I have an annoying propensity to keep repeating how, in narratives of antivax conspiracy theories, everything old is new again. I was reminded of this again when I encountered a particularly stupid invocation of the old antivax claim that vaccines cause sudden infant death syndrome invoked by tech bro turned antivaxxer Steve Kirsch, as epitomized by two posts on his Substack:
- Two verifiable anecdotes are the mathematical proof that vaccines cause SIDS and autism
- New police testimony + peer-reviewed literature both show vaccines ARE causing SIDS: No doubt about it!
Unfortunately, it’s true that there is nothing new under the sun as far as antivax narratives go Indeed, I spent the time during the lead-up to the introduction of mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines in December 2020 and then perhaps a year afterward documenting how the narratives weaponized against COVID-19 vaccines by antivaxxers were nothing more than the same ol’, same ol’. Basically, very old antivax tropes were rapidly repurposed to be wielded against the new COVID-19 vaccines, examples including:
- Vaccines are harmful or even deadly (or even part of a “depopulation agenda“), supported by evidence as bad as a resurrected and repackaged an awful 12-year-old study that had falsely claimed that nations with more vaccines on their childhood schedule have higher infant mortality rates. (Or they even cause SIDS.)
- Vaccines “permanently alter your DNA.”
- Vaccines cause cancer. (Not just cancer, but “turbo cancer.”)
- “Natural immunity” is better. (It isn’t.)
- The vaccines don’t work.
- The virus isn’t deadly/is an artifact of testing/is misdiagnosed.
- The virus was made in a lab or leaked by a lab.
- Vaccines select for deadly variants, a claim first “pioneered” by Andrew Wakefield himself about the MMR and measles.
- Vaccines contain “fetal tissue” or “fetal DNA.”
- Vaccines cause Alzheimer’s disease or prion disease.
- Vaccines are full of horrible “toxins” (a.k.a. what I’ve been calling the “toxins gambit” since at least 2009).
- Vaccines sterilize our womenfolk.
You get the idea.
By 2022, I was documenting how “new school” antivaxxers, who had become anti-COVID-19 vaccine over the past year or so, were fast becoming just “antivax” as they embraced more general antivax conspiracy theories to the point where they were rapidly becoming indistinguishable from what I used to call “old school” antivaxxers, complete with going all-in on the main false claim of the antivaccine movement since the 1990s, that vaccines cause autism. During this stage, “new school” antivaxxers started consorting with “old school” antivaxxers like Andrew Wakefield and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and, as a result, imbibing their more general hostility to all vaccines. Because they were unaware that there is nothing new under the sun in antivax narratives and conspiracy theories, they were, unsurprisingly, attracted to the older, more general versions of the false and pseudoscientific claims that had been made against COVID-19 vaccines. It’s as though light bulbs started going off in the brains of new school “I’m just anti-COVID-19 vaccine” antivaxxers, leading them to proclaim, “Gee, all vaccines do the same horrible things that COVID-19 vaccines do! All vaccines must do more harm than good, not just COVID-19 vaccines!” And thus merged the new school and old school to become just one big happy antivax family again.
Now, after millions of deaths worldwide and nearly three and a half years after the WHO officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, we’ve reached a new stage: “New school” antivaxxers” trying to outdo “old school” antivaxxers in peak stupidity, which brings me back to Steve Kirsch, who excels at rediscovering hoary old antivax tropes, marveling over them as though they were new and he was the first to discover them, and then selling them to his credulous readers with more verve and enthusiasm than any 19th century snake oil salesman could muster.
As you might recall, Steve Kirsch is wealthy, wealthy tech bro turned antivax conspiracy theorist in the age of COVID-19. Known before the pandemic for being one of the independent inventors of the optical mouse back in the 1980s and having founded Infoseek in the 1990s. Early in the pandemic Kirsch founded the COVID-19 Early Treatment Fund (CETF) in order to fund research into off-label treatments for COVID-19 using existing drugs already having FDA approval for other diseases. He donated $1 million himself and solicited donations from others. So far, not so bad, right? It actually wasn’t a bad idea. The problem, however, is that Kirsch didn’t seem to understand how clinical research works and what the failure rate is for testing repurposed drugs for pretty much anything, which made it unsurprising that things started going horribly wrong with Kirsch descending into COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories, in the process becoming what the MIT Technology Review once called a “misinformation superspreader.”
Basically, failure of research by scientists funded by CETF to validate ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as magic bullets to treatment seemed to break Kirsch, who rapidly descended into conspiracy theories about these repurposed drugs. Then, predictably, when the new mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines rolled out, followed by vaccine mandates in a variety of situations, it didn’t take long at all for Kirsch to turn rabidly anti-COVID-19 vaccine. Now, he’s trying to “prove” that vaccines—not just COVID-19 vaccines—kill babies, because of course he is. Let’s look at his rationale (such as it is):
They are lying to you.
Most of the SIDS cases (likely 75% or more) are due to the childhood vaccines. Vaccines are the main cause of autism as well, likely 75% or more.
In fact, pediatric clinics that avoid vaccines have zero, or near-zero, rates of SIDS and autism.
