Shifting goalposts, shifting stories

On Wednesday, Steve Novella did a nice analysis of the recent study showing that signs of autism can be detected as early as six months of age. However, it was flawed by one clear misstatement, which was brought to his attention in the comments and which he then promptly corrected. Not that that stopped our old “friend” J.B. Handley, chief anti-vaccine propagandist for Generation Rescue from leaping into the fray with a goalpost-shifting, disingenuous, and insulting misrepresentation of the overall point of Steve’s post. Par for the course for Mr. Handley.

Today, Steve has responded with a beautiful takedown and deconstruction of Handley’s nonsense, in which he revisited his post, admitted his mistake, and then showed how, even with his mistake Handley was clearly being intellectually dishonest:

Further, Handley is now trying to argue that this new study supports a correlation between vaccines and autism. In fact, it does nothing of the sort. It does all but eliminate MMR, varicella, and Hep A as having any potential role in autism, as these vaccines all come after the onset of autism in most cases. Handley, if he were being intellectually honest, should admit this, but he doesn’t, and very dishonestly implies that MMR specifically is still a potential cause.

I had been planning on applying a bit of my usual insolence to J.B. Handley, who was clearly begging for it yet again. After all, Steve’s too much of a class act to get really down and dirty over JB’s anti-vaccine proselytizing. However, these sorts of antics are typical of JB, and Steve handled him more than competently. Besides, Andreas Moritz angered me far more than JB did because, let’s face it, JB’s attack on Steve was just JB being JB. He can’t help it. Still, I noticed this paragraph in which JB states:

More importantly, autism is not an event, it’s a process. It is exceptionally rare that I hear the story, “my son was 100% fine, and at 2 years old after one vaccine appointment he lost everything.” I have heard that story, but very rarely.

Hmmmm. That’s exactly the sort of story I see time and time again presented by anti-vaccine believers, J.B. included, as “evidence” that vaccines cause autism. Is this the same J.B. Handley who has touted at least since 2005 how common stories of children declining right after vaccines are? Let’s see, a couple of years ago he complained to the AAP:

Ms. Martin, let me give you a little insight into my world. If I wanted to find parents who had autistic children and who believed their child’s autism was impacted by vaccines, I wouldn’t need to email the nation’s pediatricians hoping I might find one or two. I could just open my window and yell, because these parents are everywhere in my neighborhood and town! Worse, our numbers continue to grow.

You see, not a day goes by without Generation Rescue receiving an email from a new parent who watched their child decline following a vaccination appointment with their pediatrician. While you search for the handful of parents with autistic children who may support immunizations, we can’t respond to emails fast enough from the thousands we hear from who feel vaccines contributed to their child’s autism.

“Not a day goes by…”? Sounds like Handley was arguing that regression after vaccination is very common. Let’s look a bit more, say, from a post JB wrote before going on Larry King Live! last April:

Finally, we have tens of thousands of case reports of parents reporting that their child developmentally regressed, stopped talking, and was later diagnosed with autism after a vaccine appointment. The number of vaccines have risen along with autism rates, vaccines are known to cause brain damage, and parents report regression and later autism after getting them. Is it really so hard to believe we think vaccines are a trigger?

Wow. Tens of thousands of case reports!

You know, it appears to me that there’s a bit of goalpost shifting going on here. After all, the “stereotypical” (or “prototypical”) story of the anti-vaccine movement is of the child between the ages of 1 and 3 who is brought to the pediatrician, receives vaccines, and then shortly thereafter loses language and social skills and develops regressive autism. Never mind that, given the number of children who are vaccinated every year and the number of children who develop regressive autism, there are bound to be overlaps such that by random chance alone there will be many children who regress in reasonably close temporal proximity to vaccination. Never mind that no one has ever shown that this regression occurs more frequently in vaccinated children. Anecdotes like the ones JB was touting up until (apparently) now are the very “evidence” that the anti-vaccine movement uses to blame vaccination for autism. And, in all fairness, in a single child not studied in the context of populations, such an event can look all the world as though the vaccine caused the regression even when it did not. Even so, the point is that parents who believe vaccines caused their children’s autism don’t blame a process. They blame vaccines, often specific vaccines like the MMR.

I wonder if JB has shifted the goalposts so far this time that they are no longer even in the stadium.