I generally don’t cover purely political issues on this blog, but the second Republican primary debate from last night ventured into the area of vaccines and autism. Donald Trump has said in the past that he thinks the current “epidemic” of autism is caused by vaccines. He was challenged on this position during the debate, and face palms ensued.
Orac, perhaps presciently, gave a good recap of Trump’s anti-vaccine nonsense just yesterday. In 2007 Trump said:
“When I was growing up, autism wasn’t really a factor,” Trump said. “And now all of a sudden, it’s an epidemic. Everybody has their theory. My theory, and I study it because I have young children, my theory is the shots. We’ve giving these massive injections at one time, and I really think it does something to the children.”
That is pretty much exactly what Trump said during the second debate, almost word-for-word. This demonstrates several things about Trump, in my opinion. First, he feels comfortable forming his own opinions, based on nothing but casual observation and anecdote, even on complex scientific issues, without adequate information. The fact that the scientific community has come to an opposite opinion does not even seem to give him pause. Finally, he has learned exactly nothing on this issue over the last 8 years – nothing. He has added no depth or nuance to his position, let alone correcting his factual errors.
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It’s always amusing to see two pseudosciences combined into one greater pseudoscience – it’s like chocolate and peanut butter. It’s not uncommon because those who would embrace one pseudoscience are likely to follow the same flawed logic and process to accept others. My colleague David Gorski has termed this effect “crank magnetism.”
Take, for example, Gian Paolo Vanoli. He has been making international headlines recently because of his claim that vaccines cause homosexuality, which he insists is a disease. The story appears to have been first picked up in English by the Huffington Post – all other reports of this story I have found cite this article as their source.
Because of the date of this article (4/1) I wanted to make sure I had another source, but the only other sources are in Italian. The story does seem to check out – here is one article: Gian Paolo Vanoli: Cricket on the urine that has been around the world.
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Joseph Mercola, along with Rosemary Fischer, are promoting vaccine awareness week this week, Nov 1-7. David Gorski, who edits Science-Based Medicine with me, thought it would be a good idea to go along with this and participate fully in vaccine awareness week. So all week we will be focusing on vaccine issues, and doing our best to counter any misinformation.
Mercola, who runs a highly commercialized website, chock full of health misinformation and anti-SBM propaganda, has started off the week with a broadside against the flu vaccine in an article titled: “New Proof that This Common Medical Treatment is Unnecessary and Ineffective”. He gives a Gish Gallop of error and misdirection – far more bits of falsehood than I have time to counter here. That’s the point of the Gish Gallop, it is far easier to create a misconception than it is to correct it. So if you throw enough mud at a topic you can overwhelm any attempt to defend accurate information, and leave your audience with the uneasy feeling that something must be wrong. In the case of Duane Gish his target was the science of evolution. With Mercola it is accurate health information.
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The anti-vaccine movement is nothing if not savvy about marketing their nonsense – at least in the last decade. One of their successful slogans has been “too many, too soon” – implying that children are receiving too many vaccines while they are still too young to deal with them. The result, anti-vaccinationists argue, is potential neurological toxicity or “overwhelming” the immune system.
The slogan also serves double duty, allowing anti-vaccinationists to argue that they are not “anti-vaccine” just “pro-safe vaccine.” This is just more marketing savvy, however – a deliberate deception, as many of the people who make this claim also state that they would never vaccinate. (Orac has pointed this out many times in great insolent detail.)
But there are some parents who have bought into this notion and have reduced and/or delayed the number of vaccines their children receive in the hopes that they can strike a better balance of risk vs benefit than the experts have struck. And there are fringe doctors, like Dr. Jay Gordon, who promotes his own evidence-free alternate vaccine schedule, playing into the “too many, too soon” meme.
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One of the strengths of the skeptical movement, as an intellectual community, is that we wrangle with important issues regarding the relationship between science and what people do and should accept as probably true. We deal with not only specific issues, but the bigger question of process. For example – how much weight should an individual give to any specific scientific consensus, and is this just an argument from authority?
This question has recently become central to the debate over climate change – one of those few scientific debates that fractures the skeptical community. We are fairly united when it comes to the question of ghosts, Bigfoot, and UFOs. But when certain topics come up, like climate change, there is disagreement over the meaning of consensus, what the consensus is, and the very definition of “skeptic”.
Consensus vs Authority
Deferring to the scientific consensus on a given topic is not the same thing as making an argument from authority – a logical fallacy to be avoided. The argument from authority essentially follows the pattern of concluding that a claim is true because it is being made by a person of some authority (scientific or otherwise). Most of us spend our childhood committing this logical fallacy – the right answer is whatever an adult says it is, or the teacher, or whatever the news reports “scientists” are saying.
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The much awaited decision on the first test case of the Autism Omnibus was just announced – and it’s good news. They have found that the petitioners failed to make their case that vaccines caused their children’s autism, and that therefore compensation was not appropriate.
