Antivaccine cardiologist Jack Wolfson and the resurrection of false balance about vaccines


Yesterday, I wrote about false balance in reporting on vaccines in the wake of the Disneyland measles outbreak. For those who’ve never encountered this blog, what I mean by false balance is when journalists, in a misguided belief that there are “two sides” (i.e., an actual scientific controversy) about the safety of childhood vaccines and whether they cause autism and all the other ills blamed on them by antivaccinationists or not, interview an antivaccine activist, advocate, or sympathizer for “balance” and to “show both sides of the story.” The problem with that technique, so deeply ingrained into journalists, is that while “telling both sides” makes sense in the political sphere, in the scientific and medical spheres it doesn’t always make sense, and the time when it makes no sense is when covering pseudoscience like the antivaccine movement. There is no longer—and, to put it bluntly, never really was much of—a controversy in the scientific community over whether vaccines cause autism or are in any way dangerous; it is a manufactroversy perpetuated by the unscientific and pseudoscientific.

Unfortunately, when misguided journalists present antivaccine pseudoscience alongside real science, it elevates the pseudoscience in the mind of the public, leading them to think, “Gee, there must be a real controversy here.” This is true even when, as three days ago, CBS News did an interview with everybody’s favorite antivaccine apologist, if not outright believer, of a pediatrician, Dr. Jay Gordon and seemed to be refuting what he said. Contrary to what some claim, even if the intent of CBS News were to find a doofus pediatrician with antivaccine views and discredit him, the very act of refuting a person like that and juxtaposing him with real experts elevates his evidence-free “concerns” about the MMR vaccine to be in the same ballpark as real science, a perception that does not help. False balance again. Do we see journalists interview geocentrists for “balance” in stories about astronomy—or even to refute their views? No, we do not. Yet we see this sort of thing all the time with antivaccine warriors and, truth be told, anthropogenic global warming denialists.

As I mentioned yesterday, though, I had thought that the era of false balance had ended, but, disappointingly, the Disneyland measles outbreak reveals that those bad journalistic instincts have never gone away. Despite the relative rarity of stories over the last couple of years about vaccines with false balance (a trend that even antivaccinationists have noticed and, of course, bemoaned as “one-sided” reporting about the safety of vaccines), the Disneyland measles outbreak has opened the door to more such stories. One such story has been brought to my attention more times than I can remember over the last few days, so much so that even my relatives are starting to ask me about it. So, even though Orac “doesn’t do requests” (as you know), sometimes, I guess, he does “give the people what they want.” I’m referring, of course, to an interview with an antivaccine “paleocardiologist” named Dr. Jack Wolfson that aired a week ago on a local NBC affiliate in central Arizona. (Embedded video removed from this post because I couldn’t get it to stop autostarting even adding what I thought to be correct tags. I hate autostart videos, and I won’t subject my readers to that which I myself hate. You’ll just have to rely on the link.)

Upon seeing this interview, all I could think was: Wow. I’m glad this guy doesn’t treat children. Then I thought: But he does treat adults and no doubt tells his patients not to get the flu vaccine every year or other vaccines recommended for adults, such as the Tdap and the every ten years Td booster, or the varicella or zoster vaccines. Heck, I’m guessing he doesn’t recommend the pneumococcal vaccine to his heart failure patients, even though pneumonia, even your run-of-the-mill community-acquired pneumonia, is a life-threatening illness in such patients. That’s why the pneumococcal vaccine (PPSV23) is recommended for all adults 65 and over and for adults younger than 65 with heart or lung disease (among other indications), as Dr. Wolfson should know as a cardiologist. Instead, the ignorance doth flow:

“We should be getting measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, these are the rights of our children to get it,” said Dr. Jack Wolfson of Wolfson Integrative Cardiology in Paradise Valley.

Wolfson does not believe in vaccination. “We do not need to inject chemicals into ourselves and into our children in order to boost our immune system,” he said.

The cardiologist also believes the key is to have a healthy immune system. In order to have that, he says, you have to avoid chemicals, get enough sleep, exercise, take good supplements, and have proper nutrition.

“I’m a big fan of what’s called paleo-nutrition, so our children eat foods that our ancestors have been eating for millions of years,” he said. “That’s the best way to protect.”

It’s your children’s right to get measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox? Their right? But, as he goes on in the video, never inject “chemicals” into your child’s body to “boost their immune systems”? Geez, I thought cardiologists tended to be smarter than that. It does, after all, take four years of medical school, three years of internal medicine residency, and at least three years of fellowship (more for interventional cardiology or electrophysiology) to become a cardiologist, but apparently it is possible for someone as scientifically ignorant as Dr. Wolfson to become board certified in cardiology. Of course, if Michael Egnor can become a neurosurgeon while apparently understanding so little about neuroscience, then I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Dr. Wolfson is so ignorant about vaccines, given that that’s not his area of expertise, but truly his ignorance is staggering.

