Anger is an energy? Maybe, but it doesn’t help you evaluate vaccine science

Anger is an energy, as a certain old punk sang back in the 1980s. It can even be a great motivator, such as when anger overtakes us for injustice or over crimes. Anger, however, is not a particularly good intellectual tool, nor does it help in analyzing science.

Which reminds me: J.B. Handley is back.

You have to be a bit of a long time reader—OK, a really long time reader—to remember that Mr. Handley’s antics used to be a regular topic of this blog. After all, he and his wife were the founders of a long-standing antivaccine group, Generation Rescue. It was an antivaccine group founded on the idea that autism is a “misdiagnosis for mercury poisoning” and existed to promulgate the idea that the mercury in thimerosal-containing vaccines causes autism. Over time, Generation Rescue “expanded” its purview to believe that all vaccines (with, of course, mostly unnamed and vague environmental toxins) are the cause of autism and that “autism biomed” quackery is the cure, an evolution that happened around the time that Jenny McCarthy became Generation Rescue’s president and was doing an antivaccine “Green Our Vaccines” march on Washington. During that time, Handley distinguished himself (if you can call it that) with his bullying, bull-in-a-china-shop demeanor, his misogyny, and his blatant anti-intellectualism, the latter of which was frequently manifested by his attacks on expertise, in particular scientists and physicians who told him that science doesn’t support his antivaccine views. Sometimes the results are hilarious, such as when he mistook a blogger for Bonnie Offit and even made a bet about it that he lost.

Over the last few years, we haven’t heard nearly as much from Mr. Handley. Yes, he still pops up from time to time but not nearly as often. Last week, though, he was back, as angry as ever, more full of the arrogance of ignorance, as I saw in his article entitled An Angry Father’s Guide to Vaccine-Autism Science (understanding “distracting research”). He begins with a furious broadside over a frequent statement made by vaccine defenders:

We autism parents are being browbeaten by a mantra from the mainstream media and health authorities spoken so loudly and repeated so often that it seems it simply must be true, namely:

“It’s been asked and answered, vaccines do not cause autism.”

The science has been done. Deal with it. Case closed

Personally, I like to start riffing on Monty Python’s famous “Dead Parrot” sketch, in which a pet store owner tries to convince a dissatisfied customer who had just bought a dead parrot that the shopkeeper had told him was alive. The humor comes from John Cleese’s (the customer’s) increasingly histrionic and angry rants about how the parrot has “shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!!” and how this is an “ex-parrot” and Michael Palin’s (the shopkeeper) increasingly ridiculous excuses and explanations about how the parrot isn’t really dead but resting and how he’s “pining for the fjords” (because he’s a Norwegian blue parrot). Basically, in my favorite analogy, the vaccine-autism hypothesis is dead, an ex-hypothesis that’s “joined the bleedin’ choir invisible,” and antivaccinationists are the shopkeeper who keep telling people it’s not really dead but “pining for the fjords.”

The situation is, of course, slightly more complex than that. For instance, just the other day in the context of discussing an unethical study of the vaccine schedule using macaque monkeys, I pointed out that, as negative studies looking at a question pile up, there must ultimately come a time when the question has been answered as well as today’s science can answer it. Basically, when a certain weight of negative studies builds up, the pre-study probability of a positive result looking at the same question becomes smaller and smaller, eventually reaching a point where further studies are so unlikely to provide a positive result and are thus no longer worth doing. It’s Bayesian thinking, pure and simple. Barring new compelling evidence that resurrects the vaccine-autism hypothesis, it’s a hypothesis every bit as dead as the parrot in the Dead Parrot Sketch. Of course, antivaccinationists like J.B. Handley won’t understand and can’t accept that. So we get rants like Mr. Handley’s latest.

It’s as though Handley isn’t even trying. He starts out with a favorite antivaccine trope, comparing the vaccine defenders to the tobacco companies that denied the growing science in the 1950s through the 1980s that showed that cigarette smoking causes a lung cancer and a variety of other health problems. The tobacco companies, as you know, were some of the first truly sophisticated denialists, producing experts who sowed “fear, uncertainty, and doubt” about the growing body of science implicating smoking as a health risk, distorting the science, and producing its own studies as a distraction, quoting a 1954 Guardian article:

A 1954 article from The Guardian newspaper rings eerily reminiscent of what we are today experiencing with the autism epidemic. In 1953, a pair of scientists reported their findings that coating mice in tobacco tar had produced skin cancer in 44% of the mice. Importantly, the mice study produced the first alarm bells around the world that smoking may in fact be bad for one’s health, which triggered a forty-year campaign by the tobacco companies to obscure the truth with funded “science”. The Guardian article from 1954 also discusses a scientist from the American Cancer Society — Dr. Cuyler Hammond — who expressed deep cynicism about the initial findings of the smoking-cancer link from the mice study and other studies bubbling up implicating tobacco. From the article:

