Bernadine Healy: new crank on the block

I love Saturday mornings. I usually get up early, make coffee, hang out with my daughter. Before my daughter wakes up and makes me change the channel, I usually catch a few minutes of CNN, which, at that time of day, features fellow Michigander Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Today, he started out talking about women and heart disease, an important topic. Then he moved on to a discussion with Dr. Bernadine Healy about vaccines. This is where it got ugly. In fact, I was emailing Orac about an unrelated matter, and I began to rant incoherently. Orac reeled me back in, and was kind enough to send me a few additional links regarding Dr. Healy.

Dr. Healy is the former director of the National Institutes of Health, and former head of the American Red Cross. She is currently a health writer for U.S. News and World Report. And now, she is officially an anti-vaccine denialist.

As has been addressed ad nauseaum, there is no connection between vaccines and autism, or mercury and autism. Also, there is no evidence that thimerosal, the mercury compound that used to be present in vaccines, is at all harmful. But that doesn't stop Dr. Healy from "dancing with woo". Thankfully, CNN is quick with the transcripts (all emphasis mine):

GUPTA: I'm going to switch topics for one second. I think it's important question to ask you for any parent out there. You wrote a piece recently for "U.S. News and World Report" specifically about autism, where you said that it was biologically plausible that vaccines could cause autism. And that was a pretty surprising, I think, maybe striking comment, given your position, your scientific background. Where did that come from?

HEALY: Well, I think there is a science base. And historically, we do know that in susceptible individuals in an almost inexplicably, some patients will have neurotoxicity from vaccines. We've known that for years going back to 1930s. We knew about swine flu and (INAUDIBLE). We do know that that happens.

It is a plausible hypothesis. I think the second thing is the mercury in vaccines, and I know families have been criticized for raising that issue, but we have to realize we're giving kids three, four times the number of vaccines that we were doing 10 or 15 years ago. Or certainly my little girls were getting their vaccines. And that for a while, they were getting toxic levels cumulatively.

So when parents got together and said wait a minute, we're giving our kids toxic level of mercury, that was a legitimate thing for them to raise. It was a legitimate concern. And there is evidence that that can be brain toxic probably in susceptible individuals. And we don't know which ones.

What I was trying to get across in that editorial is something that is a message for every drug you put in your mouth, for every therapy. And that is individuals react differently.

In addition to Healy inexplicably falling in line with the mercury militia, she uses the Hannah Poling case like a true believer. Despite the fact that the court in the Poling case in no way implicated a connection between vaccines and autism, she repeats the same canards as the rest of the anti-vaccine denialists.

But, hey, this is just one interview. Perhaps she was trying to make a different point and it just came out wrong.

Nope. She said exactly what she meant. Her US News article is right out of the mercury militia play book. And it doesn't stop there. She's pretty much anti-science when it comes to medicine in general.

She seems to think that evidence-based medicine, the scientific revolution that has saved so many lives, is some sort of fascism. And to top it off, the AAPS, the bizarre organization that seems to include every doctor that shows up on Quackwatch, likes her.

It's sad and embarrassing to see one of my colleagues get sucked into the pseudoscientific realm of medical denialism. But most of all, it's dangerous. She speaks from a position of authority, and people believe her. It makes our work that much harder and that much more important.


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Yikes. I think what scares me even more is that this woman was once head of the NIH. Has she always been like this? Or has she changed her opinion recently since she got out of the position (and possibly out of the lab and clinic)?

The worst part about this is that our good friend Dr. Sanjay Gupta doesn't even respond to or challenge her on her ridiculous claims; they just go to commercial and change the subject afterwards. I don't understand how Gupta, as a physician, can be so intellectually dishonest. Does he not know what every study on this issue has stated? Does he just not care?

I don't think it's so much that Dr. Gupta is intellectually dishonest. It's more, I think, that he is naive and relatively uninformed about this issue. He may also be intimidated by Dr. Healy and unwilling to challenge her.

I'm more than happy to pull the trigger and call Healy a crank. The criticism of EBM combined with the absolutely idiotic support of the discredited thimerosal hypothesis is enough. It's no wonder the AAPS loves her. It's crank magnetism.

Just think about this:

If you guys (MD's) are having trouble knowing who to believe (I know this woman is a quack, but how much better credentials can you have than former Director of the NIH?), think how it must be for us mere mortals to figure out who is full of shit and who isn't.

If you spend as much time with medical professionals as I do, you start to question everything. Even if it is someone that you really trust, where did they get their information? Was it from a director of the NIH that happens to have her head up her ass?

It has to be very frustrating for you, because it absolutely makes me crazy, sometimes.

