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

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.

In marked contrast, supporters of pseudoscience are very much characterized by their aversion to scientific debate. The reason is obvious. They don’t have the goods. (If they did, what they’re advocating wouldn’t be pseudoscience.) They can’t win on science, reason, and evidence. The result is that they often end up forming communities that exist more to support their pseudoscience than to discover what does and does not actually work. Indeed, Prometheus describes this phenomenon well as he’s seen it in “autism biomed” discussion forums.

The same sort of group dynamics occurs in forums like CureZone and many others. Those who try to apply science and skepticism to the prevailing dogma of the group usually end up banned or give up in disgust. Indeed, at the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism, comments are ruthlessly censored, and anyone who disagrees too strongly with the prevailing “wisdom” that vaccines cause autism will soon find himself or herself permanently banned. One consequence of this can be that the adherents of such views become progressively less able to defend their views in an evidence- and science-based argument, because they simply aren’t used to having them challenged based on evidence and science. Indeed some no longer even know how to react to criticism other than by lashing out. We’ve seen this before on this very blog, where anti-vaccine activist J.B. Handley lashed out at Steve Novella, while from time to time various anti-vaccine activists, J.B. Handley included, and promoters of pseudoscience and quackery periodically launch prolonged ad hominem attacks on me1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10.

Another consequence is that promoters of unscientific and anti-scientific “medical” modalities have a tendency to be lawsuit-happy. We at SBM have written about this time and time again, both here and on individual bloggers’ blogs. The most recent and famous victim of this tendency is Simon Singh, who is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association for pointing out that there is no evidence behind their claims to be able to treat allergies and colic and quite correctly characterized such claims as “bogus.” Thanks to Britain’s notoriously plaintiff-friendly libel laws, Singh is fighting an uphill battle, too, and may very well lose. Fortunately, his case has become a cause célèbre, and Sense About Science has rallied public opinion in his favor and, more importantly, of reforming the U.K.’s antiquated anti-free speech libel laws — please sign the petition. However, Singh’s case is simply the most famous current example of how promoters of pseudoscience try to suppress criticism with legal threats or action. There have been several others before, including Andy Lewis of Quackometer, whose ISP caved in to legal threats from the highly dubious Dr. Joseph Chikelue Obi (who bills himself as the “world’s top expert in nutritional immunomudulation“). This came on hot on the heels of legal thuggery directed against him by the Society of Homeopaths. In both of these cases, the attempted legal action backfired spectacularly, as dozens, perhaps hundreds, of bloggers republished the posts verbatim that the Society of Homeopaths and “Dr.” Obi had successfully suppressed. Another example includes Kathleen Seidel, who was subject to a frivolous and punitive subpoena by lawyer Clifford Shoemaker, who is well known for bringing lawsuits based on the pseudoscience that vaccines cause autism. Fortunately, Shoemaker overreached and was forced to retreat in shame.

And I haven’t even mentioned über-quack Matthias Rath trying to silence Ben Goldacre through litigation

The most recent flavor of anti-science groups using the law to silence critics seems to be anti-vaccine activists. And, I’m sad to report that this time around it is Barbara Loe Fisher of the organization with the most Orwellian name, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), who is suing Dr. Paul Offit; Amy Wallace, who quoted him in her excellent article published in WIRED Magazine in October (for which J.B. Handley launched misogynistic attacks on her); and Condé Naste, WIRED’s publisher. Here is the legal complaint (scrubbed of home addresses of the private parties involved).

This is not the first time an anti-vaccine activist has sued Dr. Offit. Just last year, Handley sued Dr. Paul Offit for a passage in his 2008 book Autism’s False Prophets, which included highly unflattering portraits (and, in my opinion, justifiably so) of anti-vaccinationists like Mr. Handley, including a discussion of a threatening post by Handley posted to an anti-vaccine mailing list, in which he said to the “neurodiverse folks monitoring this list”:

We will bring the full resources of myself and Generation Rescue to stop this. We will sue you for libel and we will go after your homes and assets. My lawyers live to investigate and sue people like you.

This, of course, sums up the attitude of all too many anti-science activists. They can’t win on the science; so they try to suppress criticism through legal action. Sadly, it’s their most potent weapon, certainly far more potent than any scientific argument they can come up with, given that even in the relatively defendant-friendly U.S. libel suits can be so intimidating that they will effectively silence criticism.

I don’t know enough of the details of the suit to determine whether Handley’s case had any merit or not, and I’m not a lawyer anyway. I tend to doubt that it did. Regardless of the merit of his suit (or, more probably, the lack thereof), I am pretty sure I have deduced Handley’s intent, as his e-mail and postings on AoA certainly leave no doubt as to his attitude. I also know that it’s very interesting that, as Squillo points out, Handley’s lawsuit was not filed on the basis of libel, but rather on “false light invasion of privacy” rather than for libel (a form of defamation), probably because false light is less well-defined than libel and easier to prevail on, perhaps as a result of Dr. Offit’s lawyer’s response. Whatever the case, Dr. Offit and his lawyers decided to settle rather than fight, with the settlement being an apology, an agreement to correct the passage in dispute, and a $5,000 donation to one of Jenny McCarthy’s favored autism charities, all of which to me sounds very much like a token settlement. I may be totally wrong about this, but my guess is that Dr. Offit just didn’t want to go through the pain of a full trial, which is, of course, the point of such legal actions; being sued is painful for anyone, and many decide it’s easier to cave than to fight, even when they have a strong case. My second guess is that Handley may have had just enough of a case plus a set of pockets deep enough to make a lot of trouble but probably not a good enough case to have had a high likelihood of prevailing if it had gone to trial. Otherwise, given his visceral hatred of Dr. Offit, I highly doubt that Handley would have agreed to such a tiny token settlement. (Another possibility to be considered is that Handley didn’t really want Generation Rescue and himself to be subject to discovery regarding the incidents at the heart of the disputed passage had the legal case moved forward.) On the other hand, Offit’s settling is a huge propaganda victory for Handley, which he has been trumpeting on his blog.

