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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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The compassion gambit

I’ve spent the last three weeks writing about a “brave maverick doctor” by the name of Stanislaw Burzynski who claims that he can cure cancers that regular oncologists cannot. He uses a combination of what he calls “antineoplastons” (which, it turns out, are more or less than the active metabolites of an orphan drug known as sodium phenylbutyrate) plus a very expensive cocktail of chemotherapy and targeted agents chosen in a haphazard fashion and thrown together with little rhyme or reason. This week, I had planned to move on. However, I felt that I had to mention the Burzynski saga because it provides me with the most appropriate segue to a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time, possibly since this blog began. In fact, it’s about as perfect a framework as I can think of upon which to drape the points I want to make in this post.

What I will discuss is perhaps the most effective, devastating attack that proponents of quackery, woo, and nonsense aim at supporters of science-based medicine (SBM). As far as that is the case, it is not effective because it’s fact-based, evidence-based, or science-based. Far from it. Rather, it’s effective because it appeals to the emotions and very effectively demonizes SBM proponents to the point where they often have a hard time standing their ground when it is used. Sometimes, it preemptively prevents them from even speaking up in the first place. It’s a little tactic that I like to call the “compassion gambit,” which means trying to discredit critics of “alternative” medicine by painting them as cold, unfeeling, uncaring, arrogant monsters who want to hurt or kill children (and probably get a big smile on their faces when they torture puppies, to boot).
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Posted in: Cancer, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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“Motivated reasoning,” alternative medicine, and the anti-vaccine movement

One theme that we at Science-Based Medicine keep revisiting again and again is not so much a question of the science behind medical therapies (although we do discuss that issue arguably more than any other) but rather a question of why. Why is it that so many people cling so tenaciously to pseudoscience, quackery, and, frequently, conspiracy theories used by believers to justify why various pseudoscience and quackery are rejected by mainstream science and medicine? Certainly, I’ve touched on this issue before on several occasions, for example, with respect to the anti-vaccine movement, the claim that abortion causes breast cancer, and how we as humans crave certainty.

It turns out that science and science-based medicine are hard for humans to accept because they often conflict with what our senses perceive and brains interpret as irrefutable evidence. The pattern-seeking function of our brain, when evaluating questions of causation in medicine, frequently betrays us. For instance, when a parent sees her child regress into autism sometime not long after being vaccinated, the easiest, most instinctive, and most emotionally compelling conclusion is that the vaccine must have had something to do with it. When scientists tell her that, no, in large studies looking at hundreds of thousands of children, there is no good evidence that vaccination confers an increased risk of autism and a lot of evidence that it does not, it’s a very hard message to believe, because it goes against how the parent interprets what she’s seen with her own eyes. Indeed, how often have we seen believers in the vaccine-autism link pour derision on the concept that when something like autistic regression happens in close temporal proximity to vaccination that the correlation does not necessarily equal causation? Similarly, believers in “alternative medicine” who experience improvement in their symptoms also pour derision on the observation, explained so well by R. Barker Bausell in Snake Oil Science, that people frequently take remedies when their symptoms are at their worst, leading them to attribute natural regression to the mean to whatever nostrum they started taking at the time.

These issues have come to the fore again, thanks to an article by an acquaintance of mine, Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future (co-authored with Sheril Kirshenbaum). The article appeared in a recent issue of Mother Jones and was entitled, rather ironically, The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science. Chris made his name as an author primarily in writing about the science of anthropogenic global warming and the political battles over policies intended to mitigate it and, to a lesser extent, over creationism and evolution denial. Of late he has written about the anti-vaccine movement as an anti-science movement, leading predictably to his being attacked by the likes of J.B. Handley as viciously as I and others have. Also of note, although he was widely praised for The Republican War on Science and Storm World, Mooney has been widely criticized in some circles for being too critical of “new atheists” and for lack of substance. In his current article, he discusses some of the science thus far about why people can cling to beliefs that science doesn’t just cast doubt upon but shows convincingly are totally wrong.
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Posted in: Evolution, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Nine differences between “us and them,” nine straw men burning

I’ll start this post by admitting right up front: I blatantly stole the idea for the title of this post from Mark Crislip’s most excellently infamous post Nine questions, nine answers. Why? Because I really liked that post and felt like it. Also, there seems to be something about the number nine among anti-vaccine zealots: Nine “questions.” Nine circles of hell.

