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Antivaccine activists fund a study to show vaccines cause autism. It backfires spectacularly.

You want to inject me with vaccines and then dissect my brain? Why? We already know vaccines don't cause autism!

You want to inject me with vaccines and then dissect my brain? Why? We already know vaccines don’t cause autism!

Having written about pseudoscience and quackery continuously for over a decade and having engaged in conversations about it online for over 15 years, I’ve come to recognize a number of traits that are virtually the sine qua non of quacks and pseudoscientists and their believers. Obviously, one of them is a severe case of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a tendency of those with low expertise in a topic to overestimate their expertise and express far more confidence in their conclusions than warranted while those with high expertise know enough to know how much they don’t know about a topic and thus tend to express more uncertainty and caveats. Basically, the Dunning-Kruger effect describes how unskilled individuals express an illusory superiority, mistakenly believing their knowledge, competence, and ability to be much higher than it really is.

As a result of the Dunning-Kruger effect, coupled with other cognitive shortcomings suffered by all human beings (but seemingly amplified in believers in quackery and pseudoscience) that lead them to believe in pseudoscience, such as confusing correlation with causation, motivated reasoning, and the like, believers in pseudoscience are often so absolutely rock-solid in their beliefs that they are virtually impossible to reason with. It is incredibly difficult to change their minds, and disconfirming evidence often causes them to dig in all the more deeply to defend their beliefs. Not uncommonly, this leads them to commission studies designed to support their beliefs. But what happens when such a study does not actually support their belief? What happens when such a study backfires spectacularly and not only fails to support their belief, but emphatically so? Skeptics were re-treated to just such a spectacle last week when SafeMinds and other antivaccinationists were burned by a study they funded (subscription required):

Between 2003 and 2013, SafeMinds provided scientists from the University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine, the University of Washington, the Johnson Center for Child Health & Development and other research institutions with approximately $250,000 to conduct a long-term investigation evaluating behavioral and brain changes of baby rhesus macaques that were administered a standard course of childhood vaccines. (The National Autism Association, another organization that has questioned vaccine safety, also provided financial support for this research.) The latest paper in the multiyear project was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). In it, the researchers concluded that vaccines did not cause any brain or behavioral changes in the primates.

Astute readers will recognize that I’ve written about similar papers before reporting that pediatric vaccines cause changes in behavior and/or brain structure in macaque monkeys. Specifically, way back in 2008, I noted the initial report of this ongoing study, first when preliminary results were reported as a poster presentation and then later another publication from the same group published in 2009. Steve Novella and a certain well-known friend of the blog have also described how poor experiments published from these studies in 2010 were, the latter of whom cited several other major criticisms of the study, not the least of which was some reporting of changes in the size of a part of the brain known as the amygdala that were…hard to believe. There were also a lot of issues with the control group chosen.

Basically, these abstracts and papers reported the results of an ongoing study looking at infant vaccines in macaque monkeys to see if there was an effect on socialization or changes in brain anatomy, the key hypothesis seeming to be that thimerosal-containing vaccines cause autism. (The investigators even added thimerosal to some of the vaccines because they weren’t being made with thimerosal anymore!) You can read the links I cited just now if you want the gory details; suffice to say that these were not good studies and not particularly good evidence that vaccines cause autism, as shown by the fact that homeopaths loved the study, and ultimately the paper examining hepatitis B specifically was withdrawn. Yet these reports were flogged for quite a while by the antivaccine movement as proof positive primate data that vaccines are Evil.

Fast forward to 2015. Now we have a much larger, much better study. It’s even by the same people. And guess what? It’s as negative as negative can be. No wonder SafeMinds and other antivaccinationists are unhappy. Let’s take a look. (more…)

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The facts of the alternative medicine industry

People have been living on earth for about 250,000 years. For the past 5,000 healers have been trying to heal the sick. For all but the past 200, they haven’t been very good at it.

– Dr. Paul Offit

Twenty years is a long time in medicine. I celebrated my 20th pharmacy class reunion last weekend. Of course reunions are time to reflect back to our early years as pharmacists. Lots has changed. Much of the therapeutics I was taught is now obsolete. In 1993, HIV was a death sentence and there were only three, largely ineffective drugs available. Thanks to new drugs, HIV can now be managed like a chronic disease, and some of my colleagues have HIV-focused pharmacy practices. The same dramatic changes have occurred in fields like cancer and transplant medicine. And in some cases, the cause of disease has become more clear – my old textbooks make no mention of Helicobacter pylori as a cause of ulcers.

