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Facebook’s reporting algorithm abused by antivaccinationists to silence pro-science advocates

This is not what I had wanted to write about for my first post of 2014, but unfortunately it’s necessary—so much so, in fact, that I felt the obligation to crosspost both here and on my not-so-super-secret other blog in order to get this information out to as wide a readership as possible.

I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Facebook. On the one hand, I like how easily it lets me stay in contact with family and friends across the country, people whom I would rarely see more than once or twice a year, if even that. On the other hand, I have the same privacy concerns that many other people have with respect to putting personal information, as well as pictures and videos of myself, family, and friends, onto Facebook. Now that I’ve become a (sort of) public figure (or, as I like to refer to myself, a micro-celebrity), I’ve thought that I should cull my friends list to just real friends with whom I have a connection (or at least have met in person or had private e-mail exchanges with) and set up a Facebook page for my public persona, to prevent people whom I don’t know or barely know from divebombing my wall with arguments. As I tell people, I don’t want obnoxious arguments on my Facebook wall; that’s what my blogs are for.

My personal social media preferences aside, Facebook does indeed have many shortcomings, but until something else comes along and steals the same cachet (which is already happening as teens flee Facebook to avoid their parents) and even after, Facebook will remain a major player in social media. That’s why its policies matter. They can matter a lot. I was reminded of this about a week ago when Dorit Reiss (who has of late been the new favored target of the antivaccine movement, likely because she is a lawyer and has been very effective thus far in her young online career opposing the antivaccine movement) published a post entitled Abusing the Algorithm: Using Facebook Reporting to Censor Debate. Because I also pay attention to some Facebook groups designed to counter the antivaccine movement I had already heard a little bit about the problem, but Reiss laid it out in stark detail. Basically, the merry band of antivaccinationists at the Australian Vaccination Network (soon to be renamed because its name is so obviously deceptive, given that it is the most prominent antivaccine group in Australia, that the NSW Department of Fair Trading ordered the anti-vaccine group to change its misleading name) has discovered a quirk in the algorithm Facebook uses to process harassment complaints against users and abused that quirk relentlessly to silence its opponents on Facebook.

I’ll let Reiss explain:

Over the weekend of December 21-22, an unknown person or persons used a new tactic, directed mainly at members of the Australian organization “Stop the Australian Vaccination Network” (The Australian Vaccination Network – AVN – is, in spite of its name, an anti-vaccine organization – see also here; SAVN had been very effective in exposing their agenda and mobilizing against them). In an attempt to silence pro-vaccine voices on Facebook, they went back over old posts and reported for harassment any comment that mentioned one person’s name specifically. Under Facebook’s algorithm, apparently, mentioning someone’s name means that if the comment is reported it can be seen as violating community standards. Which is particularly ironic, since many commentators, when replying to questions or comments from an individual, would use that individual’s name out of courtesy.

Several of the people so reported received 12-hours bans. Some of them in succession.

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Posted in: Computers & Internet, Public Health, Vaccines

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Vaccines work. Period.

Over my blogging “career,” which now stretches back nearly nine years, and my hobby before that of engaging in online “debates” on Usenet newsgroups back before 2004, I developed an interest in the antivaccine movement. Antivaccinationism, “antivax,” or whatever you want to call it, represents a particularly insidious and dangerous form of quackery because it doesn’t just endanger the children whose parents don’t vaccinate them. It also endangers children who are vaccinated, because vaccines are not 100% effective. The best vaccines have effectiveness rates in the 90%-plus range, but that still leaves somewhere up to 10% of children unprotected. Worse, because herd immunity requires in general approximately 90% of the population and above to be vaccinated against a vaccine-preventable disease to put the damper on outbreaks, it doesn’t take much of a degradation of vaccination rates to put a population in danger of outbreaks. That’s why, even though overall vaccine uptake is high in the US, we still see outbreaks, because there are areas with pockets of nonvaccinators and antivaccinationists who drive vaccine uptake down to dangerous levels. We’ve seen this in California and elsewhere. Other countries have observed even more dramatic examples, the most well-known being the way that fear of the MMR vaccine stoked by Andrew Wakefield’s bad science and the fear mongering of the British press led MMR uptake to plummet. The result? Measles came roaring back in the UK and Europe, from having been considered under control in the 1990s to being endemic again by 2008.