Unfortunately, Handley’s apparent success appears to have emboldened other anti-vaccine activists, and this, I suspect, is why Barbara Loe Fisher likely decided that she might be able to cause Dr. Offit some trouble. So cause him trouble she did by suing over this passage from Amy Wallace’s article:

Paul Offit has a slightly nasal voice and a forceful delivery that conspire to make him sound remarkably like Hawkeye Pierce, the cantankerous doctor played by Alan Alda on the TV series M*A*S*H. As a young man, Offit was a big fan of the show (though he felt then, and does now, that Hawkeye was “much cooler than me”). Offit is quick-witted, funny, and — despite a generally mild-mannered mien — sometimes so assertive as to seem brash. “Scientists, bound only by reason, are society’s true anarchists,” he has written — and he clearly sees himself as one. “Kaflooey theories” make him crazy, especially if they catch on. Fisher, who has long been the media’s go-to interview for what some in the autism arena call “parents rights,” makes him particularly nuts, as in “You just want to scream.” The reason? “She lies,” he says flatly.

“Barbara Loe Fisher inflames people against me. And wrongly. I’m in this for the same reason she is. I care about kids. Does she think Merck is paying me to speak about vaccines? Is that the logic?” he asks, exasperated. (Merck is doing no such thing). But when it comes to mandating vaccinations, Offit says, Fisher is right about him: He is an adamant supporter.

Regular readers may have noticed that I almost never accuse anyone of lying. The reason is that I tend to believe that most anti-vaccine activists really and truly believe in their pseudoscience. Consequently, when they spread misinformation and outright nonsense, they are not technically lying, at least not most of the time, because they have no clue that what they are saying is false. Indeed, although I do not know the specifics upon which Dr. Offit based his claim that Loe Fisher “lies” (although having read some of the vitriolic attacks on Dr. Offit by members of the anti-vaccine movement I can certainly understand why he might come to that conclusion), I do know that she is profoundly wrong about the science of vaccines and, utterly impervious to any science contradicting her viewpoint, spreads misinformation, so much so that whether Loe Fisher believes what she says or knows it to be false almost becomes a moot point when so much egregious misinformation and pseudoscience is spread against the backdrop of mountains of evidence showing that they are not scientifically valid. The end effect is more or less the same in a practical sense, although whether it is in a legal sense I do not know.

Even so, in her complaint Loe Fisher takes takes Jenny McCarthy’s disingenuous claim that she is “not anti-vaccine, but pro-safe vaccine” to whole new heights of bizarre contortion. I’ve written about this technique before. Fisher is very clever and couches her views in rhetoric of freedom and “informed consent.” Yet, it is very clear from the NVIC website what its true agenda is. For instance, there is a “memorial” for “vaccine victims,” which states:

They are the men, women, and children who have died or been injured by vaccines in nations around the world for the past 200 years. This is a virtual Memorial dedicated to those whose lives have been forever changed by vaccines they were often required by law to use.

And concludes:

Our hope is that, by honoring those who are casualties of mass vaccination policies, there will be greater public awareness of the need to value and care as much about those who are harmed by the complications of vaccines as we care about those who are harmed by the complications of infectious diseases. This International Memorial for Vaccine Victims is offered to the world as testimony of the need to protect the biological integrity of life on this planet.

The NVIC also runs a website called Stand Up! Be Counted!, which states: “No Forced Vaccination. Not in America.” It also uses common anti-vaccine tropes, such as confusing correlation with causation for the “autism epidemic.” Meanwhile the NVIC page about the H1N1 vaccine cites dubious studies on mercury in vaccines, in particular the discredited Hewitson study that I blogged about here and here. Then there’s the Vaccine Law Firm Directory she maintains of lawyers ready to sue for vaccine injury. But perhaps most telling of all is the recent NVIC conference, in which luminaries of the anti-vaccine fringe presented their views and “data,” and in which the man who started the fear that the MMR vaccine causes autism based on the shoddiest of science and whom Barbara Loe Fisher herself has vociferously defended, namely Andrew Wakefield, was given NVIC’s Humanitarian Award. The conference also included total cranks such as Gary Null, who is anti-vaccine to the core, an HIV/AIDS denialist, coffee enema advocate, and supporter of cancer quackery, and David Ayoub, whose claim to fame is that he thinks that mass vaccination programs are a plot by the Illuminati, complete with black helicopters. Quite frankly, from my point of view, if Barbara Loe Fisher isn’t anti-vaccine, she sure has an amazingly odd way of showing it. It would be very interesting to ask her whether there is anything or any evidence that could ever persuade her that vaccination is far safer than the diseases vaccinated against. I tend to doubt it, although I have no doubt, given her silver tongue, that she’d dance around the question quite skillfully, move the goal posts, or propose impossible-to-meet (in the real world, at least) standard of evidence.

