James Lyons-Weiler and Leslie Manookian are still battling for the title of Most Antivaccine Crank

After yesterday’s post about Leslie Manookian’s attack on James Lyons-Weiler, in which I expressed great enjoyment at a crank fight between two antivaccine activists playing out on the ages of that wretched hive of scum and quackery, Age of Autism, I debated whether to do another post on the same crank fight. After all, a major reason why I wrote about it was to demonstrate what I meant when I said I know antivaccine when I see it. On the other hand, it’s just so damned fun to watch two antivaccine loons go at it. Also, repetition is the key to education, and therefore another post, if done properly (and I intend to do it properly) can reinforce the lesson of yesterday’s post. At the very least, it can be entertaining.

If you’re not a regular reader, you might want to check out yesterday’s post, because it shows how Leslie Manookian, the ex-homeopath turned filmmaker responsible for the antivaccine propaganda film The Greater Good, is about as antivaccine as they come. Indeed, so antivaccine is she that she attacked someone whom I consider to be a rabidly antivaccine quack, James Lyons-Weiler, for—gasp!—supposedly supporting school vaccine mandates, as long as there are personal belief exemptions allowed, all the while proclaiming how vaccines harm every child who receives them. Not surprisingly, James Lyons-Weiler was not pleased. Indeed, he had to fire back, and he was given a platform to do so on—where else?—on the same antivaccine crank blog where Manookian launched her first broadside, AoA.

The resulting article by Lyons-Weiler, Have I Lost It? Promoting Medical Exemptions is not “Pro-Mandate”: No Litmus Test for Vaccine Risk Awareness, is interesting for a number of reasons, not all of them my amusement at watching two antivaccine cranks go to war. Again, remember that the criticism leveled at Lyons-Weiler by Manookian is that he supposedly supported school vaccine mandates, as long as there was an “out” for parents in the form of personal belief exemptions and that he suggested that genetic testing could be used to determine which children were “at risk” for “vaccine injury.” Amusingly, Lyons-Weiler tries to turn that criticism right back on Manookian. I laughed out loud as I read:

My first defense is point to articles where Manookian herself could be seen as defending mandates with exemptions in which her line of reasoning could be equally misconstrued, such as one entitled “Suggestions on How to Claim a Medical Exemption in CA” by Leslie Manookian, hosted at the very informed and useful Weston A. Price Foundation website; an article on Revolution for Vaccine Choice in 2016 in which Manookian informs readers to:

“Conduct genetic testing prior to vaccinating to better understand your child’s risk…. Test for various disabilities, conditions, and genetic variance such as variation in MTHFR, CBS, COMT, all BHMTs, MAO-A, SOD, cytochrome p450 enzymes, and HLA type which can determine your child’s susceptibility to vaccine injury.”

Not long after, he twists the knife:

Perhaps her views have changed, and she is now against biomarkers to procure medical exemptions because in her view, that would make her an apologist for exemptions?

How delicious!

As if to bolster his antivaccine cred, he then goes on to proclaim:

After reading what must now be over five thousand studies and articles on vaccines, and devouring laws and regulations on informed choice, it is my personal and informed professional view is that:

(1) Mandates are scientifically unfounded;

(2) Mandates are unethical;

(3) Mandates violate Federal Regulations on informed consent.

I’ve even been censored (temporarily) by the CDC for saying so.

Help! Help! I’m being repressed!

One can’t help but note that, here, Lyons-Weiler feels obligated to portray himself as being more antivaccine than Manookian. He is, of course, grossly mistaken on all three counts. Mandates are not scientifically unfounded. They’ve been the basis of US vaccine policy for several decades now, and the result has been consistently high levels of vaccination. Indeed, what has caused pockets of low vaccine uptake is, not surprisingly, the easy availability of nonmedical “personal belief exemptions” to school vaccine mandates. As for being unethical, mandates are nothing of the sort. Indeed, they are very ethical, as they promote the protection of children against infectious diseases that can result in dath or severe disability. And, no, mandates do not violate federal regulations on informed consent.