Nine straw men.

I’m referring to an amazing post that appeared on the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism over the weekend by contributing editor Julie Obradovic entitled The Difference Between You and Me. In this post, Julie describes not one difference, but nine differences, that she perceives between herself (and, apparently, by generalization other parents who have become believers in the myth that vaccines cause autism) and people like SBM contributors and (I hope) the vast majority of our readers, who support science-based medicine, understanding that correlation does not necessarily equal causation and that, most importantly, science not only does not support the belief that vaccines cause autism but provides us with copious evidence that there almost certainly no link between the two. Actually, there are more than nine differences, as Ms. Obradovic packs multiple apparently related differences around each of her nine “differences” and then complains that Alison Singer and, apparently by generalization the rest of us who support SBM and oppose the anti-vaccine movement, misrepresent the reasons why she and her merry band of anti-vaccine activists reject the science that has failed spectacularly to validate their deeply held belief that vaccines cause autism and all sorts of other health consequences. Her post ends up being a collection of straw men constructed to Burning Man size, each of which she then applies a flamethrower of burning nonsense to with self-righteous gusto.
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Autism One: The yearly antivaccine autism “biomed” quackfest begins

In the world of the anti-vaccine underground, there is one time of the year that looms large. Over the last few years, this time has generally come right around the end of May, usually coinciding with the Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial beginning of the summer vacation season here in the U.S. I’m referring, of course, to Autism One, which blights one of my favorite cities in the world, Chicago, every year about this time. True, of late Autism One has been metastasizing, most recently to blight the city of Toronto and the very grounds of the University of Toronto itself. As you may recall, last fall, when Autism One descended upon Toronto, I described it as “a conference of believers in two things: (1) that vaccines cause autism and (2) that ‘biomedical’ and CAM/IM therapies can treat and even reverse autism,” and it’s true, but Autism One is more than that. It’s a combination of a networking meeting for the anti-vaccine set, a revival meeting for the cult of anti-vaccinationism and autism “biomedical” therapy, and a trade show for “biomed” treatments for autism, all dressed up to appear to be a legitimate scientific conference.

Of all the fake scientific conferences out there, Autism One in Chicago, which begins today, far eclipses all the others, including even Barbara Loe Fisher’s National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) conference. Closely aligned with the anti-vaccine propaganda group Generation Rescue and its outlet in the blogosphere Age of Autism (both of which, not surprisingly, have been promoting the conference incessantly), Autism One is the granddaddy of fake academic autism conferences, where anyone who’s anyone in the anti-vaccine “autism biomed” underground goes to see and be seen. It even has a keynote address by anti-vaccine celebrity spokesmodel Jenny McCarthy herself this year, just like the previous two years. This year, however, Autism One has expanded from three or four days to a full week, and it has taken on a note of political activism that was generally lacking in previous conferences. In previous years, Autism One pretty much stayed localized to a hotel near O’Hare, far from the center of the city. This time around it’s still at a hotel near O’Hare, but its organizers plan an anti-vaccine protest rally right smack dab in the middle of Grant Park on Wednesday afternoon. All of this leads me to conclud that this year Autism One’s organizers appear to be cementing the relationship between the autism “biomed” movement, the anti-vaccine movement, and the “health freedom” movement.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Vaccines

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The Vaccine War

On Tuesday night PBS FRONTLINE aired an episode about the anti-vaccine movement entitled The Vaccine War (which, by the time you read this, should be available for online viewing in case you missed it). When I first heard that this show was going to air, I was a bit concerned. My concern, of course is what I’m always concerned about when journalists do a story about pseudoscience, be it the anti-vaccine movement, “intelligent design” creationism, various “alternative medicine” modalities, or whatever. We’ve written about such things right here on SBM on more than one occasion, be it Dr. Jay Gordon on The Doctors or Andrew Wakefield being interviewed by Matt Lauer. Although FRONTLINE has done a pretty good, science-based job on controversial topics, I felt some trepidation, particularly after seeing some of the promos for the show, even though it featured Dr. Paul Offit, and other physicians and scientists.

