those levels within a couple of generations. Then ask them which would they prefer: to have a grandchild with autism, or to have a grandchild that dies before the age of five? Keep it simple, and let them know that the choice to not vaccinate is the choice to kill somebody’s child.

I’m not a parent, but if I were, I think it would be a fairly easy choice to make if I had to choose between giving YOUR child autism, or letting MY child die. I bet just about every parent out there would make the same choice – sorry your kid has to be autistic, but I don’t want my child dead. And what keeps a choice like that from being somehow selfish is that it is the choice we ALL would have to make if vaccines really did cause autism. Everyone would be sharing equally in that risk every time they had their children vaccinated.

It’s almost as though these anti-vax parents are saying that it’s better to have a dead child than an autistic child, and I don’t think they quite realize this is what they are saying.

The problem is, Jillian, that in fact anti-vaxxers don’t, in fact, risk their own children’s death. They legitimately point out that mortality rates for these diseases are currently really low. And that’s right. BUT it’s because we vaccinate! They take advantage of the herd immunity that we provide for them. Therefore, they count on us to absorb this serious (at least to them) risk, but they get to share the benefits.

Unfortunately, this only works if their numbers are small. When too many start thinking they can sponge off the rest of us, all of sudden the risk goes up for everyone. But they don’t care. For them, the effect on everyone else doesn’t matter. Just a bunch of selfish freeloaders.

Then show them mortality statistics for children from the pre-vaccine era. Explain to them that if we stop vaccinating children, it would be reasonable to expect us to revert to something similar to those levels within a couple of generations.

Confounders? Are you suggesting the environment has not changed and has no effect on the transmission of infectious disease?

sorry your kid has to be autistic, but I don’t want my child dead.

Compassionate.

It’s almost as though these anti-vax parents are saying that it’s better to have a dead child than an autistic child, and I don’t think they quite realize this is what they are saying.

Um, that’s not what I hear them saying. They are saying that the majority (typical, robust children that handle encounters with infectious disease fairly well) vaccinate to protect the minority (immune-compromised, those that don’t seroconvert and the elderly)… among other things.

As a person with no children that has been vaccinated, I don’t understand why others are relying on perfect strangers to protect them or their children from infectious disease. Arguments like herd immunity don’t appear to stand up to scrutiny very well, and there are documented outbreaks of vaccine preventable disease in vaccinated people.

Knocking “fence sitters” with legitimate questions, because there are some, likely won’t go far in swaying them into your camp. Saying stuff like you’re sorry their kid’s autistic, but at least YOURS isn’t dead probably won’t either.

cynical:

Arguments like herd immunity don’t appear to stand up to scrutiny very well, and there are documented outbreaks of vaccine preventable disease in vaccinated people.

The only people who think herd immunity does not stand up to scrutiny because vaccinated people get disease are those who do not understand:

1) basic mathematics
2) basic fact that vaccines are not 100% effective (if you look you will see only the anti-vaxers are claiming that others think vaccines are 100% effective).
3) basic epidemiology

Again I shall post some herd immunity arithmetic:

Take 1000 people (ignoring the infants under 2 months who cannot be vaccinated, or babies under a year who can only be partially vaccinated), if 5% refuse vaccines then the numbers are:

950 vaccinated persons (assuming full schedule)
50 unvaccinated persons

The pertussis vaccine is actually only 80% effective at worse, so the numbers are:

760 protected persons
190 vaccinated but vulnerable persons
50 unvaccinated persons

There is an outbreak and it gets spread to 20% of the population, then:

760 protected persons without pertussis

38 vaccinated persons get pertussis
152 vaccinated person who may still get pertussis

10 unvaccinated persons get pertussis
40 unvaccinated persons who may still get pertussis.

This is how more vaccinated persons get the disease than unvaccinated. Even if the infection rate was at 100%, there would still be more of the vaccinated getting the diseases because there are more of them!

Actually, the question really is not “YOUR child autistic or MY child dead”, the question is genuinely “the [unproven] risk of YOUR child autistic or the [demonstrable]risk of YOUR child dead.”

“cynical” — are you claiming that confounders, such as the general health of the population, hygiene standards, etc. HAVE changed so much since the 60s????

And besides, immune-compromised people often cannot be vaccinated. And, healthy, non-immune-compromised children are still, also, vulnerable to the sequelae of infectious diseases such as measles — for gods sake, all you have to do is look at the deaths and the cases of deafness and brain-damage from encephalitis in religious communities in the Netherlands, non-immunizing populations in Wales, and in the “healthy, wealthy” upper-middle-class suburbs in California where false vaccine scares discouraged vaccinations! A little bit of observation would go a damned long way!

“cynical” — The principle of herd immunity is simple — when there are not enough vulnerable individuals in a population to sustain a population of the disease organism, then you don’t get outbreaks of the disease in those vulnerable populations which remain — and it is basic, logical, and demonstrable. Why on earth do you think it isn’t? Recent outbreaks have happened because we have dipped below the level of herd immunity in recent years because of these false fears of vaccination, and there ARE enough vulnerable individuals in the population to sustain populations of the disease organisms.

This isn’t rocket science — or at least it shouldn’t be.

Knocking “fence sitters” with legitimate questions, because there are some, likely won’t go far in swaying them into your camp. Saying stuff like you’re sorry their kid’s autistic, but at least YOURS isn’t dead probably won’t either.

But it works both ways – if I get my kids vaccinated, and one of them becomes autistic, it would be the price I would have to have paid to keep THEIR child from dying, as well.

Like I pointed out before, the oral polio vaccine is known to cause polio in a small percentage of people who take it. Despite that known risk, America STILL required children to get the polio vaccine. Why? Because fewer people got polio when everyone got vaccinated than the number of cases caused by the polio vaccine itself. Cold comfort if YOUR child is the one who got polio from the vaccine – but while I am sympathetic to the travails of the parent whose child gets polio from the vaccine, I am completely unsympathetic to the parent who thinks it’s okay to spare THEIR child from the risk that the rest of us have to undertake. Living with population densities as high as we have them today is going to inherently entail certain risks. If you’re not willing to do your part to help mitigate them, then please leave.

Of course, this entire discussion is academic, because paper cuts pose bigger health risks than MMR vaccines.

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