Amusingly, in the link above, Lyons-Weiler declares:

Mind you, I am not anti-vaccine. Ask any hard-core anti-vaxxer who has debated the issues with me. They get frustrated at my eternal hope that vaccines might be made safer. Or that biomarkers might be found to screen for those most at risk at serious adverse events. I do have issues with denial of informed consent, and in the bias that exists both in the conduct of “science” on vaccine science, in the interpretation of the “science” on vaccine safety, and the absolute bias in the media against any reasonable discussion of whether any vaccine is responsible for any adverse event.

I’m soooo impressed. Gee, for Lyons-Weiler hope springs eternal that vaccines might be “made safer,” that “biomarkers might be found to screen those most at risk,” and that the “absolute bias” in the media will somehow be countered. That, apparently, makes him not antivaccine. Indeed, perish the thought that he might in any way be “antivaccine,” you haters! How dare you? How could he possibly be antivaccine? He just supports freedom and exemptions:

Let me state this as clearly as possible: as currently formulated, vaccines are filthy, nasty vials of toxic sludge that every American citizen and parent should be able to refuse for any reason. Doctors are not qualified to and should not be put in the position to “vet” whether any individuals’ claim to a religious exemption is “valid”; they certainly are not trained on comparative theology in medical school, and they cannot know the hearts and minds of individuals who do not want to collaborate with the past evils of abortion by injecting products made with and containing proteins and DNA from aborted fetal cells and tumor cell lines. I defend religious exemptions, and I am an evolutionary biologist!

Oh, wait. He also thinks vaccines are “filthy, nasty vials of toxic sludge.” That sounds rather…antivaccine, doesn’t it. Or is it just me?

Lyons-Weiler describes himself as having been an “evolutionary biologist.” That made me curious. So I wandered over to his LinkedIn page. There, I learned that he did apparently earn a PhD in Ecology, Evolution & Conservation Biology from the University of Nevada, Reno in 1997. He then did a postdoctoral fellowship in Computational Molecular Biology at Penn State University from 1997-2000. So far, so normal.

Then he did have a faculty position at the University of Massachusetts Lowell from 1999 to 2002. Oddly enough, this seems to overlap somewhat with his time as a fellow at Penn State. Be that as it may, he didn’t last long there, only three years. This suggests to me that something odd happened. Usually, new faculty in the biomedical sciences is given around five years to acquire funding, become independent, and earn tenure. On the other hand, he says that he established “a Center for Bioinformatics, taught undergraduate & graduate courses (biology, genetics, bioinformatics)” and helped “researchers w/microarray data and developed web applications for high-throughput data analysis.” This does not sound like a tenure-track position, as there is no mention of independent research or running a lab. Lyons-Weiler then moved on to the University of Pittsburgh, where he remained for twelve years and in 2007 became director of the Bioinformatics Analysis Core there until the core closed in 2014, according to him due to state budget cuts.

Lyons-Weiler touts his career as a scientist to make it seem as though his antivaccine claims are more valid, even though they were not. Was he a good scientist? It sounds as though he was a halfway decent scientist, but there are some telling parts of his biography. For instance:

He was selected to serve on numerous large grants, and managed a multi-institutional consortium focused on the optimization of laboratory and computational methods in proteomics. He participated in the NCI’s Early Detection Research Network (EDRN) and their caBIG (Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid) initiatives. He served as the founding Editor-in-Chief of his brainchild journal, the open access, rigorously peer-reviewed journal, Cancer Informatics. He published numerous papers on new ways of looking at cancer that have helped set the stage for research in individualized medicine. He taught two full courses a year, one on research design, and the other on the analysis of high dimensional genomic and proteomic data.

