The “no debate” debate

I like the word “manufactroversy.”

It’s a lovely made up word that combines the two words “manufactured controversy” and is, to boil it down, defined as the art of creating a controversy where none really exists. In the case of science, it’s the concerted effort to make it seem as though there is a legitimate scientific controversy when in reality there is not. Indeed, one might say that the very purpose (or at least the main purpose) of this blog is to discuss manufactroversies. These include issues such as quackery, where promoters of pseudoscientific, unscientific, and prescientific treatment modalities try to convince you that there is a scientific controversy over whether their quackery does any good whatsoever.

Homeopathy is, of course, the best example because from basic science considerations alone it is quite possible to conclude that there is no known mechanism by which homeopathy could work. Indeed, or homeopathy to “work,” so much of what we know about physics, chemistry, and biology would have to be not just wrong but spectacularly wrong, so much so that it would take a hell of a lot more than just a few questionable clinical trials with modest effects that could easily be explained by random noise, publication bias, poor experimental design, or other confounders to “prove” that homeopathy works. Let’s just put it this way: When faced with a seemingly positive result of a homeopathy trial, given that most homeopathic remedies are diluted to the point that it is exceedingly unlikely that even a single molecule of the original substance remains in the remedy, what is the more parsimonious explanation? That much of what we know about chemistry and physics is wrong? Or that it’s random noise, poor design, or bias? Before you answer, consider that these trials usually demonstrate effects (if you can call them that) barely greater than placebo and that huge swaths of basic science tell us that homeopathy can’t work.

That was just one example. I could give a lot of others, but what I really want to discuss is how cranks, quacks, pseudoscientists, and denialists try to gin up manufactroversies in order to convince the unwary that there might just be something to what they’re promoting. Take the antivaccine movement (please). The contingent of cranks who want to convince you that vaccines don’t work, that they cause autism, and that they cause all sorts of horrific health problems want you to believe that there is actually a scientific controversy about this, and nothing enrages them more than to have it pointed out to them that such is not the case. For instance, take Dan Olmsted, editor of the antivaccine propaganda crank blog, Age of Autism. Last week, he was in a fine lather about this very issue, which he called the “no debate” debate. He begins by expressing his outrage about something that happened four years ago. Yes, four years:

One of the great televised moments in vaccine-autism history (right up there with “the problem is the problem”) occurred on The Today Show a few years back when Matt Lauer said “there is controversy” over a link and Dr. Nancy shot back: “Not controversial subject, Matt.”

Matt: “Well, controversial for parents who still believe …”

Dr. Nancy: “It is not controversial Matt. It’s time for kids to get their vaccines.”

It’s less what Matt says, and more the look on his face and the sound of his rather emphatic setting down of interview notes, reflecting the fact “parents who still believe” include someone in his own circle who blames a child’s autism on the MMR.

Yes, it’s controversial. And it’s only gotten more so.

Well, actually, no it hasn’t. Olmsted tries mightily to make it seem as though the manufactroversy has become more intense, but, if anything, it’s become less so. Remember, since 2008 the “champion” of the MMR-autism link, Andrew Wakefield, had his license to practice medicine in the UK revoked (in other words, he was “struck off“), his most famous paper (the 1998 case series from The Lancet that got the whole MMR-autism manufactroversy rolling in a big way in the UK) retracted, and his reputation destroyed by strong evidence that he falsified data for that original paper. As much as I would have preferred it that the science alone had won out as sufficient reason to reject Wakefield’s MMR fear mongering, it turned out that the discrediting of Wakefield in the eyes of the press and the public was what it took. I suppose it’s much easier to point out that Wakefield was struck off the UK medical record for his unethical research behavior and that he committed research fraud than it is to explain exactly why he was wrong based on the science and evidence. Be that as it may, in the wake of Wakefield’s downfall, more and more the media seem to be a bit less credulous about antivaccine claims and, more importantly, less willing to give the pseudoscience of the antivaccine movement equal time, as though it was a reasonable alternative viewpoint to the scientific consensus regarding vaccines. There is a reason we don’t see Jenny McCarthy spewing her ignorant blather about vaccines as often as we did four years ago. Heck, J.B. Handley, the founder of Generation Rescue, hasn’t been seen or heard from in the national media for a very long time now, and he used to be a regular on TV every Autism Awareness Month.

