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The “CDC whistleblower saga”: Updates, backlash, and (I hope) a wrap-up

Vaccinefear

Given that this is a holiday weekend here in the US and that I’m having a bit of a staycation right now, I had thought of simply not posting today or of rerunning a “classic” (if you want to call it that) blast from the past. But the topic I wrote about last week has only festered and grown bigger since Monday; so at the very least I felt obligated to do a post updating you, our readers, on the twists and turns that have occurred in the saga of the so-called “CDC whistleblower.” For those of you familiar with the story (not to mention following my not-so-secret other blog), much of this will be familiar, but, given that this is SBM, I felt that this material should be on record here for your edification and (hopefully) education. I’ll take (more or less) a chronological approach since last Monday and then finish up by trying to put this whole mess into perspective. This is going to be longer than even my usual posts, but I want to be authoritative. So, if you’re very familiar with what’s happened, you might want to skim everything before the “backlash” and “conclusion” sections to fill in what you might have missed. If you’re less than completely steeped in what happened, read every scintillating word!

But first, for those who might be entering this saga right now, let me recap a moment. I’m referring to a conspiracy theory, which has been flogged to death by the antivaccine movement for nearly two weeks now, that there is a CDC whistleblower who has made “devastating” reports that the CDC hid data that showed a 3.4-fold increased risk of autism in African American males, based on an incompetent “reanalysis” of a 10 year old CDC study that found no evidence that children with autism were more likely to have received their first MMR vaccine earlier than neurotypical controls. As I (and others) have discussed, Hooker used howlingly bad statistical methodology (for instance, analyzing case control data as a cohort study and using risibly bad statistical analyses) to torture the data until they confess that vaccines cause autism. As I said at the time, when it comes to data, call Hooker the Spanish Inquisition. Such was the weakness of what he found that, even after forcing the data to sit in the comfy chair for extended periods of time, the most damning “confession” he could get from them was a correlation between age at MMR vaccination and autism diagnoses in one small subgroup: African American males.

Based on this utterly incompetent data torture and Hooker’s apparent budding relationship with a “CDC whistleblower,” Wakefield first made a video in which this “whistleblower’s” voice was electronically altered (not to mention edited into such selective snippets that it was impossible to glean any context from his seemingly-damning statements. This video, released through Andrew Wakefield’s and Tommy Polley’s Autism Media Channel, despicably likened this CDC “cover-up” to the Tuskegee syphilis study, and finished with a flourish of Godwin-y nonsense that included Adolf Hitler (of course!), Pol Pot, and Josef Stalin, implying that the CDC’s “crimes” with respect to this alleged cover-up were just as bad. It was a breathtaking demonstration of pure stupid hyperbole. Then, a few days later, Wakefield replaced the video with the alterations in the “whistleblower’s” voice with his real voice and revealed his real name: William W. Thompson, PhD, a psychologist and senior scientist at the CDC, as well as a co-author of the study being “reanalyzed,” DeStefano et al. Now, on to the update! (more…)

Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Did a high ranking whistleblower really reveal that the CDC covered up proof that vaccines cause autism in African-American boys?

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EDITOR’S UPDATE 8/28/2014: On August 27, 2014, CDC “whistleblower” William Thompson finally issued a statement through his attorney.

Here we go again.

Regular readers who pay attention to the antivaccine movement almost can’t help but have noticed that last week there was a lot of activity on antivaccine websites, blogs, and Facebook pages, as well as Twitter and Instagram feeds. For all I know, it’s all out there on Pinterest (which I’ve never really understood), Tumblr, and all those other social media sites that I don’t check much, if at all. In particular, it’s been exploding under the Twitter hashtags #CDCwhistleblower, #CDCfraud, and #CDCPantsOnFire. It’s almost impossible to have missed it if you’re plugged in and pay attention to crank websites, as many skeptics do, but here are a selection of the main stories going around over the last few days:

There are quite a few more, but these are a selection of stories appearing on the usual websites. It’s also not a new story, although it might seem as though it bubbled up suddenly out of nowhere just last week, and it comes from two of the usual suspects in antivaccine stories: Andrew Wakefield, whose pseudoscience in the service of antivaccine views we at SBM have written about many times, and Brian Hooker, someone whom you might or might not have heard of. Think of Hooker as a rising star, such as that would mean, in the antivaccine movement.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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How “they” view “us”

Over the weekend, I was perusing my Google Alerts, along with various blogs and news websites, looking for my weekly topic, when I noticed a disturbance in the pseudoscience Force. It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed many times before, but, as far as I can tell, I haven’t actually blogged about it here, at least not specifically, although I have mentioned it, particularly in posts about Stanislaw Burzynski. I have, however, blogged about it over at my not-so-super-secret other blog, which means that some of the thoughts (if you can call them that) that I plan to lay down in this post will likely seem familiar to some of you, but I think this is an important enough topic that I should cover it here, too. As arrogant as I might sometimes seem, even I’m not so deluded as to think that the fraction of SBM readers who are regulars at my not-so-super-secret other blog is anything greater than a clear minority, and even for those of you for whom there’s overlap I’ll try to make things different enough to be interesting.

On Friday, Sharon Hill published a post over at Doubtful News entitled Chiropractors get their spine out of place over critique. It’s about how chiropractors have reacted to a post by Steve Salzberg over at Forbes entitled New Medicare Data Reveal Startling $496 Million Wasted On Chiropractors. Salzberg’s blog post was basically about just that, namely the amount of money billed Medicare by chiropractors, information that’s possible to obtain since the government released Medicare billing data for individual practitioners. Salzberg pointed out that half a billion dollars is a lot of money, more than twice as much as what is wasted every year on the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM). The result was rapid. Chiropractors swarmed, complaining to Forbes.com, and making the usual threats to sue, much as they actually did sue Simon Singh and, fortunately, saw their lawsuit blow up in their faces.

This, of course, can be looked upon as a purely mercenary protection of turf and livelihood not unlike how Daniel Kopans attacks any study that finds mammography to be less effective than thought (or even ineffective) in decreasing deaths from breast cancer. There is, however, a form of backlash against criticism of pseudoscience that is different and, when I first encountered it, more disturbing to deal with. It’s a level of pure, visceral hatred that is difficult to understand; that is, until you try to put yourself into your “enemy’s” shoes. Consider this post an exercise in doing just that, an exercise that will no doubt shock at least one of our readers.
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Posted in: Cancer, Chiropractic, Critical Thinking, Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Autism prevalence: Now estimated to be one in 68, and the antivaccine movement goes wild

There used to be a time when I dreaded Autism Awareness Month, which begins tomorrow. The reason was simple. Several years ago to perhaps as recently as three years ago, I could always count on a flurry of stories about autism towards the end of March and the beginning of April about autism. That in and of itself isn’t bad. Sometimes the stories were actually informative and useful. However, in variably there would be a flurry of truly aggravating stories in which the reporter, either through laziness, lack of ideas, or the desire to add some spice and controversy to his story, would cover the “vaccine angle.” Invariably, the reporter would either fall for the “false balance” fallacy, in which advocates of antivaccine pseudoscience like Barbara Loe Fisher, Jenny McCarthy, J. B. Handley, Dr. Jay Gordon, and others would be interviewed in the same story as though they expressed a viewpoint that was equally valid as that of real scientists like Paul Offit, representatives of the CDC, and the like. Even if the view that there is no good evidence that vaccines are associated with an increased risk of autism were forcefully expressed, the impression left behind would be that there was actually a scientific debate when there is not. Sometimes, antivaccine-sympathetic reporters would simply write antivaccine stories.