My guess is that Loe Fisher’s lawsuit has very little to do with her reputation. After all, among real scientists knowledgeable about vaccination (as opposed to anti-vaccine “scientists” like Andrew Wakefield) her reputation is that of a promoter of pseudoscience; in other words, her only scientific reputation is a bad one. Moreover, among Loe Fisher’s core constituency, I highly doubt that Dr. Offit’s saying “she lies” about her would have any effect whatsoever on its opinion of her veracity, other than, perhaps, to make her fans love and believe her all the more. After all, in the circles that she travels, Dr. Offit is viewed as practically akin to Satan himself and routinely castigated as “Dr. Proffit.” However, having her veracity called into doubt by a real vaccine scientist could potentially hurt Loe Fisher in her efforts to win mainstream acceptance, and that is probably the real concern driving the lawsuit.

Another reason that Fisher’s frequent, impassioned, indignant denials that she is anti-vaccine are hard to believe is that she is very one-sided in her application of her appeals to freedom. She states over and over again that she is for “informed consent” and the right of parents to express “philosophical exemptions.” No doubt a libertarian argument could be made on political and philosophical grounds to support such a position. But, as PalMD shows, when a private institution decides that it will require that students be fully vaccinated according to the recommended schedule before they can attend school, suddenly Fisher isn’t so supportive of the whole freedom thing anymore. For example, when a Jewish school in Pittsburgh decided that it would not accept philosphical exemptions, would require that its students, other than those with legtimate medical exemptions, be fully vaccinated, and would not accept a letter from anyone other than a child’s primary care physician in order to grant a medical exemption, Fisher was most displeased:

According to Loe Fisher, the federal vaccine injury compensation program, established by the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, has paid more than $2 billion to families of children who have been injured or died as a result of vaccination.

“Vaccination should not be separated out from the informed consent paradigm,” she said.

Since the establishment of the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations regarding vaccination requirements, Loe Fisher continued, families seeking medical exemption from vaccination have found it rough going.

Because it’s hard for a family to find a physician to provide a medical exemption, Loe Fisher said, many must rely on the religious or philosophical exemption, available in almost all states, to avoid vaccination.

She is not in favor of a private school refusing to accept those exemptions which are provided for by state law.

“It is questionable for a school to narrow those exemptions and not allow a parent who believes a child is at risk to take an exemption,” Loe Fisher said.

In other words, Fisher is against the government’s mandating vaccination before a child can attend school, public or private, but if the administration of a private school voluntarily decides without any government laws or pressure that it is going to require vaccination of its students before admission and not accept philosphical exemptions, she thinks that the government should have the power to enforce philosophical vaccine exemptions on it. Her advocacy of freedom with respect to vaccination is rather one-sided, don’t you think? After all, I bet Loe Fisher supports the right of private schools, such as Waldorf Schools, that do not require vaccination, often have high percentages of unvaccinated children, and, of late, have become incubators for outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, not to require that their students be vaccinated. Thus, Loe Fisher’s support for “vaccine choice” except when it is the choice of a private institution to mandate vaccines casts her assertion in her complaint that she “does not seek to prohibit or advise against vaccination but to ensure that vaccination is voluntary and that it proceeds following fully informed consent” in a rather dubious light and contributes to the overall impression that she is in reality not a “vaccine safety” activist, but an anti-vaccine activist.

He’s also a flaming hypocrite. In my opinion, of course.

After having read her website and seen her quoted in many interviews, my bottom line opinion is that Barbara Loe Fisher is anti-vaccine. True, she’s good at cloaking what I consider to be her anti-vaccine views in rhetoric of “freedom” and “informed consent,” but whenever push comes to shove, she’s against vaccines and clearly thinks that they do more harm than good. Nowhere have I ever seen her say that she supports a single vaccination as routine. Not one. Her entire organization supports the scientifically discredited notion that vaccines cause autism and holds conferences with anti-vaccine speakers. It prominently has a web page linked to from its main page whose purpose is to provide a memorial for “vaccine victims.” It’s hard not to conclude from this that she is anti-vaccine.

Moreover, Barbara Loe Fisher is one to talk about libel, after what she said about Dr. Offit the very article by Amy Wallace over which she is suing:

Against this backdrop, Fisher, a skilled debater who often faces down articulate, well-informed scientists on live TV, mentioned Offit frequently. She called him the leading “pro-forced-vaccination proponent” and cast him as a man who walks in lockstep with the pharmaceutical companies and demonizes caring parents.

Maybe Dr. Offit should countersue for libel. It sounds as though he may have a case. After all, on the NVIC website, there is this little tidbit as well:

Offit’s attempt to exonerate DPT is part of a larger effort to convince the public – and drug company stockholders – that most vaccines, including his own, have no risks whatsoever.

I’d love to see Loe Fisher present evidence that Dr. Offit has ever said that most vaccines, including his own, have no risks whatsoever. But attacking Dr. Offit in such terms is not enough for Loe Fisher. As Kim Wombles points out, Loe Fisher sees her fight against vaccine mandates in apocalyptic terms, as she describes on the NVIC website:

The discrimination begins, always, with the majority in a society pointing the finger at a minority for somehow endangering the public health and welfare. Individuals in the minority group are singled out as different – ethnically, biologically, spiritually, morally – from the majority. The human impulse to fear, judge, marginalize or eliminate those different from the rest has left a blood soaked trail winding throughout the entire history of man from the Great Inquisition to the Holocaust; from the killing fields of Cambodia to Rwanda, Serbia and Tibet; while the persecution of those with leprosy, TB, AIDS, mental illness, and handicaps continues in every society.