What’s even more staggering is this false balance:

However, many doctors disagree. They believe it’s important for children to get vaccinated, especially when the measles is among the most infectious viruses.

Simply unbelievable. “Many” doctors disagree? How about the whole of the medical establishment thinks that what Wolfson is spouting is dangerous pseudoscientific idiocy that is not accepted in the medical community by any but a few fringe docs like, yes, Wolfson. The way Wolfson is portrayed is not as a dangerous kook with respect to vaccines (which is what he clearly is) but just as a doctor with an outside-the-mainstream viewpoint with which “many doctors” disagree. It’s enough to make a skeptic pull his hair out. (Good thing Orac is a Plexiglass box of blinky lights and circuitry.) Even worse, the caption over the story reads, “Doctors disagree on whether to vaccinate.” This is what I like to call lying by omission. Yes, because there are a few doctors like Wolfson who don’t think we should vaccinated, technically it’s true that “doctors” disagree on whether to vaccinated, but in reality the number of such disagreeing doctors is vanishingly small, and the medical community and medical science stand firmly behind vaccinations as safe and effective means of preventing childhood diseases.

It gets even worse, though. Near the very end of the segment, after the infectiousness of measles is correctly explained and it’s stated that measles is not a harmless childhood disease, the announcer intones, but one thing all doctors can agree on, followed by a snippet from a the pro-vaccine doctor ( Dr. David Engelthaler) saying, “…this is not a highly fatal, thankfully.” Yes, the overall impression given is the antivaccine trope that measles is no big deal, and what the audience takes away is not that measles is dangerous but that it’s “not highly fatal,” which ignores all the other bad things that measles can cause, such as the hospitalization of one quarter of the current outbreak’s victims, encephalopathy in two out of 1000, and even blindness. This has to be the worst example of false “balance” that I’ve seen thus far in this outbreak.

Also, if the Phoenix NBC affiliate still insisted on interviewing Wolfson, why couldn’t the producers have gotten an actual pediatrician to counter his misinformation? Nothing against Dr. Engenthaler, but he’s not a physician. He’s a researcher and epidemiologist. Granted, he used to be the State Epidemiologist for Arizona, where he tracked outbreaks, which is good, but he’s not really qualified to counter the claims that getting childhood diseases is “good for you”; i.e., the myth that “natural immunity” is so much better than that “artificial immunity” of vaccines. Remember, the price of “natural immunity” is suffering through the disease and exposing your child to the potentially serious—and, depending on the disease, even fatal—complications of the disease.

After the widespread criticism of his views, Wolfson was unchastened. Indeed, a few days later, he responded to the criticism in a post on an antivaccine website entitled Arizona Cardiologist Responds to Critics Regarding Measles and Vaccines: Why all the anger?. Yes, it’s a variant of Dr. Bob’s “why are you all being so mean to me?” laments after he lays down a diarrheal drip of antivaccine misinformation while trying to portray himself as being the “reasonable” among “vaccine skeptics” or of Katie Tietje’s “s ” gambit.

Amusingly (to me at least), Dr. Wolfson is quite up front about his intent. First, he laments the “angry responses” he got from “thousands of people” but then contrasts it with a “a tremendous amount of support to my comments and opinions.” The clear implication? It’s the old “civility” trap, in essence concern trolling. Basically, he’s portraying his critics as unreasonable and angry without valid reason and his supporters as reasonable. Then, he openly states that he wants to redirect the anger at him. I couldn’t resist putting my own comments in brackets after each item.

I want to address all this misguided anger and see if we can re-direct it where it belongs.

