Bill Maher (right) pays rapt attention to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (left) as he gives pointers about how to be a crankier antivaccine crank.
It is with reluctance that I decided to write about this topic again, given how many times I’ve written about it over the last decade, both here and at my not-so-super-secret other blog and given how little his fans seems to care when I do. I’m referring to the antivaccine stylings of comedian and political pundit Bill Maher, something I’ve been writing about for over a decade now. Indeed, a little more than five years ago, I stirred up a bit of trouble in the skeptical community through some particularly harsh criticisms of Bill Maher, in particular of the Atheist Alliance International’s (AAI) decision to award Maher the Richard Dawkins Award. More than once, I’ve likened giving Bill Maher an award that lists “advocates increased scientific knowledge” anywhere in its criteria, not to mention being named after Richard Dawkins, to giving Jenny McCarthy an award for public health, given that, at least when it comes to medicine, Maher is anti-science to the core. Along the way, I’ve ruffled the feathers of some of both Dawkins’ and Maher’s fans.
Arguably Maher reached his peak of antivaccine advocacy through his weekly HBO talk show, Real Time With Bill Maher, five years ago, when the H1N1 pandemic was going on and public health officials were working hard to persuade people to get vaccinated against H1N1 influenza. Indeed, it got so bad that his own guests, such as Bill Frist and Bob Costas, were openly dissing him on his own show for his antivaccine views. Perhaps my favorite example came from Bob Costas, who in response to a wild claim by Maher that he doesn’t worry about getting the flu, even in the crowded confines of an airplane because of his superior lifestyle that apparently made him immune, blurted out, “Oh, come on, Superman!” Even worse, a friend of Maher, Michael Shermer, published an “Open Letter to Bill Maher on Vaccinations” in—of all places—The Huffington Post, which led Maher to respond, both on his show (in which he referred to vaccination as a “risky medical procedure”) and in a post on HuffPo himself entitled “Vaccination: A Conversation Worth Having“. It was, as a certain “friend of the blog” put it, a pyre of stupidity.
The Integrative Medicine Wheel
Dr. David Katz is undoubtedly a heavy hitter in the brave new world of “integrative medicine,” a specialty that seeks to “integrate” pseudoscience with science, nonsense, with sense, and quackery with real medicine. In fairness, that’s not the way physicians like Dr. Katz see it. Rather, they see it as “integrating” the “best of both worlds” to the benefit of patients. However, as we’ve documented extensively here, on our personal blogs, and even in the biomedical literature (plug, plug), what “integrative” medicine means in practice is indeed what I characterized, the infiltration of woo into medicine. This infiltration seems to have started mainly in academia—hence the term “quackademic medicine” and “quackademia”—with the steady infiltration of nonsense into medical schools and academic medical centers, but has since metastasized to the world of community hospitals. This “integration” (or, as I like to refer to it, “infiltration”) has become so pronounced that a few years ago The Atlantic published an article entitled “The Triumph of New Age Medicine“, and just last December the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) published a monograph full of articles touting “integrative oncology,” including guidelines recommended by the Society of Integrative Oncology (SIO) for the “integrative” treatment of breast cancer symptoms.
I mention Dr. Katz for two reasons. First, he’s taken another broadside at us at Science-Based Medicine in blog entry at The Huffington Post—where else?—entitled “Holism, Holes and Poles” that I’ve been meaning to address for a while. But before I address Dr. Katz’s most recent complaint against science-based medicine (SBM), it’s necessary to step back and look at some history.
Given the ongoing (and increasing) measles outbreak linked initially to Disneyland, it’s hard for me not to revisit the topic from time to time. This time around, there are two issues I wish to discuss, one political and one that is a combination of medical and political. After all, it was just one week ago when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stepped in it by advocating parental choice in vaccines, as if parents don’t already have a choice. He rapidly had to walk it back, and his ill-considered remarks were almost certainly not evidence that he is antivaccine. They are, however, evidence that he doesn’t understand that we do not have “forced vaccination” in this country (we have school vaccine mandates). Parents already have choice in 48 states, given that only two states (Mississippi and West Virginia) do not allow belief-based non-medical exemptions, be they religious exemptions, personal belief-exemptions, or both, to school vaccine mandates. It also came out that in 2009 while running for Governor, Christie met with Louise Kuo Habakus (who is antivaccine) and the NJ Coalition for Vaccine Choice, a very vocal NJ antivaccine coalition whose member organization list reads like a who’s who of the national antivaccine movement and includes Life Health Choices, the antivaccine organization founded by Habakus. He even wrote a letter promising that as governor he would stand with them in “their fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions that affect their children.”