The practice of pharmacy has changed, too. On the positive side, pharmacists are working in new settings where they can focus on medication management, and not just dispensing prescriptions. Regulators are granting pharmacists the ability to take on new roles, and pharmacists are being compensated for more than simply “count, pour, lick and stick.” From that perspective, it’s a promising time to be a pharmacist. But there’s a much more disturbing side to the profession that’s emerging, too. Community (retail) pharmacy practice is under pricing and competitive pressure, and smaller pharmacies are being subsumed into big retailers where the pharmacy department is buried in the back – a loss leader to bring in patients, but hardly with a health-care focus. And most disturbingly, I see a move within retail pharmacy practice to leverage its professional credibility to sell all types of modern-day snake oil, ranging from detox kits and “cleanses” to dubious “food intolerance” testing. Homeopathic remedies (an elaborate placebo system of sugar pills) are increasingly found on pharmacy shelves, alongside real medicine. And don’t forget the enormous wall of vitamins that seems to get larger and larger. Yes, complementary and alternative medicine is booming, and pharmacy wants its share. Pharmacy regulators turn a blind eye. What do my pharmacy colleagues tell me? They’ll tell me it’s customer demand, and that they don’t recommend the quackery. To me, I see this trend as damaging the credibility of pharmacists in the eyes of the public and of other health professionals. (more…)

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“Sense and nonsense” about alternative medicine in USA Today

Sometimes, between blogging, a demanding day (and night) job doing surgery and science, and everything else, I embarrass myself. Sure, sometimes I embarrass myself by saying something that, in retrospect, I wish I hadn’t. More often, I embarrass myself by letting things slide that I shouldn’t. For instance, when friends send me a prepublication copy of their books, I should damned well read them, don’t you think? So it was that Paul Offit sent me a copy of his latest book, which just hit the bookstores and online outlets this week, Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, and I haven’t finished it. Oh, I’ve read a good chunk of it, but it’s not a huge book (around 335 pages); so I should have finished it by now, particularly since it’s quite good. My failure to properly read and plug the book aside, I’m glad to see that the book’s getting attention in a large media outlet, namely USA Today, in an article by Liz Szabo Book raises alarms about alternative medicine. There’s also a companion piece How to guard against a quack. I figure that the least I can do is to plug Dr. Offit’s book and the USA Today story in which he is featured, just as Harriet plugged his recent speaking appearance.

It’s also nice that Steve Novella and I were both interviewed. Now, excuse me while I get back to doing what I really should have had finished a month or two ago: Reading Dr. Offit’s excellent book.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements

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The Greater Good: Pure, unadulterated anti-vaccine propaganda masquerading as a “balanced” documentary

A movie that is actually good

A movie that is actually good

I’ve heard it said (actually, I’ve said it myself) that if you don’t have the science and evidence to back up your point of view, in order to persuade someone, make a movie. At least, this seems to be the philosophy of a number of cranks who have produced movies promoting pseudoscience over the last five years or so. The first one of these movies that really caught my attention was an anti-evolution, pro-“intelligent design” creationism documentary narrated by Ben Stein and released in 2008, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The movie was pure creationist propaganda, complete with Ben Stein visiting Auschwitz and Dachau, the better to try to link “Darwinism” to the Holocaust.

Movies promoting religious pseudoscience such as intelligent design creationism are not the only kinds of pseudoscience propaganda films. Indeed, medicine is rife with them, and Wally Sampson has referred to this particularly pernicious genre of documentary as “medical propaganda films.” During the existence of this blog, we’ve reviewed a few such films (or at least written about what we could find out about them without paying for the DVD). For example, I’ve written about The Beautiful Truth, a paean to the Gerson protocol for cancer, complete with coffee enemas, and reviewed Simply Raw: Reversing Diabetes in 30 Days, a film dedicated to the claim that you can cure almost everything (including not just type II but type I diabetes) with a raw vegan diet. Harriet reviewed The Living Matrix: A Film on the New Science of Healing, a movie promoting “energy medicine” quackery. There’s even a film out now praising Stanley Burzynski and his highly dubious “antineoplaston” therapy that I’ve been meaning to review. I finally found a free copy of it to watch, and perhaps I’ll get to it before the end of the month. In the meantime, there’s a documentary people have been begging me to check out called The Greater Good that has been making the rounds of various film festivals and will be debuting at the IFC Center in New York on November 18. The very fact that Joe Mercola has hosted the movie streaming on his website in celebration of what he and Barbara Loe Fisher have dubbed “Vaccine Awareness Week” should tell you all you need to know about the movie.

