Fundraising for antivaccine research

If there’s one thing that antivaccine cranks tell us that has a grain of truth in it, it’s to be wary of pharmaceutical companies and their influence. Their mission is, of course, to make profits, and sometimes the search for profits can lead them to do things that are less than savory. Of course, antivaccine cranks take reasonable skepticism and wariness of pharmaceutical company influence and amp it up to ridiculous heights, in much the same way that they take concerns about potential side effects of vaccines and amp them up to even more ridiculous heights. It’s what they do. In any case, I’ve always pointed out that studies funded by pharmaceutical companies should be judged on their merits and the strength of the science, but that funding sources do count, leading me to look at pharmaceutical-funded studies with a bit more skepticism than I do studies funded by other sources. The same is true of studies funded by organizations with an agenda. They could be good studies, but they generally have a higher bar to overcome the concern of bias due to the funding source.

All of this is why I fear for researchers at Jackson State University. Whether or not it’s due to their seeking help and not being too particular where they get it from, I don’t know, but they are in danger of having a study they’re planning on doing tainted by funding from antivaccinationists. It’s not a road that a legitimate researcher wanting to protect his academic reputation would want to go down, but these investigators appear to be doing just that, as I learned from a post yesterday on the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism entitled Unvaccinated Children and Autism: Study Funding Needed Right Now. Yes, AoA is soliciting funds from its readers to support a study. J.B. Handley even urges AoA readers to follow his example:

So, in order to finish the work and see the first documented data comparing vaccinated and unvaccinated children, an additional $400,000 needs to be raised.

Some comments about fundraising for the study:

  1. If you can help, please donate directly through the Generation Rescue website, HERE. (Note: Generation Rescue is not conducting the study, we just want to see the study completed so the data can be collected and analyzed, whatever the outcome. By clicking through this donation link, you can make sure 100% of your donation goes to the study.)
  2. If you are in a position to donate a sizable amount and would like to learn more details about the study, please contact Generation Rescue and we will help provide information or the appropriate introduction: 1-877-98-AUTISM
  3. Yes, mainstream autism organizations have been given the opportunity to help fund this study and they have declined to do so

This is such important work, I hope everyone who reads this can help in some way. Earlier this week, my wife and I contributed $5,000 through the GR site to help support the study, and I hope everyone who is in a position to help will do so–thanks for listening!

Actually, looking at it more closely, I fear I know why J.B. Handley was interested in this study, and it’s not because it looks like it is likely to answer the question of whether vaccines cause autism or not. You’ll see what I mean in a second. But first, I’d like to “welcome” J. B. Handley back. It wasn’t all that that long ago that I was wondering where J.B. Handley was. We all missed him. Few cranks are able to combine sheer orneriness with amazing crankitude to produce screeds that are a joy to apply a bit of not-so-Respectful Insolence to. This one, I must admit, is not one of his better screeds. I rather suspect that the reason is that he’s trying to get people to donate money to what he considers to be a good cause. But is it? Well, it is J.B. Handley we’re talking about here, a man whose attraction to bad antivaccine science is only rivaled by his utter lack of filters on what he says.

But first, Handley has to get in on some of that sweet, sweet Nate Silver action. You remember Nate Silver, don’t you? I mentioned him just two weeks ago in the context of discussing science-based medicine. Just three weeks ago, Nate Silver dazzled the world with the accuracy of his predictions of the 2012 election results, predicting the outcome and margins of the presidential election, as well as Senate and House races. He did it through a very rigorous analysis of existing public polling data, and his predictions went against the conventional wisdom about the election that pundits wanted you to believe. I’m sure you can see where this going. Yes, because Nate Silver was right when so many thought that Mitt Romney would make it a much closer race and possibly even pull off a win, that must mean that vaccines cause autism. Well, not exactly, but Handley can’t resist citing Silver as support for his views:

“In a complex system, however, mistakes are not measured in degrees but in whole orders of magnitude.”

Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise

In the above quote, author Nate Silver is discussing the fact that Moody’s and S&P–the pre-eminent financial ratings agencies in the world– underestimated the default risk of CDO funds by a factor of over 200, facilitating the implosion of the housing bubble and a worldwide recession.

Put another way, the financial experts at S&P and Moody’s predicted that certain financial instruments would have a default rate of just 0.12 percent (just over one tenth of one percent), when the actual default rate turned out to be 28%.

How could so many smart people be so stupid?

This question lies at the heart of a battle and debate that so many of us are currently fighting—is it possible that our health authorities, in an attempt to prevent every infectious disease they could through the use of vaccines, ended up creating a whole different set of problematic health outcomes in our children?

