Apr 12 2010

The Anti-Vaccine Environmentalist

The anti-vaccine movement, as is probably typical for ideological movements, has natural enemies and allies. Once the notion that mercury in the form of thimerosal in vaccines might be responsible for neurodevelopmental disorders (it’s not) became popular in the anti-vaccine crowd, this made them natural allies with the “mercury-militia” – those who blame environmental mercury for a host of ills. The fact that some anti-vaccinationists seek to provide their children on the autism spectrum with unconventional biological treatments, based on their disproved “toxin” hypothesis, made them natural allies with the alternative medicine community. Both seek freedom from pesky regulation, and rail against the perceived deficiencies of science-based medicine.

Another ideological alliance is brewing – that between the anti-vaccine movement and extreme environmentalists. This post is not a commentary on environmentalism, and please do not take it as such – the purposes and claims of the two movements are quite distinct. But they share a common thread: distrust of scientific experts and government regulators who reassure the public that environmental exposures are safe.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been the most prominent environmentalist to take up the anti-vaccine cause, in several articles and speeches. While he appears to be only a part-time anti-vaccinationist, his celebrity and street cred among environmentalists lend a great deal of weight to his paranoid musings about scientific fraud and government cover ups. It seems he wants to recapitulate the moral clarity that his uncles displayed in the 1960s, defending the little guy against abuses by the powerful and privileged. He is ready to see a conspiracy, and he wants to be the crusader for environmental justice – and if kids are the alleged victims, all the better. His article in the Huffington Post – “Attack on Mothers,” says it all.

Now there appears to be another environmentalist, who is also a journalist, getting into the anti-vaccine game – one Steven Higgs who writes for The Bloomington Alternative. He came to our attention recently when he wrote a fawning piece about Generation Rescue’s J.B. Handley. David Gorski and I attempted to reason with him over e-mail, but the result indicated to us that Higgs is not an objective journalist but an anti-vaccine activist – and he came to this position largely through his environmental activism – a budding RFK Jr. (David covers this topic also over at Science-Based Medicine today.)

In a recent article Higgs wrote:

I’ve spent most of the past 28 years journalistically investigating conflicts between environmental victims and experts in the relevant fields. And, I can say without qualification, the victims have been right and the experts wrong in every significant story I’ve covered. I can’t think of a single exception.

Such a definitive statement should raise a red flag – no qualifiers or exceptions? That sounds like confirmation bias. Many of the famous environmental cases usually end ambiguously, in that there is no definitive scientific evidence of harm from the environmental exposure, but the families and activists believe they have been harmed. So I guess if someone always sides with the alleged victims, regardless of the scientific evidence, that could confirm the belief that the victims are always right and the experts always wrong.

Another source of confirmation bias is that when claims of environmental toxicity first come to light, the standard scientific approach is to be cautious but investigate. Good scientists are initially skeptical, and require a threshold of evidence before they accept a claim. So initially scientists may say, “Wait a minute, slow down, this evidence is not compelling, we need better evidence.” If eventually the evidence suggests that there was environmental toxicity, then Higgs and others can claim that the experts were wrong – but this is a gross misreading of the nature of scientific skepticism.

This article from 1980 about the Love Canal is a good example – the scientists are simply calling for better evidence, but that can be interpreted as concluding that there was no problem. Love Canal also demonstrates that these issues are complex. There were toxins being dumped into the environment by industry who tried to deny responsibility, local residents were exposed, but the actual health consequences remain a bit controversial, and were likely not as bad as the worst of the media hype suggested. But eventually the science sorted itself out and the government cleaned up the spill and relocated all the residents.

The lesson is – that environmental stories like this one are complex, and anyone who takes a one-sided position “without qualification” is either not looking into it deeply enough or has an axe to grind.

The story of thimerosal in vaccines is far more complex. When I first looked deeply into this issue I actually was not sure which way I would go – I wanted to get the bottom line correct, and did not want to commit myself without fully wrapping my head around this complex story. At points in my research I felt there might really be something going on. It wasn’t until after I fully digested all the science and all the arguments that I was convinced there is no correlation between vaccines and autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Steven Higgs claims to have done the same thing, as an environmental journalist, but he came away with the opposite conclusion. I am interested in why – how can two people look at the same information and come to opposite conclusions? Of course, I think I am correct (although I am always willing to reconsider my position in light of new information or arguments) and I detect in Higgs the tell-tale signs of bias, as I noted above. Higgs was prepared for an environmental scandal, and he found one.

