If there’s one thing that the antivaccine fringe wants above all else, it’s legitimacy. They crave it almost above all else. They want to be taken seriously from a scientific standpoint. Unfortunately, what they fail to realize is that to be taken seriously from a scientific standpoint you really need to demonstrate that you actually understand science. At the very least you can’t be spouting pseudoscience, but that’s what antivaccinationists do constantly. Virtually every argument they make trying to demonstrate that vaccines are the root of all evil (or at least cause autism, autoimmune diseases, and various neurodevelopmental problems) is chock full of bad science, pseudoscience, and anti-science.

With this as a background, I noted with some amusement a couple of posts that appeared on antivaccine crank blogs. The first comes to us courtesy of our old friend, one of the earliest promoters of the myth that mercury in vaccines in the form of the preservative thimerosal causes autism. I’m referring, of course, to Dan Olmsted, who was blowing his own horn (or at least that of the antivaccine crank blog of which he is the editor) over what he considered to be a great honor:

Age of Autism is honored to announce we have been chosen as part of Columbia Journalism School’s inaugural Single Subject News Network. An initiative of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, the network “connects news websites that focus on one subject on an in-depth level, filling the gaps in mainstream media and innovating models for journalism.”

On the weekend of November 9, the Tow Center “will host a series of panels amongst students, industry, and an elite class of 20 single subject news publishers selected by the program.” I’ll be on a panel discussing how to create community around a niche topic.

When I learned of this, I was rather surprised. There is a different between a Single Subject News organization and a single subject crank blog. Age of Autism (AoA) is without a doubt the latter. It is not a legitimate news organization. It does no investigations of its own. Rather, it produces a continuous spew of antivaccine propaganda chock full of pseudoscience, paranoid conspiracy mongering, and misinformation. A far better analogy to AoA would be a single-subject Prison Planet, except that in many ways AoA is less restrained and more full of crazy than even Alex Jones. Indeed, I wonder if there’s an organization for single-subject conspiracy sites.

In any case, after seeing that announcement, I wondered if the Columbia Journalism School had lost its collective mind. After all, AoA isn’t subtle. You don’t have to read very much of AoA to figure out its true nature. True, every so often AoA tries to appear to be a real autism advocacy blog and will publish posts about, for example, the restraint of autistic children or autistic children wandering off and being injured or the like. However, it’s never very long at all before the topic flips back to the raison d’être of AoA: Opposition to vaccines and the promotion of the scientifically discredited idea that vaccines cause autism. It’s also rarely very long before the paranoid conspiracy mongering rears its ugly head. Then, if that fails, there’s always the AoA “media editor” Anne Dachel sending her hordes of flying monkeys off to dive bomb with their poo mainstream news sites and blogs that have the temerity to publish articles supporting the scientific consensus that vaccines don’t cause autism.

All of this makes it particularly delicious to see the addendum that Olmsted added to his post the next day:

Well, that was quick. Shortly after this article was posted, Columbia Journalism School withdrew their invitation, saying that after further review, “Age of Autism does take a clear position on the link between vaccines and the incidence of Autism, also engaging in advocacy on that position. Therefore we must disqualify the site from our study.” The same person said, when inviting us in August: “I’m also a huge fan of The Age of Autism, how you’ve built and sustained an enriching and focused platform. It’s a huge pleasure to invite you to join a community at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. … What you’re doing is part of a wave in the journalism world that the Tow Center wants to bring together and highlight as a trend.” We warned them to expect to hear from critics but were told, “Thank you Dan for the head’s up but we are happy to have you!” Que sera, sera.

At least the Columbia Journalist School realized its mistake and corrected it. This has the added bonus of driving the AoA commenters into new heights of ranting and paranoia. For example, one accused the school of uninviting AoA because Columbia University Press is the publishing company that published Paul Offit’s book, as if that had anything to do with it. It’s also rather amusing given how much the antivaccine brain trust at AoA has attacked the Columbia Journalism School for hewing (mostly) to the scientific consensus regarding vaccines and autism.