It’s also evidence that vaccine mandates are becoming even more politicized. Indeed, Senator Rand Paul, on the very same day, provided more such evidence when he claimed on a conservative talk radio show that he’s seen children with severe neurological problems after vaccination, the implication being that he believed these children’s problems were linked to vaccination. Later, in a testy exchange with a CNBC reporter, who asked him whether he had really said that he thought vaccines should be voluntary, Paul sarcastically replied, “I guess being for freedom would be unusual.” Later in the exchange, after repeating the same antivaccine talking points that he had related earlier in the day, he said, “The state doesn’t own the children. Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom.” You get the idea. He, too, ultimately had to back off a bit, famously showing himself getting vaccinated for hepatitis A, but given that Paul has had a long history of making similar comments, this was almost certainly strategic.
Last week, the self-proclaimed “happiest place on earth” wasn’t so happy.
One of the disadvantages of posting once a week is that, unless I muscle in on someone else’s day I can’t respond rapidly to stories that appear early. Of course the flip side of that is that if a story appears over the weekend it’s all mine, and, besides, I have my not-so-super-secret other blog to respond to issues that occur earlier in the week. Another advantage is that, if I do decide to write about something from earlier in the week, I have the advantage of time to think.
You’ve probably figured out that what I’m referring to is the latest measles outbreak. Not surprisingly, it happened in the Los Angeles area. Surprisingly (or perhaps not so much), it happened at Disneyland. I say “not surprisingly” because it’s been well-publicized over the last few years that there are pockets of low vaccine uptake and high personal belief exemptions in California, complete with measles and pertussis outbreaks. This is thanks to pockets of affluent, entitled parents full of the Dunning-Kruger effect who think that they can learn as much about vaccines and autism via Google University as pediatricians and researchers who have devoted their entire professional careers to studying them. Of course, these parents are also facilitated by pediatricians who cater to their fears, the most famous of whom is Dr. Bob Sears, whose The Vaccine Book is a very popular, reasonable-sounding (to parents not aware of the antivaccine tropes within) bit of antivax lite, but there is also our old buddy Dr. Jay Gordon and a host of others.
So what happened at Disneyland? On January 7, the California Department of Public Health confirmed seven measles cases:
Since the press release was originally issued on Thursday by now surely most of you have seen the news stories that popped up beginning yesterday morning with headlines like “CDC Warning: Flu Viruses Mutate and Evade Current Vaccine“, or “Flu vaccine protects against wrong strain, US health officials warn“, or “Flu shots may not be good match for 2014-15 virus, CDC says“, or “Health Officials Warn This Year’s Flu Vaccine Won’t Prevent New H3N2 Strain Of Influenza“. You get the idea. This year, apparently, the flu vaccine isn’t as effective as health officials and physicians would like. How could this have happened?
Those of you who are knowledgeable about the flu vaccine know that, as useful as it is, it’s not one of the greatest vaccines as far as effectiveness. Actually, that’s not true. Its effectiveness can and does vary considerably from year to year. The reason is simple. There are many strains of influenza, and the vaccine as currently formulated generally only covers a handful of strains. Basically, every year the World Health Organization, in collaboration with the CDC and other health organizations throughout the world, has to make an educated guess which strains of influenza will be circulating the following winter. Many months’ lead time is required because vaccine manufacturers require it to develop and test the new formulations and then to ramp up their manufacturing capabilities and distribute the vaccine. Generally, the WHO chooses the three strains it deems most likely to cause significant human suffering and death in the coming flu season. Specifically, the chosen strains are the H1N1, H3N2, and Type-B, although, starting with the 2012–2013 Northern Hemisphere influenza season, the WHO has also recommended a second B-strain for use in quadrivalent (four strain) vaccines. Basically, the WHO coordinates the contents of the vaccine each year to contain the most likely strains of the virus to attack the next year. Wikipedia has a helpful article that lists the formulations of all the flu vaccines recommended for the Northern and Southern Hemispheres dating back to 1998, to give you an idea what’s been recommended in the past. Also, there are exceptions. In the 2009-2010 season, for example, the H1N1 pandemic was occurring, and it was recommended that everyone be vaccinated against H1N1 in addition to the normal flu vaccine.
There are many conspiracy theories about vaccines, and they circulate almost continuously. Some are relatively new, but most are at least a few years old. They all tend to fall into several defined types, such as the “CDC whistleblower” story, which posits that the “CDC knew” all these years that vaccines cause autism but covered it up, even going so far as to commit scientific fraud to do so. Of the many other myths about vaccines that stubbornly persist despite all evidence showing them not only to be untrue but to be risibly, pseudoscientifically untrue, among whose number are myths that vaccines cause autism, sudden infant death syndrome, and a syndrome that so resembles shaken baby syndrome (more correctly called abusive head trauma) that shaken baby syndrome is a misdiagnosis for vaccine injury, the antivaccine conspiracy theory that vaccines are being used for population control is one of the most persistent. In this myth, vaccines are not designed to protect populations of impoverished nations against diseases like the measles, which still kills hundreds of thousands of people a year outside of developed countries. Oh, no. Rather, according to this myth, vaccines are in fact a surreptitious instrument of population control designed to render people sterile, for whatever nefarious reasons the powers that be have to want to control the population.
