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Anti-vaccine activists try out a new metaphor

If there’s one thing that the loons over at the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism might actually be somewhat good at, it’s leaping on a news story and trying to liken it to their unshakable pseudoscientific belief that vaccines cause autism. Unfortunately for them (and fortunately for our our amusement), the merry band of anti-vaccine activists over there is so utterly, irredeemably bad at constructing a coherent and logical metaphor that whenever they try the result comes out something like these two posts:

That’s right. They’re trying to compare the “autism epidemic” (due to vaccines, of course) to the massive BP oil spill that’s currently fouling the Gulf of Mexico with millions of gallons of crude that’s threatening the Gulf Coast. First, let’s look at what an old anti-vaccine stalwart, Dan Olmsted, has to say about it. As an aside, note that I do give Dan some props for trying to appropriate the silly “Drill, baby, drill!” slogan thought up during the 2008, but other than that, his post is pure brain dead stretching akin to Stretch Armstrong reaching out his rubbery arms to try to pull together two things that aren’t related. Get a load of Olmsted’s rhetoric in some quotes:

Have the American people finally had it with “experts” telling them that things will be just fine? That oil wells won’t turn into gushers in the Gulf, that cars won’t suddenly become speeding bullets, that a deregulated Wall Street will never rob us blind — and that autism is a mysterious genetic disorder we’ll get to the bottom of some day in the comfortably far-off future?

Ah, the joy of anti-intellectualism! If there’s one thing that is a major driver of the anti-vaccine movement, it’s the arrogance of ignorance. We don’t need no steekin’ experts! Yes, experts sometimes make mistakes, sometimes spectacular mistakes, but evidence suggests that it wasn’t the experts who were at fault for the spill but rather the bean counters and a corporate culture that valued profits over safety. The evidence is pretty clear that the engineers at BP, the guys who knew what they were doing, were alarmed at the recklessness of what was being asked of them by their bosses, most of whom were businessmen, not oil men or engineers. The engineers raised the alarm many times, and it was ignored. True, the engineers were not without blame. After all, they did ultimately implement management’s directives, but it was management who ignored the experts. This is clearly a case where the company brass’ listening to the real experts might well have avoided the ongoing environmental catastrophe in the Gulf.

None of this stops Olmstead from making his analogy to the vaccine program explicit:

It’s just that kind of expertise that reassures us the out-of-control U.S. vaccination program is, well, under control, that vaccines and mercury have been disproven as a cause of autism, that’s it’s time to move on. The problem is that neither big government nor big business (nor big media) has any incentive to get to the truth, which leaves only the people caught in the middle – namely, the American public.

The problem is that neither Dan Olmsted nor the rest of the anti-vaccine movement has no incentive to abandon the scientifically discredited notion that vaccines cause autism.

Here’s my favorite part:

“Drill, baby, drill!” didn’t work out so well, even though Obama said he had been “assured” everything would be fine. “Vaccinate, baby, vaccinate!” – and shut up about the toxic damage washing up in a generation of children — is about to meet a similar fate. You can feel it in your bones.

The ironic thing is that this is clearly a swipe at Sarah Palin. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good swipe at Sarah Palin as much as the next guy. However, for all of Sarah Palin’s idiocy, if there was one good thing about her it was that she did seem to have some empathy for parents of special needs children.

And Olmsted threw her under the bus.

As for the “toxic damage” allegedly caused by vaccines, maybe Olmsted can “feel it in his bones,” but he has no evidence, no science, no anything other than his belief that it has to be the vaccines that done it–all coupled with his distrust of anyone with expertise, an attitude mirrored by a contributor to AoA whom I’ve never encountered before by the name of Ralph Toddre, who fantasizes about President Obama making a speech about the “autism epidemic” like the one he just made about the BP oil spill:

Already, Autism is the worst neuro-biological disaster America has ever faced. And unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, it’s not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days. The damage caused by this epidemic, is one we will be fighting for years and years.

But make no mistake: We will fight this with everything we’ve got, for as long as it takes. We will make the pharmaceuticals pay for the damages their companies have caused. And we will do whatever’s necessary to help our citizens recover from this tragedy that we have caused.