I have also seen many intelligent and well-meaning people get sucked into a complex pseudoscience – essentially they are overwhelmed by misinformation in an area where they lack expertise, and therefore cannot put that information into context. When one is confronted by a large volume of information all pointing in one direction, it seems compelling. I have even known skeptics who, after watching Loose Change, thought there had to be some hanky panky going on with 9/11. I have debated creationists who are loaded with information – all subtly distorted against evolution. Sophisticated and complex pseudosciences are a nuisance in this way, and the anti-vaccine movement has now developed into just such a pseudoscience.

What is more interesting is how Higgs has responded to scientists with whom he disagrees – and this reflects the danger of “going down the rabbit hole” of a complex pseudoscience, especially those with a conspiracy angle. Higgs wrote:

And with respect to vaccines and autism, I say again, without reservation, parents like J.B. Handley and grandparents like Dan Burton are right about vaccines and autism. The experts are wrong, and their behaviors — their vitriolic attacks upon those who disagree, their underhanded political tactics — suggest they know they were wrong.

We know we are wrong? The undeniable implication (although Higgs denied this to me and David in an e-mail) is that we are lying. We are therefore complicit in a cover up. Also – look at the extreme bias. Higgs thinks that scientists are guilty of “vitriol.” Mostly, scientists will sharply but accurately criticize Handley and his ilk, and some science bloggers will get “insolent” and that can be considered vitriolic. But it is nothing – nothing – compared to the personal smear campaign that Handley and others have launched against those scientists trying to educate the public about vaccines. Remember the infamous “baby-eating” Photoshop job that was published on Handley’s propaganda blog, Age of Autism (and then taken down after it disgusted even the vitriolic echochamber of that blog community). Higgs’ characterization of the situation is so out of touch with reality that it is inexcusable for a journalist.

Also note the populist anti-intellectualism of stating that the experts are always wrong. This reminds me of creationist McLeroy’s famous comment, “Somebody has to stand up to those experts.” In his e-mail to us, Higgs coupled this with the argument ad populi logical fallacy, that he must be right because the anti-vaccine movement has successfully scared much of the public about vaccines.

He also stated that what scientists do is not hard – “That,” as Yoda said, “is why you fail.” Forgive me, but science is hard. That is, doing rigorous science, or even just properly interpreting a complex set of scientific data, is complex, tedious, and exacting. There are numerous pitfalls, and even experienced scientists can get it wrong. We need a community of scientists poring over methods and data, and correcting each other, to grind out a consensus. I’m sorry, but being a passionate journalist (or parent) does not qualify you (as Handley himself has demonstrated on numerous occasions). It is worse to not even have any pause about the fact that the scientific community disagrees with you. That is hubris.

But I am willing to believe that Higgs and others are sincere crusaders, who are just grossly mistaken in their approach and conclusions. Higgs and Handley are not willing to give us the same courtesy – they think we are lying, dishonest, and on the take. They demonstrate that personal attacks is what you do when you don’t have science or even logic on your side.

When it comes to the details of the analysis of the scientific evidence, Higgs buys the anti-vaccine propaganda down the line. Clearly he has consumed Handley’s campaign of misinformation. With regard to a large CDC study showing no correlation between thimerosal and neurodevelopmental disorders, Higgs writes:

The study, titled “Early Thimerosal Exposure and Neuropsychological Outcomes at 7 to 10 Years,” found that exposure to mercury between birth and 28 days was related to significantly poorer “speech articulation.” It also found a “significant negative association with verbal IQ” among girls.

I have dealt with this this claim here – essentially the study looked at many outcomes, and a couple (when looked at individually) were correlated greater than chance, some positive, and some negative. But when considered as a whole, this is what we expect from chance alone. In other words, the results of this study are exactly what we would predict if there were no correlation between thimerosal and any neurodevelopmental disorder. Put into scientific parlance – this study fails to reject the null hypothesis. Understanding statistics on this level is one of those things experts do that Higgs thinks is so easy.