Later in the same article, I found this quote by Loe Fisher likening Andrew Wakefield to a victim of the Inquisition:

I thought of the persecution of Andrew Wakefield, M.D., who is being punished by his British colleagues for daring to report an association between the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and neuroimmune dysfunction, including inflammatory bowel disease and autism. Like when the heads of heretics were impaled upon stakes on the Tower of London as a warning for all to see, the Wakefield inquisition is a spectacle designed to persuade all doctors contemplating questioning the safety of current mass vaccination policies to remain silent.

And this allusion to the Holocaust:

Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel has said “When you take an idea or a concept and turn it into an abstraction, that opens the way to take human beings and turn them, also, into abstractions.”

Individuals harmed by vaccines are not abstractions. They are human beings who deserve to be spared a lifetime of suffering rather than being thrown under the bus to prop up forced mass vaccination policies that fail to acknowledge biodiversity within the family of man.

When Barbara Loe Fisher likens the supporters of vaccination programs who correctly criticize her and those holding views similar to hers as “anti-vaccine” to Nazis or the Inquisition and their criticism to what the Nazis did to the Jews during the Holocaust or the Inquisition did to heretics, when she likens criticism of her stance on vaccines to the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, she shouldn’t be too surprised when a lot of people conclude that she is anti-vaccine, not pro-safe vaccine.

Just like those of the Society of Homeopaths, “Dr.” Obi, the British Chiropractors Association against Simon Singh, or Matthias Rath against Ben Goldacre, Loe Fisher’s lawsuit is also likely more about shutting up critics than it is about protecting her reputation. Clearly, Wallace’s article hurt the anti-vaccine movement. Moreover, if there’s one good thing about 2009, it’s that more and more mainstream media outlets stopped portraying the anti-vaccine movement as poor, persecuted parents and more and more portrayed it as a threat to public health based on pseudoscience, which it is. Yes, it’s true that individual stories from the movement can be very sad and compelling; many of these parents and their children have had a horribly rough time. However, we do not have to downplay their difficulties or insult them personally to point out that they are profoundly wrong based on science when they blame vaccines for their children’s autism and that their activities do represent a serious threat to public health. More and more reporters, like Trine Tsouderos and Amy Wallace, have come to realize that. Such reporters represent a threat. Moreover, demonizing these journalists online, as the anti-vaccine movement tried to do with Amy Wallace and Trine Tsouderos (the latter of whom was included in a Photoshopped collage with Steve Novella preparing to make a Thanksgiving feast of a baby), doesn’t work very well. That leaves lawsuits to intimidate those who would speak out and discourage other media outlets from writing similar stories.

I wonder. Sense About Science did a fantastic job of publicizing the Simon Singh libel case and using it to promote the need for reforming the U.K.’s libel laws. I wonder if it’s time for a similar movement right here in the U.S. to prevent promoters of pseudoscience from using the law to intimidate and harass defenders of science-based medicine. Although Dr. Offit probably has the financial means to defend himself, there are a lot of writers and bloggers who do not, should someone with deep pockets decide to try to silence them with a frivolous lawsuit. We definitely have a problem here, and I predict it’s going to get worse as pseudoscience movements like the anti-vaccine movement rightly become more and more marginalized.

Posted in: Chiropractic, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

Leave a Comment (41) ↓

41 thoughts on “The anti-vaccine movement strikes back against Dr. Paul Offit

  1. windriven says:

    “According to Loe Fisher, the federal vaccine injury compensation program, established by the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, has paid more than $2 billion to families of children who have been injured or died as a result of vaccination.”


    If this is true, I for one would damned well like to know on what evidence $2,000,000,000 has been paid out in the last 23 years! That is $87 MILLION dollars a year! What are the criteria for a payout?

    I still have a scar on my shoulder from my smallpox vaccination. I think I see a Bermuda vacation in my future.

  2. windriven says:

    Here’s an interesting item to be found on the NVIC website”

    “Compensable claims, and even most claims found to be non-compensable, are awarded reimbursement for attorney’s fees and costs. ” “The Claims Process”, paragraph 3.

    Sounds like the ‘Plaintiff’s Bar Full Employment Act of 1986′ to me.

  3. tcw says:

    Thanks for this article. I didn’t realize the antivaxers were so sue happy. I liked your summation of the way science blogs work, and have noticed the same mechanism–sticking to science through insults and jibber-jabber. On this blog, I get exhausted reading the cranks, and my kudos to the authors for being patient. I could not exhibit the same patience.
    However, one small thing. You wrote, “Indeed, that’s what I like about skeptics and being a scientist. Nothing or no one is sacred.” With the risk of reading too much into the last sentence (it’s a figure of speech, I know), but many get attracted to woo because of the altie spin of “caring”, in essence a false charity. Science doesn’t need spin, but it does need humanity, and some sense of sacredness. Some scientists think “Science” is sacred, and I would disagree. Science is honest, truthful, and revealing, but not sacred. Contrary, people are sacred, and helping people is the point of science (Peter Singer and the like may disagree). When science loses humanity, it becomes dangerous. Woo attracts some followers because they see some danger in “establishment” science, and the charlatans know how to take advantage of that fear. I would think that the patience, and attempts at teaching, exhibited on this site towards prolific critics is a sign that someone thinks people are sacred enough to be listened to.

  4. Diane Jacobs says:

    @ tcw:
    Maybe if people stopped defending woo so hard, they would have time to see all the humanity there already is in science.