As much as I get chastised by concern trolls for saying this, to antivaccinationists it really is all about the vaccines. Always. They blame autism, other neurodevelopmental conditions, and a wide variety of chronic diseases on vaccines, without evidence that there is even a correlation. They even falsely blame sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) on vaccines, even though there is no evidence of an association and, indeed, existing evidence suggests that vaccines likely have a protective effect against SIDS more than anything else. No matter what happens, no matter what the evidence says, antivaccinationists will always find a way to blame bad things on vaccines, even going so far as to claim at times that shaken baby syndrome is a misdiagnosis for vaccine injury.

One thing, however, that is often forgotten, is that they also do their utmost to downplay the beneficial effects of vaccines. One such tactic is for antivaccinationists to claim that the pertussis vaccine doesn’t work because we are seeing resurgences of pertussis even in the face of high vaccine uptake. For example, another common trope is what I like to refer to as the “vaccines didn’t save us” or the “vaccines don’t work” gambit, in which it is pointed out that the introduction of vaccines doesn’t correlate tightly with drops in mortality from various diseases. Julian Whitaker even used this gambit when he debated Steve Novella. The fundamental flaw in this trope neglects the contribution of better medical care to the survival of more victims of disease, which decreased mortality. If you look at graphs of disease incidence you will see a profound and powerful effect of the introduction of vaccines on specific vaccine-preventable diseases. In other words, vaccines work. (more…)

Posted in: Epidemiology, Public Health, Vaccines

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Sharyl Attkisson and CBS News: An epic fail in reporting on the murder of autistic teen Alex Spourdalakis

An antivaccine reporter strikes again

The damaged done by the antivaccine movement is primarily in how it frightens parents out of vaccinating using classic denialist tactics of spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD). Indeed, as has been pointed out many times before, antivaccinationists are often proud of their success in discouraging parents from vaccinating, with one leader of the antivaccine movement even going so far as to characterize his antivaccine “community, held together with duct tape and bailing wire,” as being in the “early to middle stages of bringing the U.S. vaccine program to its knees.” Meanwhile, just last week Anne Dachel, “media editor” for the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism, gloated about basically the same thing, how although overall vaccination rates remain high, vaccine exemption rates are up in many areas of the country and how her movement has provided plenty of information to “scare [parents] out of vaccinating.”

And it is the very same antivaccine propaganda blog, Age of Autism, that is promoting a different, more insidious message, specifically how the brutal murder of an autistic teen nearly three months ago “illumines the autism nightmare.” What do I mean by “insidious message”? It’s the hijacking of the autism advocacy movement, which tries to advocate for more services for autistic children and adults and more awareness and understanding of autism, by the antivaccine message that autistic people are somehow “damaged,” be it by vaccines or unnamed “toxins,” that the “real child” has been “stolen” by autism, and that any manner of biomedical quackery to “recover” autistics is justified by the horror of autism. Although Attkisson, the reporter for the story discussed below, never specifically mentions vaccines, if you know the background of the case, that message is quite obvious and not very far under the surface of her report on the murder of Alex Spourdalakis:

Not surprisingly, this story was reported by Sharyl Attkisson, who is CBS News’ resident antivaccine reporter. I’ve known her to promote antivaccine views in a manner that gave Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. a run for his money as far back as 2007. Since then, she’s smeared Paul Offit as a “pharma shill,” very likely fed information to someone at AoA to help them portray Lisa Randall at Voices for Vaccines as an “industry group,” done a puff piece about antivaccine physician and hero to the antivaccine movement Andrew Wakefield, and misreported the significance of the Hannah Poling case (which was really just the rebranding of autism). Most recently, Attkisson promoted a truly execrable “review article” summarizing the evidence relating vaccines to autism. The review article, by Helen Ratajczak, cited lots of pseudoscience from antivaccine literature in the service of supporting a truly dumb hypothesis, namely that DNA from vaccines could recombine in the brains of children to result in autism. Attkisson was quite smitten with the idea. As you might imagine, I was not. Along the way, Attkisson also indulged in promoting breast cancer misinformation. No wonder she is the perfect reporter to do this story promoting the viewpoint that autism is so horrible and the system provides so little help that we should understand why a mother like Alex’s might become so desperate that she would poison her son and then, when that failed to kill him, try to slash his wrist, and then, when that failed, stab him in the heart with a kitchen knife.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Danger Zones of Parental Vaccine Refusal

Back in 2009 I wrote a story entitled, “The New Plague”, about my experiences as a pediatrician with the frightening trend of parental vaccine refusal in New York City. In that post I discussed some of the complex social factors contributing to this phenomenon, and some of the common vaccine myths to which many parents fall prey. I recommend that you read that post, as it is (unfortunately) as timely today as it was then. Now I’m a pediatrician in Amherst, Massachusetts, and I find it necessary to revisit this dangerous trend in parenting.