In this article, I’m going to discuss how just two black swans can destroy the medical consensus by proving that the medical community couldn’t have gotten it right on their claims that vaccines don’t cause autism or SIDS:
- A police officer who investigated 300 SIDS cases over a 7 year period (about 3 to 4 cases per month), observed that 75% of the cases happened within 48 hours after a vaccine.
- A couple who got their triplets (not identical) vaccinated all developed autism within hours after the shot (and each other).
These anecdotes happened, and they are “statistically impossible” to have happened by chance (at least not in our lifetime).
I don’t believe it is possible to attack this data or explain it away.
Wanna bet, Mr. Kirsch? Oh wait. Scratch that. He does, but only in the most rigged way possible and then dodging even that sort of bet even though he was the one making the bet and then doxxing and suing anyone who calls him out for his dishonest behavior. Never mind.
Instead, let’s look at his “data.” I’m not going to discuss his claims that vaccines cause autism, at least not here, because, as is the case of nearly all new school antivaxxers, he merely regurgitates the same old misinformation, pseudoscience, bad science, and cherry picked science that antivaxxers have been citing for decades. I will, however, note that I did discuss the specific case that he mentions above, and I did it five years ago. One case does not trump epidemiological evidence, nor is it “statistically impossible,” particularly when the story isn’t clear and a combination of selective memory and confirmation bias could easily explain it.
Instead, let’s get to the evidence that Kirsch finds so compelling for a link between vaccines and SIDS:
A police officer in a town of 350,000 investigated 3 to 4 SIDS cases a month for the past 7 years. She realized early in the process that gathering vaccine data was useful. So she has 7 years worth of data and it shows that over half the cases happened within 1 week from a vaccine.
That is statistically impossible if the vaccines are not causing SIDS.
You can see Ben Tapper talk about her and her direct testimony.
She doesn’t come up publicly with her name and her department to avoid retaliation. She brought it up to her superiors but was told to keep it to herself by her bosses.
What struck me immediately reading the very first paragraph of Kirsch’s “executive summary” is something that likely will strike my regular readers too: ” She realized early in the process that gathering vaccine data was useful.” In other words, she was looking for a connection between vaccines and SIDS. She clearly believed from the beginning that vaccines cause SIDS.
Kirsch includes this video of the woman claiming to be a police officer who “investigated” SIDS deaths in her city:
The first thing I noticed is how Jennifer (no last name) weaves a tale of how the medical examiner would “leave no stone unturned” looking for a potential cause of the death, including smoking in the house, how the baby was feeding, health issues, etc., but would not look at vaccinations. In other words, she’s weaving a classic conspiracy theory-style narrative of babies dying but the ME ignoring the “obvious” cause. So Jennifer “started doing my own digging” and started looking at vaccination histories and:
…found out that because vaccines do not have liability, that manufacturers do not carry liability, then the medical examiners were not obligated to put vaccines on the report. And this is what really started my journey on investigating vaccines…
She further characterizers herself as having been raised to “question everything.” Yet she notes that she never saw a SIDS report that didn’t list some symptoms on it. What she really means is findings, not symptoms, as the findings she mentions are petechiae, small bleeds, found in the lungs and the brain, which, she points out, are also found in shaken baby syndrome but somehow doctors could tell the difference between traumatic and non-traumatic petechiae. Jennifer is amazed that these could be found if the baby “just died,” but hypoxic deaths can be associated with such findings. In any event, it’s no surprise that Jennifer did not vaccinate her children.
The second thing that I wondered about was exactly what cases Jennifer was investigating. SIDS is a subclassification of what is now generally called SUID, or sudden unexpected infant death, defined by the CDC as the “sudden and unexpected death of a baby less than 1 year old in which the cause was not obvious before investigation.” The CDC further notes:
About 3,400 babies in the United States die suddenly and unexpectedly each year. A thorough investigation is necessary to learn what caused these deaths. Sudden unexpected infant deaths include sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), accidental suffocation in a sleeping environment, and other deaths from unknown causes. Although the SUID rate has declined since 1990s, significant racial and ethnic differences continue.
A declining rate of SUID would rather argue against vaccines being the cause, given that, as antivaxxers love to point out, the vaccine schedule expanded in a major way in the 1990s. Indeed, here is the incidence of SIDS by year since 1980 from the American SIDS Institute taken from CDC statistics:
And here is the incidence compared to the incidence of other causes of infant death, all added up to produce the incidence of SUID:
Another point to consider about SIDS:
SIDS is defined as the sudden death of an infant under 1 year of age, which remains unexplained after a thorough case investigation, including performance of a complete autopsy, examination of the death scene, and review of the clinical history.
It’s often called a “diagnosis of exclusion,” meaning it’s the diagnosis that’s given when everything else has been ruled out. But, Tackitt says, often the term SIDS comes up prematurely.
“We find that in many cases, families have been told from the time the ambulance drove up to the time that the clergy saw them in the emergency room … that this is going to be a SIDS death,” Tackitt says. “All that means is, ‘We don’t know.’ Why would we start out saying ‘we don’t know,’ when we haven’t even looked yet?”