Because vaccines are just like an oil spill and autism is just like a devastated Gulf Coast shoreline. But what does Toddre want to see done? This:

We now have nearly 30,000 personnel who are working across the country to remove vaccinations and medicines that contain toxins. But we have to recognize that, despite our best efforts, Autism has caused devastating damage to our citizens. And sadly, no matter how effective our response is, there will be more Autism and more damage before this siege is done.

That is why the second thing we’re focused on is the recovery of our children and citizens affected by this disease. I’ve talked to advocates and families. The sadness and anger that they feel is not just about the loss of their child development and the financial devastation they have incurred; it’s about a wrenching anxiety that an entire generation may be lost.

I refuse to let that happen. Tomorrow I meet with the Chairmen and CEO’s of the pharmaceutical companies to inform them that they are to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the families and individuals who have been harmed as a result of their company’s recklessness.

Of course, for compensation to be awarded, justice would demand that there should be some–oh, you know–evidence that what a company has done has actually caused harm. Fortunately, the vast majority of the “harm” caused to children by vaccine manufacturers exists primarily in the fantasies of men like Ralph Toddre and the band of anti-vaccine propagandists at Age of Autism and similar cliques of reality-challenged loons. I am impressed by Toddre’s grandiosity, though. He really believes that somehow vaccine companies have caused an “epidemic of autism that requires 30,000 health care workers and billions of dollars to “clean” vaccines that don’t need cleaning because there is no evidence that they cause autism in the first place.

My guess is that AoA is running this particular analogy up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes. All it deserves is ridicule.

ADDENDUM: AoA commenter Rob Smith provides a perfect example of seeing the fallacy of Dan’s analogy but for all the wrong reasons. Here’s an example:

Regarding the “Drill Baby, Drill” analogy, it is a failure on so many levels as to be riduculous. First, if “Drill Baby, Drill” where the policy of the US, we wouldn’t be drilling 50 miles off shore and in 5000 ft of water. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of places on land and in shallow water that oil could be explored for at much lower cost and risk, and where, if something did go wrong, the clean up and repair would be much easier. There is just no parallel with the current regime of oil exploration in the US and the “vaccinate early and often” policy of the CDC. Second, we actually need oil. I need oil to make my son’s annual 1200 mile trip to Thoughtful House so that they can supervise his care. I need oil to make the 150 mile round trip to our DAN doctor for my son’s infusions every other week. I need oil for the IV bags, tubing, and syringes we use to administer is treatments. I also need oil to power the delivery trucks that bring his specially compounded vitamins, etc. On the other hand, I don’t think we need the majority of the vaccines on the CDC schedule. There is certainly no compelling reason to give Hep-B, for example, to every newborn before they leave the hospital.

Yep, we have to “drill, baby, drill” to supply the oil necessary for Mr. Smith to take his child to Thoughtful House to subject him to autism “biomed” quackery but we don’t need no steeenkin’ vaccines.

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]

40 replies on “Anti-vaccine activists try out a new metaphor”

@ Clayton:
Sorry but that’s too easy to predict. The anti-vaxers will say something like…..”Well sure there may be a genetic predisposition that varies from region to region, but it’s the vaccine that’s the trigger!”.

[emulating ant-vaxer “logic”]
We all know that vaccines have been tested for an association with autism and have failed to show one so far. Also, we know that none of the other things that could possibly be a hypothetical trigger have been tested for an association with autism at all.

Therefore it must be the one thing that was tested and not shown to have an association, and can’t possibly be one of the many things that have never been tested.
[/emulating ant-vaxer “logic”]

Just wait and see.

“You can feel it in your bones.”
Or maybe Olmsted feels a boner.

A much better parody could be made out of AoA’s relationship with Lee Silsby, or the sponsorship of GR/ Autism One by the outright killers at Apothecure:

Why am I not surprised? If there’s one thing that anti-vaxers, in my experience, just don’t get, it’s analogies. They don’t understand them; they can’t formulate them. Hmmm…perhaps there’s a psych study in this. Any grad students looking for a thesis topic?

