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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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Another blow to the anti-vaccine movement as legislation change forces a name change

Earlier this year, Australia’s anti-vaccine lobby, the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), took the NSW Government to the Supreme Court. In dispute was their license to fundraise which had been revoked and a public warning, issued because they refused to put a Quack Miranda on their website.

The public warning was posted after the NSW government investigated their website following two complaints, one from a concerned citizen and one from the parents of a 4 week old girl who had died of pertussis.

The complaints accused the AVN of peddling dangerous health misinformation including that vaccines were linked to autism and that pertussis was “nothing more than a bad cough”.

The AVN had always insisted that the HCCC did not have jurisdiction over them because they were not health care providers or educators in the “traditional sense”. It is true that health legislation in NSW is very much out of date in the Internet age. The rules say you can complain only if you can demonstrate direct harm as a result of taking someone’s dodgy advice. For example you had a stroke because of a chiropractor’s adjustments or a punctured lung from acupuncture. Just having a website full of woo-woo wasn’t really covered.

So the AVN challenged the HCCC on these grounds and, to the surprise of many of us, they won. Those who were present in the court that day recall the Judge urging the HCCC Barrister to present evidence for direct harm. And the worst thing was the HCCC apparently had this information, but for reasons unknown to us, did not present it. Those who were there said the HCCC Barrister dropped the ball big time that day. And they were right.

Within hours the public warning was expunged and shortly after that the authority to fundraise was returned. As if nothing ever happened.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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The problem of nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates

It’s that time of year again, namely flu vaccine time. My very own cancer institute will be offering the flu vaccine for its staff beginning October 1, and I plan on getting mine just as soon as I get back from the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress in Chicago early next week. In the meantime, it’s always great to read Mark Crislip’s take on the yearly flu vaccine kerfuffle, particularly this part:

I have little (actually none) respect for HCW’s [health care workers] who do not get vaccinated. We have a professional and moral obligation to place our patients first. I think those who do not get vaccinated, except for a minority with a valid allergy, are dumb asses.

Preach it, Dr. Crislip!

However, this time of year is also a vaccine time of year for another reason (well, actually it was about a month ago). That’s because in late August or early September, depending on your state, the little kiddies (and not-so-little kiddies) return to school and therefore have to be up to date on their required vaccines or face not being able to go to school. No wonder the antivaccine movement goes nuts this time of the year, given the double whammy of antivaccine parents trying to avoid vaccinating their children before going to school by hook or by crook and the yearly promotion of flu vaccines and mandates that health care workers get them. (For the record, my cancer center requires it, and if there’s one thing the administration of my hospital has done that I fully support it’s the yearly vaccine requirement. We’re a cancer hospital, fer cryin’ out loud, and we have lots of immunosuppressed patients that we take care of!) The only other time of year when antivaccinationists are even close to this actively ridiculous is every April, which is Autism Awareness Month, when they start trying to tar attempts to highlight autism and autism research with demands that antivaccine pseudoscience be thrown into the mix like the proverbial cow pie added to the apple pie.

Since Mark’s already covered the flu vaccine so well, let’s talk about the topic of nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. This topic came up when I noticed that the bloggers and denizens of that most wretched hive of antivaccine scum and quackery, Age of Autism, have swarmed over to a news story about how Washington State has made it harder for parents to obtain nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine requirements:
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Vaccines

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Autism prevalence: Now estimated to be one in 88, and the antivaccine movement goes wild

Editor’s Note: Some of you might have seen this before, but it’s an important (and timely) enough topic that I figure it’s worth exposing to a different audience. It’s been updated and edited to style for SBM. Enjoy.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned that I can always—and I do mean always—rely on from the antivaccine movement, it’s that its members will always be all over any new study regarding vaccines and/or autism in an effort to preemptively put their pseudoscientific spin on the results. It’s much the same way that they frequently storm into discussion threads after stories and posts about vaccines and autism like the proverbial flying monkeys, dropping their antivaccine poo hither and yon all over science-based discussions.