As I described in my previous post on the subject, my old practice was at an interesting crossroads of several communities that seemed to perfectly embody the socioeconomic and cultural characteristics commonly found in communities with high rates of parental vaccine refusal. Ironically, these tend to include people who are educated and socially privileged; those empowered to question authority. In 2010, I left New York City and moved to Western Massachusetts to take a job at Baystate Children’s Hospital in Springfield. There I was in charge of the teaching clinic where pediatric residents are trained in the outpatient care of children. The children we took care of in Springfield comprised a very high-risk, underprivileged population. Our patients were significantly below the poverty level, with high rates of developmental and educational disability, a high teen pregnancy rate, and high rates of domestic violence, drug use, and gang involvement. Children who were not up to date with their vaccinations were behind because of poor continuity of care, with many missed appointments and gaps in follow-up. I now work at a private practice further north in the Pioneer Valley of Central Massachusetts. Here, my experiences with vaccine lapses are starkly different. Now, when I encounter a child who is not fully vaccinated or is completely unvaccinated, it is the result of a parental decision. A very flawed, dangerous, and misinformed parental decision.
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Posted in: Public Health, Vaccines

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Preventing autism? Not so fast, Dr. Mumper…

Dug the Dog strikes again, as he did three weeks ago. I had a couple of ideas for a post this week, but none of them were time-sensitive or timely. Then, over the weekend, I saw a post on the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism by Dan “Where are the Autistic Amish” Olmsted entitled Weekly Wrap: Another Medical Practice with a Sane Vaccine Schedule – and No Autism. Given the tendency towards a—shall we say?—lack of accuracy of Olmsted’s previous reporting, it’s no surprise that he’d latch on to this study. I’m also seeing it appear around other antivaccine websites. I had gotten wind of it late last week, a few of my readers having sent it to me but hadn’t decided yet whether to blog about it. Then it appeared on AoA. Thanks, Dan.

So let’s see how this study is being spun by the antivaccine movement:

When we at Age of Autism talk about ending the epidemic, the “to do” list seems almost overwhelming – funding a vax-unvaxed study, getting mercury out of flu shots, proving the HepB shot is nuts, wresting control of the agenda from pharma, fixing Vaccine Court (this time in the good sense of “fix”), establishing that biomedical treatments help kids recover, and on and on.

But there’s a shortcut to all this, and it goes straight through pediatricians’ offices. The evidence is growing that where a sane alternative to the CDC’s bloated vaccine schedule is offered, and other reasonable changes adopted, autism is either non-existent or so infrequent that it doesn’t constitute an epidemic at all.

The latest example comes from Lynchburg, Va., and the pediatric practice of Dr. Elizabeth Mumper. She noticed a frightening rise in autism in the 1990s. Concerned that vaccines and other medical interventions might be playing a role – concerned in other words that SHE was playing a role — Mumper changed course.

Fewer vaccines. Fewer antibiotics. No Tylenol. Breast-feeding. Probiotics. Good, pesticide free diets.

Since then, hundreds more children have been seen in her practice, Advocates For Children. But no more autism.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Vaccines

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A favorite tactic of the antivaccine movement: When science doesn’t support you, use the law

