I know I dump on a website known as The Thinking Moms’ Revolution (TMR), but I do so with good reason. Given what a wretched hive of antivaccine scum and quackery that website is, rivaling or surpassing any antivaccine website I can think of, even the blog equivalent of the great granddaddies of wretched hives of antivaccine scum and quackery, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), and, of course, Age of Autism. As a result, increasingly I’ve been taking more and more notice of this (not so) Thinking Mom’s Devolution. As a result, I became aware of a particularly egregious piece of nonsense that popped up the other day. It’s nonsense that I’ve alluded to before, but nonsense that is nonetheless worth revisiting from time and time again, the better to provide ammunition to skeptics who encounter this particulary nonsense.
Indeed, it’s nonsense that our very own favorite antivaccine apologist pediatrician, Dr. Jay Gordon, has used before, namely the implication that vaccine manufacturers are somehow like tobacco manufacturers in that, or so the story goes, they both covered up negative health consequences due to their products. It’s an argument that is so mind-bogglingly dumb that it lead me to addres Dr. Jay, completely exasperated, and say, Dr. Jay Gordon: Will you please stop claiming you’re not an antivaccinationist? I’ll show you what I mean. Take a look at a post on TMR by a “Thinker” (really, that’s what the bloggers at TMR call each other) who goes by the ‘nym The Professor. I kid you not. Hubris, much?
The post is called Thank You for Not Vaccinating in a typically ham-fisted allusion to liken vaccinating to smoking. The Professor declares her purpose early on:
You remember that blog calendar we have “behind the scenes” that Mountain Mama told you about in “Accepting the Village” ? Well, I chose today because the blog calendar said it was “No Smoking Day,” and I wanted to do a blog on the parallels between tobacco science and vaccine science.
Oh, goody. At least that’s what I thought, because for some reason I get some perverse entertainment by brain dead antivaccine arguments, the more brain dead the more entertaining—at least to a point. So seeing The Professor preparing to bring up this particular bit of antivaccine propaganda got my sharpening my skeptical knives in anticipation. Unfortunately, I didn’t have long to wait before barrel after barrel of napalm-grade burning stupid started flowing from the TMR website. Let’s see the form The Professor’s analogy takes, shall we? Be sure to get out your aluminum foil and construct a proper hat to block the Illuminati mind control waves, as we read together. After first noting that 150 years ago lung cancer was rare (which is true—in fact lung cancer was rare until at least the 1910s and 1920s) but that it’s now the leading cause of cancer-related deaths, The Professor opines:
The rise in cases of lung cancer began right around the turn of the twentieth century. The 1930 edition of the authoritative Springer Handbook of Special Pathology suggested some possible environmental reasons for the sudden rise: increased air pollution, asphalting of roads, increased automobile traffic, the influenza pandemic of 1918, etc. Smoking, which had risen dramatically in popularity in the same time period, was briefly mentioned as a possible cause, but it was noted that there were as many studies that failed to find an association as there were ones with positive findings. In September 1950, an article was published in the British Medical Journal linking smoking to lung cancer. Over the next few decades, more and more studies piled up, establishing without a doubt a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer, though many studies funded by tobacco companies continued to dispute the link. As late as 1994, big tobacco companies were still testifying to Congress that the evidence on a causal link was inconclusive. Someone must have gotten fed up with the lies, though, because soon afterward a box of confidential documents from Brown & Williamson appeared that proved tobacco execs knew and accepted the truth back in the ‘50s. And those documents were used in 1998 to trounce the tobacco companies in a federal lawsuit that resulted in a settlement of $365.5 billion.
The Professor is actually not quite right on her time line. As I’ve discussed before and as documented in Robert N. Proctor’s book The Nazi War on Cancer, it was actually Nazi scientists who were the first to find definitive epidemiological links between smoking and lung cancer, and they did it at least a decade before British epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll published seminal studies in the early 1950s making the link, as in the Doctors’ study. I’m being mildly pedantic here, though. The point is that linking tobacco smoking to lung cancer is one of the greatest triumphs of epidemiology, and what’s a decade here or there on the time line. The Professor’s argument is just as bad even if she got every fact right.
We skeptics frequently point out that correlation does not equal causation. That particular bit of skeptical wisdom is actually probably better stated as, “Correlation does not necessarily equal causation,” because sometimes correlation does equal causation. For instance, when the correlation is strong enough and there is a plausible biological mechanism, correlation can be a strong indication of causation, although it’s rarely definitive. In the case of lung cancer and tobacco, even though people smoked tobacco for centuries before lung cancer incidence started climbing, it was difficult to smoke enough to drastically increase the risk of lung cancer such that it could be detected by the primitive epidemiological methods of the day because people had to “roll their own,” and that was work. What made smoking large amounts of tobacco every day so much easier was the advent of industrial cigarette rollers that allowed the manufacture of huge numbers of cheap cigarettes. Because nicotine is so addictive, the easy availability of cheap cigarettes predictably led large percentages of the population to take up that habit. Add a lag time of approximately 20-30 years for smoking to cause cancer, and you have a near perfect correlation between the increase in tobacco smoking and the massive increase in lung cancer incidence. Lung cancer went from a disease about which an apocryphal story was frequently told of medical students being urged to attend the autopsy of a lung cancer patient in the early 1900s because they might never see another case again to being very common in a relatively short period of time—just a few decades.
