Quoth Vox Day: Vaccines are killing babies! Retorts Orac: Vox’s arguments are killing neurons!

Remember Vox Day?

Newer converts to the glory that is Orac (or at least to the ego that is Orac) might not know who Vox is because it’s been a while since I’ve discussed his antiscience attitudes. By and large, this is probably a good thing, given that Vox denies evolution, has been antivaccine from way back, and apparently thinks nothing of suggesting that the U.S. emulate Hitler’s methods of ejecting Jews from Germany to take care of our illegal immigrant problem. Truly, Vox is an example of crank magnetism at work. Particularly amusing is the way that he trumpets his membership in Mensa and then proceeds immediately to demonstrate that high IQ doesn’t protect against belief in pseudoscience. Of course, what’s even more amusing is that Vox is an example, every bit as much as Jenny McCarthy, of the arrogance of ignorance.

And—wouldn’t you know?—he’s done it again.

I’m referring to an article by Vox that several of you have sent me. It’s appeared in WorldNetDaily and is entitled Sudden Infant Vaccine Death. Even more ominously, it’s got a blurb that says, “Exclusive: Vox Day pinpoints age when immunization shots are most dangerous.” Yes, Vox tries to prove that vaccines cause sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and fails miserably.

Upon reading Vox’s article, all I can say is…wow. It’s been a long time, been a long time, been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time since I’ve seen such a concentrated mass of burning stupid in such a small volume of verbiage. Truly, Vox has a talent for inundating his ideological opponents with bile mixed with napalm-grade burning idiocy. Anyone who knows anything about vaccines will come away from this article fearing that he has lost many, many neurons. Orac, having delved into such nonsense over the last seven years, has neurons made of tougher stuff, but even they were hard-pressed to fight the intelligence-sapping power of Vox’s ignorance. I’ll show you what I mean, first by showing you his attitude, which is, as typical, pure antiscience:

Vaccine advocates – although propagandists would be a more accurate term – often correctly claim that there is no scientific evidence proving that vaccines have ever killed anyone or caused autism. Therefore, they claim vaccines can be considered the cause of nothing but a cure for cancer, an end to war and the elimination of all human disease except that caused by dirty, unvaccinated children who are homeschooled by religious bigots. To even consider the mere possibility of questioning the intrinsic and perfect goodness of vaccines, any vaccine given for any reason, is to be not only anti-science, but personally responsible for murdering anyone who died of a disease that would have been prevented by vaccination.

I lost track of the number of straw men set on fire at the part of vaccines being and “end to war.” I realize Vox is being sarcastic; so I consider it only appropriate to answer sarcasm with sarcasm. In fact, I consider the nature of his sarcasm to be very revealing. He intentionally misinterprets science-based assessments of vaccine efficacy and utility, painting advocates of science-based medicine (SBM) defending vaccines as anti-religious zealots who believe that vaccines are the solution to all of humanity’s problems. Actually, it’s not exactly subtle that Vox tries to paint his opponents as simultaneously anti-religion but with a religious fervor, apparently in which vaccines replace God as the object of worship. In doing this, Vox tries to portray himself as not only being pro-science, but in actuality the true representative of science.

He ain’t.

One amusing aspect of this article that I’ll touch on briefly is that Vox appears to be really, really perturbed about the Jenny McCarthy Body Count website. He really seems peeved that anyone would say such nasty things about Jenny McCarthy. Never mind that the site, which is, by the way, excellent, is very clear about what it is doing and how it is making estimates. Also never mind that, contrary to what Vox says, namely that the website claims that Jenny McCarthy is responsible for all the deaths listed on the site, the Jenny McCarthy Body Count site is very careful not to say that. In fact, what the JMBC site says in response to a question asking whether Jenny McCarthy is directly responsible for every vaccine-preventable illness and death listed, “No.” Rather, the claim is that, by promoting antivaccine views, Jenny McCarthy is arguably responsible for some of these illnesses, a far less radical claim.

Score another straw man for Vox.

Let’s get to the heart of Vox’s accusation against “vaccine propagandists.” Once again, Vox demonstrates his utter lack of understanding of clinical research ethics by ranting against the current state of evidence regarding vaccine safety because it isn’t the result of randomized clinical trials looking at vaccinated versus unvaccinated children. It’s a recurrent theme that pops up again and again in his article and on his blog; so I’ll quote it:

The reason that the vaccine propagandist claim is correct is because there is also no scientific evidence that vaccines have not killed anyone or caused autism, because there is absolutely no valid scientific evidence on the matter. Most of the “science” in the studies that are widely cited by those who insist that vaccines are safe are simply statistical reviews, which involve as much use of actual science as polling former Playboy models. In the very few cases where an actual scientific experiment has been performed, the populations compared have not been between a vaccinated group and an unvaccinated control group, but rather two different groups that are both vaccinated to varying degrees.