The invocation of Nate Silver is inappropriate in the extreme. In actuality, Silver is the data-driven person, the one who correctly analyzes publicly available data. In comparison, Handley is more like the political pundits or the Republican operatives who were trying to “unskew” the polls and convince you that Mitt Romney was actually going to win. He reminds me of the “smart people” to which Nate Silver refers, who turned out to be so stupid. He is driven by an agenda, not data. He sees conspiracies, not truth. He believes pseudoscience, not science. Where skeptics cite real scientists, Handley cites all-purpose antiscience crank Dr. Donald Miller. I can understand why Handley wants to try to appropriate the Nate Silver mojo for himself, though. I view it as nothing more than an updated form of the “Galileo gambit.” In fact, I rather suspect we’ll be seeing more and more of the “Nate Silver gambit” from cranks after his success in predicting the 2012 election results.

Be that as it may, what exactly is this study that Handley wants to help fund?

I must admit, I’m underwhelmed. The study will apparently cost $500,000 to fund, but only $100,000 has been raised so far. Interestingly, as Handley noted above, mainstream autism charities have passed. I wonder why… It couldn’t be that the hypothesis at the heart of the study is one that’s already been scientifically discredited time and time again, could it? Or the rather useless design of the study:

This study concerns a major current health question: namely, whether vaccination is linked in any way to children’s long-term health. Vaccination is one of the greatest discoveries in medicine, yet little is known about its long-term impact. The objective of this study is to evaluate the effects of vaccination by comparing vaccinated and unvaccinated children in terms of a number of major health outcomes, including asthma, autism, diabetes, and learning disability. The study involves a partnership between Jackson State University (JSU), Jackson, MS and the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI), Salem, OR, which has long been involved in research on homeschool education.

It all sounds rather innocuous, but looking deeper, I find that this “study” is not much of a study at all. In fact, it’s just an Internet survey, and not even a particularly informative survey. Why it will cost $500,000 to complete, I have no idea. It sures seems like a lot of green for a relatively easy study. It’s not as though a bunch of people to interview hundreds or thousands of subjects are needed. You can even look at it yourself, as one can find the survey here and here. Its principal investigator is Anthony R. Mawson, M.A., Dr.P.H.. That name sounded familiar to me, and it didn’t take much Googling before it came to me.

It turns out that Dr. Mawson is a vocal supporter of—surprise! surprise!—Andrew Wakefield. For instance he wrote to a blogger telling him that he disagreed with Prof. Trisha Greenhalgh’s critical analysis of the Wakefield et al. study that was published in The Lancet in 1998 in which she characterized it as seriously flawed. Dr. Mawson even went so far as to say that the paper is “excellent” and “a superb case study that will join the ranks of other famous case studies, such as the link between rubella infection and congenital rubella syndrome (Gregg 1941) and between exposure to thalidomide and embryopathy (McBride 1956),” concluding:

The paper, once understood in this light, as case series analysis, is truly remarkable, well written and brilliantly documented. It concluded by stating the hypothesis, based on parents’ reports, that the children’s’ signs and symptoms were temporally connected to MMR vaccination. Subsequent studies may not have substantiated the hypothesis; but that does not detract from or invalidate the merits of the paper as a case series and as, essentially, a hypothesis paper.

Hmmm. One wonders what Dr. Mawson thinks now that Wakefield’s paper based on that “brilliant” case series has been retracted. His letter is a hunk o’ hunk o’ burnin’ stupid. He probably still loves Wakefield.

However, things are coming into focus more; certainly it’s obvious now why J.B. Handley loves Mawson’s “study.” It’s an Internet survey whose subjects will self-select, as there doesn’t appear to be a mechanism to attract a representative cross-section of parents. It’s also being carried out in collaboration with an entity known as the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI), a group I’ve never heard of, but many (although certainly not all) home schoolers are notoriously antivaccine. Mawson’s study does, however, resemble a “study” proposed by Generation Rescue a few years back. So what we have here is a study that is really nothing more than an Internet survey funded by a home schooling organization for which additional funding has been sought through the rabidly antivaccine group, Generation Rescue.

I started out concerned that legitimate researchers were going to have their work tainted by donations from an antivaccine source, but I needn’t have worried. I should have known that most real scientists shun the antivaccine movement. Clearly Mawson does not, because he’s obviously had contact with J.B. Handley and is fine with Handley’s fundraising for him. Part of me is half-tempted to sit back and hope that Handley’s minions actually do donate $400,000 to Mawson for his study. It would be money that couldn’t make mischief elsewhere by funding antivaccine activism or quackery. It would also be money about as well-spent as the Republican Super-PACs that failed to elect so many Republican candidates, but I suppose wasting it on Mawson is probably not as bad as using it for other antivaccine activities. On the other hand, as useless as this survey will be, I know that antivaccinationists will use it as a propaganda tool, no matter what it shows. That’s what it’s clearly designed to be. That’s also why I hope Handley’s funding initiative succeeds just about as well as other attempts at “science” GR has undertaken, as in not at all.