A conservative “failure” of skepticism over vaccines?


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Lawrence Solomon appears to be a rising star in the antivaccine movement. I started taking notice of him a couple of months ago, spewing classic long-refuted antivaccine talking points with the enthusiasm of a newbie who thinks he’s the first one to have thought of them and the arrogance of ignorance of a convert who has no clue that he’s spewing complete and total bollocks. Lately, he’s been spewing that bollocks in various places, including his own website, the Financial Post, that wretched hive of antivaccine scum and quackery, The Huffington Post (a.k.a. HuffPost), and, a week ago, The American Thinker (which is, in my experience, a publication so risibly misnamed as to force me to choke down laughter any time I see articles there).

The same was true when I first saw a post by Solomon there entitled Where Conservative Skepticism Falls Short. Indeed, Mr. Solomon has been such a font of antivaccine nonsense lately that I’m surprised I haven’t decided to address him before. Let’s just say that his articles and posts represent a—shall we say?—”target-rich” environment, and this article is no different, thus making it a good place to start. Amusingly, Solomon’s criticism of American conservatives is that they are not “skeptical enough” about a certain topic. Given his past blather on vaccines, I bet you can guess what that topic is. If you can’t (unlikely), I’ll quote the first two paragraphs of the post for you. If you can, you’ll still be amused by the addled thinking that leads Solomon to write something like:

Conservatives much more than most others stick to their principles —individual liberty, personal responsibility, and freedom of the press — while also maintaining a healthy skepticism of government pronouncements. That combination has in the past saved the U.S. from grief, such as in the 1980s, when President Reagan rolled back the statist tide, and in recent years, when the House of Representatives prevented President Obama from implementing his statist and economically ruinous global warming agenda.

But when it comes to one issue in particular — government mass vaccination programs — many conservatives forget their principles and accept as dogma studies from government bodies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This deference to government-promoted science is especially perplexing because of the parallel to global warming, another controversial area of government-promoted science, where conservatives have challenged studies from governments and the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

There’s so much wrong in this passage that it both amused and appalled me at the same time. I rather suspect that Solomon doesn’t realize how well he illustrates the principle of crank magnetism in that he’s praising conservatives for their adherence to the pseudoscience of AGW denialism, something that they most definitely shouldn’t be praised for, and castigating them for not being “skeptical” enough about “government mass vaccination programs.” In a way, he’s more correct than he knows, but not in the way he thinks. Being “skeptical” of AGW science is indeed about as scientifically misguided as being “skeptical” of vaccines in the way that antivaccinationists like Solomon are. “Skeptical.” You keep using that word, Mr. Solomon. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Before I move on, let’s just put it this way. Climate science is controversial, but not in the way Solomon thinks it is. There is overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that the earth’s climate is warming, likely catastrophically, and that human activity is the main driver of this climate change. The controversy is in the details, not the overall conclusion: How fast is the earth warming? What are the finer points of the mechanism? How can we best mitigate the effects? Similarly, there is overwhelming consensus among scientists and physicians that vaccines are safe and effective and that they do not cause autism. Denying one of these scientific consensuses based on pseudoscientific reasoning is very much like denying the other; they’re both pseudoscience. That Solomon denies them both, while these mythical conservatives whom he is addressing deny only one of them, doesn’t make Solomon more clear-seeing than the conservatives are, as he thinks. It makes him even more of a wingnut than these AGW-denying conservatives are.

What irritates Solomon and provided the impetus for his article is a criticism that one of his fellow American Thinker columnists, Sierra Rayne, correctly took him to task for the numerous errors and misinterpretations of science in an article of his that was featured during American Thinker’s “junk science week” entitled Vaccinating the “herd.” There’s some serious stupid in that article, so much so that even Orac’s circuits, which have survived the burning stupid of so many antivaccine loons before, even Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Sharyl Attkisson, were taxed. Fortunately, Orac’s circuits are heavily shielded. I’ll give you an example:

In November 1966, in announcing a mass vaccination program for measles that would exceed the 55% level reached in Baltimore, the U.S. Public Health Service confidently announced that “Effective use of these vaccines during the coming winter and spring should insure the eradication of measles from the United States in 1967.”

When measles failed to be eradicated, public health experts decided that a 70% or 75% vaccination rate would secure herd immunity. When that proved wrong, the magic number rose to 80%, 83%, 85%, and then it became 90%, according to a 2001 Health Services Research report. Later health experts commonly cited 95%.