This little fit of pique by Olmsted, however, was just a little wafer to cleanse the palate, a tiny little thin one. Next up over the weekend was everyone’s favorite “six degrees of separation” conspiracy theorist, our old “friend” Jake Crosby. Hilariously, he is now accusing Mark Blaxill of “interfering” in the Autism Omnibus. As you may recall, the Autism Omnibus proceeding was a large action brought to the Vaccine Court by the antivaccine contingent that fervently believes that vaccines cause autism. Because there were around 5,000 complainants, the Vaccine Court basically told the lawyers to present their very best cases for vaccine causation of autism. So that’s what happened. A handful of complainants had their cases heard by the Special Masters of the Vaccine Court, the idea being that, if these very “best” cases could convince the court then the rest could be heard. At the time, it was a rather terrifying prospect, because if the court found for any of these complainants, it might have opened the door to thousands of such claims and potentially bankrupted the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Thankfully, despite the best efforts of the complainants to introduce pseudoscience, ultimately the court found against the test cases.

Some of the pseudoscience used to support the complainants claims that vaccines caused autism and that they should be compensated on that basis came from some old familiar faces. I’m referring to that father-son tag team of execrable science done in the basement of the father’s Silver Spring home, Mark and David Geier. We’ve met them before many times, but they are most infamous for chemically castrating autistic children using Lupron because they proposed that testosterone interferes with chelation of mercury in the brain. I’ve known that the Geiers were bad news when it comes to medicine and science for a long time. It’s because of his utterly pseudoscientific quackery that Mark Geier ultimately lost his license to practice medicine in every state in which he had had a license.

Apparently, if Jake Crosby is to be believed, SafeMinds and the antivaccine movement knew it too, way back in 2003. I note that that’s before I started blogging and before I took a serious interest in the antivaccine movement. Crosby somehow got a hold of old e-mails between Mark Blaxill and Mike Williams, who was the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Autism Omnibus Proceedings of the Vaccine Court, and, if what Jake says is true (and, believe me, I take anything I see written by Jake with a huge grain of salt), Blaxill showed better scientific judgment than I thought him capable of:

As to the Geiers, I may be a bit of a minority voice here, but I worry very much that they can do our cause more harm than good. They are not very good scientists, write bad papers (both writing badly and reporting in sloppy fashion) and attract too much attention to themselves as individuals. In this last regard, they don’t show nearly as well as Andy Wakefield but they’re trying to play the same role. Frankly, if I were on the other side and were asked to critique their work, I could rip it to shreds. I’m surprised they haven’t been hit harder. So I think you are wise to diversify.

In a later e-mail from February 24, 2004, Blaxill is quoted:

In the interest of full disclosure, I thought you might be interested to see my critique of the Geiers’ latest work on VSD. I have not been a big fan of the Geiers. I worry they do not represent our side well. They often do sloppy work.

OK, I said “better” scientific judgment than I thought him capable of, not good scientific judgment. After all, Blaxill was obviously very impressed by Andrew Wakefield and presumably still is. Anyone who thinks Wakefield is a good scientist is a very poor judge of quality in science. He was also speaking out of both sides of his mouth, so to speak. For example, not too long ago, Blaxill was arguing that mercury in vaccines is strongly linked to vaccines while trying to explain away a study that failed to find a correlation. He also has argued frequently for the claim that thimerosal is associated with autism.

One can’t help but note that the two e-mails above are dated before the emergence of the quackery that ultimately cost Mark Geier his medical license, namely the “Lupron protocol,” or, as I like to call it, Why not just castrate them? Yet, even before the worst of the quackery, there was Blaxill, badmouthing them. True, they richly deserved it even then given the absolutely atrocious quality of their “science,” but this was at a time nearly ten years ago when Blaxill and the Geiers were on the same team. They were arguing the same “hypothesis,” namely that the mercury-containing preservative in vaccines, thimerosal, was the One True Cause of the Autism “Epidemic.” As Matt Carey points out, on his own blog, AoA, Blaxill was promoting the Geiers’ quackery as Mercury, Testosterone, and Autism — A Really Big Idea!