Fortunately, I needn’t have worried. The Vaccine War is not perfect. There are some definite flaws, but by and large it is a rare thing on TV: A science-based discussion of a pseudoscientific movement. True, the opening montage did bring back a bit of that anxiety that this was going to be a “tell both sides” bit of false balance in that it included J.B. Handley blathering and Jenny McCarthy spewing her same false dilemma of measles versus autism. (She’d choose the measles, of course.) I was able to forgive that, because it’s very clear that the producers were just setting up the story. The show then launched straight into a birth and a list of the vaccines that children get, with Melinda Wharton of the CDC and Paul Offit pointing out how much good vaccines do, how we no longer see diseases that once killed thousands or even milions.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Steven Higgs: Another antivaccine reporter like Dan Olmsted in the making?

April is National Autism Awareness Month, and as of today April is nearly half over. Do you notice anything different compared to the last couple of years? I do. Can you guess what it is?

The anti-vaccine movement’s usual suspects haven’t been all over the mainstream media, as they usually are this time every year, often as early as April 1 or even March 31. In fact, over the last couple of years I had come to dread April 1, not because it’s April Fools’ Day (although the things that made me dread that particular day were often indistinguishable from an April Fools’ Day prank, so full of idiocy were they), but rather the expected carpet bombing of the media by the likes of Jenny McCarthy, J. B. Handley, and their ilk, some or all of whom would show up on various talk shows to spread their propaganda that vaccines cause autism. For instance, last year Jenny McCarthy and her former boyfriend Jim Carrey showed up on Larry King Live! with Dr. Jerry Kartzinel (her co-author on her latest book of autism quackery) and J. B. Handley, the last of whom even contributed a guest post on Larry King’s blog, in which he touted an incredibly bad, pseudoscientific “study” commissioned by Generation Rescue. The “study” (and calling it a “study” is way too generous) was no more than cherry-picked random bits of data twisted together into a pretzel of nonsense, as I described. Around the same time, Jenny McCarthy was interviewed by TIME Magazine, an interview in which she uttered these infamous words:

I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.

Soon after, Generation Rescue created a website called Fourteen Studies, which they promoted hither, thither, and yon. The idea of the website was to attack the main studies that failed to find a link between vaccines and autism and to promote the pseudoscientific studies that anti-vaccinationists like. In 2008, it was pretty much the same — well, worse, even. When she appeared on Larry King Live! with our old “friend,” anti-vaccine pediatrician to the stars, Dr. Jay Gordon, McCarthy shouted down real experts by yelling, “Bullshit!” (behavior trumpeted by Rachel Sklar of the Huffington Post).

This year? Oddly enough (and to me unexpectedly), there’s been almost nothing. J.B. Handley seems to be the man who wasn’t there. Well, not quite. It turns out that J. B. Handley has managed to get a little bit of fawning media attention, but just a little bit, in the form of an interview in The Bloomington Alternative entitled J. B. Handley: It’s unequivocal; vaccines hurt some kids. Apparently Mr. Handley has come down quite a bit in the world. Where’s his appearance with Jenny on Larry King Live! this year? Maybe it’s coming in the second half of the month. Or maybe the mainstream media, in the wake of the fall of Andrew Wakefield, have finally figured out how disreputable Generation Rescue is when it comes to vaccines. In the meantime Steven Higgs will have to do as a new mouthpiece for the anti-vaccine movement.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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J.B. Handley and the anti-vaccine movement: Gloating over the decline in confidence in vaccines among parents

