Antivaccine nonsense Autism Bioethics Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Pseudoscience Quackery Skepticism/critical thinking

Antivaccination crankery on the CBS News website

While I’m back on the topic of vaccines and autism after a long hiatus, thanks to the Atuism Omnibus, don’t know how I missed this article by Sharyl Attkisson, entitled Autism: Why the Debate Rages. I can’t recall the last time I saw so many logical fallacies and doggerel packed into an article on an ostensibly “mainstream news” site. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen such antivax idiocy on a mainstream news site ever, but it’s possible that I blocked it out of my mind. I don’t have time to do a thorough fisking, but I will hit the main points. Here are the “reasons” that Attkisson lists as being responsible for the “debate” continuing. It’s sheer crank thinking and conspiracy mongering.

Attkisson gets things rolling with the old tried-and-true “science has been wrong before” gambit (also here) with these sterling examples:

  • It’s the same group that originally thought it was safe to use x-ray machines in shoe stores, gave pregnant women Thalidomide for morning sickness and once allowed mercury in medicines. They assured us Vioxx and Duract were safe painkillers, prescribed Rezulin for diabetics and then denied any of them were responsible for patient deaths. If we never questioned that group, we might not have discovered that Fen-phen and the dietary supplement Ephedra are not safe weight loss products, that antidepressants in kids can lead to suicidality and Viagra can cause blindness. The list goes on.
  • When it comes to vaccines, the same group failed to predict that the 1990’s rotavirus (diarrhea) vaccine would have to be pulled from the market after infant deaths. They encouraged use of the oral polio vaccine (eventually discontinued after it gave too many children polio). And they allowed the use of a mercury neurotoxin preservative in childhood vaccines, only to admit later that they hadn’t thought to calculate the cumulative amount kids were getting as more and more vaccines were added to the childhood immunization schedule.

Classic crankery. I tip my hat to her! Of course, the observation that science has on occasion made mistakes does not demonstrate that the consensus that thimerosal (or vaccines in general) does not cause autism is incorrect. You need some evidence to support an assertion that it is wrong, not anecdotes about other times that science has been wrong.. There are many ways of being wrong; pointing out the mistakes of science does not bolster an “unconventional” viewpoint, although it is a red flag that we’re probably dealing with a crank. Also, science is an inherently self-correcting enterprise. The “mistakes” of science, by and large, were discovered and corrected by scientists, not cranks like Attkisson.

Next, she makes the claim that scientists take an “all-or-nothing” approach to vaccines because they are afraid that if one vaccine is found to be unsafe then it would jeopardize parents’ faith in all vaccinations. Alone of all the crankery Ms. Attkisson lays out, this is the only assertion that has a grain of truth to it. Of course, she neglects to point out that it is the hysterical antivaccination loons like herself who stoke this hysteria any time safety issues about vaccines are brought to light. Scientists know this, and tend to react in a bit of an oversensitive manner at times. If there weren’t such a rabid antivaccination contingent, it’s possible that scientists wouldn’t feel as though their backs are against the wall and they have to defend every vaccine so vociferously.

Of course, no crankery would be complete without the classic pharma shill gambit, wherein critics of antivaccination pseudoscience are painted as hopelessly in the thrall of the evil big pharma, and Attkisson does not disappoint here either:

  • There’s so much overlap among pharmaceutical companies, government scientists and advisors that the information they provide at least has the appearance of a conflict of interest. Government scientists and advisors often do not mention their connections to the vaccine industry when they provide opinions on the vaccine/autism/ADD issue.
  • University and government researchers and advisors often do research for vaccine companies, help develop vaccines (even profit from them), and/or are paid to consult for them. Often, these researchers do not disclose their industry ties when they publicly dispel the notion of a link between autism or ADD and vaccines.
  • Non-profits that promote vaccinations have ties to vaccine makers that they often do not disclose when giving their opinions on vaccine safety. One example is “Every Child By Two.” This group contacted CBS News several years ago in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent one of our stories about the vaccine safety from airing. In forms filed for the IRS, the non-profit lists an official from vaccine maker Wyeth Pharmaceuticals as its Treasurer. It lists vaccine maker Chiron as a paid client.

Well done! Beautiful crankery! I’m all for complete transparency when it comes to researchers being required to disclose any potential conflicts of interest, but the above quotes represent nothing more than a classic “poisoning the well” fallacy. If you’re going to address the evidence, address the evidence. Conflicts of interest correctly lead me to be more skeptical of the data, but in the end it’s the experimental design and the data that have to stand, regardless of the investigator. Also, if we’re going to play this game, I could point out that many of the “expert” witnesses used in vaccine lawsuits have their own severe conflicts of interest. (Mark and David Geier or Andrew Wakefield, anyone?) Odd that Attkisson doesn’t see fit to mention them. As for her attack on the Verstraeten study, that’s yet another myth of Simpsonwood propagated in the conspiracy literature. IT’s not at all uncommon for early study results to show an apparent correlation between a clinical condition like autism and some factor and to have that correlation disappear as more data comes in and inclusion and exclusion criteria are tightened up. What’s funnier is that Mark Geier actually may have plagiarized part of the Verstraeten study.

Of course, if you look further at Attkisson’s article, you can find other doggerel, including “science doesn’t know everything” (also here), swallowing whole the concept of an “autism epidemic,” even though the real reason for the greatly increased number of autism diagnoses is not an “epidemic” but rather a broadening of diagnostic criteria and increased surveillance to look for signs of autism in young children. There’s even a bit of Galileo gambit thrown in there for good measure, when she points to the “scientists” who think a link is credible, even though those scientists go very much against the consensus, although my favorite is when she writes in a serious, non-ironic way, “A lengthy Congressional investigation also concluded that the autism epidemic is likely linked to vaccinations.”

Because Congress is so good at determining what is and is not good science.

All in all, there’s so much crankery, distortion, and misinformation in Ms. Attkisson’s article that it depresses me to see it on the CBS News website. CBS News in general and Katie Couric in particular (the article appears under Couric & Co.) should be ashamed for promoting the most tired canards from the antivaccination movement.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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