Indeed, it’s hard not to conclude that Blaxill is a total hypocrite. He thought that the Geiers’ work was crap, but he never said anything in public because it might undermine the push to try to link vaccines with autism. Then, even though it’s likely he realized just how horrible the Geiers’ “Lupron protocol” was, he said nothing and let the Geiers continue to promote the protocol. Such are the ethics of the antivaccine movement.

Comments

  1. #1 Lawrence
    November 4, 2013

    I’m still curious as to where all of these “countless” people are….because we keep seeing the same stories & trolls over and over again (involving the same people).

  2. #2 Lawrence
    November 4, 2013

    Most interestingly, given over 499,000 children – with the vast majority of them vaccinated, that there would be under 1000 children diagnosed with autism or ASD….so, I ask Greg again, where are the “countless” parents & children you keep talking about?

  3. #3 JGC
    November 4, 2013

    I told you before, and I will tell you again — there is just no resolution to the countless parents’ reports of how vaccines changed their children.

    And we’ve told you before: the plural of ‘anecdote’ isn’t ‘evidence’.

    After weeks of back and forth, you’re leaving the debate (assuming you stick the flounce) in exactly the same state youentered it–without any evidence which supports your position.

  4. #4 Chris,
    November 4, 2013

    The following shows why it is pointless, other than to educate lurkers, to discuss anything honestly with Greg. First there is this comment after he was told to stop posting off topic, emphasis added: ” Let me also take the time to congratulate Chris for his (her) success in fighting cancer.”

    Here is the title of that particular article, again with emphasis added: “Chris beat cancer? He did indeed, but it wasn’t quackery that cured him.”

    When I pointed out that this revealed he had not even read the article he responded to me (because I have a very common name): “Actually Chris, for what it’s worth, I don’t know whether you are a he or she either. So which is it? (hee hee hee).”

    Now see how he spins it above in a very creepy way in Comment #346.

    It is a troll, and nothing else. I commend all of the patience in trying to educate him, and the lurkers. But remember he is just a troll, and a very incredibly stupid troll.

  5. #5 Denice Walter
    November 4, 2013

    @ Lawrence:

    About those “countless” people:
    Well, we can count them or at least estimate them. If you survey various vax-autism websites, you can find their facebook numbers- this might give us a hint because the age cohort of parents is rather likely to use social media.

    What do we see? AoA gets 7K+, the Canary Party, nearly 10K, TMR and GR about 16K each, IIRC the only one to get a larger number is the Vaccine Machine’s at 37K- many of them nervous preggers/ new mommas seeking advice, not autism parents. Remember that these are international numbers. And that there is likely to be overlap amongst the groups; adamant believers may be more likely to add every family member to the count. Also alt media sites’ friends may be sympathetic but I doubt that their larger numbers ( e.g. Mercola, Natiral News) will be as directly involved as these anti-vax places are.

    We can also look at the number of people who claim vaccine injury through governmental instruments like the vaccine court as well as how many show up at conferences or protests. A Reuters poll estimated that around 30% of parents had ANY questions at all about vaccines 2 years ago.
    Mnookin cites1% of parents as non-vaccinating and another 10% vaccinate selectively.

    Perhaps in an attempt to invigorate interest, Blaxill has lobbied for the next congressional meeting ( in December) to be about vaccine court- ways to get money always pricks up people’s ears- rather than CDC cover-ups about mercury, much to Jake’s dismay.

    We see that die hards like Jameson are trying to instruct parents on how to use social media to proselytise while AM Dachel comment bombards any news story vaguely associated with ASDs.The Canaries have branched out to diagnoses other than autism- like asthma, allergies, ADHD. They thus appear quite desperate.

    Ha ha ha! I notice that Greg plans talking to me next time:
    as my late father often remarked when bothered by people on the phone :
    “Write me a long letter- tell me ALL about it and send it off. It will delivered here”.

  6. #6 Lawrence
    November 4, 2013

    @Denise – I did a bit of “back of the envelope” math (something the people at AoA seem to be completely unable to do)…..I am doing this right?

