Thanks to the partying and backslapping going on in the antivaccine movement over the reversal of the decision of the British General Medical Council to strike Professor John Walker-Smith off of the medical record, after a brief absence vaccines are back on the agenda of this blog. Antivaccine cranks view the decision as a vindication and exoneration of antivaccine guru Andrew Wakefield even though it is nothing of the sort and is in fact a decision based on questionable (at best) scientific reasoning. Actually, as some of my commenters have pointed out, Justice Mitting applied legal reasoning to science and scientific ethics, with disastrous results. So, as they say, in for a penny, in for a pound. I might as well finish off the week talking about vaccines, particularly given that my favorite antivaccine propaganda blog doubled down on its usual idiocy, not so much by adding yet another post about the Walker-Smith decision (it’s already got plenty of those) but rather by publishing a post that perfectly captures the thinking (such as it is) behind antivaccine views. I realize that going after Age of Autism for its antivaccine views is rather like shooting the proverbial fish in a barrel, but sometimes it’s just something that has to be done. Coming so hot on the heals of the flurry of self-congratulation and the nauseating level of Andrew Wakefield hero worship, it’s hard to resist such a target-rich environment.
I’m referring to a post on Age of Autism by its Media Editor Anne Dachel entitled An Open Letter to Bill Moyers on When The Next Contagion Strikes. Apparently, Dachel is very, very unhappy with Bill Moyers for an excellent article he co-wrote with Michael Winship a week ago entitled When the Next Contagion Strikes: Vaccination Nation. In the article, Moyers used the movie Contagion as a backdrop to discuss why vaccination is so important and why the antivaccine movement is such a danger to public health. In particular, Dachel is very angry with Moyers because he quite forcefully argued against various forms of nonmedical vaccine exemptions and has information and opinion against it posted on his website. AFter complaining long and loud about all this, in particular a video on Moyer’s website showing officials from the CDC and Paul Offit discussing the antivaccine movement and declining vaccination rates:
I kept going back to your dismissal of the vaccine-autism controversy as being “largely debunked.” Debunked by whom? Have you ever looked into the web of financial ties between the vaccine makers and medical organizations, health officials, and the media? Have they ever looked into who funded those studies?
The Frontline video asks, “Why is it so hard for some Americans to embrace this communal aspect of vaccines?” Parents were interviewed about the question and it was all academic about parental choice.
A pediatrician on the video blames the media and the Internet for parents’ concerns about vaccines. The whole issue seems to be, do parents have a right to exempt their children from recommended vaccines? The underlying message is, Vaccines are safe, vaccines save lives.
Correct. Vaccine are safe. Vaccines do save lives. It is only antivaccine activists who dispute this, and they dispute it not based on science, but pseudoscience and fear mongering. Oh, and conspiracy mongering, too. Notice how Dachel doesn’t start out her argument with science. Instead, she tries to cast doubt on the safety of vaccines by casting doubt on the trustworthiness of the government, medical organizations, and pharmaceutical companies. It’s very much an ad hominem argument. Dachel doesn’t say, “The science doesn’t support vaccine safety and efficacy, and here’s why.” Rather, she says, “Everyone who supports vaccine is a bastard with a massive conflict of interest.” Even if it were true that everyone who supports vaccines as safe and effective were, in fact, a bastard with a massive conflict of interest, that would not mean they were wrong. Vaccine safety and efficacy is a question that is based on science; it doesn’t much matter who makes the argument. Oh, sure, knowing that someone making an argument has a financial COI is important because it allows you to put what he’s saying in context, but in the end the data are the data, and the science is the science.
That is, of course, the problem for antivaccinationists like Anne Dachel. She can’t refute the science of vaccines (like pretty much every antivaccinationist); so she attacks the messenger, in this case, Bill Moyers. In her open letter, she tries to “shame” him for his statements on vaccines based on his previous statements about journalistic integrity. It’s a ploy that’s both transparent and exceedingly pathetic. I can only imaging Moyers reading Dachel’s open letter and reacting by shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders as if to say, “WTF?” Here’s what I mean. After praising Moyers for criticizing press oversight of the government, in particular for how it failed utterly to do its duty in the run-up to the Iraq War, Dachel opines:
Your speech in Minneapolis was a rare wakeup call on state of the American media. I can’t say enough in support of your message. What is a mystery to me as someone who has long followed press coverage of the controversy over vaccines and autism, is your unwavering trust in health officials and mainstream medicine when it comes to vaccine safety.
There are two sides in this heated debate, and it isn’t just parents vs. experts. There is a growing army of well-credentialed scientists and doctors who challenge the safety claims of the ever-increasing vaccine schedule. This is not just an academic debate over choice as you presented it. The autism vaccine controversy isn’t something that can be hurriedly dismissed with a claim that it’s “a possibility science has largely debunked.”
Actually, today, in 2012, it is, the efforts of Dachel and her merry band of denialists to try to argue otherwise notwithstanding. The question has been asked many times, studied to death, and answered, and the answer is: No, vaccines do not cause autism. Multiple large epidemiological studies have been done and failed to find a hint of a whiff of a trace of a correlation between vaccines and autism. The same is true for the issue of mercury in vaccines, and now that mercury has been out of most childhood vaccines for a decade it’s not even an issue anymore. Dachel’s first salvo boils down to yet another round of confusing correlation with causation, as she waxes hysterical:
What the public and especially a growing number of parents are acutely aware of is all the coverage that ignores what’s happening to our children. At the heart of the debate is a nation of very sick kids no one can explain. Soaring rates of previously unheard of health problems now plague our children. Once-rare things like diabetes, seizure disorders, life-threatening allergies and asthma are now commonplace among children. One percent of our children now have autism and among boys alone, it’s almost two percent. One in every six children has a diagnosis of a learning disorder. No one can explain why we have the most vaccinated children in the world and some of the sickest.