As I’ve joked about before, I’m a bit like Dug the Dog from the movie Up whenever a squirrel goes by. In other words, I’m easily distracted by things that interest my primal urge to chase pseudoscience. I originally had a cancer-related topic in mind for this week’s foray into science-based medicine, but then on Friday our favorite group of antivaccine activists over at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism induced a squirrel to run in front of me, and the rest is history, at least for the moment. I’ll try to get back to my original topic either as a bonus post later this week or as next week’s post (unlike the topic of today’s post it’s not really particularly time sensitive). In the meantime, I’ll chase this squirrel. Sorry about that. But Dug’s gotta do what Dug’s gotta do. Besides, the topic I had in mind for this week is sufficiently complex that my ultimate post will probably end up being much better if I have a few more days to a week to think about it. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years opposing the antivaccine movement, it’s that these days its “Holy Grail” (well, a “holy grail”) is to have a “vaccinated versus unvaccinated” study performed, or, as it’s frequently abbreviated, a “vaxed verus unvaxed” study. The reason they want such a study so badly is not because they think there’s a scientific question that genuinely cries out for an answer. Rather, they believe it will confirm their fixed, unalterable belief that vaccines are the root of nearly all chronic health conditions children suffer today, particularly autism and autism spectrum disorders. In particular, they believe that a “vaxed versus unvaxed” study would demonstrate once and for all that vaccines are the cause of the “autism epidemic.” Hilariously, a few years back, the antivaccine group Generation Rescue tried to do such a study. It was more an utterly incompetently administered and analyzed telephone survey than anything else, and, ironically, its results actually were just as consistent with the conclusions that vaccines protect against autism as that they predispose to autism. And don’t even get me started on an even more hilariously incompetent vaxed versus unvaxed study by a German antivaccine homeopath (I know; “antivaccine homeopath” is redundant) that antivaccinationists were touting a while back. That took attempts to ape science to depressingly ridiculous extremes.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Vaccines

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The murder of autistic teen Alex Spourdalakis by his mother and caregiver: What happened?

Editor’s note: This is an extra “bonus” post. Basically, it’s a revised version of a post I did at my not-so-super-secret-other-blog last week. The issue, however, has disturbed me so much that I felt it appropriate to post it to SBM as well. Fear not. There will be a new post by yours truly on Monday.

Sometimes, in the course of blogging, I come across a story that I don’t know what to make of. Sometimes, it’s a quack or a crank taking a seemingly science-based position. Sometimes it’s something out of the ordinary. Other times, it’s a story that’s just weird, such that I strongly suspect that something else is going on but can’t prove it. So it was a few months ago when I came across the story of Alex Spourdalakis, a 14-year-old autistic boy who became a cause célèbre of the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism.

I first noticed the story in early March when perusing AoA and came across a post by Lisa Goes entitled Day 19: Chicago Hospital Locks Down Autistic Patient. In the post was a shocking picture of a large 14-year-old boy in a a hospital bed in four-point restraints. He was naked, except for a sheet covering his genitals. A huge gash was torn in the bedsheet, revealing the black vinyl of the hospital bed beneath. The boy’s name, we were informed, was Alex Spourdalakis. Further down in the post was another, equally shocking, picture of Alex that, according to Goes, showed severe dermatitis on Alex’s back due to the hospital sheets. The photos shocked me for two reasons. First, if the story was as advertised (something always to be doubted about any story posted at AoA), for once I thought that I might be agreeing with Goes and thinking that AoA was actually doing a good thing, as disconcerting as that possibility was to me. Second, however, I was extremely disturbed by the publication of such revealing photos of the boy. Undoubtedly, Alex’s mother must have given permission. What kind of mother posts pictures like that of her son for all the world to see? Then there appeared a Facebook page, Help Support Alex Spourdalakis, which pled for readers to help the Spourdalakis family.

As I said, something just didn’t seem right at the time.
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Posted in: Legal, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Vaccines

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The final nail in the coffin for the antivaccine rallying cry “Too many too soon”?

There are some weeks when I know what my topic will be—what it must be. These are weeks in which the universe gives the very appearance of handing to me my topic for the week on the proverbial silver platter with a giant hand descending from the clouds, pointing at it, and saying, “Blog about this, you idiot!” Usually, it’s because a study is released or something happens or a quack writes something that cries out for rebuttal. Whatever it is, it’s big and it’s unavoidable (for me, at least).

This is one of those weeks.