Higgs also engages in massive cherry picking. He still thinks that thimerosal is responsible for an epidemic of autism – even though the evidence suggests there is no epidemic of autism. But more to the point – the final nail was put into the coffin of the thimerosal hypothesis when almost all of the thimerosal was removed from the vaccine schedule by 2002. The anti-vaccine crowd (most notably David Kirby – another journalist gone astray) predicted that autism rates would plummet. They didn’t – they continued to rise. I and others predicted they would continue to rise, but ultimately would have to level off once diagnostic rates reached saturation. There are some early signs that diagnoses are starting to level off, but it’s too early to say yet. But they did not plummet.

Higgs is now trying to use some recent and minor decrease in a narrow data set in the Ohio Valley to conclude that the much predicted decline in autism rates is finally here (better late than never). He does not mention that the California data, which is the data that the anti-vaccine crowd originally used to argue for a correlation – shows no decline. David takes down this argument further on SBM – for example, the rates are leveling off for all age groups, not just the youngest cohort, which is what you would predict if this were really an effect of removing thimerosal.

This episode also reminds me of David Kirby, who in 2005 was trumping a very short-term downward deflection in the California numbers and happily extrapolating to the predicted “plummet.” But short term trends cannot blithely be extrapolated – as the California data showed. It was just a fluctuation – but the trend continued upward at the same slope.

Conclusion

Steven Higgs appears to be another player in the anti-vaccine scene. His path to this particular pseudoscience appears to be (like RFK Jr.) through environmental activism. But the intellectual failings are the same that skeptics encounter over and over again in denial and pseudoscience. Higgs is cherry picking data, dismissing experts, misunderstanding statistics, and engaging in massive confirmation bias. He then shields himself from the very people who can point out his errors by denigrating them and writing them off as tainted (the Handley method).

Meanwhile he embraces the likes of J. B. Handley and turns a blind eye to his shenanigans.

I like to examine people like Higgs the way doctors study disease – there is pathology there, and by understanding it perhaps we can get better at fighting it. I tried the “seek common ground and understanding” approach over e-mail with Higgs, but he was not interested. Maybe my observations gave him a moment of pause. I doubt it, but I try never to give up on optimism.

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21 responses so far

21 Responses to “The Anti-Vaccine Environmentalist”

  1. [...] Steve Novella has also blogged about this, and he has shown that I might be wrong. It’s not Dan Olmsted whom Mr. Higgs is emulating. [...]

  2. Calli Arcaleon 12 Apr 2010 at 10:02 am

    The anti-vaccination movement through the decades has always found allies among other fringe groups who feel disenfranchised. It’s always about a conspiracy, and there are conspiracies everywhere. Religion is a common ally. Sometimes it is from a disturbingly eugenic perspective — “Disease only comes to those who deserve it; vaccination is Satan’s way of protecting his own.” Sometimes it is a less judgmental variant: “Who are we to question God’s will? Disease will come when it will come, for whatever reason God wills it.” This is more common among the ascetic groups. Sometimes it is downright paranoid, as was recently seen in Africa: “Fake vaccination is being used to deliver poisons to eliminate the true believers!”

    Sometimes it is more overtly eugenic, though in a more secular manner — “Disease weeds out the unfit; vaccination (and other interventions) preserve unfit genes.”

    The religious ascetic argument also allies itself well with the environmentalist movement. Live simply — are vaccine part of that? The religious ascetics may say that God did not intend us to require vaccination; the secular variant is that Nature did not intend us to need vaccines. We lived for a million years without vaccines; why do we need them now?

    Environmentalism, and the related back-to-nature push, has been fashionable for a while now. It is inevitable that anti-vaccination ally itself to it, and this is not really new. Buy organic produce. Use bamboo cloth diapers. Use recycled paper, as sparingly as possible. Wash your floors with vinegar rather than Lysol. Take vitamins and minerals so you don’t need to take synthetic pharmaceuticals. Where does vaccination fit into this mindset? Depends on how far one has committed oneself to it, but it would be very easy to start saying “no, it’s not natural” if one is saying that about every other aspect of one’s life. There’s also an element of control in these movements; it’s not exactly hypocritical to drive 40 miles to work every day and call oneself an environmentalist, because with modern American life being what it is, it’s hard to get a job that doesn’t require commuting. So if one is an environmentalist, one will feel guilty about that, and perhaps try harder to be “natural” in those places where one has a realistic choice. Too hard, sometimes.