  5. Anne says:

    windriven, you can see the statistics on the amounts paid out under the VICP on the US Dept. of Health and Human Services website here. It does come to almost $2 billion for the life of the program.

    Of the total amount paid, $63 million went to attorneys who had successful petitions, and $43 million went to attorneys with unsuccessful petitions. In 2009 there was an unprecendented $9.5 million paid out to attorneys for unsuccessful claimants due to the huge awards in the Omnibus Autism Proceeding. Definitely a lawyers’ relief act.

    tcw, I think it’s true that certain antivaccinationists engage in what they consider advocacy through litigation. If Fisher’s lawsuit results in a judicial testing of the veracity of her statements, I would consider that a good thing.

  6. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    These people have fallen so far down their self-made rabbit hole of alternative reality, there quite literally is no amount of evidence that could change their minds.

    I think that the only deterrent one has is counter litigation. Dr. Offit would certainly have a good libel (and slander) case.

  7. windriven says:

    Thank you Anne for the very interesting link. But how outrageous! Attorneys earned almost as much for dismissed cases as for compensated cases. I wish someone paid me when I was wrong. I’d be rich beyond my wildest dreams!

  8. windriven says:


    “Science doesn’t need spin, but it does need humanity, and some sense of sacredness. ”

    Merriam-Webster offers as a first definition: “dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity,” but I don’t think that is what you mean here. If it is, please correct me. I think you are suggesting not so much that science needs humanity as that science sometimes needs to be explained in human terms.

    Science itself is coldly logical and is, excepting ontological games we might play, itself bereft of humanity. But that does not suggest that science is not or should not be a powerful tool in the service of humanity.

    I’m just not sure where ‘sacredness’ fits in.

  9. bcorden says:

    Thank you for an insightful post. I hate to say it, but we are losing some of the skirmishes. I had three mother’s refuse vaccines today (two refused H1N1; one refused rotovirus). With all three I spent time explaining why it was a good idea. They pretended to listen but then still refused. Somehow, Jenny is getting through to them.

  10. SkepticalLawyer says:

    I’m not convinced that the VICP is a “lawyers’ relief act.” (I am a lawyer, but I don’t practice any more–I work for a court–and I never was a plaintiff’s lawyer.) The whole purpose of the program is to increase the availability of vaccines by protecting the manufacturers from liability for injuries suffered by the few patients who are unlucky enough to have adverse reactions. The program is society’s way of compensating the injured without the risk that a manufacturer would go bankrupt from lawsuits filed by the few people probably (the legal standard) but tragically injured as a result of vaccines.

    Any government program is, to put it mildly, complicated. Lawyers are expensive, and most people can’t afford to hire one on an hourly basis to handle what is a very complicated claim, both legally and scientifically. In order to be fair to those probably injured by vaccines, there has to be enough compensation available to attorneys to make it worthwhile for them to take the cases. That compensation has to be high enough not only in terms of the amount of money paid for lawyers’ fees, but also in terms of the probability of getting paid (and reimbursed for expenses) for any one claim.

    Because of the difficulty in proving that a vaccine probably caused an injury, I think it makes sense to compensate attorneys out of the program for meritorious claims, even if those claims ultimately fail. Otherwise, those who are injured by vaccines will be unable to find qualified attorneys to represent them in making a claim to the program, and will thereby unfairly bear the costs of the benefits that are conferred upon society as a whole.

  11. windriven says:


    Jenny has her nonsense validated by media ‘stars.’ You’re just a scientist peddling good sense.

    No contest. You lose. Oprah says so. Maybe Dr. Phil can console you. Now hush up, it’s time for The View.

  12. squirrelelite says:

    I also thank you, Anne, for the interesting link.

    I noticed that on average each lawyer received about $2000 for each dismissed case and $3000 for each compensated case.

    So, if each lawyer can handle one such case with 2 weeks of full time work (~40 hrs per week), they would earn $52,000 a year for losing cases or $78,000 for winning cases. They certainly won’t starve, but they’ll hardly get rich.

    Still, the numbers do add up over a 20 year period.

    The big if is the 5000+ cases in the omnibus autism proceeding.

  13. autielady says:

    Absurd….it shows you how little actual evidence they have for the anti-vaccine theory that they have to sue. If they had great evidence, they could give that versus suing somebody for telling the truth.

    (by the way, I loved the article in Wired, Wired published my letter in support of it, I’m Brandy)

  14. windriven says:


    Sorry but I still don’t buy it. There is no disincentive to bring baseless cases if the attorney can marshall enough smoke and mirrors not to get thrown out the door.

    If you practiced law you know that after the first case like this that you handle, you can build a template, fill in the blanks, and file them pretty easily. Your legal secretary does most of the prep at minimal cost. If 3 out of 5 result in compensation – whether or not the client prevails – you’re in pretty good shape. It isn’t a living but it pays lots of the overhead.

    Any games where the rules are: heads you win, tails I lose isn’t the kind of game I want played with my tax dollars.

  15. windriven says:

    @Skeptical Lawyer

    With a tip o’ the hat to Dr. Gorski for his link above, this is exactly what I mean by building a template for cases like this:

    “Mr. Shoemaker was one of the first attorneys to specialize in prosecuting claims filed in the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). Since 1990, he has represented petitioners in 577 cases (282 closed and 295 pending).”

    Accepting squirrelelite’s math without having checked it, $3000 X 577 cases is a squoonch more than $1.7 million.

    Best give that legal secretary a raise ;-)

  16. Zoe237 says:

    Okay, this Fisher person is just ridiculous. She lies! The whole UK libel disaster sounds scary too.

