Respectful Insolence

The stupid continues to metastasize.

I wrote yesterday about a truly bad and irresponsible hit piece on Paul Offit and the American Academy of Pediatrics written by the anti-vaccinationist sympathizer Sharyl Attkisson of CBS News. Since I’ve already rehashed what was so bad about it, I won’t go on about it. However, it appears that Alicia Mundy at the Wall Street Journal‘s Health Blog picked up the story yesterday and ran with it–stupidly, as demonstrated by this passage:

Drugmakers have given millions in grants and other kinds of payments to the AAP and helped build its headquarters, CBS reported, noting specific payments of $433 million from Merck and $342 million Wyeth.

Wow! That’s some serious cash! The AAP must be richer than many pharmaceutical companies! The bastards! Oh, wait. This is what the CBS story, as bad as it was, actually said:

The vaccine industry gives millions to the Academy of Pediatrics for conferences, grants, medical education classes and even helped build their headquarters. The totals are kept secret, but public documents reveal bits and pieces.

  • A $342,000 payment from Wyeth, maker of the pneumococcal vaccine – which makes $2 billion a year in sales.
  • A $433,000 contribution from Merck, the same year the academy endorsed Merck’s HPV vaccine – which made $1.5 billion a year in sales.

$342,000, $342 million, what’s a factor of a thousand among credulous reporters/bloggers? It looks to me as though Alicia Mundy, who wrote the credulous piece, either isn’t too good at math or is just plain careless. She and the clueless wonder Kim Stagliano deserve each other–except that even Stagliano didn’t make such a dumb misstatement.

If you have the time, please go forth and leave some comments about sloppy parroting of a biased and shoddily researched story. Maybe Alicia Mundy is educable.

Comments

  1. #1 Yoo
    July 29, 2008

    Perhaps she meant Zimbabwean dollars and thought the contributions wouldn’t even buy a pack of gum?

  2. #2 Calli Arcale
    July 29, 2008

    *laughs* That might explain it. Read an article yesterday saying that in Zimbabwe recently, a laptop was offered for sale for something like 1.4 quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars….

  3. #3 Caleb
    July 29, 2008

    The WSJ error is flabbergasting, both for the reporter’s error and for the fact that no editor noticed such an obvious mistake.

    But I’m a little concerned with your take on the original CBS piece. Whatever the reporter’s background and interest you don’t seem to have any basis for calling it “biased and sloppily researched.” It looks like a straightforward recitation of facts, none of which are disputed. Offit was given a chance to respond, though he chose not to.

    I’ve had dealings with Offit in the past, have great respect for him and no quarrel with his stance on vaccines, but you’re foolish to think that someone’s financial ties aren’t a valid topic of reporting. Scientific questions are mostly settled, around the safety of current vaccines. But this is a public policy issue — public opinion matters. You should be able to understand this, and I hope that Offit does, too.

    I don’t think there’s an easy resolution — I’m not suggesting that he give up funding from Pharm companies, or disavow royalties on an important product he helped develop. But don’t shoot the messenger.

  4. #4 Orac
    July 29, 2008

    How about “lazily” researched? Attkisson reports nothing that isn’t public record.

    You’re also flogging a straw man. I never said that conflicts of interest don’ t matter. In fact, I go to great pains in my original post about Attkisson’s story to point out that they do matter. My point was that the anti-vaccine activists and their mouthpieces in the press always focus on just the pharmaceutical industry side of things, which, for the most part, is made up of disclosed potential COIs while ignoring completely the undisclosed COIs on the anti-vaccine side.

  5. #5 Paul Browne
    July 29, 2008

    Orac, I have to admit that I’m a bit concerned about all the anti-vaccination stuff appearing in the news these days. Is the scientific community doing enough to combat these claims?

    It would be nice if there was a central resource that thoroughly debunks the claims, both current and past, made by the anti vaccination crowd. Such a website, perhaps similar to http://www.AIDSTruth.org or http://www.animalresearch.info, would be a valuable tool alongside the blogs such as your own that address this issue. In particular it would be a site to which you could direct people new to the debate or as yet undecided. At the moment newbies looking for a particular piece of information are faced with the task of trawling through many blog posts.

    Including past claims (perhaps even as far back as the anti-germ theory mob) would be useful as it will show how the anti-vaccinationists shift the goalposts each time a pet theory of theirs is disproved.

    There are a lot of people such as yourself doing good work on combating the distortions and misrepresentations of the anti-vaccine groups, but I can’t help feeling that with a little more organization you could have a far greater impact.

  6. #6 DLC
    July 29, 2008

    Read the story. they did fix the error with the money figures, but it’s was like polishing a turd.

  7. #7 DLC
    July 29, 2008

    Oh,and I left a comment there as well, mentioning that scientists are compelled to disclose potential conflicts of interest, while lawyers have no such obligation. Somehow I don’t think anyone will get the comparison.

