Jun 03 2013

Vaccine Denial Pseudoscience

I was recently asked about this article, Bedrock of vaccination theory crumbles as science reveals antibodies not necessary to fight viruses, which is a year old, but is making the rounds recently on social media. I was asked if there is any validity to the article. It’s from NaturalNews (not to be confused with NatureNews), which means, in my experience, it is almost certainly complete nonsense.

For the average consumer my advice is to completely ignore NaturalNews and Mike Adams. He is, among other things, an anti-vaccine crank. This article is written by staff writer Ethan Huff.  Let’s take a close look  and see if it lives up to the site’s reputation.

He writes:

While the medical, pharmaceutical, and vaccine industries are busy pushing new vaccines for practically every condition under the sun, a new study published in the journal Immunity completely deconstructs the entire vaccination theory. It turns out that the body’s natural immune systems, comprised of both innate and adaptive components, work together to ward off disease without the need for antibody-producing vaccines.

He opens with a bit of hyperbole – medical science is developing vaccines for infectious diseases that respond to vaccines, not “practically every condition under the sun.” Further, his word choice marks his piece as propaganda, referring to the medical “industry” rather than medical “science.”

He takes a nose dive, however, in his next sentence – he claims that one study (already a dubious claim) deconstructs the entire vaccine theory, which is built upon thousands of studies over decades of research. The study in question: B cell maintenance of subcapsular sinus macrophages protects against a fatal viral infection independent of adaptive immunity, is not even a study of vaccines.

He claims that the study shows that the immune system does not need antibodies. One should wonder why the immune system evolved such an elaborate system of antibody production, and why it expends so much energy doing so. Further, there are antibody-mediated autoimmune diseases, a tradeoff that only makes sense if antibodies serve some purpose.

He continues:

But the new research highlights the fact that innate immunity plays a significant role in fighting infections, and is perhaps more important than adaptive immunity at preventing or fighting infections. In tests, adaptive immune system antibodies were shown unable to fight infection by themselves, which in essence debunks the theory that vaccine-induced antibodies serve any legitimate function in preventing or fighting off infection

Without even looking at the study it can be seen that Huff’s logic is fatally flawed. Even if the study showed what he claims (it doesn’t), that antibodies cannot fight infections by themselves, that does not mean that antibodies serve no purpose, or that vaccines cannot work by stimulating the production of antibodies.

Before I dissect Huff’s nonsense further, here is a quick overview of the immune system. The immune system is actually very complicated. It has different components that are more effective at fighting off different kinds of infections in different parts of the body. There is humoral immunity, which is based upon antibody production (antibodies are proteins that bind to anything foreign to target the immune system against it), and there is cellular immunity, which is essentially white blood cells and macrophages, which are large cells that eat foreign material or dead cells.

You can also characterize different parts of the immune system as passive, or innate, vs adaptive. The innate immune system keeps out invaders and fights them off nonspecifically. The adaptive immune system remembers foreign bodies through the stimulation of B-cells, and can then mount a quicker and more vigorous immune response over time.

Adaptive immunity is how vaccines work – they expose the immune system to a weak infection, or to viral or bacterial elements, that then trigger the production of memory B-cells so that the next time the body is exposed a more rapid immune response can fight off the infection before it takes hold.

The importance of cellular vs antibody-mediated immunity and the various parts of the immune system differ with different infectious and foreign agents. What this study shows is that for a particular virus, which is a very small virus, the neurotropic vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV), mice that have B-cells but do not produce antibodies were able to fight off the infection. The authors conclude that this means that B-cells are necessary to stimulate macrophages, which ultimately kill the virus, independent of adaptive immunity.

Huff’s primary illogic is in concluding that this study, which involved one particular type of virus, can be extrapolated to all infections. Given what we already know, this is absolutely not true.

For example, there are many types of disorders of immunodeficiency, including those who cannot make antibodies for themselves. They are highly susceptible to infections, and are treated by giving regular infusions of intravenous immunoglobulins (antibodies).

There is also all the evidence that vaccines actually work.

What Huff is doing is taking one study with very narrow implications, and then completely misinterpreting it. He ignores the vast scientific literature on the immune system, infectious diseases, and vaccines, and the complexity of the immune system to make very simplistic and wrong conclusions.

In short, this article is pure propaganda, not serious science. It is only evidence that NaturalNews is a crank website whose advice is best completely ignored.

17 responses so far

17 thoughts on “Vaccine Denial Pseudoscience”

  1. Bill Openthalt says:

    The capacity of the human brain to adopt a belief and then fight to the bitter end to defend it, is truly amazing.

  2. Dingo says:

    I’m waiting for further amazing scientific discoveries to be announced via NaturalNews – perhaps that bumble bees can’t fly?

  3. Bruce Woodward says:

    His whole argument is pretty much “Table mountain has a flat top, therefore the world must be flat.”

  4. RickK says:

    Wow, the Wikipedia entry on NaturalNews pretty much says it all about Mike Adams.

    Adams even promotes Sandy Hook conspiracy theories – a new low for someone who was already belly-down in the gutter.

    Steve, you and ORAC and others have interacted with Adams. Is he a true believer, or does he just like the money that controversy generates for him?

  5. Skeptico says:

    I once left a comment on one of Adams’s articles. It was an article that purported to show that vaccines made you more likely to get the disease. I explained briefly why his math was wrong, with a link to my more detailed article. It was short, polite, and explained where he was wrong. The comment was deleted soon after and no other comments from me have ever got past “moderation.” So whether he believes his stuff or not, he certainly knew the rebuttal to his claims, he just didn’t want the facts to spoil his anti-vaccine screed.