I’m going to tell you more, though, because I’ve actually managed to sit through the whole thing. The things I do for my readers! To give you an idea of what you’re in for (in case the video is no longer available by the time that you read this), here’s the trailer:

The first thing I noticed about The Greater Good is that it’s slick and very well produced—considerably better produced, I think, than Expelled! The only aspect of it that I found annoying (besides the sheer quantity of anti-vaccine misinformation, pseudoscience, talking points, and distortions, all of which were plenty annoying) was the little animated segments. (Well, the little animated segments and any segment featuring Dr. Bob Sears.) However, given the sheer mass of anti-vaccine propaganda contained within this documentary, quibbling about a stylistic element like that is rather like quibbling about the arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The documentary is structured, as many documentaries are, around three families, the better to provide the human interest “hook” for the rest of the story. Interspersed with segments about each family are interviews with various experts. Perhaps I should say two experts arrayed against a whole lot of “experts,” because defending vaccines we have real experts like Dr. Paul Offit; Dr. Melinda Wharton of the CDC; Dr. Norman Baylor, who is Director of the Office of Vaccines Research and Review in the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research; and Dr. Mark B. Feinberg, Vice President for Medical Affairs and Policy for Merck Vaccines and Infectious Diseases at Merck & Co., Inc. Arrayed against them we have a whole lot of anti-vaccine pseudoexperts, such as Barbara Loe Fisher, grande dame of the anti-vaccine movement and founder of the Orwellian-named National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC); Dr. Bob Sears, a pediatrician known for his non-science-based “alternative” vaccination schedule, who of late appears to have ceased mere flirting with the anti-vaccine movement and thrown his lot in with it; Dr. Lawrence Palevsky, a “wholistic” pediatrician; Dr. John Green III, who is described as a “specialist in clinical ecology and nutritional medicine“; and several trial lawyers known for representing parents suing for “vaccine injury,” lawyers such as Clifford Shoemaker, Kevin Conway, and Renee Gentry.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Dr. Paul Offit appears on The Colbert Report

For a touch of the lighter side, here’s Dr. Paul Offit appearing on The Colbert Report to discuss his new book:

Looks like a win to me. I particularly like how Dr. Offit says that the question of whether vaccines cause autism has been “asked and, fortunately, answered.” Heh. That’s a shot across the bow to J.B. Handley, who, as Steve Novella has pointed out (as have I) is utterly clueless about science and how to interpret the medical literature, as he has demonstrated time and time again with his “14 Studies” nonsense. Of course, anyone who calls Handley out on his ignorance is subject to personal attack. Reporters have felt it. Steve Novella has felt his wrath. So have I. Meanwhile Handley gloats over the decline in confidence in vaccines that his organization Generation Rescue has helped foster.

Fortunately, Colbert appears to get it. I like how Colbert does a faux rejection of one of Dr. Offit’s points by pointing out that he is “ruled by fear.” I particularly like how he mentions Andrew Wakefield, but not by name (rather like Lord Voldemort), and how he asks Dr. Offit a bunch of questions based on talking points the anti-vaccine movement likes to use to frighten parents. No wonder the anti-vaccine collective at Age of Autism is going crazy, having posted (and reposted) numerous attacks old and new on Paul Offit ever since it was announced that he was going to be on The Colbert Report last night, all topped off with one by J.B. Handley himself in which he calls Dr. Offit a “blowhard liar.”

Stay classy, J.B. Stay classy.

Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Deadly Choices about vaccination