  8. #8 Joseph
    July 29, 2008

    Come to think of it, amounts like $342,000 are nothing in this day and age. I once worked for a 10-person tech startup that burned a million in a year of working on a potential product that was ultimately canned.

  9. #9 llewelly
    July 29, 2008

    Caleb, please re-read Orac’s previous article, directly about the CBS piece. The reporter disingenuously quote-mined Paul Offit. In addition, it entirely failed to mention the fact that without vaccines, millions of children would die from diseases that are nearly (or entirely, in some cases) existent. Offit’s financial ties are certainly a valid topic of reporting, but the article in question is an awful example of false balance.

  10. #10 desiree
    July 29, 2008

    caleb, i think the worst parts of the attkisson piece are the implications that she makes. any good journalist should know to watch her wording better. for example, she writes:

    “This is how Offit described himself in a previous interview: “I’m the chief of infectious disease at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a professor of pediatrics at Penn’s medical school,” he said.”

    then,

    “Offit holds in a $1.5 million dollar research chair at Children’s Hospital, funded by Merck”

    she should know that most people have no idea what a 1.5 million dollar research chair means (i don’t, and i do science journalism). by failing to explain, she’s giving her readers license to infer that offit’s stretching the truth when he says he’s chief of infections diseases at the hospital. sounds more like merck bought him the post, doesn’t it? i think that’s the kind of bias orac is talking about.

    hey, this is my first post here. i’ve been reading for a few months, and am a bit embarrassed to admit i do science journalism. my specialty is physics, though, and i promise i’m crusading for better science reporting. :-)

  11. #11 isles
    July 29, 2008

    Caleb, I would argue that without any evidence the targets of this story altered their views or recommendations in favor of the companies that are supposed to have supported them, it was irresponsible of Attkisson to have made insinuations of bias. They recommend following standard childhood vaccine guidelines. Where’s the bias there?

    There would be potential bias if the companies had given money to ACIP members while or shortly before they were on the committee – but nothing like that is alleged here.

  12. #12 Landru
    July 29, 2008

    If public opinion matters, Caleb, then apply the same stick to antivaccinationists. It’s not a conflict of interest for pushers of autism quackery to be advancing the antivax agenda? Attkisson’s failure to note that was irresponsible, and almost certainly malicious rather than sloppy. This isn’t a messenger, it’s a propagandist.

  13. #13 Joe
    July 29, 2008

    I looked at the WSJ site- the comments are choked with antivaxers.

  14. #14 RJ
    July 29, 2008

    “Orac, I have to admit that I’m a bit concerned about all the anti-vaccination stuff appearing in the news these days. Is the scientific community doing enough to combat these claims?”

    One of the major points I have made on various boards is that the amount of (dis)information people are getting from google, which is little more than a glorified yellow pages with all the benefits of a popularity contest (the most hits gets ranked at the top). I have suggested that they move on to google scholar so that the rif-raf lawyer sites, and those frequented by nothing else to do but visit the latest conspiracy theory, so that they may see links to real research.

    To my dismay, however, I have discovered that this too is becoming an issue. In the past, I have recommended readers visit google scholar and put in search criteria such as ‘vaccines and autism’. What I saw last night floored me: links such as the Geier’s ‘studies’, Boyd Haley’s work, “Autism, a novel form of mercury poisoning’ in Medical Hypothesis, as well as others. Apparently, credible works from reputable sources, published in quality high-impact journals have been pushed down while garbage is floating to the top.

    Great. Now research-based search engines have become a popularity contest. No wonder America is so deceived.

  15. #15 Dr. C
    July 29, 2008

    @desiree:

    I am also a physicist. Perhaps I am at an advantage since I did my Ph.D. under an “endowed chair”. An endowed chair gives a researcher a constant supply of funding without the need to write grant proposals. It allows the researcher to work on very self-directed projects and do more exploratory work.

    The chair endowment is held by the institution (CHOP and Penn in this case) not the professor. So, Dr. Offit doesn’t have $1.5M (or, $2M as those interested in accuracy have noted) to work with. He has the proceeds of this endowment. Think of it as a trust fund for the researcher—she/he can’t touch the principle. Also, the institution controls the endowment and who gets the chair after the professor (Dr. Offit in this case) steps down or retires. They have to follow the restrictions of the endowment–which likely stipulate that a vaccine researcher gets the money–but Merck is likely not involved directly in deciding future chair holders.

    Also note that the endowed chair was created in 2005–after Dr. Offit’s vaccine was patented and put to use. So, it couldn’t have influenced his actions to create the vaccine. Also, since the endowment is already in place, it doesn’t affect Dr. Offit’s decision to speak out in favor of vaccine safety. He could say vaccines are evil and Merck wouldn’t be able to do anything about the chair.

    Is it any shock to anyone that a man who spent 25 years developing a vaccine would think that vaccines are safe?

  16. #16 sachin
    August 2, 2008

    nice article, thanks for sharing.