You know what’s coming, of course. There’s no other reason for an antivaccinationist to mention the decades long campaign of deception, obfuscation, and denialism that tobacco companies engaged in to avoid taking responsibility for the adverse health effects known to be caused by their product other than to try to claim that vaccine manufacturers are doing the same thing when it comes to the alleged link between vaccines and autism, and, yes, that’s exactly what readers are treated to:
Sound familiar? It ought to. Thirty-five years ago autism was an extremely rare condition. It occurred in approximately one in 25,000 children. Most doctors never saw a single case in their entire lives. Today one in 88 12-year-olds in the United States is diagnosed with autism. Yes, the definition of “autism” has changed somewhat, but there are still a heck of a lot more than one in 25,000 children with full-blown autism that looks very similar to the original 11 cases as described by Leo Kanner for the first time in 1943. Many of my personal friends – from my “before” life — have a child or relative with severe autism. It is everywhere. So what explanations have “experts” come up with for the dramatic rise in cases of autism? Increased air pollution, living near a highway, mothers who had influenza while pregnant, older parents, etc. Vaccines, the use of which has risen dramatically in the same time period, have briefly been considered as a possible cause, but there are “as many studies that failed to find an association as there are with positive findings.” In 1998 a paper was published in the British Medical Journal that speculated that there might be a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Since that time many more studies have shown significant positive correlation between vaccines (not just the MMR) — or the ingredients in vaccines (including thimerosal and aluminum) — and the development of neurological or physical conditions that include autism and its co-morbid conditions.
My neurons hurt after contemplating the sheer ignorance that is the above paragraph. For one thing, one can’t help but note that it is not true that there are “as many studies that failed to find an association as there are with positive findings.” The fact is, the quality and quantity of evidence that does not support a link between vaccines and autism so far surpasses the quality and quantity of evidence that does support a link. Indeed, the evidence “supporting” a link between vaccines and autism almost inevitably comes from pesudoscientists, quacks (like Mark and David Geier), and frauds (like Andrew Wakefield) and is so riddled with methodological flaws, conclusions that do not flow from the evidence, and a heapin’ helpin’ of sheer nonsense. I’ve written about many of those studies myself right here and at my other blog. There’s also the issue of whether autism really was rare 35 years ago. Again, this is something discussed on this blog many times over the years, namely whether there even is such a thing as an “autism epidemic.” There almost certainly isn’t. Thanks to diagnostic substitution, more intensive screening, and the broadening of the diagnostic criteria for autism and autism spectrum disorders in the early 1990s, the apparent prevalence of autism has skyrocketed, but there’s good evidence that the true prevalence hasn’t changed much.
Why does the correlation have to be with vaccines? It’s always vaccines with these people. As I like to point out, there are lots of other things that increased since the late 1980s to correlate with the apparent rise in autism prevalence: Internet usage, for instance. Yet for people like The “Professor,” it’s always the vaccines. Always.
Which brings us to the problem with trying to make analogies between vaccine manufacturers and tobacco companies. There is no analogy. In the case of tobacco and smoking, there was overwhelming and powerful high quality epidemiological evidence linking smoking tobacco products to lung cancer. The effect size and hazard ratios were so high that they couldn’t be ignored. There isn’t anything resembling such high powered epidemiological evidence supporting a link between vaccines and autism. In fact, all the copious high-powered, high quality epidemiological evidence on the topic failed to find even a hint of a whiff of a link between vaccines and autism. It’s the exact opposite of the situation with tobacco companies. Contrary to the case with tobacco companies and the link between lung cancer and smoking, where the companies lied and used bad science and denialist arguments to deny what science showed, accine manufacturers and the CDC are actually on the right side of science when they argue that vaccines don’t cause autism because the science shows that, to the best of our ability to detect it (and that ability is veyr sensitive), they do not.
But there’s more there, so much more. There’s the standard conspiracy mongering, in which the CDC is covering up the “link” between vaccines and autism; the Vaccine Court refuses to compensate vaccine-induced autism; and, part of the common antivaccine meme from a few years ago, Julie Gerberding supposedly admitted that vaccines cause autism without actually admitting it even though all she did as far as I can tell was to use appropriate scientific caution—actually more caution and qualification than was necessary. Thrown in, as antivaccinationists are wont to do in the days after the financial meltdown of 2008, analogies to “too big to fail” bank bailouts. The projection reaches a truly irony meter-melting extreme when The Professor says, “That’s intellectual dishonesty, otherwise known as bullshit.”
That pretty much describes her entire post, which concludes with this howler of a paragraph:
Eventually, everyone will know about the dangers of vaccination just like we all know about the dangers of smoking now, and the vaccine equivalent of the “Thank you for not smoking” sign will be commonplace. The real question is will it be in time? Or will the general overall health of the country have declined so much by then that we will have destroyed our chances for good health forever?
This analogy is so wrong on so many levels, not the least of which being that “thank you for not smoking” was something people said when people didn’t assault them with their second hand smoke. A better analogy would be to say, “Thank you for vaccinating.” Just as not smoking is good for the smoker and everyone around him, who is spared the adverse health effects of second hand smoke, vaccinating is good for the child and everyone around him, protecting the child and contributing to herd immunity.
But then what would we expect from an antivaccine “Professor” except to get it exactly the opposite of the true situation. In the antivaccine world, cold is hot, up is down, and wrong is right. Oh, and to them pseudoscience is science.