You might recall how a few years ago antivaccinationists leaped on a statement by Bill Gates that “if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that [population] by perhaps 10 or 15 percent.” They used it to accuse Gates of being a eugenicist and that vaccines were in actuality an instrument of global depopulation. It was a ridiculous charge of course. In context, it was clear that Gates was referring to how the expected population increase from 6.8 billion to 9 billion could be blunted by providing good health care, including reproductive care and vaccines, to impoverished people in regions where the population increases are expected to be greatest. He was clearly referring to decreasing the expected population increase by 10% or 15%, meaning that instead of going up to 9 billion the population would only increase to between 7.65 and 8.1 billion. In other words, he was referring to how good health care could decrease the expected rate of population growth, not how vaccines could be used to depopulate the world. However, because of the prevalence of the myth that vaccines are sterilizing agents intended for global depopulation, the charge that Gates is a eugenicist, as obviously off base as it is to reasonable people, resonated in the anti-science world of antivaccinationists. Similar claims, namely that there is “something” in vaccines that results in infertility and sterilization, have been unfortunately very effective in frightening people in Third World countries and have played a major role in antivaccine campaigns that have delayed the eradication of polio.
Gayle DeLong has been diagnosed with what she refers to as “autism-induced breast cancer”. She’s even given it an abbreviation, AIBC. Unfortunately, as you might be able to tell by the name she’s given her breast cancer, she is also showing signs of falling into the same errors in thinking with respect to her breast cancer as she clearly has with respect to autism. As a breast cancer surgeon, regardless of my personal opinion of DeLong’s anti-vaccine beliefs, I can only hope that she comes to her senses and undergoes science-based treatment, but I fear she will not, as you will see. Her brief post announcing her diagnosis and blaming it on autism, however, does provide what I like to call a “teachable moment” about cancer.
We’ve met DeLong before on this blog. For instance, she published an execrably bad study that—of course!—tried to link vaccine to autism and failed miserably, despite doing some amazing contortions of analysis, combining diagnoses willy-nilly, all in the service of the discredited vaccine-autism hypothesis. As I said at the time, it just goes to show that someone who is an associate professor of economics and finance shouldn’t be doing epidemiological research. As I also described at the time, if the sorts of analytical techniques she used in her study are acceptable in the world of economics and finance, no wonder our economy has been so screwed up for so long. Another time, DeLong wrote a broadside against the regulatory machinery that oversees vaccine development and safety that was full of the usual antivaccine misinformation, tropes, and pseudoscience and hugely exaggerated perceived “conflicts of interest” among the various parties.
The antivaccine movement and conspiracy theories go together like beer and Buffalo wings, except that neither are as good as, yes, beer and Buffalo wings. (Maybe it’s more like manure and compost.) In any case, the antivaccine movement is rife with conspiracy theories. I’ve heard and written about more than I can remember right now, and I’m under no illusion that I’ve heard anywhere near all of them. Indeed, it seems that every month I see a new one.
There is, however, a granddaddy of conspiracy theories among antivaccinationists, or, as it’s been called, the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement. That conspiracy theory postulates that “they” (in the U.S, the CDC) have known for a long time that vaccines cause autism, but “they” are covering it up. In other words, the CDC has, according to this conspiracy theory, been intentionally hiding and suppressing evidence that antivaccinationists were right all along and vaccines do cause autism. Never mind what the science really says (that vaccines do work don’t cause autism)! To the antivaccine contingent, that science is “fraudulent” and the CDC knew it! Why do you think that the antivaccine movement, in particular Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., went full mental jacket when Poul Thorsen was accused of financial shenanigans (i.e., fraud) with grant money from the federal government? It was a perfect story to distract from the inconvenient lack of science supporting the antivaccine view that vaccines cause autism. More importantly, from the antivaccine standpoint, it was seen as “validation” that the CDC studies failing to find a link between autism and vaccines were either fraudulent or incompetently performed. Why? Because Thorsen was co-investigator on a couple of the key studies that failed to find a link between the MMR and autism, antivaccinationists thought that his apparent financial fraud must mean that he committed scientific fraud. They’re the same thing, right? Well, not really. There were a lot of co-investigators, and Thorsen was only a middle author on those studies.