After the lengthy post from yesterday, I must admit, I’m a bit tired; so I think it’s time to slum a bit for a day. No, that doesn’t mean I’m going to throw up a video and call it a day. That’s not how Orac rolls (well, usually, at least). I just need a bit of something that doesn’t take a lot of mental firepower to take on, unlike the discussion of “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy” yesterday and why what Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski doesn’t qualify as anything other than a parody of “personalized” therapy. It didn’t take me long to find just the place to find what I was looking for.
Where else, but the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism? It always provides.
I often discuss the pseudoscience, crankery, and, all too often, the downright idiocy of the anti-vaccine movement. Also not infrequently, I catch criticism from either anti-vaccine activists (which I expect), those not familiar with the anti-vaccine movement (which I expect as well), or even well-meaning skeptics who think that I paint anti-vaccine cranks with too broad a brush (which I don’t expect). When I encounter such criticism, what I like to do is to point out some of the criteria that I use to identify anti-vaccine cranks. It’s not a term I use loosely even though I use it commonly. Rather, it’s reserved for people who demonstrate a certain set of characteristics. Although I sometimes joke that, like the case of pornography, I know “anti-vaccine” when I see it, but there really are a number of characteristics that to me define “anti-vaccine.” Above all, no matter how much anti-vaccine activists try to paint themselves as being “not anti-vaccine but rather pro-safe vaccine,” it doesn’t take much pushing to demonstrate that they systematically downplay the effectiveness of vaccines, while grossly exaggerating or making up out of whole cloth side effects of vaccines. The most famous of these, the one that anti-vaccinationists have managed to drive into the zeitgeist of society, is notion that vaccines cause autism. Above all, to them, it’s all about the vaccines. It’s always about the vaccines. And, no matter what evidence is presented to them that vaccines are safe and do not cause autism, it always will be about the vaccines.
This is, of course, why a post on AoA by Cathy Jameson called No One Knows caught my attention. It’s a perfect distillation of one essential element of the mindset of an anti-vaccinationist, namely that she knows in the very center of her being that vaccines cause autism, no matter how much she is told otherwise:
If you read the mainstream news the message is still the same: No One knows why the dramatic rise in autism is happening. They should just ask Anne Dachel or some of my friends. We’d be able to fill them in. We’d cut to the chase and say exactly what we believe causes autism. But, No One wants to really listen to us and we continue to be ignored.
Note the difference between real scientists and Jameson. Scientists, for all their flaws, are humble about the data. They admit they don’t know what the cause of autism is. That’s why they’re working on it; they want to know. Of course, it’s not even clear that there really has been a major increase in the prevalence of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Much of the apparent increase appears to be due to factors such as diagnostic substitution, and recent studies strongly suggest that the true prevalence of ASDs is considerably higher than previously thought, and researchers have increasingly identified brain abnormalities associated with autism. While it is possible that autism prevalence is increasing, it is quite clear that it is not doing so at a rate that can appropriately be referred to as an “epidemic.” Basically, the claim by anti-vaccine zealots that vaccines somehow caused an “autism epidemic” beginning in the 1990s is a classic case of confusing correlation with causation. The hypothesis most consistent with the data right now is that autism is likely due to complex genetic changes that can’t be boiled down to a single gene, possibly with environmental contributions.
But, no. To Jameson, it’s all about the vaccines. After mocking all the factors that have been associated with autism over the years (some of which, to be fair, deserve a bit of mockery), Jameson dismisses them all because they’re not vaccines. To her, vaccines, like Elvis, are everywhere:
One of the most overlooked yet common medical “interventions” many children have experienced has escaped being researched again–vaccines. Why is it so painfully difficult to ask someone to please just look at them? Vaccines are pushed everywhere. EVERYWHERE. You’d think someone in the research field would put two and two together and have an a-ha moment. It wasn’t so hard for many parents to have that moment. They didn’t celebrate it like when these official studies are lauded after being published–”A-ha! We found another reason! But, we really didn’t, so let’s go back to funding useless research!” Parents made a common connection to their child’s autism in those vaccines that No One will consider. It doesn’t make sense because vaccines are being pushed in school; vaccines are being advertised in the deli at the grocery store; vaccine propaganda is plastered all over the drug store; flu shots and vaccine injections are being talked about and aired on TV shows. Seriously. Vaccines are everywhere yet nowhere.
And Elvis needs boats, too.