But that too was insufficient — measles outbreaks occur even when the vaccinated population exceeds 95%, leading some to say a 98% or 99% vaccination rate is needed to protect the remaining 1% or 2% of the herd. But even that may fall short, since outbreaks occur in fully vaccinated populations.

Solomon’s “reasoning,” such as it is, is quite specious. First, even if his version of events is correct (which one wonders), that authorities underestimated the percentage of the population that needed to be vaccinated to achieve adequate herd immunity back in 1966 in no way implies much of anything about today’s understanding of herd immunity. Moreover, although the measles vaccine is quite effective, particularly when children receive all the doses, but it’s still not 100% effective (more like 90%). So outbreaks can still occur. Here’s the thing. Solomon misunderstands in that he thinks herd immunity means that there will never be any outbreaks. Rather, herd immunity serves as a sort of “firebreak” or “firewall” that limits the spread of outbreaks when they occur. Unvaccinated people are indirectly protected by vaccinated individuals, because the latter are less likely to contract and transmit the disease between infected and susceptible individuals. Solomon assumes that the protection must be 100%, but nothing in medicine is 100%.

Let’s just look at it this way. Before the measles vaccine, there were a half a million cases a year of measles in the United States. That plummeted to a very low level within five years of the licensing of the vaccine:


Measles US 1944-2007 inset” by 2over0Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed, in the US, measles was declared eliminated in 2000. How did that happen? Vaccines. Solomon’s entire argument in his post is that because the measles vaccine isn’t perfect it’s crap and not worth doing. In other words, it’s an obvious example of the “Nirvana fallacy.” He then falls for the naturalistic fallacy:

In fact, herd immunity — so elusive today — fully existed prior to the vaccine’s introduction. Virtually 100% of the population then contracted measles, typically as children, giving everyone lifelong immunity — and future mothers the means to protect their offspring. In mass vaccinating us, scientists of the 1960s didn’t realize that infecting us with the measles vaccine — a weak version of the natural measles virus — would give us a weak version of the defenses our bodies develop to the real thing.

Well, not exactly. Here’s the problem. Measles is not a benign disease. Solomon tries to argue that it is, but he is, quite simply, so wrong he’s not even wrong. According to the CDC, approximately 30% of cases result in complications, and, as Rayne rightly points out, citing Orenstein et al:

From 1956 to 1960, an average of 450 measles-related deaths were reported each year (~1 death/1000 reported cases), compared with an average of 5300 measles-related deaths during 1912-1916 (26 deaths/1000 reported cases). Nevertheless, in the late 1950s, serious complications due to measles remained frequent and costly. As a result of measles virus infections, an average of 150,000 patients had respiratory complications and 4000 patients had encephalitis each year; the latter was associated with a high risk of neurological sequelae and death. These complications and others resulted in an estimated 48,000 persons with measles being hospitalized every year.

With 450 deaths, 48,000 hospitalizations, 150,000 respiratory complications, and 4,000 cases of encephalitis each year due to measles just prior to vaccine implementation, could the Public Health Service really have considered measles “generally benign in the pre-vaccine era”? Undoubtedly not. In the late 1950s, 48,000 Americans were being hospitalized each year from the measles. Today, on average, less than 100 Americans get the measles each year – and obviously a much smaller number are hospitalized from it. The health cost reductions from that alone are immense.

Exactly.

If you really want to know just how ignorant Lawrence Solomon is about vaccines, all you have to do is to take a look at this:

The CDC credits the vaccine with the elimination of measles deaths, but measles deaths ended a decade before the vaccine was in widespread use across the U.S., and deaths had all but ended prior to the first child receiving a shot. While the vaccine can perhaps take modest credit for accelerating the decline in the mid-1960s, it is a stretch to claim that eradication would not have occurred without the vaccine, particularly since the 20th century also saw the die-off of diseases like scarlet fever, for which no vaccine was ever developed.

This is an incredibly intellectually dishonest antivaccine talking point, so intellectually dishonest that it shocks me that anyone with half a brain can seriously argue it. Let’s just put it this way: Anyone who pulls out this tired old dishonest trope is so intellectually bankrupt that I don’t really feel obligated to do anything other than link to a post I did a long time ago about this trope, which I derogatorily labeled the “vaccines didn’t save us” lie.

It’s amazing that in 2014 the same old long discredited antivaccine tropes have found a new mouthpiece, but they have. And that mouthpiece is Lawrence Solomon. It’s not “conservative skepticism” that is falling short. It’s Lawrence Solomon. Sadly, it’s not surprising.