The vaccine propagandists defend the failure of scientists to gather scientific evidence by begging the question. They insist that it would be unethical to permit a control group of children to go without vaccination, due to their assumption that the risks of vaccination are significantly outweighed by the dangers of the diseases vaccinated against. Thus, they perpetuate ignorance on the actual safety or danger of the current U.S. vaccine schedule.

Notice how Vox denigrates large scale epidemiological studies that have failed to find even a whiff of a hint of a correlation between vaccines and autism or any of the other conditions that Vox is about to blame on them, in this case SIDS. To him they’re dismissed as “statistical reviews” and disparagingly compared to polling former Playboy models, thus combining anti-science with typical Vox Day misogyny in a single sentence. Vox needs a lesson in clinical trial ethics. Again. Sadly, it will probably fall on the proverbial deaf ears, but I’ll give it a try again, starting with two words: Clinical equipoise.

Stated briefly, for purposes of clinical trials, clinical equipoise demands that there be a state of genuine scientific uncertainty in the medical community over which of the drugs or treatments being tested is more efficacious and safer or whether a drug being tested with placebo is better or worse than doing nothing. Without that genuine scientific uncertainty over which option being tested in a clinical trial is better (or at least less harmful), the trial cannot be ethical because investigators would be knowingly assigning one group of subjects to a treatment known to be inferior, or at least strongly suspected to be. One reason (among many) why a prospective randomized, clinical trial that intentionally leaves one group unvaccinated to determine whether vaccines cause autism (or whatever condition or disease the investigator suspects to be associated with vaccines) would be completely unethical is that it egregiously violates the principle of clinical equipoise, regardless of the hand waving Vox does to try to argue that it’s acceptable from an ethical standpoint. The unvaccinated group would be left unprotected against potentially life-threatening vaccine-preventable diseases, and that is completely unacceptable from an ethical perspective. Consequently, when it comes to studies of this type, we have had to rely on less rigorous trial designs to ask the question of whether vaccines cause various problems. While each individual trial of such types is less powerful and convincing than randomized clinical trials, the accumulated weight of such evidence can (and is) often enough. In the case of vaccines, it’s more than enough.

Vox, for all his self-proclaimed Mensa awesomeness, seems totally unable to understand that for some questions that is the best we can do because scientific rigor sometimes conflicts with human subjects research ethics. If we know (or have good scientific reason to suspect) that one treatment is better than another, it is unethical to randomize patients to the arm that receives what is, based on what is known at the time of the trial, likely to be an inferior treatment. We know that withholding vaccines is associated with a much higher risk of unvaccinated children contracting vaccine-preventable diseases, and we do not have good scientific reason to suspect, from a plausibility standpoint or from the standpoint of existing clinical evidence, that vaccines cause autism or any of the other conditions attributed to them. Let’s put it this way: We know that smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, and a whole host of ailments not from randomized clinical trials in which one group is prescribed one or two packs a day of cigarettes for 20 years and the other isn’t. We figured out that tobacco smoke causes cancer from epidemiological studies. If Vox accepts that smoking causes lung cancer, then it’s disingenuous of him not to accept that vaccines don’t cause autism and sudden infant death syndrome because the studies that say so are epidemiological in nature.

Of course, what’s really hilarious is that, to prove his point that vaccines cause SIDS, Vox combats good epidemiology with bad epidemiology. The bad epidemiology is dumpster diving in the VAERS database. The VAERS database is the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System. This is a time-“honored” technique of cranks, to dumpster dive in VAERS looking for correlations. Mark and David Geier used to do it regularly. The VAERS wasn’t designed to look for correlations as what Vox is using it to look for, as it’s designed only as an early warning system for reporting adverse events thought to be due to vaccines. One reason is that anyone can make entries into it, not just medical professionals, and the results are only checked in the most perfunctory way. For example, as Jim Laidler described before, it takes entering something like a claim that a vaccine turned one into The Incredible Hulk in order to get the staff there to question the entry. In another incident, Kevin Leitch reported to VAERS that a vaccine turned his daughter into Wonder Woman, and the report was accepted even with the ridiculous nature of the report and despite the fact that he was reporting from a U.K. IP address.