“Selected to serve”? That phrase leapt out of the page at me. Notice how he doesn’t say that he was ever principal investigator on any grants, but that he was “selected to serve” on them. That’s very telling. It means that he never earned NIH funding or other funding as the leader of a project, the person who conceived it and wrote it. Instead he served as co-investigator. Also note that he was the director of a bioinformatics core. Core directors don’t exist to do their own research, not usually. Cores exist to serve the faculty of a university by providing expertise and research tools to them for a discounted price in order to assist them doing their research. That means a core director is paid to support other people’s research, not to do his own. Now, don’t get me wrong. Being a core director is an incredibly hard job, as I’ve learned just observing core directors with whom I’ve worked, and the expertise of core directors can be very helpful—even essential—to a successful project, and there’s a lot of customer service involved as well. I don’t know if I could be a core director. It is not, however, usually a faculty position where you get to conceive of and do your own research. At best, if you do have your own research projects, they will always be secondary to making sure that others get their projects done.

So what made James Lyons-Weiler go woo? Who knows? He’s definitely not alone in having abandoned good science for pseudoscience, and Nobel Laureates can take a sudden dive into the depths of quackery and pseudoscience for no apparent reason. I don’t know Lyons-Weiler’ reason, but I find a hint in his own biography. One motivation seems to have been the Ebola outbreak. Another appears to be:

In the process of his career, James got more than he bargained for. Always looking to improve ways of doing science, he discovered numerous fundamental flaws in the methods for analyzing data. He always strived to provide improved solutions to these problems. Over the years, given his extensive knowledge of cutting-edge research in cancer and cancer treatments, James helped his sister, his uncle, his future father-in-law, and several close friends find optimal routes to treatment of their cancer. Close friends and family would, on a regular basis, challenge him with statements like “They already have a cure for cancer. They don’t’ want cures, they want treatments!” While conducting research for “Ebola: An Evolving Story”, it became apparent to him that important and significant improvements could be made to FDA’s approach to gold standard randomized clinical trials. To help sort out these perspectives, using the cumulative benefit of all of these experiences, he is now writing a second book “Cures vs. Profits: Success Stories in Translational Research”, due out in bookstores in May 2016.

Was it the cancer in his relatives and friends that he “helped” to treat (presumably by applying his knowledge of computational biology) to their cases? I don’t know, but I do know that his book Cures vs. Profits shows him having gone deep into the woo, where one chapter asks, “Vaccines have saved millions of lives in the last decade? But are they safe?” He formed the “Institute for Pure and Applied Knowledge,” described as a “not-for-profit organization* which exists to perform scientific research in the public interest.” Unfortunately, a lot of that “science” is antivaccine. For instance, there is a project where “IPAK has invited Drs. Gatti and Montanari to submit a proposal to investigate where the microcontaminant nanoparticles found in vaccines go in the normal developing mouse.” You might remember that study. It was a truly risible use of electron microscopy to “find” nanoparticle contamination in, well, almost every vaccine. If James Lyon-Weiler thinks that Antonietta Gatti’s abuse of electron microscopy is worthwhile science, he’s lost the plot.

But, as a newly minted antivaxer, Lyons-Weiler sure does like to draw himself up and don the mantle of a scientist to respond to Leslie Manookian:

I can also not enjoin in “belief” (for me) as a guide for knowledge, because, as a scientist, my understanding is not based on belief, but is instead based on empirical results from properly designed and conducted studies (which are wanting for most current vaccines) and based on cumulative evidence. Do I doubt, as insinuated by Manookian that any parent who says their child regressed into autism after vaccination? No. When I cited in the article being critiqued that not all vaccines have been tested for association with autism, I was criticizing the generalization made by CDC, the media and Pharma when they claim Vaccines (plural) do not cause autism. I was not claiming that parents’ observations were invalid – in fact, all science begins with observation. Our society is filled with millions of “observations” – children with autism, ADHD, food allergies, etc. many of whom are now becoming adults – and I do not doubt a single reported observation.