If I had the energy, I’d do the same with the speech, except that I would replace oil with homeopathy and oil companies with Big Placebo. Anyone want to tackle it? If not, I’ll do it over the weekend, just for fun.

You should do the same with that speech but instead of vaccines target it at anti-vax groups and the threat they pose :p

@ Todd W.:using analogies requires abstraction. Some concepts which might be useful to consider: executive function(and disorders involving it) and formal operational thought.

That was a suggestion for Rene. I wouldn’t presume to direct the activities of the shiny box of blinking lights 😛

(In Darth Vader voice) Yes, Master.

I’d rather not mess with them just yet. Last time was stressful enough. (Long story.) Homeopaths, on the other hand, they’re kitty cats.

Interestingly enough,today Mike Adams predicts that BP’s and BigPharma’s “corporate atrocities against nature” will destroy civilization and appears to be to calling for an armed revolt against them.You see, Mikey and the other woo-slingers are *purely* not-for-profit, “informational services”:not-corporate-in-any-sense-of-the-word, selling supplments and services for the benefit of humanity, out of the goodness of their hearts.


You only think you’re kidding.

Vaccines (because they work so well) are one of the primary factors in global, and especially First World, overpopulation. That overpopulation is what drives the frantic search for new fossil fuel sources to exploit, and that frantic search is what causes ecological catastrophes like Deepwater.

I oppose the use of vaccines not because they’re ‘toxic’. I oppose them because epidemics and high child mortality rates are Nature’s way of keeping the human population within reasonable bounds.

@Clayton–I’m really curious to see that study in detail. Given that they only looked at a little over 400 children I think they’d be hard-pressed to have the power in that study to make the claims they’re making.

Why do antivaxers need to reference the BP oil spill? Have they gotten tired of that oldie but goodie, the Tuskegee Experiment (where syphilis researchers decades ago left a population of black males with syphilis untreated to study effects of the disease). Conspiracy theorists in general love the Tuskegee Experiment, pointing to it every time someone is skeptical of their latest weird conspiracy (citing Tuskegee or the other big favorite, the CIA’s MK Ultra program) as definitive evidence that Big Government (or in this case Big Research/Big Pharma) is capable of anything.

Bizarrely, I’ve seen people mistakenly refer to the Tuskegee Airmen when trying to justify conspiracy theories.

It all fits, though. You just gotta connect the dots. 🙂

@Dangerous Bacon:

Antivaxers no longer use the Tuskegee Experiment as an example of Big Gov Conspiracy because they now use it as their inspiration for the prospective Vaccine vs. Placebo Study that they’re always proposing. Wouldn’t want to appear hypocritical now, would they?

Your disgusting condenscending attitude and inaccurate characterization of these pro-vaccine education professionals, helps to discredit most of what you are trying to say.

Why do antivaxers need to reference the BP oil spill?

When you are far enough gone, everything is proof of your position. Whether that position is scientific, economic, political, sociological; it doesn’t matter.

Clayton @ 2: If they see it at all, they may conclude that Evil Big Pharma is shipping lower-quality vaccines to the impoverished Caribbean than to the mostly-white countries in Europe.

With what’s been coming out about how BP’s own engineers were raising red flags about company practices before the blowout, the analogy that comes to my mind is the space shuttle Challenger disaster.

Engineers who had genuine expertise about the systems they had designed made clear their misgivings about O-ring performance in low temperatures, but were overruled by managers who gave greater priority to fulfilling a political objective- putting a teacher in space on time for President Reagan.

If there’s a lesson to be drawn from either cock-up, it’s that it’s the management types who are the danger, not the people who actually know what they’re talking about.

What I am finding interesting is that as much as parts of the anti-vax (and the alt-med community in general) hate “experts” they still desperately want to be told what to do. It’s not “I won’t see any doctor!” it’s “I don’t like my regular doctor so I will let my chiropractor tell me what to do.” ” I won’t vaccinate my kid, but I will insist on antibiotics, and then say it was the expensive supplements.”

Is there a name for this love/hate relationship with experts or authority?