Truly, Vox doesn’t understand the nature of the database upon which he is relying.

Worse, as I described before, the database has been corrupted by litigation, with a dramatic increase of entries linked to litigation claiming that thimerosal caused the plaintiff’s child’s autism. As for appropriate uses of the VAERS database, here’s what it says right on the Advisory Guide to the Interpretation of VAERS Data:

VAERS data are derived from a passive surveillance system and represent unverified [emphasis mine] reports of health events, both minor and serious, that occur after vaccination.

And:

While some events reported to VAERS are truly caused by vaccines, others may be related to an underlying disease or condition, to drugs being taken concurrently, or may occur by chance shortly after a vaccine was administered.

And:

Therefore, VAERS collects data on any adverse event following vaccination, be it coincidental or truly caused by a vaccine. The report of an adverse event to VAERS is not documentation that a vaccine caused the event.

In other words, VAERS reports are not evidence of causation, nor are a group of VAERS reports.

So what does Vox find in VAERS that convinces him that vaccines cause SIDS? He creates a graph purporting to show that there is a peak of VAERS reports in which death is the reported complication at age 2-3 months:

These fatal adverse events are happening to children of a very specific age. More than one-third of all reported vaccine-related deaths, nearly 40 percent, occurred between the ages of two and four months, which just happens to be precisely when the vaccine schedule calls for children to receive no less than 10 shots, including 2xRV, 2xDTaP, 2xHib, 2xPCV and 2xIPV. They may also receive an 11th shot, for Hepatitis B, as well.

From which he concludes:

One needn’t be a rabid opponent of vaccines to find this death spike at 3 months to be troubling and indicative of a need to rethink the current vaccine schedule. And everyone, pro- and anti-vaccine, should be concerned about the shameless vaccine safety propaganda that is so easily shown to be false. Laws are passed and governments engage in ad campaigns to help reduce the 200 children’s bicycle deaths each year, so clearly it is worthwhile to look more closely and scientifically into the issue of vaccine safety when an estimated 1,060 children are dying between 2 and 4 months of age each year from the vaccines being injected into them.

Confuse correlation and causation much, Vox? The obvious interpretation of this finding is that the reason most reported deaths occur between two and four months is because that’s the peak incidence of SIDS. This has been known for decades and hasn’t changed, even with changing vaccine schedules. Moreover, although Vox tries to dismiss “one study” that shows no correlation between vaccines and SIDS, in fact there are at least nine, some of which are summarized here. I’m not sure which study Vox is lambasting. I suspect it was this case-control study that actually found that the SIDS babies tended to receive fewer vaccines. From this the authors concluded:

The age distribution of SIDS cases in Germany shows a peak at the age of 3 months. This is the time when the first immunisations are given. If immunisation increased the risk of SIDS one would expect a higher immunisation rate among the SIDS cases compared to the control infants. In the GeSID the opposite was the case. More controls were immunised and the control infants started their immunisation schedule earlier. Even when the data were restricted to the 14 days prior to death/interview, there was no increase risk for SIDS from immunisation.

There are also several other such studies that find no positive relationship between vaccination and SIDS, considered more than sufficient to consider the likelihood of a link between the two to be as close to zero as science can estimate. In fact, if there is any correlation at all, it is a negative correlation, with vaccines being protective against SIDS. Vox can dismiss the studies all he wants, but he’s doing so not based on science. He says he read the studies, but he has no idea why he dismisses them. If he does, certainly he can’t explain what the defects in these studies (1, 2, 3) are that are so bad as to be fatal to the studies’ conclusions that at the very least immunizations don’t increase the risk of SIDS and at the the very most they might lower the risk. Indeed, there are even enough studies looking at the relationship between vaccines and SIDS that a meta-analysis could be done. Not surprisingly, this meta-analysis of published SIDS studies agrees and found the relative risk of SIDS in vaccinated babies to be 0.54.

Vox is just plain wrong about this (as usual).

Being wrong, of course, doesn’t stop Vox. Based on his wrongness, he even proposes a breathtakingly unethical study:

So, how can the lethality of the vaccine schedule be at least partially tested without requiring an unvaccinated control group? The answer is based on the charts above. By simply dividing the vaccinated children into four groups and then shifting the entire vaccine schedule back three months, six months and one year, then observing if the two 2-4 month SIDS and VAERS death spikes either shift back in parallel with each group or disappear, we would obtain valuable information concerning the danger of the current vaccine schedule.