In any case, antivaxers are also known for not respecting embargoes. They infiltrate their way into mailing lists for journalists in which newsworthy new studies are released to the press before they actually see print and then flood their propaganda websites with their spin on the studies, either attacking the ones they don’t like or trying to imprint their interpretation on ones on which they can, all before the skeptical blogosophere—or even the mainstream press—has a chance to report. So it was late last week, when vaccine-autism cranks jumped the embargo on a CDC study that announced new autism prevalence numbers. This is nothing new; it’s the antivaccine movement’s modus operandi, which makes me wonder why the various journals don’t shut off the flow. The study, of course, was announced in press conferences and a number of news stories. No doubt by now many of you have seen them. The stories I’ve seen thus far have focused on the key finding of the CDC study, which is that the prevalence of autism in the U.S. has risen to approximately 1 in 88, a finding reported in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

This is how the CDC came up with the new prevalence:
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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SANE Vax adopts Dr. Hanan Polansky’s “microcompetition” as its own. Hilarity ensues.

One of the hallmarks of science as it has been practiced for the last century or so is that scientists share their discoveries in the peer-reviewed literature, where their fellow scientists can evaluate them, decide if they’re interesting, and then replicate them, usually as a prelude to building upon them. While the system of publication and peer review in science is anything but perfect (and, indeed, we have discussed many of its shortcomings right here on this very blog), I tend to like to view it in much the same way Winston Churchill characterized democracy:

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

I would rephrase this as:

Many forms of evaluating science have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that peer review is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said (by me) that peer review is the worst form of evaluating science except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

As mainstream medicine has become more scientific over the last century in the wake of the Flexner Report, physicians and medical researchers have similarly come to view publication in the peer-reviewed literature to be a very important component of communicating and evaluating medical discoveries. It’s not as though this is even a particularly high bar to pass, either. After all, many are the absolutely execrable papers that I (and my partners in crime here at SBM) have discussed over the last four years, nearly all of which were in peer-reviewed journals, some very prestigious. After all, if papers on “energy chelation” can find their way into decent journals and the likes of Mark and David Geier can publish in the peer-reviewed literature, while someone like Christopher Shaw can get cringe-worthy confusions of correlation with causation published, I don’t take seriously the whines of cranks who claim that they can’t publish in the peer-reviewed literature for one reason or another.

That’s why I view being published in the peer-reviewed literature as a minimum, but by no means sufficient, requirement good science. It’s also why, whenever I see a new claim, my first reaction is to see if (1) the person making the claim has published on it and (2) there are publications in the peer reviewed literature that support the claim. The first criterion helps me judge whether the person is a serious scientist; the second, whether there is any plausibility to his ideas. Sure, it’s not a foolproof scheme, but it is helpful.

I only wish antivaccinationists would do the same. That they don’t explains why they seem to be embracing someone named Dr. Hanan Polansky.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Vaccines

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What Is an Antivaxer?

Labels are a cognitive double-edged sword. We need to categorize the world in order to mentally capture it – labels help us organize our mental maps of the overwhelming complexity of things and to communicate with each other. But labels can also be mental prisons, when they substitute for a thorough, nuanced, or individualized assessment – when categorization becomes pigeon-holing.

We use many labels in our writings here, out of necessity, and we try to be consistent and thoughtful in how we define the labels that we use, recognizing that any sufficiently complex category will be necessarily fuzzy around the edges. We have certainly used a great deal of electrons discussing what exactly is science-based medicine, and that the label of so-called alternative medicine is really a false category, used mainly for marketing and lobbying (hence the caveat of “so-called”).

We get accused of using some labels for propaganda purposes, particularly “antivaccinationist” (often shortened to “antivaxer”). Also “denier” or “denialist”, as in germ-theory denier. Even though we often apply labels to ourselves, no one likes having an unflattering label applied to them, and so we have frequent push-back against our use of the above terms.

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Posted in: Vaccines

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