Penn & Teller deconstruct the anti-vaccine movement, not to mention an old friend of the blog, Dr. Jay Gordon

Thanks to Autism News Beat, I’ve found the Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode Vaccination in a streaming form. I have two warnings. First, if you’re not familiar with Penn & Teller, you should be prepared for lots of profanity, including liberal use of the F-word. There is also one scene with a topless woman near the end. If you’re easily offended, then you probably shouldn’t watch. You have been warned. Second, you have to hit the arrow directly in order not to go to the website hosting the streaming video:

I have to say, I’ve rarely seen a more visually effective way of portraying the benefits of vaccination than was shown in the opening scene of the episode. It was particularly effective how it pointed out that, even if vaccines did cause autism in 1 in a 110 children, the risk-benefit ratio would still favor vaccination.

I was also pleased that, for the most part, Penn & Teller got the science right. Oh, there was the occasional niggling omission, such as saying that mercury was removed from vaccines in 1999 when in reality thimerosal-containing vaccines were ordered removed from vaccines in 1999 and, because existing stocks didn’t expire until then, it wasn’t until the end of 2001/early 2002 that thimerosal-containing vaccines were off the shelf and childhood vaccines other than the flu vaccine contained no more than trace thimerosal. Penn & Teller did get it right, however, to emphasize that, if mercury in vaccines did cause autism then autism rates would have begun to plummet by now. It’s also very simplistic to ascribe the beginning of the anti-vaccine movement to Andrew Wakefield’s infamous (and now retracted) Lancet paper in 1998. The anti-vaccine movement existed long before Wakefield ever thought to take cash from a trial lawyer to produce “science” to support his lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers. I do, however, understand how hard that would have been to explain in a half hour show and still have time to get to the meat of the issue. It was also particularly amusing how they portrayed themselves in the introduction as just the “C-level, self-righteous, celebrity talking head nutjobs” to counter a certain well-known C-level celebrity nutjob (Jenny McCarthy, in the slim case that you can’t guess) who’s been promoting the scientifically discredited myth that vaccines cause autism.

One character the producers managed to persuade to agree to show up on camera is Wendy Callahan, Co-Director of Vaccination Liberation and the director of the Florida chapter of Vaccine Information and Liberation. Her website, Vaccine Information, is a cornucopia of anti-vaccine craziness, including parodies of pro-vaccine posters, links to articles about quackery like homeopathy, and posters labeled “pharmageddon” that show children fleeing from syringes with skulls and crossbones on them. In her very first segment, she labels parents who vaccinate as “child abusers” and says, “you can’t poison yourself into health.” Particularly amusing was Penn & Teller’s deconstruction of the dreaded “toxin” gambit, in which Ms. Callahan said, “These ingredients don’t belong in a vaccine. They belong in a Satanic ritual.”

I’m still not sure why they’d use formaldehyde in a Satanic ritual. On the other hand, why is Ms. Callahan so afraid of DNA? Geez, every cell in her body has DNA in it!

Another anti-vaccine loon on the show is named Carl Buzz, and, boy, oh, boy this guy can bring home the crazy. He’s the guy who was featured on the preview video I posted last week. What amazed me about this guy is how he so effortlessly and seriously claimed that, before around 1945 (which to him was when vaccines were started), there was no cancer. There was no cancer in dogs. I wonder how Carl explains William Halsted’s radical mastectomy for breast cancer then. He did, after all, develop this operation in the 19th century. That’s just a wee bit before 1945.

One interesting aspect of this show that I hadn’t expected was that our old friend, pediatrician to Jenny McCarthy’s son Evan, Dr. Jay Gordon showed up right there before the five minute mark. There’s nothing new in what he says in the show to anyone who’s been a regular reader of this blog for more than a year or two. Search for his name on this blog and, in particular, read my posts about him entitled Dr. Jay Gordon: Will you please stop claiming you’re not an antivaccinationist? and Dr. Jay Gordon: No vaccines needed, just quit eating cheese and ice cream to get an idea of the sorts of nonsense about vaccines that Dr. Jay routinely spews.

Or just listen to Dr. Jay on the show. He first shows up in what I assume to be his Santa Monica practice location, complete with the expected pictures of animals on the walls that any self-respecting pediatrician must have. He also spews a large amount of his usual blather, in particular ignoring all the lessons we’ve tried to teach him right here on this blog about confusing correlation with causation. More shockingly, around the 11 minute mark, Dr. Jay opines:

Children should not be vaccinated. This is very much at odds with the mainstream medical point of view, which says that there’s no connection between vaccines and autism. I think that that is a flat out lie.

Whoa. Is it really true? Did Dr. Jay just say flat out that he doesn’t think children should be vaccinated? It sure sounded that way. However, over on Autism News Beat, Dr. Jay is backpedaling:

I spoke moderately, listened to their promises about how the issue would be presented and felt sad that they cut off the beginning of my sentence: “[I’m certainly not saying that) children should not be vaccinated.” I’m not thrilled with Andy Wakefield’s choosing his control subjects from a birthday party or some of my allies repeating “antifreeze” comments.

Leaving aside my irritation that Dr. Jay, who himself parroted the “formaldehyde in vaccines” lie until I gave him a blog beat down for it and who apparently doesn’t even try to correct Jenny McCarthy when she parrots the “antifreeze in vaccines” lie, I really hope that the producers of Penn & Teller didn’t play fast and loose with Dr. Jay’s quote, as he claims. I can’t really tell, but if he really did say what he claims he said and his segment was edited to make it sound as though he said the opposite, that’s a big problem. It is, however, easily provable one way or the other; all we need is the tape of the interview leading up to that statement.

Even if Penn & Teller did go too far in “creative editing,” while such an act would deserve condemation, it still wouldn’t excuse Dr. Jay from much of the other nonsense he spews in the show, for instance, his claim that children who were developing normally became autistic right in his office after shots. Seriously, Dr. Jay said that between the 11:00 and 12:00 mark. With apologies to my audience, I call bullshit on that, just as I do on a lot of other things that he says, in particular his support of the utter nonsense that Jenny McCarthy produces on the topic. In fact, I say to Dr. Gordon right now (because I know he’ll come whining here soon) that one of my favorite lines in the entire show was this:

Dr. Gordon’s support has helped to legitimize McCarthy’s amazing transformation from Playboy model to public health expert.

I’m also quite happy that we now have Dr. Gordon on record as taking responsibility for his supporting parents who don’t want to vaccinate, as he explicitly does in this show. I agree with Penn and Teller. I hope Dr. Jay gets everything he has coming to him for that decision.

So what do I think overall about the show? Mostly, I liked it. It’s very blunt in a way that too few people are willing to be blunt about the quackery and pseudoscience that is the anti-vaccine movement. I had a few minor quibbles about how factual information was presented. but none of them detracted from the basic message about vaccines. My only big concern is whether Dr. Jay’s claim regarding his quote being creatively edited is true. Looking at what is there, though, I’m not sure I entirely buy Dr. Jay’s claim, quite simply because of what follows, in which he says “This is very much at odds with the mainstream medical interview.” In any case, the show hit most of the right notes, made most of the right points, and made them in an in-your-face style that shows just why the anti-vaccine movement is “bullshit.”