If the death spikes shift back in parallel with the delayed administration, we would be able to conclude that the vaccines being given are simply too lethal when combined according to the current schedule. If the death spikes subside with increased age, as I suspect would be the case, we would be able to conclude that the problem stems from the combined vaccines overwhelming some of the smaller bodies and weaker constitutions of the children between two and four months. If this is the case, simply moving the vaccine schedule back a few months, perhaps even as much as a year, would save the lives of between 1,000 and 10,000 American children every single year, to say nothing of the non-lethal adverse effects it would also mitigate, if not necessarily eliminate entirely.

Two words again: Clinical equipoise. We have not just one but several studies that are quite clear that vaccines do not cause SIDS and even suggest that vaccines are probably protective against SIDS. Contrary to Vox’s brain dead attempt at dumpster diving in the VAERS database, we have no good reason any more to suspect that vaccines increase the risk of SIDS, if we ever did. On the other hand, we do know that vaccines protect children from vaccine-preventable diseases. If, as Vox suggests, we were to delay the vaccination schedule by up to a year, there would be some very predictable consequences, specifically that there would be more young children, vaccines delayed, developing diseases those vaccines are designed to prevent. Again, in his ignorance of clinical trial ethics, Vox proposes a trial in which there is no reason to suspect that any subject would benefit and many reasons to conclude that there would certainly be subjects who will be harmed. Somehow Vox’s Mensa brain can’t comprehend this very simple aspect of clinical trial ethics.

Vox’s error would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad how eager he is to demonize vaccines. He takes a look at the spike in infant deaths between the ages of 2-4 months, which has been well known as the peak incidence of SIDS for decades. He then notes that infants start to get vaccines around then, apparently ignoring or dismissing the fact that scientists asked this very same question a long time ago (whether vaccines at that time are associated with SIDS), did the studies, and found that the answer is no. Instead, he acts as though he’s made a major discovery that scientists have never thought of or ignored when he looked at VAERS and found that there is a spike in reports of infant deaths between 2 and 4 months when that’s something that’s well known and has been for a long time. He then notes that SIDS deaths decreased after 1994 and, while mentioning what is almost certainly the actual cause of this decline, twists facts, logic, and reason to find a way to blame vaccines anyway:

The 2-4 month death spike appears consistently even if one goes all the way back to 1990, the earliest date available. The situation appears to have improved considerably, as the worst years were 1991 through 1994, so it would be informative to learn if there was a change in the vaccine schedule between 1994 and 1995. It is also interesting to note that SIDS deaths are reported to have declined from 1993 to 2004, and by a proportion similar to the decline in VAERS-reported deaths. Of course, it’s also theoretically possible that the anti-SIDS sleep campaign which began in 1994 is responsible for decline in vaccine deaths, as perhaps stomach sleeping somehow exacerbates the problem of receiving a vaccine overload.

Pathetic. It was very likely that anti-SIDS sleep campaign that resulted in the decline SIDS deaths; yet Vox can’t admit that simple conclusion. He still calls them vaccine deaths and wonders whether stomach sleeping worsens the effects of “vaccine overload.” Hilariously, one of his own commenters points out that the spike in infant deaths between the ages of two and four months was known more than 120 years ago, with 60% of infant deaths occurring between those ages and 62% occurring between October and March, all consistent with what we know about SIDS now and consistent with what Vox is so amazed to find in the VAERS database now. Of course, back in 1889, which is when these numbers were reported, infants didn’t get vaccines that young. Vox, clueless as ever, fails to see the significance of this observation and blithely dismisses it as “out of date.”

Vox is easy to laugh at because he is so arrogant and utterly without self-awareness when it comes to his own weaknesses in understanding how science works. Unfortunately, he is also an excellent example of motivated reasoning, which is a term that explains how people have the tendency to use reason not so much to find the truth but to develop arguments to support ideas that they already believe. According to this principle, the smarter a person is, the better he or she is at selecting evidence and developing arguments to defend his or her beliefs, and this is one major reason why highly educated people tend to seem to be more prone to crank beliefs, such as antivaccinationism. The problem with the idea of motivated reasoning with respect to Vox Day is that, although he’s a perfect example of crank magnetism, unlike what his Mensa-ness would suggest, he’s just so damned bad at motivated reasoning. He tries, but his arguments are risible.

Oh, well. There are always outliers in any theoretical construct.