J.B. Handley wants to touch Andrew Wakefield’s monkey(s)


J. B. Handley wants to touch see Andrew Wakefield’s monkeys.

How do I know this? Well, there’s just the little matter of his entitling his most recent excretion of flaming stupidity Show me the monkeys! and repeating “Show me the monkeys!” eleven times in the course of his post. My guess is that J.B. was trying to get a vibe going, perhaps like a preacher giving a sermon with cadences leading up to repeating the same phrase over and over again, with the intended effect of getting the audence to repeat the phrase when he says it, with ever more enthusiasm and belief each time the phrase is repeated. Just like Jimmy Swaggart. Or maybe Jeremiah Wright. Or perhaps Benny Hinn. Or any number of other preachers. The two analogies do fit Dear Leader, as the anti-vaccine movement of which he is one of the leaders does have many aspects of a religion–a cult, actually.

Whatever J.B. Handley’s inspiration to use repetition as a stylistic writing choice, perhaps I’d better step back for a moment. Why on earth does J.B. Handley, anti-vaccine propagandist among anti-vaccine propagandist and founder of Generation Rescue, the group that has arguably supplanted the National Vaccine Information Center as the premier anti-vaccine propaganda group in the United States, thanks to the conversion of spokescelebrity Jenny McCarthy from Indigo woo girl to anti-vaccine autism warrior mom, want to see Andrew Wakefield’s monkeys so badly? Newbies to this blog may not recall the two times in the past that I wrote about what I like to call monkey business in autism research, first in 2008 and then a followup post a few months ago in the fall. Of course, I also alluded to these monkeys when I expressed my extreme amusement about the most excellently paranoid conspiracy theory I’ve seen in a long time, courtesy of Generation Rescue spokescelebrities Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy, whose ability to mangle science in the service of their belief that vaccines cause autism is as legendary as the character of Fire Marshal Bill. Basically, the spin that Jenny and Jim, dancing to the tune of their fellow travelers in the anti-vaccine movement, are trying to put on the retraction of Andrew Wakefield’s infamous 1998 Lancet study that launched the anti-MMR hysteria in the U.K, is that the retraction, hot on the heels of the General Medical Council finding that Wakefield committed various serious offenses against ethic in carrying out that research, is a big plot by vaccine manufacturers to “silence” Wakefield and prevent the publication of his complete study. Apparently big pharma is just that powerful and just that focused on poor Saint Andy’s martyrdom.

In any case, I suppose I should prepare myself for another of J.B.’s patented tirades attacking and “outing” me in order to try to annoy me. J.B. hasn’t done it for a while, probably because I haven’t given him any reason to. The reason I haven’t given him any reason to is because Handley hasn’t really given me much of a reason to take on one of his–shall we say?–less cogent posts in a while. He’s overdue. And how can I resist this time? J.B. Handley is clearly just begging for yet another loving application of not-so-Respectful Insolence, and far be it from me to deny him his apparently most fervent wish.

J.B. begins his plea:

If a scientist were dropped into the autism controversy with no previous understanding of anything, here is what they would be presented with:

  • A dramatic increase in the number of kids with autism, creating a need to find an environmental, rather than genetic, cause.
  • A vaccine schedule that has grown dramatically during a time when the autism rate has grown dramatically, representing something (vaccines) nearly every child is exposed to from their environment.
  • The knowledge that vaccines do, with certainty, cause brain damage in a certain subset of kids. As Jim Moody has pointed out, it’s certain that vaccines cause brain damage, we just need to know how many kids have been damaged.

Of course, if that scientist were dropped into the middle of the autism controversy with no previous understanding of anything, he might well think that there has been a dramatic increase of the number of kids with autism, rather than a dramatic increase in the number of kids with the diagnosis of autism. There is a difference, but it is too subtle for the likes of Handley to understand. In any case, the reason why a scientist who has no understanding of the science and history of autism might leap to the same conclusion to which J.B.Handley clings to tenaciously is because he has no previous understanding of anything. Well, not exactly. J.B. Handley does have a previous understanding of the issue of autism prevalence and vaccines. It’s just that he has a previous misunderstanding of the issue. Either way, the results would be the same: A superficial idea that, because autism diagnoses have skyrocketed over the last 20 years, that must mean that the real prevalence of autism is skyrocketing. It is not, at least as far a scientists can tell. Without knowing the history, specifically how broadening of the diagnostic criteria for autism in the 1990s, increasing awareness, how screening for a condition (be it autism or even breast cancer) will find what were formerly subclinical cases, and diagnostic substitution, it’s very easy to come to a misunderstanding like the one that J.B. Handley promotes. Add to that the classic fallacy of confusing correlation with causation, and it is very easy for someone who doesn’t know anything about the the issue or its history to come to the conclusion that there must be a link between vaccines and autism. Of course, by the same logic, I could just as convincingly conclude that the Internet causes autism, given that Internet usage started to take off around the time the “autism epidemic” did.