He has deep doubts about all the studies reported so far. He suspects that the interviewers of lung-cancer patients probably induce an emotional bias in their victims who will thereby be led to make suspicious confessionals of heavy smoking. He says that it is extremely difficult to find a control group with the matched characteristics, of age, social standing, occupational habits, and regional location, of any given sick group. He warns against the false premise which might be exposed to prove only that smokers produce earlier symptoms rather than more cancer. He suggests that even if there were no significant association between smoking and cancer in the general population, a telling one might be found in the hospital population. He is even sour about the claims of the filter-tipped cigarettes, remarking in his wry way that the carbon in tobacco smoke probably neutralises some toxic agents, and that if the filter removes those carbon particles ‘filter cigarettes would do more harm than good.’”

Sound familiar?

Why, yes. Yes it does. It sounds a lot like antivaccinationists denying the very solid science that’s failed to find a hint of a whiff of a whisper of a correlation between vaccines (thimerosal-containing or otherwise). As I discussed when Dr. Jay Gordon invoked the same analogy, the comparison to tobacco companies fits the antivaccine contingent far more than it fits scientists and vaccine manufactures. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hold up big pharma as some sort of paragon of scientific virtue, but in this case it is on the side of science. The question has been asked many times. None of this, of course, stops Handley from showing his historical ignorance and invoking Naomi Oresky and Erik Conway’s book Merchants of Doubt.

After invoking his execrable 14 Studies website, in which ignorance of science was never so annoying, Handley then went on to write something that endangered my keyboard, as I was drinking coffee early this morning as I wrote this:

Three principles lead to understanding

biological plausibility: “refers to the proposal of a causal association — a relationship between a putative cause and an outcome — that is consistent with existing biological and medical knowledge”.

encephalopathy: “means disorder or disease of the brain. In modern usage, encephalopathy does not refer to a single disease, but rather to a syndrome of overall brain dysfunction; this syndrome can have many different organic and inorganic causes”.

wisdom of crowds: the notion that “large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant–better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.”

OK, that’s not the part that nearly made me spray my laptop with hot coffee. This is:

Let’s pause: 1. biological plausibility, 2. encephalopathy, and 3. the wisdom of crowds. Learn it, know it, live it.

Ha. Hahaha. Hahahahahahahahaha!

Oh, geez.

Seriously, Mr. Handley wouldn’t know biological plausibility if it were to bite him on the posterior, latch on to his rectum, and insinuate itself into his colon like one of those bleach enemas touted by certain bloggers at Age of Autism. In the meantime, he trots out familiar antivaccine misinformation, distortions, tropes, and lies. He confuses correlation with causation, which is mandatory among antivaccine activists. He invokes the “wisdom of crowds” in terms of all the anecdotes from parents about how their children regressed after vaccination. Of course, this is why, when it comes to inferring causation from correlation, the “wisdom of crowds” is not so wise at all. In fact, when it comes to medical questions, such as whether vaccines are correlated with the onset of autism, crowds are often much less “wise” than science. Memories are imperfect and selective. We are pattern-seeking mammals; when something happens, we are very quick to latch on to something that happened before, whether that something has anything to do with causing what happened or not. Add the emotional overlay of love for your children, and these spurious “correlations” become very hard to shake. That’s why science is needed. That’s why epidemiology is needed. They are needed precisely because, when inferring medical causation, crowds aren’t wise. They’re often downright clueless. It’s human nature and the way all human beings think, and it’s very hard to overcome. Worse, he conflates autism with encephalopathy (the two are not the same thing) and frequently describes autism as:

It would be enough, frankly, that brain damage is known to be a side-effect of vaccines in some children to assert how biologically plausible the vaccine-autism connection is It would be enough, frankly, that brain damage is known to be a side-effect of vaccines in some children to assert how biologically plausible the vaccine-autism connection is, but the argument is bolstered by two additional points…

Later, Handley writes:

I don’t really have to use that many of my IQ points to think that there may be a correlation between a product that causes brain damage (vaccines) and my son’s brain damage!

Handley has IQ points? You wouldn’t know it from the quality of his arguments.