The reason it’s one of those weeks is because just last Friday, as I was driving to work, I heard a news story on NPR about a study that had just been released in the Journal of Pediatrics. The story, as it was reported, noted that the study being discussed looked specifically at a certain antivaccine trope and found for yet the umpteenth time that vaccines are not correlated with an increased risk of autism. Normally the news that a study had once again failed to find a link between vaccines and autism would be as surprising as a study finding that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, or finding that water boils at 100° C at sea level. At this point, the evidence is so utterly overwhelming that there is not a whiff of a hint of a whisper of a correlation between vaccines and autism that it has become irritating that antivaccine activists keep pressuring scientists to do the same study over and over again, coming up with the same results over and over again, and then seeing antivaccinationists fail to believe those same results over and over again. Apparently, antivaccine activists think that if the same sorts of studies are done enough times, there will be a positive result implicating vaccines as a risk factor for or contributing cause to autism. By sheer random chance alone, this might happen someday, given the definition of statistical significance, but so far there has not been a single large, well-designed epidemiological study by reputable researchers that has found a link.
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Posted in: Epidemiology, Public Health, Vaccines

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Blame and magical thinking: The consequences of the autism “biomed” movement

That the myth that vaccines cause autism is indeed nothing more than a myth, a phantom, a delusion unsupported by science is no longer in doubt. In fact, it’s been many years now since it was last taken seriously by real scientists and physicians, as opposed to crank scientists and physicians, who are still selling the myth.  Thanks to them, and a dedicated cadre of antivaccine activists, the myth is like Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, or Freddy Krueger at the end of one of their slasher flicks. The slasher or monster appears to be dead, but we know that he isn’t because we know that he’ll eventually return in another movie to kill and terrorize a new batch of unlucky and invariably not so bright teenagers. And he always does, eventually.

Unfortunately, the myth has a price, and autistic children pay it when they are unlucky enough to have parents who have latched on to this particular myth as an explanation for why their child is autistic. One price is blame. Parents who come to believe the myth that vaccines cause autism also express extreme guilt that they “did this” to their children, that it’s their fault that their children are autistic. At the same time, they have people and entities to blame: Paul Offit, big pharma, the FDA, the scientific community, pediatricians. As a result, the second price is paid: Their children are subjected to pure quackery, such as “stem cell” injections (which almost certainly aren’t actually stem cells, given the provenance of the clinics that offer such “therapies”) into their cerebrospinal fluid, and what in essence constitutes unethical human experimentation at the hands of “autism biomed” quacks. Meanwhile these same quacks reap the financial benefits of this belief by offering a cornucopia of treatments to “recover” autistic children that range from the ineffective and usually harmless (such as homeopathy) to the ineffective and downright dangerous (dubious “stem cell” injections by lumbar puncture into a child’s cerebrospinal fluid). These treatments drain the parents’ pocketbook and do nothing other than potential harm to the children. These prices are intertwined, and just last week I saw examples of both prices on full display at various antivaccine blogs. Worse, the concept appears to be metastasizing beyond vaccines. As more and more scientific evidence fails to find even a whiff of a hint of a correlation between vaccines and autism, the One True Cause of Autism, which was once vaccines or mercury in vaccines, has become the Many True Causes of Autism, in which vaccines (it’s always the vaccines) mix with pharmaceuticals, pollution, diet, and chemicals to produce autism in a manner that is a lot harder to falsify than the older, all too scientifically testable hypothesis that vaccines cause autism.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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An open letter to Penn & Teller about their appearance on The Dr. Oz Show

An open letter to Penn & Teller about their appearance on <em>The Dr. Oz Show</em>
OzPT

 

Dear Penn & Teller,

I really don’t want to say this, but I feel obligated to. I’m afraid you screwed up. Big time. (Of course, if this weren’t a generally family-friendly blog, where we rarely go beyond PG-13 language, I’d use a term more like one that Penn would use to describe a massive fail, which, as you might guess, also starts with the letter “f”; I think he’d appreciate that.)

I’m referring, of course, to your appearance on The Dr. Oz Show one week ago (video: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4). Before I begin the criticism, let me just take care of the obligatory but honest statement that I am a fan. I’ve been a fan for a long time. Indeed, I remember seeing you guys perform in Chicago back in the late 1990s when I was doing my fellowship at the University of Chicago. I’ve also seen you in Las Vegas a couple of times, most recently a couple of years ago (see pictures below) at TAM. The two of you have become skeptical icons, through your association with James Randi and over the last several years through your Showtime series Bullshit!, which is advertised with the tagline, “Sacred cows get slaughtered here.” And so they did for the eight seasons Bullshit! was on TV. When you guys were on, it was a thing of beauty to behold, both from the standpoint of entertainment and skepticism.
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Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality, Homeopathy, Public Health, Science and the Media

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