    Taking the approximate population of the US today of 317 mil…with approximately 6.9% of the population being under 5 years old:

    21,873,000 children

    Rate of Autism diagnosis (approximately 1 in 88 or 1.13%)

    240,603 children 5 and under diagnosed with autism

    Of those, approximately 30% could be classified as “moderate to severe” which would give us:

    Approximately 72,181 children aged 5 and under out of a total population of more than 21 million….

    So, I asked Greg (and the anti-vax crowd in general) where are the “millions” of which you speak? Because even the rough numbers show that you are easily off by a factor of 10 or more……..

  7. #7 Mephistopheles O'Brien
    November 4, 2013

    As the US does not have a monarchy or aristocracy, I suppose we are all countless as well as earlless and dukeless (except for the Duke of Earl, of course).

    And since we have no House of Lords, we are without Peer.

  8. #8 Renate
    November 4, 2013

    @ MOB
    Well, there are Duke Ellington, Count Basi and King Oliver.

  9. #9 Krebiozen
    November 4, 2013

    M.O’B.,
    I’m hoping that one day the UK will have a proper revolution* and we too will become countless and peerless. We will also retain our Dukes of Earl – I didn’t know what that meant until I looked it up a minute ago.
    [Exit singing: Duke, Duke, Duke…]

    * Cromwell doesn’t count, neither do the Civil Wars or the Commonwealth; no self-respecting revolution still has a monarchy afterwards.

  10. #10 Mephistopheles O'Brien
    November 4, 2013

    Renate,

    We still have Prince Rogers Nelson, but sadly Ellington, Basie, and Oliver are no longer with us. Would Prince fans be a principality?

  11. #11 lilady
    November 4, 2013

    And, we still have Dr. Jay Gordon, spreading his little gems about vaccines to the mommies of his special snowflakes:

    https://twitter.com/JayGordonMDFAAP/status/390297113730371584

  12. #12 Krebiozen
    November 4, 2013

    Would Prince fans be a principality?

    Formerly known as a principality…

  13. #13 Mephistopheles O'Brien
    November 4, 2013

    Formerly known as formerly known as a principality…

  14. #14 Krebiozen
    November 4, 2013

    Formally known as a vacillating principality…

  15. #15 Edith Prickly
    shilling for Big FluVax
    November 4, 2013

    A note to my American RI friends – I will be visiting your fair country in a few days and just got my flu shot, so as not to carry a nasty infection over the border with me. I did this even though it means I will be nursing a vaccine injury (sore shoulder) for the next couple of days. The things I do for you people….

  16. #16 Mephistopheles O'Brien
    November 4, 2013

    @Edith Prickly – and we will give you a hearty pat on the shoulder when you arrive!

  17. #17 Billy
    November 4, 2013

    Here’s a story about one of those fervent vaccinators – a villainess of the deepest dye http://www.realsimple.com/health/preventative-health/polio-vaccine-00100000079690/

    “And yet within the last decade this 58-year-old has made 20 trips to some of the most rugged and dangerous places in the world—Mali, Nigeria, Chad. Each time, she leads a team of one to two dozen volunteers with the same ambitious goal: to immunize as many children as possible, thereby ensuring that they will not contract polio, an infectious viral disease that can attack nerves and cause paralysis. It’s the same ailment that has wreaked havoc on Ann Lee’s life. “I get exhausted sometimes, but then I remember: I never want another child to endure what I’ve gone through,” she says.”

    What an awful person, eh…

  18. #18 Alain
    November 4, 2013

    @Edith Prickly,

    Also vaccinated, I feel like becoming more autistic but I will await your visit 🙂

    Alain

  19. #19 LW
    November 4, 2013

    Greg #51:

    But, wait Kreb! You are suggesting that including the younger ages in the study would have skewed the results because some of these kids would have been too young to be diagnosed with autism. Yet, this would actually help the no-link claim! And, if
    the actual data that was done on this methology showed a link does it not make the link claim even more compelling. Again, such a study should have been bias towards the no- link side. It really does seem that the ‘autism free years’ intervention was indeed a way out of the initial ‘horrific’ result.