    I agree with winddriven on sacredness in science. Almost as bad a word choice as “faith” in science.

    And my, Mr. Shoemaker does seem to be getting rich.

    Now this website Anne posted is really scary to some of us laypeople, particularly mothers. Perhaps someone can explain the errors in my thinking.

    Okay, so 37 deaths for rotavirus, 20 of which were compensated. This has been on the market for how long? Not too long. 295 compensations for MMR, most of which were deaths. 27 compensated deaths for varicella. And 154 for hep b, most of which were deaths. MMR has been on the market for the whole 20 years, but the others, much shorter amount of time.

    Now I have my three kids, living in a midwest rural middle class nuclear family, never moved, go to good schools, don’t go to daycare, have carefully screened babysitters, etc. What is the chance my child, before age 12 (when the first two can be more serious) is going to be seriously injured or die from chickenpox? From hep b? And from rotavirus? I know that recommendations have to made for everybody, but therein lies the problem in my assessments as a mother.

    Now I understand the courts are not fair arbitrators of the scientific process. The numbers could be far lower or far higher than this. I also understand that you need to look at the numerator and the denominator, and that 250 “confirmed” deaths out of millions and millions of shots given is a fantastic track record.

    There is also an emotional argument that comes into play for many parents, in that if your kid catches measles and dies, it feels like an accident. But if you vaccinate your two year old and the next day she dies of encephalopathy, you killed her. At least, that’s what it feels like, not that it’s logical or justified. IOW, not vaccinating is a passive risk, while vaccinating is taking on an active risk.

    I know the people here would like to think these moms are getting all of this information from Jenny McCarthy or are selfish idiots. But I have heard over and over again that vaccinating vs. not was the hardest decision they have ever had to make. These moms have agonized for YEARS. I have heard countless times that Johnny was vaxed today, but I hated every second of it and I’m scared to death of a reaction. I have never heard a mom say Johnny got vaxed today and I breathed a sigh of relief that he won’t get measles now.

    These are moms who don’t use chiros or homeopaths or do alternative anything. They just fall for the fear tactics, the “toxins,” the multiple shots given to their babies. Probably pill form vaccinations and combo shots will go a LONG way towards quieting these fears.

    Now I can understand delaying hep b, chickenpox, and rotavirus, even though I wouldn’t choose that (while I’m not sure the benefits are clear for individuals without epidemiological risk factors, the risks aren’t great either.) I don’t understand that risk/benefit analysis for dtap, mmr, polio, or hib, which clearly have great benefits for everybody.

    My other objection is problems like that of OPV, whole cell pertussis, and the 1998 version of rotavirus. My uninformed mother instinct also says to wait a couple of years after a drug or vaccine has been on the full market to get it for my own kids. Particularly for diseases not spread by casual contact.

  17. Kausik Datta says:

    I can completely understand the possible reasons why Dr. Offit and his lawyers chose to settle with Headley, rather than proceed on to a protracted lawsuit. He is a practicing physician and scientist. Frivolous, meritless lawsuits that nevertheless take up a huge chunk of his time may not be worth anything to him.

    However, by doing so, he seems to have dug his own grave. In a litigious country such as the US, a settlement is invariably perceived as a tacit admission of guilt or complicity, and this has now left him open to other lawsuits from any nutjob with outrageously pseudoscientific views.

    Dr. Offit forgot the old adage about a stitch in time. Any ground conceded to these wackaloons with deep pockets surely results always in a full scale invasion.

  18. windriven says:


    I tell mothers (and I am not a doctor, just when the subject arises in routine conversation) that there are two ways for their child to gain immunity: they can survive a potentially deadly bout of the disease or they can get a tiny needle prick.

  19. windriven says:

    @Kausik Datta

    Hear, hear!

    And Dr. Offit’s public credibility will now always be at issue, sad to say.

  20. Lawrence C. says:

    What an excellent article that really does expose a fundamental distinction in how the world is perceived between two very different groups of people. (And the consequences of those perceptions.)

    My only quibble is that if the word “medical” had been used more often in front of “science” it would have been a tighter and even more convincing article. Medical science is more than a match for those who have their “nvickers in a knot” and needn’t try to call upon any more allies. When I and others who have had my experience in non-medical science run across things like “…science inculcates in its adherents a culture of free, open, and vigorous debate” we just have to do our best to suppress our amusement. To be sure, that is the kind of education you usually get in science programs but once you’re let loose on the world, not all disciplines of science remain “open” in any real sense of that word. Some areas are as closed-minded, lethargic and unfriendly as an early medieval guild of ironsmiths shown a piece of shiny new steel from the orient.

    But other than thinking a finer brush would have better served the cause here, I think this is one of the best things written on the subject.

    Parenthetically, has anyone else noticed that the name of the loud trumpet of NVIC, Ms. Fisher, when put together with abbreviation NVIC is an anagram for: “A Cavalier Fibbers Horn”? How about “Chief Evil or Barbarians”? “On A Fresh Barbaric Evil”? Just doodles with words but it could point to some things.

  21. squirrelelite says:

    My apologies for doing the math in my head.

    I dug out my trusty TI and rechecked.

    The numbers are $28,525.90 for a compensated case and $19343.20 for a dismissed case.

    That averages to $24,000 a case if half your cases are compensated.

    So, Mr Shoemaker probably has received about $6.7 million for the 282 cases closed. That works out to $337,000 a year for 20 years.