appThe year 2011 is starting out rather promisingly, at least from the point of view of science-based medicine. Its beginning coincides with the release of two — count ’em, two! — books taking a skeptical, science-based look at vaccines and, in particular, the anti-vaccine movement. First off the mark is a new book by a man whom the anti-vaccine movement views as the Dark Lord of Vaccination, sitting up in Barad-dûr (apparently the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia), a man utterly reviled by anti-vaccine quacks everywhere, Dr. Paul Offit. He has been subjected to considerable bile and harassment due to his simply standing up for the science behind vaccines. The book is entitled, appropriately enough, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. Also being released is a new book by Seth Mnookin entitled The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear. Mnookin is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and whose work has appeared in numerous publications. Because I got a copy of Deadly Choices before my copy of The Panic Virus arrived, I decided to review Deadly Choices first; after I’ve managed to read The Panic Virus, I’ll write a review of it as well. Both books are arrows shot at the heart of the pseudoscience and fear at the heart of the vaccine manufactroversy, and it might well be useful to compare and contrast the two once I’ve finished The Panic Virus.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at Deadly Choices, an excellent, well-researched book with which I have relatively few disagreements. It is a followup to Dr. Offit’s last book, Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, which I reviewed back when it first came out. In contrast to Autism’s False Prophets, which concentrated primarily on the manufactroversy that claims that vaccines are responsible for the “autism epidemic,” Deadly Choices steps back to take a broader look at the anti-vaccine movement. Regular readers of SBM hardly need to be reminded how pervasive and dangerous the modern-day anti-vaccine movement has become. Indeed, it is a frequently discussed theme of this blog, given that the anti-vaccine movement is such a major force among the forces that deny the efficacy of scientific medicine and seek either to replace it with unscientific or pseudoscientific “alternatives” or to “integrate” pseudoscience into science-based medicine. Indeed, anti-vaccine sentiment infuses large swaths of what we refer to as “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), be it chiropractic, homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, or a wide variety of other modalities and systems.

In examining the modern anti-vaccine movement, Dr. Offit structures his book into three major sections. First, beginning in a chapter entitled The Birth of Fear, Dr. Offit begins with a description of the birth of the modern anti-vaccine movement, which in the U.S. Dr. Offit traces, in large part, to the broadcast of an irresponsible and anecdote-driven news documentary about the diptheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) vaccine in 1982, and in the U.K. to a scare about the DPT triggered by a presentation by Dr. John Wilson to the Royal Society of Medicine about horrific complications thought to be due to the pertussis vaccine in the DPT. Next, Dr. Offit goes back into history to describe the development of the anti-vaccine movement in the 1800s in England and notes parallels with the modern day anti-vaccine movement. Finally, the story shifts back to today, where he describes the situation now, how demands for vaccines turned into fear of vaccines, and what we might do about it.
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Journal Club Debunks Anti-Vaccine Myths

American Family Physician, the journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians, has a feature called AFP Journal Club, where physicians analyze a journal article that either involves a hot topic affecting family physicians or busts a commonly held medical myth. In the September 15, 2010 issue they discussed “Vaccines and autism: a tale of shifting hypotheses,” by Gerber and Offit, published in Clinical Infectious Diseases in 2009.  

The article presented convincing evidence to debunk 3 myths:

  1. MMR causes autism.
  2. Thimerosal (mercury) causes autism.
  3. Simultaneous administration of multiple vaccines overwhelms and weakens the immune system, triggering autism in a susceptible host.

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The anti-vaccine movement strikes back against Dr. Paul Offit

Vaccinefear

In my five years in the blogosphere, two years blogging for SBM, and over a decade in Internet discussion forums about medicine and “alternative” medicine, I’ve learned a few things. One thing that I’ve learned is that one of the biggest differences between those whose world view is based on science and who therefore promote science-based medicine and those promoting pseudoscience, quackery, and anti-science is that science inculcates in its adherents a culture of free, open, and vigorous debate. Indeed, to outsiders, this debate can seem (and sometimes is) vicious. In other words, if you’re going to be a scientist, you need to have a thick skin because you will have to defend your hypotheses and conclusions, sometimes against some very hostile other scientists. That same attitude of a Darwinian struggle between scientific ideas, with only those best supported by evidence and with the most explanatory power surviving, is a world view that those not steeped in science have a hard time understanding.

Among those who don’t understand science, few have a harder time with the rough-and-tumble debate over evidence and science that routinely goes on among scientists than those advocating pseudoscience. Indeed, in marked contrast to scientists, they tend to cultivate cultures of the echo chamber. Examples abound and include discussion forums devoted to “alternative” medicine like CureZone, where never is heard a discouraging word — because anyone expressing too much skepticism about the prevailing view on such forums invariably finds himself first shunned by other members of the discussion forums and then, if he persists, booted from the forum by the moderators. In marked contrast, on skeptical forums, most of the time almost anything goes. True, the occasional supporter of woo who finds his way onto a skeptical forum will face a lot of criticism, some of it brutal. However, rarely will such a person be banned, unless he commits offenses unrelated to his questioning of scientific dogma, such as insulting or abusive behavior towards other forum participants or trolling. Such people may annoy the heck out of us skeptics sometimes, but on the other hand, they do actually from time to time challenge us to defend our science and prevent us from becoming too complacent. Indeed, that’s what I like about skeptics and being a scientist. Nothing or no one is sacred.
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Posted in: Chiropractic, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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