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.


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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