  1. Be angry at food companies. Sugar cereals, donuts, cookies, and cupcakes lead to millions of deaths per year. At its worst, chicken pox killed 100 people per year. If those chicken pox people didn’t eat cereal and donuts, they may still be alive. Call up Nabisco and Kellogg’s and complain. Protest their products. Send THEM hate-mail. [Orac says: This is utterly irrelevant, a non sequitur. There’s also no evidence that people who eat all natural are less likely to die of varicella infection. Truly, this is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen a doctor write.]
  2. Be angry at fast food restaurants. Tortured meat burgers, pesticide fries, and hormone milkshakes are the problem. The problem is not Hepatitis B which is a virus contracted by drug users and those who sleep with prostitutes. And you want to inject that vaccine into your newborn? [Orac says: This one is truly vile, a common antivaccine trope directed at this vaccine that tells parents that you don’t have to worry about hepatitis B or C because you, antivaccine friends, are upstanding citizens who would never, ever engage in any of those immoral, risky behaviors. Of course, hepatitis B can be contracted in other ways, which is why there is a clear rationale for administering the vaccine shortly after birth. It’s not the only strategy, but it’s a very reasonable one.]
  3. Be angry at the companies who make your toxic laundry detergent, fabric softener, and dryer sheets. You and your children are wearing and breathing known carcinogens (they cause cancer). Call Bounce and Downy and let them know. These products kill more people than mumps, a virus which actually doesn’t cause anyone to die. Same with hepatitis A, a watery diarrhea. [Orac says: Another non sequitur, and a particularly ridiculous one at that. Moreover, there is no evidence that Bounce and Downy “kill more people than mumps.” As for the mumps, even if it is rarely fatal, some of its complications are quite unpleasant and dangerous.]
  4. Be angry at all the companies spewing pollution into our environment. These chemicals and heavy metals are known to cause autism, heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disease and every other health problem. Worldwide, these lead to 10’s of millions of deaths every year. Measles deaths are a tiny fraction compared to pollution. [Orac says: Here’s the fallacy of the false dilemma. It is not an “either-or” choice here with two options. There is no reason we as a society can’t both vaccinate to eliminate measles and work on cleaning up the environment worldwide. Of course, Dr. Wolfson also overstates the risks, as there is no good evidence that these pollutants cause, for instance, autism, and the links to cancer tend to be tenuous at best, much less to “every health problem.” Certainly air pollution contributes to lung diseases such as asthma, but Dr. Wolfson simply massively overstates his case to create a false dilemma.]
  5. Be angry at your parents for not breastfeeding you, co-sleeping with you, and stuffing your face with Domino’s so they can buy more Tide and finish the laundry. Breastfeeding protects your children from many infectious diseases. [Orac says: This is another despicable one. How vile and hateful can Dr. Wolfson get? Blame your parents for not breastfeeding? Not all mothers can breastfeed. What about them? Is Wolfson saying they shouldn’t be mothers? Also, it’s true that breastfeeding does protect through transmission of maternal antibodies, but it doesn’t protect against everything, and what will protect the child once he is weaned?]
  6. Be angry with your doctor for being close-minded and not disclosing the ingredients in vaccines (not that they read the package insert anyway). They should tell you about the aluminum, mercury, formaldehyde, aborted fetal tissue, animal proteins, polysorbate 80, antibiotics, and other chemicals in the shots. According to the Environmental Working Group, newborns contain over 200 chemicals as detected by cord blood. Maybe your doctor feels a few more chemicals injected into your child won’t be a big deal. [Orac says: This is just a particularly uninteresting and really dumbed down version of the “toxins” gambit. Even Dr. Jay Gordon knows better than to use this hoary old antivaccine chestnut any more. As for the “argument by package insert,” well, the less said the better. Dr. Wolfson clearly needs to up his game as an antivaccine doctor if this is the best he can come up with.]
  7. Be angry with the cable companies and TV manufacturers for making you and your children fat and lazy, not wanting to exercise or play outside. Lack of exercise kills millions more than polio. Where are all those 80 year olds crippled by polio? I can’t seem to find many. In fact, be angry with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates for creating computers so you can sit around all day blasted with electromagnetic radiation reading posts like this. [Orac says: Dr. Wolfson is just getting dumber and dumber in his rant. It’s really hard to take him seriously any more. I mean, Itzhak Perlman is a polio survivor, which is why he plays the violin sitting down. Mia Farrow was in an iron lung for eight days. There are many, many other polio survivors still around, some famous.]
  8. Be angry with pharmaceutical companies for allowing us to believe living the above life can be treated with drugs. Correctly prescribed drugs kill thousands of people per year. The flu kills just about no one. The vaccine never works. [Orac says: Dr. Wolfson intentionally conflates these issues and just plain lies about the flu. At least, in my not-so-humble opinion, if he’s not lying, by making the false claim that no one (OK, “just about no one”) dies of the flu he has just demonstrated himself so ignorant that the state of Arizona ought to yank his medical license forthwith because he is a danger to his patients.]

Just to top off his level of despicableness, Dr. Wolfson finishes off by directly attacking the parents who criticized him:

Finally, be angry with yourself for not opening your eyes to the snow job and brainwashing which have taken over your mind. You NEVER asked the doctor any questions. You NEVER asked what is in the vaccines. You NEVER learned about these benign infections.

Let’s face it, you don’t really give a crap what your children eat. You don’t care about chemicals in their life. You don’t care if they sit around all day watching the TV or playing video games.

All you care about is drinking your Starbuck’s, your next plastic surgery, your next cocktail, your next affair, and your next sugar fix!

This post was created with love and with the idea of creating a better world for our children and future generations. Anger increases your risk of suffering a heart attack. Be careful.