The article above also notes that there are around 50-60 cases of SUID in Wayne County, where I live. Wayne County has a population of around 1,757,043, or five times the population of Officer SIDS’s city, making her number implausible and suspect by comparison.
Speaking of implausible numbers, let’s do another bit of math, just to check the plausibility of Jennifer’s story. After all, if Kirsch is going to do math to “prove” that Jennifers’s story is impossible if vaccines don’t cause SIDS, I can do a basic plausibility check. If 36-48 babies a year are dying of SIDS in a city of 350,000, then how would that scale? The current population of the US is around 333 million according to Wikipedia. That makes 350K a little more than 0.1% of the population of the US. Scaling up to the population of the US, 36-48 cases of SIDS/year in a town of 350K people would translate to ~34,251 to 45,668 cases, which would be 10- to 13-fold more cases on a per-population basis than the national average!
By way of further comparison, there are only around 3,800 deaths of children under the age of four (not the age of one, but ages one through four) every year in the US. (And that number is still too high for a wealthy nation!) Whenever I encounter a claim as incredible as Jennifer’s, I find that doing a little basic math often tells you how plausible the claim is. (It’s what I did for the claim that medical errors kill 250,000 people a year, a number that is not very plausible based on simple math and logic.) Jennifer’s claim just doesn’t pass the smell test of basic plausibility just with back-of-the-envelope rough calculations. I might believe a rough estimate of two or three times the incidence of SIDS, but ten ten to thirteen times? That strains credulity. Moreover, there’s no way public health officials would not notice such a “hot spot” of SIDS.
Let’s just put it this way. If 3-4 children are truly dying of SIDS in Jennifer’s medium-sized city every month, then the CDC needs to get there STAT to investigate a rate of SIDS that, by rough calculation realizing that the actual way to calculate SIDS incidence is by live births and not overall population, is at least 10-fold higher than it should be based on the rate in the US overall. Also, if there is a SIDS “hotspot” that intense in Jennifer’s town, it would be highly implausible that vaccines are the cause given that it’s highly unlikely that there is a huge difference in the percentage of babies receiving their regular vaccines according to the CDC schedule on time. More likely what is going on is that 3-4 children/month are not actually dying of SIDS and Jennifer’s story is a load of fetid dingos’ kidneys. I strongly suspect that another reason she won’t divulge where she supposedly investigated all of these cases is because, if she did, then she could be fact-checked. I (and others) could look up the actual state health department statistics for SIDS deaths in her city and compare them to her claims. We could contact her police department and ask how many cases of SIDS have been investigated every year for the last 5-7 years. No doubt Jennifer would consider that “persecution” and part of “Them” trying to “silence” and “cancel” her.
Another thing makes Jennifer’s story dubious. In the video, she claims that most commonly the SIDS deaths occur after the six month vaccinations. If such a large proportion of the SIDS cases she claims to have seen were truly around six months old, that would be inconsistent with the known epidemiology of SIDS, in which the peak incidence is between 1-4 months of age, with 90% of cases occurring before 6 months of age. Her numbers just don’t seem very credible. In fact, given that they can’t be checked against official statistics, they are most likely nonsense produced as a result of selective memory, confirmation bias, and perhaps a biased sample.
Kirsch does the maths himself to try to convince you:
So if there are 300 babies who died of SIDS, we’d expect that 37.5 of them, on average, would happen within a week after a vaccine if the vaccine isn’t causing the death.
So what are the chances of 50% of these deaths (or more) happening within a week after the shot?
The calculation is simple:
In other words, it will never happen by chance.
In other words, if SIDS is randomly happening with respect to the time of vaccination, it is impossible to have made this observation. We can cherry pick all we want, we’ll never find a cherry like this to pick. Ever.
I do love, however, the way that Kirsch does statistical probability calculation that assume a random distribution on a clearly non-random sample, though
I love how this genius does probability calculations on a highly nonrandom sample with incomplete and questionable data using statistical methods that assume a random distribution. He’s almost as hilarious as Brian Hooker and his “simplicity” in statistics. It’s so bd that I hardly even care about the 2019 Japanese study that he cherry picked that found that only 22% of deaths—not 50%—occurred within a week of vaccination and was actually way more circumspect in its speculation regarding vaccination and SIDS than represented. (He also didn’t comment on how different its finding was regarding the percent of cases that occurred within seven days of vaccination.) Let’s put it this way. The authors concluded only, “Judgment of the disorders as truly related to vaccination is difficult, but suspicious cases do exist.” That’s a far cry from Kirsch’s taking unverifiable anecdotal numbers from an anonymous police officer and using them to claim that vaccines cause most cases of SIDS.
The bottom line is that Steve Kirsch is one of the most rabid and ignorant antivaxxers I have ever encountered in all the time going back to the turn of the millennium that I’ve been involved in debunking antivax pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. As I’ve been pointing out for years and years now, the epidemiological evidence is clear that vaccination is not associated with SIDS and might actually be protective. Steve Kirsch promises a video stating otherwise. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so dangerously stupid.