Of course, autism is not brain damage. It’s just not. More importantly, encephalopathy due to vaccines is quite rare. That it rarely happens does not lend biological plausibility to the idea that vaccines cause autism. This idea might have had some plausibility back in the 1990s, before all the more recent epidemiological studies had been done, but in light of studies since then that biological plausibility. This leads h

In any case, his view of autistic children as hopelessly brain-damaged because of vaccines aside, it is because Mr. Handley latched on to the idea that vaccines caused his son’s autism and he loves his son, Mr. Handley, however smart he might be, finds it very hard to let go of the idea in the face of mountains of disconfirming evidence. Instead, he goes on the attack. Couple that with the Dunning-Kruger effect, the tendency of people not expert in a field to vastly overestimate their competence and you get the same tired references to Brian Hooker’s bogus “reanalysis” of a famous paper that failed to find a link between MMR and autism, his claim that the financial fraud of an investigator named Poul Thorson, who was a middle author on two papers on MMR and autism a dozen years ago, somehow invalidates all CDC research on vaccines and autism (hint: it doesn’t), and a hilarious denial of the recent macaque monkey study by Laura Hewitson that failed to find a correlation between vaccines and neurodevelopmental problems or changes in brain structure in the monkeys in favor of the smaller preliminary studies that showed what he wanted them to show. He lashes out at studies that failed to find a correlation between vaccines and autism or thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism, using the same tired old antivaccine cliches against studies like Tozzi et al, Thompson et al (never mind that no scientist claims this study shows thimerosal doesn’t cause autism, just other neurodevelopmental problems); Verstraeten et al (antivaccinationists’ favorite bugaboo and subject of the infamous Simpsonwood conspiracy theory). (Links lead to discussions of the studies and often explanations why antivaccine attacks on the studies—like Handley’s—ar ignorant loads of fetid dingo’s kidneys.)

So what studies does Handley like? Take a guess. He like’s Mady Hornig’s “rain mouse” study (of course). He also likes Burbacher’s monkey study, which isn’t all that convincing but is nonetheless frequently cited by antivaccine activists.

Handley ends by imploring “honest scientists” to have a come-to-Jesus moment, or maybe a road-to-Damascus conversion. (Antivaccinationism is so much like a religion that such analogies seem appropriate.) He writes:

Remember that guy, Dr. Cuyler Hammond, from the American Cancer Society back in 1954, the guy throwing skepticism all over the tobacco-lung cancer hypothesis? Turns out Dr. Hammond ended up being an honest man and an honest scientists, and when presented with overwhelming data supporting the tobacco-cancer link, he changed his tune and quit smoking, and his obituary makes him out to be a hero:

“Dr. E. Cuyler Hammond, the biologist and epidemiologist who did early research showing that cigarette smokers had a high risk of death from lung cancer, heart disease and other causes, died yesterday at his Manhattan apartment…Dr. Hammond’s findings were often controversial, drawing criticism from the Tobacco Industry Research Committee and from other quarters. Dr. Hammond said in 1970 that he doubted the tobacco industry ‘would ever develop a cigarette that doesn’t do some damage to a smoker’s health.’”

I beg each of you to correct every misstatement you hear. Read the studies for yourself. (Most can be found at Ask skeptical friends of yours to read this article and respond. Be loud and proud when you say that the other side’s mantra is simply a lie, because it is.

Is there an honest person left on the mainstream side of this debate who will correct the lies and make sure the research actually gets done?

Of course, this is a massive case of projection, because, if anything, it is the antivaccine side that far more resembles the tobacco industry in the sorts of scientific arguments it makes, how it twists data, how it cherry picks studies the way J.B. Handley did. The reason there aren’t scientists undergoing the conversion Handley desperately wants to see can be shown by repeating one phrase in Handley’s screed, “When presented with overwhelming data supporting the tobacco-cancer link, he changed his tune and quit smoking.” Note the words, “overwhelming data.” There’s the difference between the situation surrounding the question debated in the US between the 1940s and the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report on smoking of whether smoking tobacco products caused lung cancer and the situation now surrounding the question of whether vaccines cause autism. In the former case, there was a relentless accumulation of evidence to the point where it became undeniable that smoking caused lung cancer, chronic lung disease, heart disease, and other cancers. In contrast, the more scientists look at the question of whether vaccines cause autism, the less they find. Correlations in preliminary studies disappear in larger, better-designed studies. Over time, the weight of the evidence has gone in exactly the opposite direction from the case for tobacco. As time goes on, from a strictly scientific standpoint, evidence linking vaccines and autism has become less, not more, convincing.

Anger is indeed an energy of sorts, and there is no doubt J.B. Handley is an angry man. Over the years, as documented by myself and lots of other bloggers, he has frequently let his anger get the better of him and lashed out at his perceived enemies whom he believes to be responsible (incorrectly) for his son’s autism, such as scientists at the CDC and those whom he views as defending the scientifically corrupt enterprise that in his view failed to protect his son from those evil, poisonous vaccines and now deny that vaccines cause autism. Of course, the problem with righteous anger is that, unless held in check by a reflective intellect, it feeds on itself and resists any disconfirming evidence that the enemies at which it’s directed are not targets deserving of such rage. Certainly, anger is not a useful tool to analyze science, but that’s just what J.B. Handley has always used it for.