Jan 27 2011

Some Nonsense from J.B. Handley

Published by under autism
Comments: 13

The intellectual dishonesty, or such blinkered stupidity that it is indistinguishable from this, of the anti-vaccine crowd is always a spectacle. J.B. Handley is a prime example. He has made himself into an intellectual bully, and internet thug for the Age of Autism.

In a recent piece for this wretched hive of anti-vaccine propaganda, Handley write:

“It’s been asked and answered, vaccines don’t cause autism.”

This lie, it really drives me nuts. More, and I can say this and mean it, anyone who repeats this lie is immediately my enemy. I mean that, I really do, because there are just too many kids in the mix and this is just too important and if you are either intellectually too lazy or too dishonest to understand the science around vaccines and autism, then, well, you are my enemy. Sorry, it’s a hard knock life.

That captures his “Goodfellas” approach quite nicely. If you disagree with him – you are his enemy, the gloves are off, and anything is justified. To add irony to his thuggery, Handley himself is just too intellectually lazy, or (in my opinion) scientifically illiterate to “understand the science around vaccines and autism.” Yet he presumes to lecture those who have dedicated their lives to studying science, and in fact is willing to make them his enemy because they have the audacity to point out that his understanding of science is hopelessly flawed.

Skepacabra does a good job of dissecting this particular piece of propaganda, so I won’t repeat it here. There is one point that Skepacabra did not mention that I would like to focus on, however. Handley massively contradicts himself in the article, in a very telling way.

But first, as a quick reminder – the anti-vaccine crowd initially claimed (sparked by Andrew Wakefield’s flawed and now fraudulent research) that the MMR vaccine caused autism. A series of studies showed that this was incorrect – there is no correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism. So they moved on to thimerosal in some vaccines. A series of studies showed no correlation there either. Most dramatically, thimerosal was removed from the US routine childhood vaccine schedule (except for insignificant trace amounts) by 2002. The anti-vaccinationists predicted autism rates would plummet and they would be vindicated. Well, autism rates continued to increase without any change, demolishing the thimerosal hypothesis.

So then the anti-vaccine crowd complained (and JB repeats this here) that scientists have only disproved one vaccine (MMR) and one ingredient (thimerosal) but have never studies vaccines vs a control group of completely unvaccinated. This is supremely disingenuous – scientists disproved the two hypotheses that were raised – MMR and thimerosal. There is no reason to think that any other vaccine or ingredient causes autism, and there is plenty of data to show a lack of correlation.

This relates to Handley’s massive self-contradiction. He writes:

Without a real control group, the conclusions of a study on the potential harm of a drug are 100% useless.

Can we all just agree on that? If you have a study, and everyone either gets a whole pill or a half a pill, do you have a control group to compare the outcome to? Of course you don’t.

And then shortly after:

Question #2: If one vaccine can harm some people, do you think six vaccines given at the same time will do more or less harm?

OK, fine, I stacked the decks a bit on #2, but this is a point lost on many. It’s exceptionally likely that if one vaccine can cause some harm, six vaccines will cause more harm to more people, the question is if that harm is exponentially or geometrically greater, and it’s perhaps the most important question of all.

Do you see the contradiction? Handley’s claim, a standard refrain of the anti-vaccinationists, is that any study that does not have a control group without any vaccines at all is 100% worthless. This is the typical black-and-white thinking of the pseudoscientist or ideologue. Most studies in medicine have limitations. It is difficult to find a perfect study, because of real life limitations. In this case it is unethical to withhold a proven medical intervention, like vaccines, from a control group. So we will never have an experimental study that withholds all vaccines. Handley knows this, so his challenge is little more than a stunt – a convenient bit of denialist propaganda.

But to focus in on the contradiction – he says falsely that only a vaccine-free control group is of any value. But since this is nonsense. If vaccines (or any specific vaccine or vaccine ingredient) caused autism or increased the risk of autism then we would see many correlations – the risk of autism would be greater after the vaccine rather than before, delaying vaccines would likely reduce the risk, and most importantly there would be a dose-response. The greater the exposure to the vaccine, or vaccines in general, or to the ingredient (like thimerosal) the greater the risk of developing autism. The fact that none of these correlations have been found is powerful evidence (not worthless, as Handley would have you believe) against a vaccine-autism link.

Handley knows this because he admits it a few sentences later. He acknowledged that if vaccines caused harm then 6 vaccines would cause more harm than one (a dose response). It then stands to reason that if a study compared exposure to 6 vaccines in one group to 1 vaccine in a second group the study would find greater harm in the 6 vaccine group. And yet Handley simultaneously maintains that such a study would be 100% worthless.

This is a very basic concept, and yet Handley does not seem to grasp it. Although he does when it is convenient, even though he didn’t just a moment before, apparently. This likely represents the compartmentalization that is typical of ideologues – ideas are kept separate so that they can be used for propaganda purposes as necessary. Honest science requires consilience, transparency, and internal agreement.

Handley, however, is not an honest and competent broker of scientific information. He is, in my opinion, an incompetent thug.

13 responses so far