UPDATE, 4/25/2011: I can’t resist pointing you to a hilariously misguided attack against me that proves once again that, for the anti-vaccine activists, it’s all about the ad hominem. Clifford Miller, a.k.a. ChildHealthSafety, was unhappy that I showed up in the comments of Seth Mnookin’s post complaining about J.B. Handley’s attacking him solely based on his having once been a heroin addict, an addiction that Seth managed to beat. In response, Miller writes. Not only was he unhappy about a post of mine that was over a year old, but he regurgitated Jake Crosby’s fallacious pharma shill gambit that he used against me last summer. Thank you, Mr. Miller, for, in your utterly irony challenged manner, proving my point that to the anti-vaccine movement it’s all about the ad hominem. You did it better than I ever could. Now, back to my post.

One of the key talking points of the anti-vaccine movement is to repeat the claim, “I’m not ‘anti-vaccine.’” Indeed, one of Jenny McCarthy’s favorite refrains has been “I’m not ‘anti-vaccine.’ I’m pro-safe vaccine,” or “I’m ‘anti-toxin.’” In doing so, the anti-vaccine movement tries very hard to paint itself as being made up of defenders of vaccine safety, as if the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and all the regulatory agencies don’t support safe vaccines. Many are the times that we have seen examples of this particular denial, both on this blog and elsewhere. For which specific anti-vaccine activists this is self-deception, delusion, or outright lie is a complicated question, but one thing that is clear to me is that the very existence of this talking point demonstrates that, at least for now, being anti-vaccine is still viewed unfavorably by the vast majority of people. If it were not, there would be no need for vaccine conspiracy theorists to use this particular line over and over again. Also, if the rhetoric from the anti-vaccine movement didn’t demonize vaccines so viciously as the One True Cause of autism, asthma, and a variety of other conditions, diseases, and disorders, leaders of the anti-vaccine movement wouldn’t be so anxious to assure us at every turn that, really and truly, they aren’t “anti-vaccine.” Oh, no, not at all.

Unfortunately for them, their rhetoric and activities betray them. For one thing, the anti-vaccine movement is not monolithic. There are indeed anti-vaccine zealots who are not afraid to admit that they are against vaccines. Many of them showed up to Jenny McCarthy’s Green Our Vaccines march on Washington two years ago with signs bearing slogans such as “Danger: Child Vaccine (Toxic Waste)”; “We found the weapons of mass destruction”; “Stop poisoning our children”; and, of course, “No forced vaccination! Not in America!” In the run-up to that march, I lurked on several anti-vaccine discussion forums, and I saw first hand how the organizers of the march were trying to keep people with these signs in line and less visible, not so much because they don’t agree with them but because they promoted the “wrong” message. In this, they remind me of political parties trying to rein in their most radical elements.

Among these groups, Generation Rescue has supplanted the former most influential anti-vaccine group, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC). It has achieved this largely through somehow attracting a scientifically ignorant washed-up model, actress, and comedienne named Jenny McCarthy who, most recently before having a son diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum had been promoting “Indigo Child” woo on her IndigoMoms.com website, complete with a “quantum prayer wheel” invented by William Nelson, inventor of the quackalicious EPFX-SCIO. Back in 2007, just prior to the release of her first autism book, Louder Than Words: A Mothers’ Journey in Healing Autism, McCarthy’s “indigo” website disappeared from the web in a futile attempt to send it down the memory hole, but thankfully The Wayback Machine knows all. In any case, thanks to Jenny McCarthy and, at least as much to her boyfriend, the massively more famous Jim Carrey, Generation Rescue has been tranformed from an ignored fringe anti-vaccine group to a famous and influential fringe anti-vaccine group with all sorts of ins among the Hollywood elite, just as it’s been tranformed from just Generation Rescue to Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey’s Autism Organization – Generation Rescue.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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