I do like how she says vaccines are “everywhere yet nowhere.” I bet Jameson thought she had come up with a really clever line there; you can almost see her patting herself on the back. Hey, I understand. I sometimes do the same thing; I just try not to be as blatant about it. (Yes, I realize I probably fail sometimes, but as long as the results are entertaining, who really cares?) Too bad that the “everywhere but nowhere” thing is a cliche, a trope used only very sparingly by good writers and frequently used by bad writers in order to place a facade of clever-sounding verbiage over a sow’s ear of an argument. Also, Jameson’s too dead serious to be entertaining, except as an example of bad reasoning and lack of skepticism. To her, any study that doesn’t look at vaccines as a cause of autism is a “useless study” because she and her fellow parents just “know” that vaccines cause autism.
Again, to her it’s all about the vaccines. It’s always about the vaccines. And, no matter what evidence is presented to her that vaccines are safe and do not cause autism, it always will be about the vaccines.
If at this point you still don’t believe me. Then check out Jameson’s little fantasy sequence near the end of the post. In it, she envisions a group of scientists sitting around a table with a deck of cards sitting on it. They’re deciding which study to publicize next about autism, whether to link it to arsenic or some other environmental factor (other than vaccines, of course), snickering all along. Unfortunately for them, this happens:
Leader: “Settle down. Let’s take a moment. Alright (pulling a card from the middle of the pile), the next topic…childhood vaccines. Wait (angrily), how did this get back in the deck?”
Researcher 4: “Sorry, sir. One of the interns probably put it to the pile after the last meeting. She was a parent turned grad-student who kept pestering about her kids’ delays. I told her we weren’t allowed to open that study. She talked about autism and vaccines, special ed, gluten free, blah blah blah (rolling his eyes). She had to quit last week to take care of her sick kid.”
Leader: “Just throw this card out (tossing the vaccine card to the ground). Come now, time to be serious (reshuffling the cards).”
Researcher 1: “Can I pick the card this time?”
Leader: “Sure, make it a good one (fanning the deck out).”
Researcher 1: (Reaching for a card) “The next ‘What causes autism study’ is going…to…be…vaccines?! What just happened? (turning every card over; handwriting is on the cards). Each card is labeled vaccines!”
Leader: “We’ve been duped! Get the chief on the phone. NOW.”
Like the rest of this post, this little fantasy sequence reveals the magical thinking at the heart of anti-vaccinationism. To Jameson, scientists are out there plotting to keep The Truth from being discovered about vaccines because they can’t handle The Truth. To her, they’re so blinded by their love of vaccines that they’ll do anything to prevent studies on vaccines. The only groups for whom the deck of cards with potential causes of autism on each of them contains nothing but cards with the word “vaccines” on them are groups like the bloggers at AoA.
Jameson’s fantasy is all a load of nonsense, of course. In fact, scientists have studied vaccines for adverse events. Extensively. They’ve studied whether there is a link between vaccines and autism on numerous occasions. Even when they thought the hypothesis that vaccines cause autism was quite implausible (which it is, from a scientific standpoint), they nonetheless performed expensive and difficult epidemiological studies to try to determine whethether there is a correlation between vaccines and autism or thimerosal in vaccines and autism. They failed to find any, despite in essence bending over backwards to look. In fact, even though the evidence is overwhelming against this hypothesis, they still feel obligated to look every now and then, just to placate zealots like Jameson. They don’t like it, though, because they realize, based on the history of research that has gone before, that the odds they will find anything new and interesting about the cause of autism in these studies is slim and none. Unfortunately, what Jameson apparently doesn’t realize is that in science after there are enough negative studies eventually scientists start to lose interest in the hypothesis, which is what happened to the vaccine-autism hypothesis years ago. If there’s no evidence to support a hypothesis, eventually scientists give up and move on. After all, it makes no sense to keep studying the same question when so many studies have failed to yield any results implicating vaccines as a cause of autism or neurodevelopmental disorders.
We’re far beyond that point with the question of vaccines and autism.
Unfortunately, Jameson, like the rest of the crew at AoA and anti-vaccinationists everywhere won’t accept that and probably never will. Unlike scientists, they refuse to move on from a failed hypothesis. To Jamison and her fellow anti-vaccine zealots, it’s all about the vaccines. It’s always about the vaccines. And, no matter what evidence is presented to her that vaccines are safe and do not cause autism, it always will be about the vaccines.