Confusing correlation with causation. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. These are two of the most common errors human beings make. Indeed, they’re natural errors that our brains appear hard-wired to make, and, without scientific training, it’s virtually impossible to avoid making the conclusion that, because two occurrences correlate with each other they must be related or because and event precedes the onset of a condition (like autism), then that something must have caused that condition. One can see how, living in the wilderness, seeing patterns and causes quickly was likely to be beneficial more often than it was harmful, but in today’s world, not so much. Worse, in coming to scientific conclusions, post hoc explanations and confusing correlation with causation, as natural as they feel and as convincing as they seem, all too often lead to leaping to conclusions that are utterly incorrect. The best example, of course, is the myth so prevalent in some segments of society that vaccines cause autism. Because we humans are so hard-wired to attribute cause to events that happen before an adverse event, all too often for parents who have come to believe it, belief in that myth is resistant to virtually all science. Indeed, even a few physicians who don’t understand this normal human tendency and how science is the way to prevent it from leading us astray can become so passionately convinced that vaccines cause autism that they become in essence immune to science, evidence, and even reason. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Dr. Jay Gordon!)
Of course, it is not always straightforward to determine whether adverse events are due to vaccines or medications. This task it particularly complicated by how many children receive vaccines around the time the first symptoms of autism are most commonly noticed, making temporal association between vaccination and autism not uncommon strictly by pure coincidence. Sometimes, the events that seem to correlate with vaccines are much more serious than autism. Sometimes, it is the tragic death of a child or children that occur relatively soon after vaccination. In that case, figuring out whether the vaccine might have caused the deaths is absolutely essential, and it’s not always a straightforward question. For instance, last week, there were four deaths in Japan potentially linked with vaccines that resulted in Japan’s health ministry suspending the use of the vaccines pending an investigation:
Japan’s health ministry suspended the use of pediatric vaccines made by Pfizer Inc. (PFE) and Sanofi- Aventis SA after reports of four deaths following immunizations.
The use of Pfizer’s Prevenar, to protect children against meningitis and pneumonia, and Sanofi’s ActHIB, to fight Haemophilus influenzae type b, will be suspended until at least tomorrow, when a safety panel will meet to discuss the cause of the deaths, the ministry said in a March 4 website posting.
The temporary suspension is a precautionary measure following the deaths of four children who had previously been immunized simultaneously with several pediatric vaccines, said Victor Carey, the Sydney-based Asia Pacific medical director for Sanofi’s vaccines unit. About 1.5 million Japanese children have received ActHIB since it was approved in Japan in 2007, 15 years after it was first licensed in Europe, he said.
Whenever something like this happens, quite correctly the most compelling question is whether or not the vaccine has anything to do with these deaths. I searched and Googled, but I had a hell of a time finding any details about the four cases. How soon after vaccinations were the deaths? What did the children die of? The closest I could find was this report:
The ministry reported that three infants under the age of two died within three days of receiving the two vaccine shots, with two of the children also receiving DPT shots for diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus.
A one year-old died a day after being administered Prevenar and a DPT shot, the ministry said, adding that some of the infants had underlying illnesses.
Prevenar and ActHIB became available in Japan around two years ago.
Authorities decided to suspend them after the four deaths occurred between March 2-4, the ministry said.
From these reports, it’s difficult to tell if the vaccines might have had anything to do with the deaths of these four unfortunate children. A lot would depend on what the children died of. Did they die of anything that could be plausibly related to the vaccines? Or was there another, identifiable cause to which their deaths could be attributed? These reports don’t say. Reasonable people would be concerned, but not leap to any conclusions. Not anti-vaccine loons like Mike Adams over at NaturalNews.com. He went into full mental jacket craziness not long after the reports:
The deaths just keep mounting all across the world: Children are collapsing into comas and then dying, just minutes after receiving combination vaccines that have been deceptively marketed as “completely safe.” Last year, Australia temporarily banned flu vaccines in children after they were found to have caused vomiting, fevers and seizures (http://www.naturalnews.com/029586_A…).
Today the damage from vaccines is emerging in Japan, where the health ministry has suspended the use of vaccines from Pfizer and Sanofi-Aventis following the deaths of four children there who died within minutes after receiving these vaccine shots.
Except that, as the news report I cited above shows, the children did not die within minutes of receiving the shots. If they had, you can bet that they would not have been described as having died within three days or within a day of vaccination. It would also be far more concerning than deaths within a few days of vaccination, because closer temporal proximity would be more suggestive of the possibility of causation, particularly if the symptoms and timing were very similar in all the cases. But for Mike Adams, it’s not enough just to say that four deaths are being investigated as possibly being related to vaccines. Oh, no. That’s far too reasonable. Instead, he has to paint a false picture of children dropping dead from vaccines all over the world and (of course!) a worldwide coverup by big pharma to hide The Truth.