I could also count on the antivaccine movement to go out of its way to try to implicate vaccines as a cause of the “autism” epidemic, taking advantage of the increased media interest that exists every year around this time. Examples abound, such as five years ago when Generation Rescue issued its misinformation-laden “Fourteen Studies” website, to be followed by a propaganda tour by Jenny McCarthy and her then-boyfriend Jim Carrey visiting various media outlets to promote the antivaccine message.
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Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Epidemiology, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media, 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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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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Autism and Induced Labor

A recently published epidemiological study in JAMA Pediatrics looked at the association between induction and enhancement of labor and the risk of autism. The researchers found a positive association, especially with males. The study has been variously reported in the popular press with causal interpretations not justified by the data.

The study itself is very robust – the authors looked at 625,042 live births, including 5,500 children with a diagnosis of autism. They found:

Compared with children born to mothers who received neither labor induction nor augmentation, children born to mothers who were induced and augmented, induced only, or augmented only experienced increased odds of autism after controlling for potential confounders related to socioeconomic status, maternal health, pregnancy-related events and conditions, and birth year. The observed associations between labor induction/augmentation were particularly pronounced in male children.

Although this is a large study, it is one study, and so the correlation needs to be independently confirmed. But if we assume the correlation is accurate, the next question is – what is the arrow of causation? Observational studies can only indicate an association. By themselves they cannot prove causation, although multiple observational studies may be able to triangulate to the most likely causal interpretation. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Obstetrics & gynecology, Vaccines

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Prenatal Mercury and Autism

Mercury in unequivocally a neurotoxin. It is especially damaging to the developing brain. But it’s the dose that makes the toxin, and so a low enough exposure even to something known to be potentially harmful may not be. Further, the body has mechanisms for dealing with toxins, and toxins in the body may not be reaching the cells they can potentially damage in significant amounts. Therefore if we want to know if a potential toxin is actually causing any harm to people we need to do some type of epidemiological study – correlating exposure to possible adverse outcomes. All the studies in petri dishes and with cell cultures just won’t answer the question of harm.

The question of whether or not mercury in vaccines has caused neurological harm, specifically autism, has been largely answered. Numerous studies have shown no association between the amount of mercury exposure from vaccines and the risk of developing autism. A separate mercury-related question, however, is whether or not there is any risk of harm from mercury exposure from seafood. Mercury is methylated by bacteria into methymercury, and through them gets into the food chain in the oceans. Fish that eat other fish then concentrate the mercury in their tissues, and so predatory fish and sea mammals tend to have high concentrations of methymercury.

This has led to some precautionary recommendations, including that pregnant women should not eat tuna or other fish with high mercury levels. This makes sense, but what is the actual risk? The precautionary principle can also cut both ways. Fish contain many high-quality nutrients important for a developing brain, such as polyunsaturated fatty acids. Removing this food source from the diet of pregnant women may have unintended negative consequences.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health

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The Business of Baby and the Monkey Business of Margulis

A correspondent asked for my opinion of a new book by journalist Jennifer Margulis that is apparently getting a lot of attention in some circles: The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line. I got a copy from the library and read it. It was a painful experience. One of the customer reviews on the Amazon website accurately sums up my own reaction:

There is a great need for an incisive look at all sides of modern maternity care in the United States, because — let’s face it — we all know it’s not perfect. This, however, is not that book.

The author is a strong advocate of home birth, water birth, midwives, “embracing the pain to make you stronger,” “parents know better than doctors,” natural = good, and very early potty training. She thinks bathing a newborn is harmful. She questions the need for well baby checkups: she thinks they are mainly a gimmick to sell vaccines. She questions the (science-based) practice of giving newborns vitamin K and prophylactic eye drops. She is against the use of chemicals in general. She reports that Johnson’s Baby Wash contains “a host of unpronounceable chemicals, some of which are known toxins…and carcinogens.” She doesn’t seem to have grasped the basic principle of toxicology that the poison is in the dose. She is against formula, which she says is killing babies, and against disposable diapers because they contain chemicals and petroleum and because they can cause your child to become infertile. Her only evidence for “infertility” is one study showing that disposable diapers raise scrotal temperatures. Indeed, plastic underpants are probably warm.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Obstetrics & gynecology, 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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