Note, the Augie above is not the Little gender challenged Augie who has been avoiding answering questions and getting tangled up in logical fallacies. This concern troll is a raw milk enthusiast who probably thinks Brucellosis is a fancy name for Bruce.

People from the Caribbean who move to England suffer higher rates of autism than europeans moving to england.

Now that I read the BCC story, they found this even after correcting for ethnicity. So the story isn’t really about a genetic basis for autism. It seems to say that “if you parents immigrate your autism rates go up.”

There is a high rate of autism among Somalis who immigrate to Minnesota. One theory is that the lack of vitamin D may affect autism. Change in climate and lifestyle means less exposure to sunshine.

The immigration data tends to suggest that vaccines prevent autism: Children from Somalia and Jamaica probably received fewer vaccines in infancy than children from England or Minnesota. Even if the ethnically Somali or Jamaican children were born in the US or UK, their parents may face more barriers to health care and thus are likely less well vaccinated than their Ureinwohner* peers. If they have higher rates of autism, then there may be at least a correlation between autism and not being vaccinated. Perhaps due to the immune stimulation anti-vaxers keep going on about, but by “natural” pathogens, not vaccines?

Of course, there’s a simpler explanation: Who gets highest priority for immigration to the US? Educated people, especially in tech fields. What fields attract people with Asperger’s syndrome? Tech fields. Maybe it’s just genetics in action.

*Sorry: utter fail at finding an equivalent word in English. I mean person whose ancestors have been living in a given place for a long period of time. In this case, the “non-immigrants” to whom the immigrants are being compared.

Random gossip heard at ASCO: It seems that the next revision of the DSM is likely to narrow the definition of autism significantly, thus likely lowering the rate of autism. What will the anti-vaxers make of that?

@31 “What will the anti-vaxers make of that? ”

Proof that the elimination of ‘mercury’ in vaccines lowered the rate of autism.

“If they see it at all, they may conclude that Evil Big Pharma is shipping lower-quality vaccines to the impoverished Caribbean than to the mostly-white countries in Europe.”

Unfortunately, they would probably be factually correct. But, it’s long been my observation that Euro-American anti-vaccine activists mostly ignore vaccination in the developing world, even when complaints from that quarter (ex. about HIV/AIDS following vaccination) have elements of plausibility. I consider this the best piece of evidence for my theory that vaccine scares generally can’t cross cultural lines.

It struck me that AoA didn’t have anything for that day and Olmsted put out a piece quick that didn’t require research.

It’s a pretty content-free piece.

“and that autism is a mysterious genetic disorder we’ll get to the bottom of some day in the comfortably far-off future?”

Ah, so AoA fixed it already! Excellent.

RJ @ #32:

Proof that the elimination of ‘mercury’ in vaccines lowered the rate of autism.

True, but don’t forget that they’ll probably also declare it “proof” that reducing vaccination rates will also reduce autism.

That is why I think that it’s important to make a public declaration about what the anti-vaxers will probably say before the “reduction” in autism rates. So that we can bring it up later that we predicted that particular claim before it came to pass.

The odds that vaccines cause autism are on the same order as those of Superman, Dr Doom and Mr Terrific all showing up to play Chess round robin against Batman, Jesus and Kali.


“That is why I think that it’s important to make a public declaration about what the anti-vaxers will probably say before the “reduction” in autism rates. So that we can bring it up later that we predicted that particular claim before it came to pass.”

That would require using facts. They don’t like facts much.

Of course they don’t (at least not any that can’t be spun to make it look like it supports their position), the point is simply to make a record of predictions of what they will eventually say so that it can be brought up later to help refute their position.

Granted it won’t stop the true anti-vaxers, but it will be useful later to help show those that are “on the fence”.

Have the American people finally had it with “experts” telling them that things will be just fine? That oil wells won’t turn into gushers in the Gulf, that cars won’t suddenly become speeding bullets, that a deregulated Wall Street will never rob us blind — and that autism is a mysterious genetic disorder we’ll get to the bottom of some day in the comfortably far-off future?

“Experts are often wrong, therefore, non-experts must often be right.”


“Terrel Owens often drops passes, therefore, I would make an excellent NFL receiver.” Boo-yah!

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