    Greg #379:

    So, clearly two of the age cohorts would not have even reached the median age of 4 for autism diagnosis. And, four cohorts would not have also reached the median age for diagnosis of other autistic-spectrum disorders –pass the age of 5. This represents a lot of cases that were potentially missed. Missed cases in any study are not friendly to determining trends or establishing correlations. This situation is extremely disadvantageous for our side.

    So which is it? Including younger ages would actually help the no-link (anti-vax) claim? Or is it extremely disadvantageous for the anti-vax side

  20. #20 ChrisP
    November 4, 2013

    LW, you are making a mistake expecting any consistency in any of Greg’s arguments. The only consistency Greg has is that vaccines cause autism – and numerous other diseases when he wants them to.

  21. #21 Krebiozen
    November 5, 2013

    LW,
    What amuses me is that Greg complains about the confounding effects of age (though he mostly gets it backwards), but then claims it is some sort of conspiracy when these are corrected for using perfectly legitimate statistical techniques.

  22. #22 Denice Walter
    November 5, 2013

    @ ChrisP:

    He also consistently discerns malfeasance whenever he runs up against people with superior arguments and information whilst accusing them of connections to pharmaceutical companies. I mean, I also like certain designers’ clothes but I don’t get paid to say so.

    @ Krebiozen:

    Wait, wait… next thing the anti-vaxxers will write up an expose wherein the deep, dark secrets of statistical analysis are revealed….

    “In the 1970s, a group of statisticians gathered in darkness on the 5th of November to hatch a fiendish plot to f#ck with people’s heads, distort scientific research and create vast wealth in the markets…
    their Great Dark Lord opined devilishly- ‘ Nobody really understands this stuff anyway, so we can say ANYTHING we like- who’s gonna know?’

    We have uncovered secret documents that demonstrate that researchers in medicine, global industry and governing supervisory bodies frequently consulted with statisticians…”

  23. #23 Krebiozen
    November 5, 2013

    Denice,

    their Great Dark Lord opined devilishly- ‘ Nobody really understands this stuff anyway, so we can say ANYTHING we like- who’s gonna know?’

    I like it. On several occasions here I have seen antivaxxers and CAMsters reveal, sometimes explicitly, sometimes inadvertently, that if something is too complex for them to understand immediately, it must be suspect. Anything that is true must be easily explainable to a 12-year-old, it seems, and anything more complex is meaningless gobbledygook deliberately contrived to confuse them.

    If a person really believes this, what motivation do they have to spend the time and effort required to make sense of something that seems incomprehensible at first? One of my greatest pleasures in life is making sense out of something I once found baffling.

  24. #24 Antaeus Feldspar
    November 6, 2013

    On several occasions here I have seen antivaxxers and CAMsters reveal, sometimes explicitly, sometimes inadvertently, that if something is too complex for them to understand immediately, it must be suspect. Anything that is true must be easily explainable to a 12-year-old, it seems, and anything more complex is meaningless gobbledygook deliberately contrived to confuse them.

    I’ve seen this too, and called it out. It’s a form of entitlement syndrome; the person who suffers from it believe the universe itself owes them easy answers. They argue as if the mere simplicity of an idea is, in itself, evidence for its correctness – whereas common logic would suggest that, if an idea is simple to understand and would be equally simple to verify if it was true and no one who has tried has been able to provide that verification, that’s pretty good evidence that the idea isn’t true.

  25. #25 Denice Walter
    November 6, 2013

    Right. Only I’d say ” a 10- year-old” because at 12, there’s more likely to be a bit more formal operational thought thus more likey to get the hang of scientific constructs and abstractions.

  26. #26 AdamG
    November 6, 2013

    It’s a form of entitlement syndrome; the person who suffers from it believe the universe itself owes them easy answers.

    This. So much this. Our ‘Libertarian’ friend on the other thread is a perfect example of this, like these gems on climate science:

    Global climate models are based on so many uncertainties and projections on these uncertainties that aspects of climatology enter the realm of pseudoscience.

    We can study the fossil records, geological tables, and other aspects of this type of science, but we cannot with certainty predict the future of climate change. We can speculate and guess on thousands of parameters and pretend that the past evidence gives us the ability to predict the future, but it is the pretense of knowledge.

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