  3. Mikeon 12 Apr 2010 at 11:27 am

    Steve, you ask “how can two people look at the same information and come to opposite conclusions?”

    As a friend once said..

    Well, one of them’s a dick.

  4. B Hitton 12 Apr 2010 at 1:48 pm

    As pointed out by Calli Arcale, the popularity of back-to-nature thinking provides a convenient springboard for anti-vaxers at the grass roots.
    My wife noticed this on the discussion boards at babycenter.com which she has been active on for a while. If you’re unfamiliar, babycenter is a very popular website for parents of young children that includes boards for birth cohorts and special interests of all sorts. Anti-vaxers have a very strong presence on the boards which is where we first heard of the movement (before I discovered SBM and SGU).
    There’s a kind of natural-is-better subculture of moms on the site that call themselves “granola” or “crunchy” moms and identify themselves by things like exclusive breast-feeding, cloth diapering, baby-wearing and co-sleeping. Somehow, the anti-vaxers snuck their rhetoric in, and non-vaxing got added to that list.
    The parents cite the usual vague and misinformed reasons for their choice to refuse or postpone vaccinations in their children. The outlook that they come from initially seems to be a mix of environmental and aesthetic motives, but ultimately left them vulnerable to the unreason spouted by the anti-vaxers. Too bad.

  5. Sullivanon 12 Apr 2010 at 2:21 pm

    I am rather tired of pseudo environmentalists using autism as their hammer.

    People like Mr. Higgs are making it harder for parents like myself to effectively advocate for a better life for our children. Their work tends to deny the existence of the unidentified autistic adults, leading to less support for them as well.

    Kirby, Olmsted, others, and now Higgs have done a lot of harm to the autism communities.

  6. provaxmomon 12 Apr 2010 at 2:30 pm

    If you want to see something more frightening than babycenter, check out mothering dot com boards. You’ll find everything from home unassisted births to anti-vaxers, those who won’t even get a prenatal u/s because it’s too “invasive” and the long term affects haven’t been studied…..sigh.

    I will say, in my own non-scientific study, among the uber-crunchy who do not vaccinate, many also do not have health insurance. Like I said, non scientific, but I have met many moms who meet both criteria.

  7. Biteyon 12 Apr 2010 at 2:53 pm

    Hey Steve,

    I’m not really sure I understand the thrust of this post. If Mr. Higgs was a actual journalist publishing for a large paper with a measurable reach, that would be one thing. After all, a journalist at the New York Times or Washington Post has the ability to break into the public consciousness.

    But this guy is some hack that writes for one of these small town “alternative” papers. I have been a student at Indiana U (Bloomington, IN) for several years now haven’t seen one of these rags in circulation. These “alternative” papers tend to all have several things in common: 1) have a very small audience 2) exist as repositories for medical marijuana dispensary advertisement 3) feature extreme political views with no editorial oversight. The more bombastic the controversy, the more rags that get picked up at the local Wal-Mart.

    What do you expect from one of these ridiculous papers, Steve? It’s like expecting fair journalism and reasonable opinions on late-night radio programs like Art Bell. They exist to get a rise out of people by publishing fear-mongering and conspiratorial articles. And the audience is a extremely small subset of nuts and cranks.

  8. Steven Novellaon 12 Apr 2010 at 3:39 pm

    Bitey – I agree with you. This post was about this guy joining the ranks of the anti-vaccinationists, and coming to that through his environmental activism.

    I do think the internet has equalized things a bit also. Local rags still get their material on the internet and they come up in Google searches.

    But hopefully his impact will remain small.

  9. MaryPon 12 Apr 2010 at 7:25 pm

    Re Calli Arcale: Up here in Canada they can no longer just say bamboo. It was ruled to be misleading as being environmentally better when it was in reality not. They have to call it rayon as “rayon made from oak bark is not called oak”.