    And, that means he handled over 6% of the total cases compensated or dismissed in those 20 years.

    With an average of 2-3 years to complete a case, I would guess he’s been a busy man. He should pay his secretary well.

    But, the bottom line on the VICP is that it is a necessary cost to encourage vaccination at levels high enough to achieve herd immunity and reduce the “passive” death toll from measles alone from about 6000 a year to only a few plus the unfortunate 3 or 4 a year deaths that have been claimed related to the Measles, MMR, Mumps and Rubella vaccinations.

    If those avoided measles deaths alone are the only benefit (and they are not), then the legal cost is about $14,000 for each life saved.

    Since the legal costs have averaged less than $100 million a year for 22 years, that averages to about $0.35 a year for each person in the U.S.

    I don’t begrudge that cost and only wish it were that easy to counter the anti-vaccine propaganda mill and get even higher participation.

  22. Lawrence C. says:

    tcw notes: When science loses humanity, it becomes dangerous.

    Well, no, that doesn’t sound right. “Science” is a word, mental construct and not a person so it can’t lose “humanity.” I think what you mean is that when individual scientists pursue something for the thrill of the chase, so to speak, without remembering their neighbors much less things like Bell’s Theorem/Law that demonstrate that we’re all connected, that all actions have consequences, then they can lead themselves and potentially many others on a destructive path.

    It’s not that science can lose its “humanity” but rather the human scientist that forgets science is only a part of life and not life itself.

    That being said, I think it worth taking your point one step further in the context of this article. When a medical scientist starts to forget his or her humanity, there are plenty of colleagues who can challenge them with all sorts of logic, repeatable examples and an appeal to a body of knowledge that actually has figured out some things. But when the wooer starts to forget that the scientists he is attacking are humans as well then who is going to pull them back? They stand on squishy ground and can make loud emotional appeals that sound great but actually are very destructive.

    It’s part of what Dr. Gorski is talking about, the real destructive power that nonsensical thinking can unleash, not only in the legal world but also with everyday folks who would just like to know if they should vaccinate their child against measles but are now very, very confused.

  23. Zoe237 says:

    “But, the bottom line on the VICP is that it is a necessary cost to encourage vaccination at levels high enough to achieve herd immunity and reduce the “passive” death toll from measles alone from about 6000 a year to only a few plus the unfortunate 3 or 4 a year deaths that have been claimed related to the Measles, MMR, Mumps and Rubella vaccinations.”

    I haven’t seen more recent numbers, but when I looked at the CDC several years ago, it was 0 deaths, 0 deaths, maybe 2 deaths. There were 100-200 cases each year, less than one in a million. 2003-2005. Compare that to your 3-4 deaths/year from the shot(no idea if accurate)… I can see why parents are skeptical, given their unfamiliarity with measles. Even 6000/year seems fairly low- compared to say 36,000 flu deaths.

    Now death isn’t the only measure of risk, whether for the vaccine or the disease. And these numbers don’t take into effect a little idea called herd immunity.

    I agree with the basic premise. The compensation fund is justified for those reasons. If you are going to continue to ask parents to sacrifice for the good of the herd (given very close to zero chance of catching polio or measles, e.g.), you better run a flawless PR campaign and be serious about compensation for the rare reactions. It does slightly bother me that taxpayer dollars go to lawyers, instead of drug company dollars going to families, but I understand the reasoning.

    Just speculating here, but I’m guessing there will be a few years, perhaps 1-2 decades, before a disease is eradicated from the globe by vaccination, in which in developed countries the rate of serious rare vaccine reactions slightly outpaces actual disease numbers. That is, if people are compliant. And these are tiny numbers. It would be interesting to look at smallpox to find out the path of eradication.

    However, this is unlikely to be the case now- measles is unlikely to be eradicated in the near future and I do believe we will see a resurgence. Whether anti-vaccination sentiments in Europe, Japan, and here are more to blame than the failure to effectively vaccinate third world populations, I don’t know.

    I should note that I made a mistake in the post above- switching the death and injury columns in the first link, and not catching it in my sleep deprived haze until after I posted. Sorry!

  24. squirrelelite says:


    Thanks for a good response.

    I got the 3 or 4 deaths a year number from Anne’s link.

    The table for claims made and either compensated or rejected shows 1019 total death related claims. 76 of those are for Measles, MMR, or Rubella.

    So, that averages to about 3 or 4 vaccine-related death claims a year for just the measles related vaccines over the 22+ year history of the VICP. It is also a little under 50 death claims a year for ALL vaccines combined.

    I know there was a very good discussion of that 6000 a year number in a blog I read over vacation, but I couldn’t find it quickly and have to get ready for work.

    More work for later!

    Dr Crislip’s December post on Measles (
    has a good discussion of British Measles deaths and U.S. deaths from H1N1, but I didn’t see the 6000 number there. It’s worth a reread, anyway.

    And, it’s always good to check the ongoing numbers for H1N1 and other flu varieties. The real flu season is just starting!

    Here is the link for that:
    It always seems that the lawyers get too big a piece of the pie, but in this case it seems that the numbers are reasonable for the results achieved.

    I hope that Dr. Offit’s costs are also reasonable and the results achieved are even better!

  25. Calli Arcale says:


    It does slightly bother me that taxpayer dollars go to lawyers, instead of drug company dollars going to families, but I understand the reasoning.

    I understand the NVIC is funded by a tariff tacked on to each vaccination. So it’s a sort of a tax, but the cost is shared between vaccine manufacturer and whoever buys the vaccine (whether an individual, a medical insurance company, a corporation looking to vaccinate its staff, or a taxpayer-funded organization such as county public health programs). It’s not taken out of the national treasury.