The Autism Omnibus hearings were set up to evaluate for thousands of petitions for compensation under the vaccine injury compensation program. This is a program set up in the US to compensate those who suffer adverse effects from vaccines, and it is paid for by a tax on all vaccines. This is a sensible system because it allows manufacturers to produce much needed vaccines without risking bankruptcy over fad pseudoscientific accusations – like those that took down Dow Chemical. It also more quickly and fairly compensated families, which is fair given that vaccines are somewhat compulsory in the US (although in most states it is all too easy to get an exemption).
These cases arise out of the now scientifically discredited notion that certain vaccines or something in vaccines (like thimerosal) is linked to autism. I have written extensively about this controversy, and what we can say at this time is that the scientific evidence is solidly against any link.
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This morning I received the following e-mail from Jennifer:
The above article was quite comprehensive and thoughtful but a few things haunt me. One is the fact that just because thimerosal was removed in around 2003 does not mean there will be a neat distinction in the numbers of autism (presuming thimerosal is the cause-some even see it as a symptom now of autism rather than the cause). This could be for many reasons, including:
using up of thimerosal stocks already in existance up until the expiry date.
flu shots or multi-dose vials (containing mercury) could still be in use.
pregnant ladies are actually given flu shots and these may contain mercury
immigrant children ( from countries where thimerosal is not removed) may move to areas and be inluded in epid. studies
Also, you do not mention many shots at once and the lack of safety studies in regard to this.
Also,also, recently the mumps portion of the MMR was reduced. It was quadrupled in 1990 from what it was. This may also play a role in autism development.
What about all the kids with seizures and asthma these days. Why is MSG in the shots. EWWWW
I frequently receive similar e-mails, and similar questions appear in the comments of this blog whenever I write on the issue of vaccine and autism. Jennifer touches on many of the current points in the moving target of anti-vaccine propaganda.
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I didn’t think that Amanda Peet could get any sexier for standing up for science and the safety of vaccines, but her appearance on Good Morning American yesterday was outstanding. Here is the money quote:
“It seems that the media is often giving celebrities and actors more authority on this issue than they are giving the experts. I know it’s a paradox, but that’s part of why I wanted to become a spokesperson, to say to people, ‘Please don’t listen to me. Don’t listen to actors. Go to the experts.'”
Is it crazy of me to think that maybe Ms. Peet read my blog entry where I made the exact same point? I applauded her efforts while simultaneously pointing out that the media gives far too much attention to celebrities on this issue. Even still, GMA is playing the debate over vaccines as a battle between Amanda Peet and Jenny McCarthy – Um…maybe the scientific medical community might have an opinion as well.
Peet gets it exactly right – she is just being a spokesperson for expert consensus opinion – not substituting her own scientific opinion.
Meanwhile, the new pinup girl for the anti-vaccination movement, Jenny McCarthy, has been trying to get the troops out to counter the new American Academy of Pediatrics effort to promote vaccinations. Orac has the scoop – and he correctly points out such efforts to thwart the AAP’s initiative shows that McCarthy is full-blown anti-vaccine, not “pro-safe vaccine” as she unconvincingly claims.
Reminder – my main blog entry on Wednesdays is over at Science-Based Medicine.
In response to my blog post on Monday, David Kirby wrote a response in the Huffington Post and Dr. Jon Poling (father of Hannah Poling) wrote an open letter to me, placed in the comment section and posted at Age of Autism. It seems only polite that I respond to their kind attention.
The primary focus of my original post (which I further developed yesterday) was that the media is focusing too much attention on what celebrities and politicians are saying about the controversy surrounding the discredited notion that vaccines are a significant cause of autism. Over the past year Jenny McCarthy (now joined by her boyfriend Jim Carrey) has become the major spokesperson for a movement that, at its core, is anti-vaccine and is dedicated to the scientific opinion that vaccines are toxic and cause autism. Recently actress Amanda Peet joined the fray, professing her belief that vaccines are safe, are not associated with autism, and that parents who do not vaccinate their children are “parasites” for depending on other parents who do. (She later apologized for that remark, calling it “divisive”.)
While I appreciate Amanda Peet’s support, I feel strongly that scientific questions should be handled by the scientific community. Celebrities are great when they support causes – but when they second guess the scientific community and decide to advocate for their own scientific conclusions, they are more likely to cause harm than good. Continue Reading »
Dr. Offit is an infectious disease and vaccine specialist who has been extremely active in defending the science of vaccine safety and effectiveness against ideological attack from antivaccinationists. He has recently published an excellent article in the New England Journal of Medicine in which he reviews the Hannah Poling case – the case of the girl with a mitochondrial disorder who developed encephalopathy following a series of vaccines. He makes many very good points and the entire article is worth reading.
I wrote previously about the Hannah Poling case. This remains a vexing case because it in no way supports the claim that there is a link between vaccines and autism, but it is a complex case and is easily presented by antivaccine activists as if it does support a link. Dr. Offit echoes my position that the details of the case, when put into proper perspective, do not support claims for such a link.