  10. RMostadon 12 Apr 2010 at 11:00 pm

    I thought you might like this TED presentation:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_specter_the_danger_of_science_denial.html

  11. BillyJoe7on 13 Apr 2010 at 7:39 am

    Mike: “Well, one of them’s a dick.”
    …and the other one is Steve.

    Steve: “I like to examine people like Higgs the way doctors study disease”
    ….that would be herpes then? :D

  12. eiskrystalon 13 Apr 2010 at 9:15 am

    Steven Higgs a “player”? With Thimerosal?

    He’s a moron. Or he’s gunning for a job at AoA.

    Or both.

  13. Esattezzaon 13 Apr 2010 at 10:53 am

    Steve, this is tangentially related, but, in your experience, have reputable scientists shied away from researching potential environmental causes (triggers?) of autism because of the vitriol surrounding the issue, or even because the thought of such a thing immediately makes someone think of AoA and approach the subject with caution?

    In David’s post on this same topic, he linked to a interview with Dr. Healy and I found myself agreeing with much of what she said (until she got into crazy conspiracy realm). It is plausible that vaccines cause a reaction that triggers autism in some small percentage of cases, especially if you look at the parental reports of intense swelling at the injection site, followed by a night of seizures immediately after immunization. I have no idea how accurate these reports are or why they don’t seem to have been reported. As much as I disagree with the anti-vax crowd, I’d find these reports compelling, if true, and warranting of further study of that specific population. This is just a hypothetical example, of course, there are probably 50 triggers out there, given the wide range of genes involved. Some of the associated genes likely to create susceptibility to something, which may be easier to modify than gene mutations in people, and I don’t see studies being done. Are we simply not there yet? Is there some flaw in my thinking that I’m not aware of?

  14. daedalus2uon 13 Apr 2010 at 7:18 pm

    Esatteza, it is not plausible that vaccines trigger autism in a small fraction of individuals.

    One of the most characteristic symptoms of autism is a larger brain with a larger number of nerve cells arranged in a larger number of minicolumns. The number of minicolumns is set during the first trimester in utero, No vaccine given after the child is born can increase the number of minicolumns.

    Science can’t “prove” that vaccination will never cause “autism”, but science also can not prove that vaccination will never give a child super powers like Spiderman.

    The idea that vaccines can cause autism is not plausible (neither is the idea that vaccination can give spiderman-like super powers) because a vaccine causation is incompatible with much that is well known about the action of vaccines, of autism, and of how the immune system works.

    The driving force behind the “vaccines cause autism” idea has been money, lawyers trying to (legally) extort money out of vaccine manufacturers.

    I think researchers have shied away from environmental causation because there is no “conceptual space” for environmental causation because the anti-vax crazies have taken it over. There is such an “anti-science” mindset that actual honest research into environmental causation can’t be funded.

    The actual known “triggers” of autism, thalidomide, valproate, and stress, all act during the first trimester, or maybe somewhat later for stress (second or third trimester). These are difficult studies to do, you can’t deliberately expose pregnant women to stress, but when there has been a stressful natural disaster, there is an increase in autism among children in utero at that time.

  15. Esattezzaon 13 Apr 2010 at 8:11 pm

    daedalus,

    That makes a lot of sense. I’d forgotten my neuroanatomy for a bit apparently. However, it leaves me wondering what happens to the brain of an autistic child during intense therapy (talking ABA here, not “biomedical intervention” bs). I know a lot of it is learning to focus attention and learning compensation techniques and having proper social etiquette drilled into you head. But I wonder if and how, as a child moves up and even off the spectrum, brain anatomy changes. Also, you must concede that even if post-natal triggers (whatever they may be – vaccines are certainly no scared cow in my book) cannot alter the gross brain morphology, there are other factors involved that impact the severity of the presentation of the disorder. It may be that certain post-natal environmental influences can influence severity, even to the point of ‘causing’ an ASD diagnosis, vs just being a quirky kid. Also, isn’t the measles virus (ironically) thought to trigger autism in the children of pregnant women who get the disease? (To be clear, I’m 50% playing Devil’s Advocate, and 50% supporting the idea that science should take back environmental studies from the anti-vaxers… even though I’m studying to be a geneticist and basically advocating for a future loss of funding for my research)