Got that? Back off, I’m a scientist, ma-an! “Do not doubt a single reported observation”? That’s rather…naive. I’m not saying I doubt many parents’ observation of regression after vaccination (although I do doubt a few), but I do doubt the interpretation of those observations by many parents. A real scientist knows that observations like this are hugely influenced by confirmation bias, the all too human tendency to remember what fits with our preconceived notions and to forget that which does not. He also seems unaware of the all too human capacity for confusing correlation with causation. That’s not very scientific, Mr. Scientist.

Nor is this:

If I am not for mandates, even with vaccine risk biomarkers, what am I. I am for science, for informed choice, for titers checking, against re-vaccination when titers fail to show immunization, for considering familial risk, and for formalizing methods to measure risk of injury from vaccination. A thorough review of the literature indicating the plausibility of vaccine risk biomarkers is underway, and it includes Th1/Th2 skew as worthy of testing for its ability, along with many other measures, to accurately predict adverse outcomes from vaccination. I am against fraud, against pseudoscience, against contaminants in vaccines, against mercury, against aluminum, against vaccination in the NICU, against vaccine risk denialism and against vaccine injury denialism. I am pro-buffering against vaccine injury with alternative schedules. I would love to see studies that demonstrate that supplement can protect the human brain against vaccine injury. Do I recommend or not recommend vaccines? I cannot answer that question, because I do not practice medicine. The best that I can do is to try to reform medicine from within, and inform legislators considering specific bills.

Translation: I’m not “antivaccine,” but I think vaccines are filthy, contaminated toxic messes that cause autism and that anyone who denies that vaccines cause autism and all sorts of horrible other conditions are denialists. But I’m not “antivaccine.” I’m, well, let Lyons-Weiler tell it:

I do not wish to control anyone’s narrative. I’m no wolf in sheep’s clothing. I don’t follow any play book other than science, and I employ rational skepticism. And I don’t pretend to have all the answers, nor own any of the initiatives. Everyone in our community needs to push in the same general direction to increase vaccine risk awareness.

Of course, in antivaccine parlance, “vaccine risk awareness” means vastly exaggerating the risks of vaccines (or making up risks altogether) and vastly downplaying their effectiveness in preventing disease. Strange that that’s exactly what James Lyons-Weiler does at every turn. He’s antivaccine, and has just spent a whole lot of verbiage to assert that he’s more antivaccine than Manookian. Hilariously, he probably loses, as she showed up in the comments to applaud him for describing vaccines as “filthy” but to berate him for this;

When you write that you don’t know why someone wouldn’t want to know their specific risk, I believe you are missing the point. It’s not that people might not want to know the risk, it’s that a test will NEVER be able to ascertain the entirety of one’s specific risk and even if it could, it doesn’t matter because people should still be free to decide for themselves. We must never cede that ground to the state – sadly I believe your language often does. Imagine I take a test and am told that I have no genetic polymorphisms that make me susceptible to metal toxicity so I don’t qualify for a medical exemption. In a world of mandates with exemptions, would I still have to receive the vaccine? In California I would. What if I don’t want to inject those poisons into me, no matter what the test says?

And:

The other issue I take with biomarkers is it’s putting the cart before the horse because vaccines have not been proven safe. Until vaccines are proven safe, they should not be administered.

Sorry, James. Leslie doesn’t think that vaccines have been shown to be safe and therefore won’t accept (as you will, albeit very grudgingly) that biomarkers could be used to identify those at high risk for “vaccine injury.” (Never mind that what you mean by “biomarkers” for “high risk” for “vaccine injury” and what real vaccine experts and infectious disease doctors mean by “biomarkers” for “high risk” for adverse events are related only by coincidence.) She views them as every much a tool of the state as mandates. I fear that you lose the antivaccine pissing contest. Leslie Manookian remains more antivaccine than you. But don’t be too sad. You are still very, very antivaccine. Just because Manookian is loonier than you doesn’t mean you aren’t a loon.

It is, however, very entertaining to watch you two go at it to claim the title of Most Antivaccine Crank of All, and it’s even funnier to read the comments of the AoA minions, a coule of whom appear to view your both as too “accommodationist.”