Dachel then, as usual, drops a whole bunch of antivaccine tropes so hoary that they were the result of bad leaves causing severe gastrointestinal distress in a brontosaurus. Yes, they’re just that stinky. For instance, Dachel repeats yet again (ad nauseam) her rant that “not one of them” is an “independent study.” Apparently to her “independent” means not funded by any pharmaceutical company or the government. No doubt, to her “independent” probably means “funded by antivaccine loons like me.” To her, the media are sheeple who just accept any study they’re told to. Following in rapid succession is the demand for a “vaxed versus unvaxed” that is the Great White Hope of the antivaccine movement to prove them right. As I’ve said before, it’s so cute when antivaxers try to discuss epidemiology. But Dachel doesn’t dwell long on epidemiology as she goes on to claim that there aren’t any studies to show that adding aluminum and mercury to vaccines is safe. Even by the standards of AoA, that’s a demonstrably false statement. For example, there’s Thompson et al, which showed that mercury in vaccines is not associated with adverse neurological outcomes. That’s a safety study. What about Price et al? That’s a safety study that failed to find a link between mercury in vaccines and autism. I could go on, but you get the idea. As for aluminum, well, let’s just say that now that thimerosal in vaccines has been exonerated as a cause of autism and neurological problems, antivaccine activists are desperately trying to turn aluminum into the new mercury–trying and failing.
Next up, predictably, we have the tried and not-so-true crank gambit of trying to make it seem as though there is a scientific controversy when there is not. Taking a page from creationists, who are always pointing to “scientists who doubt Darwin,” and anthropogenic global warming denialists, who are particularly fond of creating lists of scientists who doubt climate change while (one notes that both of these denialists also fail to note that the vast majority of “experts” in their lists have no significant expertise in the relevant fields), Dachel starts listing people who “doubt vaccines” and pointing to some really execrably bad studies beloved of the antivaccine movement. Basically, they’re the 2011 and 2012 versions of Mark and David Geier publishing in Medical Hypotheses and include Gayle DeLong’s horrible paean to the ecological fallacy in epidemiological research, followed by Miller and Goldman’s equally horrible invocation of the same fallacy using cherry picked data in trying to correlate infant mortality with vaccine uptake by nation, and my favorite recent example of bad science by cranks, Tomljenovic and Shaw’s attempt to outdo the blaming global warming on the decrease in the number of pirates (i.e., confusing correlation with causation with respect to aluminum adjuvants and autism). When that doesn’t work, she invokes conspiracy theories and COIs. I will admit, however, that she isn’t as hilariously inept at this as her good buddy Jake Crosby. If you really want to see paranoid stupid turned up to 11, just look at Jake’s latest post at AoA, in which he blames Salon.com’s retraction of the infamous Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. fear mongering article on thimerosal in vaccines on–get this–Arthur Allen’s brother-in-law. The mind boggles at such “six degrees of separation” nonsense, and Jake once again cements his reputation as AoA’s antivaccine one trick conspiracy poney.
In trying to keep up her antivaccine cred, though, Dachel concludes her attempt to batter the reader with the claim that there is so much evidence linking vaccines to horrible outcomes by listing the anti-vaccine crank movie The Greater Good (reviewed by yours truly here), Habakus and Holland’s antivaccine book Vaccine Epidemic, Olmsted and Blaxill’s Age of Autism (of course!), and David Kirby’s Evidence of Harm. In other words, we’re not talking reliable sources here.
I will admit, though, that Dachel gets one thing right near the end, albeit not in the way she thinks she does:
Members of the press may not bother to read these books but parents do and what they’re learning fuels the controversy. It’s simply not true that false claims on the Internet are behind distrust in the vaccine program. In the real world, it’s caused by too many sick children no one can explain and more and more courageous experts standing up to the pharmaceutical industry’s hold on our children’s health.
It’s true. Parents do read these books. It’s also true that they read the Internet, where it is almost impossible not to come across antivaccine websites if you do a little searching for information on vaccines. These books, as well as antivaccine websites, are chock full of misinformation, pseudoscience, and quackery designed to demonize vaccines as the cause of all health problems. Even if Dachel’s assessment that there is an “epidemic” of autism were correct (it’s not), that wouldn’t mean that vaccines caused it. If there is a huge increase in the number of children with obesity, diabetes, asthma, and other health problems, it wouldn’t mean that vaccines caused it. There are so many other things that have occurred in the last 30 years that could plausibly be part of the reason why there have been increases in various health conditions. However, none of that matters to Dachel. To antivaccine cranks like Dachel, it is, first and foremost, always about the vaccines. Any health-related issue among children will be seen through the prism of her antivaccine views, and she will try to find a way to relate it to vaccines. Because to the antivaccinationist, vaccines are the root of all evil and must be stopped. Their words might say otherwise with milquetoast caveats that “vaccines can save lives” but we’re vaccinating just too much, but their actions say otherwise. Nothing–no evidence, no science, no data–can convince her or the other antivaccine cranks at AoA that vaccines are safe and effective and do not cause autism. To them, it really is a religious belief that is unfalsifiable.