I don’t know about you, but think about news coverage about vaccines over the last five years or so. Five years ago, I remember that every story on vaccines seemed to feature someone who thought vaccines caused autism or that they were otherwise unsafe. I can’t quantify it, and it’s possible my impression is due to confirmation bias, but my personal viewpoint suggests to me that the tide has turned. The media are no longer willing to give antivaccinationists equal time with scientists, and that’s a good thing. Whether this has anything to do with Jenny McCarthy’s having soft pedaled her antivaccine views lately because she seems to have made a decision that it was hurting her career. Rob Schneider might have recently leapt into the breach with his brain dead opposition to California Bill AB 2109, but he hasn’t made the splash that Jenny McCarthy did four years ago, such as when she led an antivaccine demonstration in Washington, DC, which led me to liken her efforts to Dumb & Dumber.

But back to Olmsted. You might wonder why he dredged up a TV spot from four years ago. The reason, it turns out, is that Brian Deer, the investigative journalist who nailed Andrew Wakefield for his conflicts of interest, unethical behavior, and outright scientific fraud used the same argument that Nancy Snyderman and Matt Lauer used four years ago. When the AoA cranks complained that Deer was speaking without anyone to present “the other side,” they got a response that was scientifically correct but of the sort that infuriated them:

The “no debate” argument surfaced again this past week, as Brian Deer was given free rein at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse to peddle his views as though they were carried down the mountain by Dr. Moses. As our own Anne Dachel reported:

“The University of WI-La Crosse made their position clear in the opening remarks of professor of immunology, Bernadette Taylor, before an audience of hundreds of UWL students. “There is no debate… This University did not invite a debate on that issue.”

“Case closed: the University would not allow for a free exchange of ideas so informed, intelligent students could make up their own minds.

Well, not exactly. From a scientific standpoint, there isn’t a controversy, as much as Olmsted might fervently try to make it seem as though there is. Numerous well-designed studies have been carried out since 1998, and they have failed to find a whiff of a hint of a correlation between MMR and autism, and, from a broader standpoint, no good study has found a convincing link between vaccines and autism or between mercury-containing thimerosal in vaccines and autism. There is no evidence that vaccines cause autism or any of the other conditions ascribed to them by antivaccinationists. What does that mean? Well, it doesn’t mean what Olmsted thinks it means:

This idea that “the science” has spoken is profoundly unscientific, of course. Rather, it’s the gutless whimpering sound of a dying paradigm. Putting the kabbosh on disagreement is a sign of deep anxiety about the real facts. And, of course, it’s fundamentally undemocratic to attempt to stifle dissent by claiming it’s too dangerous – kids will die if you disagree! A mushroom cloud will explode over New York if you don’t agree Iraq has weapons of mass destruction! The world will be more dangerous if you don’t quit pushing this Watergate thing! (“One year of Watergate is enough,” as Nixon famously proclaimed.)

Notice the appeal not to science but to politics, in which Olmsted likens scientists quite reasonably pointing out that the vast preponderance of existing science doesn’t support the idea that vaccines cause autism to George W. Bush and crew agitating to invade Iraq and Richard Nixon telling people to stop pursuing investigations into Watergate. Here’s a hint, Danny boy: Neither of these is science. Here’s another hint: Science is not a democracy. Data matter, not opinions—unless, of course, those opinions are backed up by data, experiments, and basic science. The fantasy that vaccines cause autism is not backed up by any of these things.

This form of argumentation is much beloved of cranks of all types, by they quacks, antivaccinationists, creationists, or anthropogenic global warming denialists. As much as cranks might hate it, there does come a point where the science and evidence are so overwhelming that, for all intents and purposes, the case is closed. That’s definitely the case with respect to the question of whether vaccines can cause autism. Let’s put it this way. Edzard Ernst had it right when he asked rhetorically, “Should we keep an open mind about astrology, perpetual motion, alchemy, alien abduction, and sightings of Elvis Presley?” The vaccine-autism link is rapidly approaching the same territory. If antivaccinationists think otherwise, it is up to them to show the evidence.

This brings me to my final point. The beauty of science is that even “closed cases” can be reopened. However, to reopen such cases requires something that antivaccinationists don’t have, and that’s strong evidence. To reopen the case for vaccines as a cause or contributor to autism would require new evidence for a vaccine-autism link that is of sufficient quantity and quality to cast doubt on the existing body of evidence that is consistent with no causation. Whining about the existing state of evidence, which, let’s face it, is all that Olmsted is doing, won’t cut it, particularly given that he can’t produce any substantive criticisms of existing studies sufficient refute them as unreliable. Neither will crying that it’s “not fair” not to let the cranks in. There’s a price of entry for this particular debate, and that price is evidence. Olmsted doesn’t have it. So he appeals to a manufactroversy and hopes that that will be enough to fool his audience.

Same as it ever was.