  6. ccbowers says:

    “It is only evidence that NaturalNews is a crank website whose advice is best completely ignored.”

    If only it were ignored. I can’t believe that the intellectual dishonesty isn’t transparent to people. In nearly every article, the conclusion doesn’t follow the premise (the logic is so flawed that you often don’t even need to realize that the premises are wrong). I thought that Mercola had the worst website of it’s type, but I think Naturalnews is even worse.

  7. william64 says:

    To me, this is a primary example of the misunderstanding of science. He clearly started with a conclusion, and looked for facts that seemingly confirmed it.

  8. NaturalNews adds a generic conspiracy angle to the usual CAM nonsense. It does make it worse, but perhaps also less insidious as the conspiracy mongering may drive away some people.

  9. steve12 says:

    I just checked out wikipedia, RickK:

    “Adams is an AIDS denialist, a 9/11 truther, a birther and endorses conspiracy theories surrounding the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. ”

    Whoa! A truther and a birther? It’s refreshing to see people cut across party lines in this day and age.

    I suppose it makes more sense when everything someone thinks is nonsense. SAme broken process leads to same broken conclusions. It’s much more bizarre when someone has just one pet nonsense idea, but is otherwise reasonable

  10. rezistnzisfutl says:

    In my experience, NaturalNews is complete crank and have yet to produce anything valid, or anything that’s even remotely based on validity. Everything ranging from their stances on GMOs and organic foods to SCAM and vaccines, they just get outright wrong. As their name implies, their philosophy is (primarily) based on the naturalistic fallacy, though they throw in some corporate outrage and conspiracy theorizing to top it off. Mike Adams is one of the most egregious pseudoscientific activist cranks around, rivaled by few on the same level, such as Mercola.

    I don’t know how many times I got into it with anti-GMO and anti-vaccination activists (being generous in my language here) who cited NaturalNews as their primary sources. In reality, that’s all the information I need about them, putting aside the fact that their arguments fall flat on their own merits anyway.

    It comes back to standards of evidence and critical thinking and how closely groups like the anti-GMO/vaccine crowd mirrors creationists and anti-AGW in language, thinking, and actions. They all seem to share the same propensity for uncritically accepting what they’re told from those who share their preconceived beliefs and simply ignoring or rejecting any evidence to the contrary regardless of what, or how strong, it is. Their motivated reasoning and confirmation bias props up their cognitive dissonance.

  11. ksadrieh says:

    Vaccines don’t work, except for the ones for small pox, polio, meningococcal infections, pneumococcal infections, Hib infections, varicella, diphtheria, pertusis, measles, mumps, rabies, rubella, tetanus, hepatitis, etc…

  12. ccbowers says:

    “NaturalNews adds a generic conspiracy angle to the usual CAM nonsense. It does make it worse, but perhaps also less insidious as the conspiracy mongering may drive away some people.”

    This seems to be true: the more fringe beliefs you require of your readers, the smaller the market you allow for yourself, because you will turn people off.

    The naturalnews to CAM is a bit like Glenn Beck is to conservative political commentary.

    The problems with the people like Mercola and Dr Oz is that they mix fairly accurate and good sounding information with quackery, and the mixture can become terrible misinformation. This is because the average person recognizes some of the information as sounding familiar/true so that raises the believability of the nonsense. This is probably why they have a much bigger audience.

  13. jre says:

    There is, I think, a continuum of wackaloonery extending from Dr. Oz, through Joseph Mercola and Gary Null, all the way to Mike Adams. At or near the Adams threshold, further wackiness becomes impossible to sustain, because the number of propositions held in common by the loon and the rest of humanity falls below the level where discourse is possible.

  14. BillyJoe7 says:

    …in other words, Adams has fallen over the event horizon of lunacy

  15. autumnmonkey says:

    If they believe their bodies are capable of fending off full blown viruses then surely their bodies can handle a vaccine. It’s hard to understand what they’re afraid of.

    @rezistnzisfutl: “It comes back to standards of evidence and critical thinking and how closely groups like the anti-GMO/vaccine crowd mirrors creationists and anti-AGW in language, thinking, and actions.”

    I’m seeing increasingly more on the fringe right become anti-vaxxers and anti-GMOers.

  16. rezistnzisfutl says:

    I didn’t intend to single out a specific political group, though anti-AGW and anti-GMO crowds do seem to gravitate in one direction or another. There’s nearly always an overlap it seems, but what is also apparent is that lack of critical thinking and ignorance do seem to correspond with dogmatic ideology that cuts across party lines, whatever the pet subject is at any given time, and the similarities in how they go about it are strikingly similar.

    In my experience, anti-GMO seems to be decidedly left wing, though I can see some anti-establishment right wing folks piping in.

    The problem with ideology, unfortunately, is that it often sacrifices good science and critical evaluation of claims and evidence for the ideology. Perhaps this is because of confirmation bias – they have already formed a preconceived conclusion.

  17. autumnmonkey says:


    I agree. I wasn’t implying stupidity was a monopoly of the right, only that I’m witnessing these crank ideas of the Hollywood left are not that rare among the libertarian and religious right. And it could be that since I live in the middle of the country that I’m more inclined to be around right wing loons than the left variety.

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