Adams does inadvertently do a service, though. Remember how I point out that post hoc reasoning or confusing correlation with causation is a common form of fallacious reasoning that leads to an evidence-proof belief that vaccines must have caused this problem? Adams actually spells it out explicitly in a manner more radical than I’ve ever seen before. In fact, he turns the whole concept of scientific investigation on its head, putting anecdote and post hoc fallacies above science:
How many coincidences does it take to make a pattern? If you’re one of the brainwashed vaccine zealots, there is never a pattern. ALL deaths are automatically considered “coincidence,” no matter how many occur or how frequently they appear. A true scientist, of course, would observe the pattern and realize there is a cause-and-effect phenomenon taking place. But then again, vaccine zealots are nothing like real scientists. They are propagandists.
Actually, if you’re a brainwashed anti-vaccine zealot like Mike Adams, there is always a pattern. Always. There’s a “pattern” even if it’s only one child, even if the adverse event or death is separated temporally by days or weeks, and even if there is no evidence that the adverse event could possibly have been caused by vaccines. Heck, if a baby receives a vaccine and then is killed in a car accident as his parents drive home after the pediatrician visit, you can bet that Adams would try to blame it on vaccines somehow. Meanwhile, he lays down all sorts of straw mans, such as the claim that supporters of vaccination say that vaccines never hurt anyone, which is, of course, demonstrably untrue. Just read one of Dr. Offit’s books, if you don’t believe me.
The rest of the post is a typical Adams screed. He rants about big pharma conspiracies to cover up The Truth about vaccines, about how nutrition can supposedly protect against disease “better than any vaccine.” (As important as nutrition is, it can’t.) He even invokes Nobel Prize winner Luc Montagnier (who of late has become enamored of homeopathy, thus destroying his credibility on science) as saying that a strong immune system can cure AIDS. Never mind that HIV attacks the immune system. That’s how it leads to death. If the immune system could stay strong against HIV, HIV would be a lot less dangerous. Heck Adams even invokes the true wingnut claim that Bill Gates was advocating using vaccines for population control when he pointed out that improved health care, including ready availability of vaccines, could lead to a decrease in population because people who don’t have to worry about infant mortality tend to have fewer children. The main reason I cited this particular Adams brain turd is not so much because Adams fascinates me so much (although, truth be told, sometimes he does), but rather for that one paragraph above, which turns the scientific method on its head and elevates the human tendency to find patterns in observations even when there aren’t any and to fall for post hoc ergo propter hoc as the default means of drawing conclusions about the world far above science. He even has the gall to lecture scientists on what a “real” scientist would do. And one wonders why my brain feels seared by burning stupid for having read that. Actually, one shouldn’t. I feel as though I’ve lost some IQ points reading that screed.
I do, however, wonder what happened to the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism on this one. As of my writing of this, there is nothing posted there about this story. Given that this sort of tragedy attracts anti-vaccine loons like Mike Adams as garbage attracts maggots, it is truly amazing that the merry band of anti-vaccine loons over at AoA haven’t been all over this story already as proof that vaccines are irredeemably dangerous. It wouldn’t surprise me if, by the time this post goes live, AoA has remedied that situation.
But I’ve beat on Mike Adams’ less than stellar intellectual capacity enough for the moment. I’m sure he’ll provide me with more blog fodder soon enough, and it’s important not to go to the well too many times or, when at the well, to draw too deeply from it. Besides risking becoming boring, I also risk contamination with the neuron-apoptosing waves of stupidity that emanate from NaturalNews.com.
Instead, let’s get back to the story. So what happened with that investigation. Japanese health authorities found no credible link between the vaccines and the four deaths. That leaves the question of whether or not Japan should have suspended the use of the suspected vaccines, and that was a tough call:
“I think the Japanese Ministry of Health was foolish to suspend the HIB and pneumococcal programs,” says Paul Offit, a researcher at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia who co-invented a Merck vaccine used to combat rotavirus. “It was the wrong thing to do.”
In all likelihood, Offit says, the four deaths are likely to be sudden infant death syndrome or another cause; he says two of the children had serious underlying health conditions. Any time a large number of people are given a vaccine, some of them will get sick and die just by chance.
While this is true, and it is most likely that these deaths appear to be a tragic coincidence, I find it difficult to be too critical of the Japanese authorities and their response. Very likely they were behind the proverbial rock and a hard place when news of these deaths was revealed. Very likely, political pressure was difficult to resist. Whatever the reason, the investigation appears to have found no link between the vaccines and these deaths.
Science is hard. It involves collecting data, testing hypotheses, and determining whether the data are consistent with the hypotheses, not to mention careful observation. More importantly, I like to think of science as a rigorous, elaborate system of observation and hypothesis testing in order to try to remove bias and keep the investigator from fooling himself. As physicist Richard Feynman once said so famously, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” The difference between anti-vaccine advocates and other boosters of pseudoscience and real scientists is that anti-vaccine activists forget this principle. In fact, they deny that they can be fooled.