“You disturb me to the point of insanity. There. I am insane now.”

Come to think of it, not having an understanding of the issue or its history is exactly how J.B. comes to the conclusion that vaccines cause autism. Or is it that autism is a “misdiagnosis for mercury poisoning“? I forget and can’t keep the anti-vaccine stories straight. Those goalposts shift rather quickly when the vaccine/autism believers discuss what they believe to be their science.

It’s also find it rather interesting that J.B. seems to be equating autism with “brain damage.” No, strike the word “seems.” J.B. is equating autism with brain damage. This simply shows more of his misunderstanding. For one thing, autism appears to begin very early in development, not due to any exogenous insult causing “brain damage.” For another thing, although encephalitis from vaccines can occur, it is very rare. Certainly, it is too rare to account for an autism prevalence of approximately 1%, depending on the study. Also inconsistent with the existence of an “autism epidemic” is the NHS study that found an autism prevalence very similar in all age groups. While it is possible that the true prevalence of autism has increased somewhat over the last couple of decades, there is copious evidence that it has not increased enough to be considered an “epidemic.” Most likely, the prevalence of autism has remained fairly stable over the last few decades, and there is no link between autism and vaccines.

J.B. then lapses into an argument that borders on incoherent:

Show me the monkeys.Thinking again about these scientists who are learning about the autism epidemic for the first time and presuming they are agnostic to the political risks of questioning the Godliness of vaccines, they would find themselves in quite a pickle for one very simple reason:

If in fact vaccines seemed like a good place to start to assess a fairly obvious risk from the environment, a risk that was known to cause brain damage and that many parents were pointing to as a cause of their child’s regression, than it would really be hard to know where the hell to start because we give so many vaccines at once.

But, J.B. I thought that autism was a “misdiagnosis for mercury poisoning.” Oh, wait. It’s not. Thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines except for the flu vaccine back in late 2001. Only trace amounts are left, and mercury exposure due to vaccines is lower than it’s been since at least the 1980s. Yet autism rates have not started to plunge, as would be predicted from the hypothesis that mercury in vaccines causes autism. Hmmm. Maybe it was the MMR. Well, no. Multiple large epidemiological studies have not found a link between MMR and autism. Oh, wait! I know! It’s “too many too soon.” It’s a nice, vague hypothesis that is much harder to falsify than saying it’s mercury in vaccines or a specific vaccine. I will give J.B. credit, though, for abandoning his claim that we give 36 vaccines and reducing it to 26, more in line with reality. Perhaps he was embarrassed enough times that hit finally sank in.

In any case, after repeating the same old anti-vaccine canard about a “vaccinated versus unvaccinated” study, J.B. finally gets to the point, namely defending Andrew Wakefield with an evidence-free argument by assertion, with a dollop of trying to show that he really, really loves animals:

Let me say something to clear my conscience: I love animals and I hate animal testing. I feel terrible writing about these monkeys because the truth is that they were all sacrificed at the end of this study. It breaks my heart open to think about how these monkeys had to live their lives and I do think it is both cruel and inhumane to experiment on animals. We are all God’s creatures.

The only thing I can say in defense of the sacrifice of these poor monkeys is that I have a very strong feeling their deaths will not be in vain. I have this strong feeling these monkeys will in fact save and improve the lives of many, many thousands of kids, if not millions. These monkeys have made a huge contribution to the planet’s life, and I am very grateful for them.

No, these monkeys have suffered and died in vain. As an aside, I’ll also point out that I hate the term “sacrificed” to describe euthanizing experimental animals at the end of an experiment. The religious connotations bother me; it sounds as though we are sacrificing animals to the gods of science. My personal pet peeve about using the term “sacrifice” aside, the experiment, from its very inception, was incompetently designed and used too few monkeys, particularly in the control group, to come to any meaningful conclusions. Its lead investigator, Laura Hewitson, didn’t disclose a couple of doozies of conflicts of interest, namely that she had a child who was a complainant in the Autism Omnibus action and that her husband at the time was working for Andrew Wakefield. Of course, now Hewitson herself is working for Wakefield, too, somehow having left the University of Pittsburgh in the wake of publishing a couple of abstracts about this monkey study. Finally, the study was published in NeuroToxicology, a journal whose editorial standards clearly leave something to be desired. In the published report, I noted a bit of oddness with the control group, which had suddenly grown from three monkeys to seven monkeys, a feat accomplished by combining monkeys getting no vaccines with monkeys getting saline injections of the same volume as the vaccines. That was but one issue, though. Another issue was how the authors appeared not to control for multiple comparisons and how they tested the monkeys daily, producing a number of measurements custom-designed to produce false positives without proper correction for so many comparisons. Indeed, as Prometheus said, it appeared to be a study custom made to be used in a lawsuit. Even worse, the reflexes tested for, the ones whose delay in acquisition was claimed to be due to vaccines, are present at birth in human infants.