  26. Scott says:

    So it’s a sort of a tax, but the cost is shared between vaccine manufacturer and whoever buys the vaccine

    More realistically, it’s all paid by whoever buys the vaccine.

  27. Matt says:

    I understand the NVIC is funded by a tariff tacked on to each vaccination

    This is not correct. The “National” vaccine information center (NVIC) has nothing to do with anything in the government.

    It is an excellent case of confusing the public with a name. NVIC is just a group of people giving out the bits and pieces of information that they need to create their story.

    The 75c tax on vaccines funds the NVICP (National Vaccine Injury Compensation Fund)

    That is actually “National”.

  28. Oedipa says:

    Has anyone else seen the JB Handley article on Age of Autism where he urges parents to stand up against pediatricians? (Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism, Pediatricians Do). He has gone from blaming vaccines to blaming pediatricians. I typically find this person scary and repugnant, but this seemed even more over the top than usual. People are leaving comments ranging from thanking god for JB Handley to “Hang Em High” referring to pediatricians. I used to think this man was a ridiculous fear-monger, but I am starting to think that he has a serious mental illness of the Jim Jones variety.

  29. BillyJoe says:

    It sounds like JB Handley has found a scapegoat for his son’s autism.

  30. David Gorski says:

    Oh, believe me, I’ve noticed JB’s despicable attack on pediatricians. My guess is that, realizing he’s got nothing from a scientific standpoint to show that the CDC schedule is dangerous or causes autism, JB has now decided that he might get more traction blaming pediatricians for administering “too many” vaccines at once. His rhetoric is veering uncomfortably close to abortion clinic rhetoric:

    Now, you can do the same thing. Let every parent you know understand the mistakes made by your Pediatrician that led to your child’s autism. Write your story down, make copies, and hand it out to parents walking in and out of the Pediatrician’s office (and film it so when you get kicked off their property you can put it up on YouTube!). Save parents from the same fate that befell you.

    And, remember, these Pediatricians and their recklessness and ignorance are doing more than causing autism. The food allergies, ADHD, and other behavioral and learning disabilities running rampant through your town and school all start with that same pediatrician who messed up your kid.

    At the same time, reward the great, open-minded doctors. Make sure every parent knows how great they are and encourage every one of them to quit the bad practice and join the good one. Become the loudest cheerleader for the pediatrician who really cares about our kids and understands. Contribute to helping the great Pediatricians have a booming practice.

    Parents, the AAP claims they have 60,000 Pediatricians who belong to their organization. It is these 60,000 people who can stop the autism epidemic, but they won’t do so unless we ramp up our pressure on them dramatically.

    Please join me in putting bad pediatricians out of business today.

    What’s going to be the next step if harassing parents bringing their children to pediatric clinics doesn’t work? JB himself may not advocate ramping things up, but the comments after the post show that his followers likely will. After all, these are the ones who (or so they mistakenly believe) caused their children to be autistic!

  31. BillyJoe says:

    David, I had the same thought whilst I was reading JB Handley’s piece, but I was too afraid to say so on his site in case it somehow contributed to the escalation (I’m pretty sure my comments would have been either censored or used by him to further his cause).

    I’m not sure of the best way to handle this guy. He’s so irrational and so emotional. He has an autistic son and he has found a scapegoat in the paediatricians who administer the vaccines. It’s hard to know where to start to counteract his nonsense and his influence without ending up as fodder for his publicitiy machine.

    (SIDE NOTE: In Australia, very few vaccines are administered by paediatricians. Most are administered by nurses and GPs either at local community health centres or GP practices – health care is much cheaper (with better results) than in the USA!)

  32. libby says:


    I’m having a lot of trouble finding the following information:

    Out of all the deaths in the US from H1N1, how many were vaccinated and how many not.

    This information would be absolute proof that the H1N1 vaccine works, and the debate would be over.

    Does anyone know where this information would be? I was given the CDC site, but there is nothing there.


  33. Chris says:

    Look at the percentage who died before the vaccine was available. Why is it so difficult a concept that most of the people who died did so before the vaccine was available?

    You can also try

  34. libby says:


    The solid hard evidence that confirms the effectiveness of the vaccine is this: of those who died from the H1N1 virus, We’re not evaluating trends, we’re not making a “good guess”, we’re not having to deal with the natural fluctuations of a disease as it moves through a population, nor the fact that a good percentage of people didn’t get the vaccine. It’s pure numbers.

    Furthermore this evidence is very easy to attain, since medical experts would have vaccinations records of all those how died. Easy info at our fingertips, except for one thing……I can’t find it.

    Are you not curious yourself?

  35. libby says:

    OK the post I entered is missing a phrase (not my error), so it doesn’t make sense.

    second line add the unbracketed part: (Of those who died from the H1N1 virus,) how many were vaccinated? (We’re not………)

  36. Oedipa says:

    Libby –

    “Furthermore this evidence is very easy to attain, since medical experts would have vaccinations records of all those how died. Easy info at our fingertips, except for one thing……I can’t find it.”

    I got a seasonal flu shot this year, as every year. There is no record of it except for the release I signed at the drugstore. Unless I told my doctor about it, no one would ever have record that I got it. And I have not been asked about it at any subsequent doctor appt. Is the H1N1 different?

    I think one of the reasons you can’t find it is that we are still allowed a degree of privacy in our medical histories.

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