  16. Esattezzaon 13 Apr 2010 at 8:14 pm

    Also, as autism is really not a single disorder, has the altered minicolumn number been shown in all cases studied? And, for that matter, what was the N and the diagnostic criteria used to study this? (Yeah, I’m looking to be lazy and have you send me a link to the article so I don’t have to spend more time on pubmed)

  17. Calli Arcaleon 14 Apr 2010 at 10:21 pm

    Esatteza:

    It is plausible that vaccines cause a reaction that triggers autism in some small percentage of cases, especially if you look at the parental reports of intense swelling at the injection site, followed by a night of seizures immediately after immunization. I have no idea how accurate these reports are or why they don’t seem to have been reported.

    Actually, those have been reported to VAERS. In fact, swelling at the injection site is probably the single most common side-effect of any vaccination. (Not surprisingly, really, as it can occur in any injection, even of saline.) Seizures are less common, but are known to rarely occur, particularly febrile seizures (seizures brought on by fever). It is worth noting that any fever can lead to febrile seizures, and that infectious disease is far more commonly the culprit, yet no one seems to try to link autism to infectious disease.

    It isn’t totally implausible that vaccines might, in some small subset of the population, lead to autism, but it would have to by some as-yet-undiscovered mechanism. Swelling at the vaccine site is not going to cause autism, and seizures happen often enough without autism that it seems unlikely to me that there is a real connection.

  18. Esattezzaon 15 Apr 2010 at 3:25 am

    Calli, sorry, I was sloppy when I wrote that. I know there are plenty of VAERS reports about redness and swelling at the injection site (Mine may be among them, though I think VAERS got going a year or two after my vaccinations). However, the syndromic swelling/redness, relentless crying through the night, and first instance of seizures in the fist 24 hours seems rarely reported, compared to the number of anecdotes I’ve heard from parents saying their (now autistic) child went through exactly that.

    Also, being that there is comorbidity between autism and seizures, I’m not comfortable with being so quick to dismiss that potential link. Furthermore, you say that swelling at the injection site is not going to cause autism. This is true. However, it is conceivable that the two things could be caused by a third factor in some way, namely a hyperactive immune system, possibly resulting in an autoimmune disorder, which attacks the brain, altering function and causing autistic symptoms. Yes, I know it’s a stretch, but that is, at least superficially, a plausible mechanism.

    Now, as I already stated, I’m more or less just playing devil’s advocate here. It makes for an interesting intellectual exercise, considering that may visceral reaction is to scream any time someone mentions autism and vaccines in the same sentence. Just for the record, I do agree with you that it’s highly unlikely, especially given the attention the issue has had in the past decade or so. Of course, I also feel like it would be just my luck that i’d spend my time speaking out against what I think is a failed hypothesis and have there be something to it.

  19. Calli Arcaleon 19 Apr 2010 at 10:40 am

    I was objecting to your assertion that seizures have never been reported as a side effect. “I have no idea how accurate these reports are or why they don’t seem to have been reported.” They most certainly have been reported, and often enough that it’s considered a known adverse effect of vaccination. This *is* studied.

    It’s not entirely implausible that vaccines could cause autism, true. But it’s also not entirely implausible that automobiles could cause autism. You have to see some sort of correlation before you start looking for causes, or you’re just shooting in the dark. And if you look at large numbers of children, as several studies have done, there is no correlation. What, then, is the point in looking for a causal link when no correlation has even been demonstrated?

    (Yes, I know some parents have stories of the child getting vaccinated and then developing autism. But that doesn’t demonstrate that there’s actually a correlation rather than just a coincidence. You need large numbers to find the correlation, and when large numbers are studied, there isn’t an effect shown.)

  20. Esattezzaon 19 Apr 2010 at 10:28 pm

    Calli, can you point me to a study where autism has been studied specifically in populations that had an adverse vaccine reaction? I’ve never seen those stats and it seems like a simple thing to study. If it’s been done, I’ll drop the issue. I know there have been studies of the changing vaccine schedule and so on, but I’ve never seen something that directly disproves the sensitivity hypothesis.

  21. [...] all ills, and whose attention was drawn to vaccines through the mercury-based thimerosal connection. I wrote recently about another group – radical environmentalists who see vaccines and just another [...]

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