Actually, Dr. Wolfson is the one who sounds as though he needs an anger management course. He’s a really, really angry guy. It also sounds as though he doesn’t like being criticized. Of course, no one actually likes being criticized, but if he wants to play with the big boys he really does need to develop a thicker skin than he’s exhibited. Of course, I don’t mind anger when there’s something worth getting anger over and have always rejected most tone trolling. (As Johnny Lydon used to sing, “Anger is an energy.”) I do, however, recognize double standards. While Dr. Wolfson is asking “why all the anger?” as though the anger at him was unjustified, at the same time he’s getting himself worked up into quite a lather! Then he’s telling people that what they are angry about is not what they should be angry about, treating them as stupid as he lectures them with logical fallacies galore, non sequiturs, and complete misinformation about vaccines and health. Yes, it’s great to eat better and avoid so much processed food, but it won’t protect you against disease the way vaccines can—nowhere close!

Just for yucks, I perused Dr. Wolfson’s website. I suggest that you do the same. It’s the naturalistic fallacy on steroids:

Although natural remedies have been used for thousands of years, “conventional” medicine is the term typically used to describe medical care using pharmaceuticals and surgery. The term “alternative” medicine was coined to represent all the other modalities such as vitamins, chiropractic, naturopathic, and homeopathic along with thousands of others. Conventional medicine has its place. If you are in a car wreck and needing emergency surgery, by all means, go to the nearest hospital. Natural is the only way regarding true prevention.

Integrative Cardiology uses nutrition and evidence based supplements to reduce/eliminate pharmaceutical burden and minimize cardiovascular risk. Some prescriptions may be necessary but the goal is to use as little as possible for a short duration. Invasive procedures such as coronary angiography and surgery may need to be performed. Some diseases do not have a natural cure and can only be treated with surgery. Sometimes a patient may need a pacemaker. The goal of the Integrative Cardiologist is to help the patient prevent situations calling for heroic measures and to aid in the recovery from such procedures using natural methods.

One wonders where the evidence is to support the claim that “natural is the only way” regarding “true prevention” (whatever that is). So, let’s see. If someone with hypertension uses a medication to bring his blood pressure down and thus decrease the risk of suffering a stroke or cardiac event, how is that not “true prevention”? Elsewhere, Dr. Wolfson gets even more ridiculous, such as this claim:

There are three main causes of disease and genetics is not one of them. Our ancestors from 50,000 years ago had the same genes but did not have the diseases of today.

Poor nutrition, chemicals, and stress are the root of all health issues and my focus is centered around addressing and correcting these factors. Genetics can predispose someone to disease, but poor nutrition and chemicals activate your genes, a concept called Epigenetics.

Epigenetics. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. But, seriously. This is a doctor outright saying that genetics is not a cause of cardiac disease, a statement that is so demonstrably wrong that I find it hard to believe that instead Wolfson didn’t just try to downplay the role of genetics (as most “integrative doctors” who spout off about epigenetics do) rather than outright deny it. Think of it this way. If genetics doesn’t play a role in heart disease, why are there pediatric cardiologists who specialize in inherited cardiovascular disease?

As for the whole “paleocardiologist” thing, just don’t get me started.

The sad thing is that this false balance continues. Since his first interview, Dr. Wolfson is reveling in his notoriety. He’s been interviewed for USA TODAY:

He’s apparently done a segment for CNN in which he “debated” Dr. Armand Dorian about vaccines that is truly painful to watch. (Sorry, CNN doesn’t allow embedding; so you’ll have to click on the link, but maybe that’s a favor to you.) Dr. Wolfson even pulls the “aborted fetal proteins” gambit. I will give Dr. Dorian credit for doing a pretty good job countering Wolfson, but I’m annoyed that CNN let Wolfson spout on about being a “board certified cardiologist,” as if that meant anything!

For shame, USA TODAY and CNN! For shame!

Of course, I know why news outlets are resurrecting false balance. In fact, it’s even alluded to in this Washington Post article:

Wolfson, who himself lives in a state now affected by the California measles outbreak that many blame on the anti-vaccination movement, does nonetheless prove the power of assuming a contrarian stance. The controversy has transformed Wolfson — last week, just another doctor — into a hero for those who share his views.

Yes, the reason that idiots like Wolfson—yes, idiots, and I’d call him an idiot to his face were I ever to see him—are reappearing is because measles is in the news now, and having raving antivaccine loons like Wolfson on TV juxtaposed with real doctors like Dr. Dorian is because it’s just the model of politics imposed on medical discourse.

It might make for interesting TV, but it sure doesn’t make for illuminating TV. CNN and USA TODAY have failed their viewers most egregiously.