Shocking the monkey to life?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Wakefield’s monkey study is unethical in my opinion. I consider it unethical because the study subjected monkeys to distress and pain in the service of a highly improbable hypothesis. Even more importantly, the study was unethical because it was (and, I’m guessing, will still be after publication of its second part) bad science. The experimental design was such that even under ideal conditions the experiment had very little chance of producing meaningful and useful data, given the tiny numbers of monkeys in the control group. And if an experiment has very little chance of producing useful results, then subjecting animals to suffering as a part of that experiment is unethical. Where on earth was the University of Pittsburgh’s IACUC on this one? The committee was clearly asleep at the switch when it approved this study, and as a result, 20 monkeys (that we know of–the numbers keep changing) suffered and died for no good reason.

I must admit, though, J.B. can still amuse me with little gems like this:

On Friday, you could almost hear the collective gasp of the gravedancers when Jenny & Jim’s statement about the monkey study hit the wires. Did you notice the “their theory is dead” articles slowed to a trickle?

Confusing correlation with causation yet again in a spectacular fashion, J.B. ignores the far more likely possibilities that (1) the story had run its course, having broken three days earlier in the week and (2) it was a Friday, the day before the weekend, a natural point for a story from earlier in the week to fade away into obscurity. Unlike the case for AoA, autism and vaccine stories are not at the top of the mainstream media’s priorities. In fact, I rather suspect the expectation that news about Wakefield’s study would wane over the weekend was why Generation Rescue waited until Friday to release Jenny and Jim’s conspiracy-fest of a press release, thereby trying to keep it alive a few more days. It did, but perhaps not in the way J.B. intended. So ridiculous was J & J’s press release that even non-science blogs are dissing it. One of the best lines I heard about the whole issue came from a parenting blog:

Jenny, honey, the science has left the building. Why are you still here?

I wish I’d come up with that line. I really do.

Finally, J.B. is apparently really upset by a letter from David N. Brown to the editors of NeuroToxicology complaining about its publication of Wakefield’s monkey study. The complete text of the article is here. Personally, I don’t think it was a good idea of Brown to have written the letter the way he did. In fact, it was a bad idea. Quite frankly, were I the editor of NeuroToxicology, I would have probably responded in exactly the same way. (Of course, if I were editor of NeuroToxicology, I would not have permitted such bad science to be published in my journal in the first place, but just go with me on this one for a minute.) Bad articles and bad science are published in the scientific literature all the time. It would have been better to explain, as I have tried to do, why Wakefield’s study is such execrably bad and unethical science that doesn’t even deserve the name of science.

Much like Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet study.

The bottom line is that J.B. is not a scientist. He does not understand science. He does not need or want science, except when it can serve his purpose. He’s proven time and time again that his understanding of the scientific method, research design, and medical ethics consists of a belief that vaccines cause autism and that any study or experiment performed to “prove” that link is hunky dory with him, be it torturing baby Macaque monkeys in an experiment studying a highly improbable hypothesis that by its very design is highly unlikely to provide any useful information or promoting an unethical “vaccinated versus unvaccinated” study with no conception of the complexities involved in doing so. In contrast, Handley appears to define as “bad science” any study that fails to find a link between vaccines and autism. The evidence that this is true is overwhelming in the form of Handley’s ridiculous criticisms of large, well-designed studies that failed to find a link between vaccines and autism.

That’s because, for J.B. Handley and the anti-vaccine movement, it’s not about autism, at least not any more even if it ever was. It’s about blaming vaccines for autism. It’s always about the vaccines. It always will be about the vaccines.

And monkeys. This time.

J. B. Handley wants to touch see Andrew Wakefield’s monkeys, as though they are evidence of anything other than incompetent science in the service of the pseudoscience claiming that vaccines cause autism. His story has become tiresome. So is it now time on Sprockets ven ve dance?