I was just putting together a list of websites about this issue with NIH and NINDS(Fact Sheet on Autism) prominently featured: some people I know socially, all reasonably well educated,have been questioning the safety of vaccines,and because of my background in Psychology, I hear about it. The sites I felt were most efffective included research presented historically. Because I like to laugh, I also took a look at anti-vax "literature",being especially entertained by a 1960 compilation* of earlier articles in Prevention magazine, from which I quote:"Vaccination is a present-day evil.We believe that a time will come when we will be so healthy, vaccinations will be unnecessary","There is pretty general acceptance at present of the fact that smallpox results from unhygienic conditions","They cite cases of serious upsets suffered by vaccinated babies and even some deaths attributed to artificial immunization", and ".... just as outward sanitation has rid us of some of the basic causes of diphtheria,so internal cleanliness of the child's system will surely take care of the rest of the problem".It's deja woo all over again! Woo is eternal while EBM er, uh.. evolves. *The Prevention Method for Better Health by J.I> Rodale and Staff, Rodale Press.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 18 May 2008 #permalink

Sorry Bill. The best I can do is offer you this advice on spotting fake experts. One must also realize that being the head of the NIH is often more of a political appointment than a scientific one.

For instance, the most notable reason our current NIH head is where he is are the sizable contributions he made to the Bush campaign rather than some immense contribution to science or to management of a scientific institution. That being said, he's far better on science than Healy is and has even taken a few brave stands against his boss. At the top of the power distribution you're usually going to find less science being done and more money being spent. The result is these assignments are more often political than based on scientific qualification.

You also have to remember that just because someone has made a notable scientific contribution and gained position is no protection from developing into a crank. Quite a few notable scientists have walked off the reservation at one time or another. Duesberg for example and Fred S. Singer were both at one point members in good standing in the National Academy of Science - not an easy body to get into. That doesn't make their positions on HIV/AIDS or the environment/smoking any less silly.

I am not Bill but I went to the
you recommended anyway.

Thanks for the Popper turn-on.
The problem I see with Popper (from my minuscule reading of him) is not the falsifiable problem but the other side of his ideas. The fact that the scientific method cannot lead to certain proof of a theory. Therein lies a crack that becomes a gaping fault into which creationism and ID and other woo festers either by pointing out that evolution cannot be proven or by stating a particular version of woo "could" be true.

Does he actually state, or has anyone argued that so-called "open" statements cannot be science? Many statements made by real scientists are not falsifiable.

It's no wonder the AAPS loves her. It's crank magnetism.

Does crank magnetism purport to have any healing properties?

For instance, the most notable reason our current NIH head is where he is are the sizable contributions he made to the Bush campaign rather than some immense contribution to science or to management of a scientific institution.

On the other hand, Dr. John Niederhuber, who is head of the NCI, is an established surgeon-scientist with a long track record of results. I did once accuse him of being a bit out of touch but my more recent encounters with him at meetings running Q&A sessions find him a bit less so, as far as I can tell. In any case, he is a credible translational researcher.

OLdfart wrote (inre Popper) "Does he actually state, or has anyone argued that so-called "open" statements cannot be science? Many statements made by real scientists are not falsifiable."

Scientific statements that are not falsifiable are, often, challenges for the experimentalist. When I was young, reaction hypotheses were hampered by the inability to observe reactions in real-time. In the late '80s, technology developed that allowed us to test those ideas. Said ideas were always 'scientific;' just not testable given the current state of affairs.

Unscientific statements are those that are 'defined' as untestable. For example, "there is an unmeasurable force that controls life." If it is not measurable, it cannot be tested.

While I agree with you, I'd also be interested in you opinion of this, pulished on Pharmalot yesterday.

By crankynick (not verified) on 19 May 2008 #permalink

Ignore that last comment (sort of) - I hadn't looked carefully at the study authors before posting it...

It was, of course, authored by the Geiers...

Not being much of an expert in these things, though, I'd still be interested in your view of the science in the paper.

By crankynick (not verified) on 19 May 2008 #permalink

Some people I know have become concerned about this article concerning vaccines tested on monkeys. Is this at all a reliable study?

I just found Orac's comments on the monkey study. Apparently the answer to my question is no.

She expresses doubts about the safety of vaccines based on a coincidental trend and anecdotal accounts. At the same time she rejects a large meta-study that casts doubt on the safety of vitamins (source). Clearly, she completely lacks objectivity, and is apparently no longer able to evaluate evidence quality.

On Larry King Live, Dr. Bernadine Healy came across as wise, intelligent, caring and teachable. She said she was pro-vaccine, but questioned the current bloated schedule, asking why we give a Hep B shot to the non-risk newborns, then again at 2 and 4 months, and why the vaccinated versus unvaccinated studies have yet to be done by the AAP? Dr. Margaret Fisher and Dr. Max Wiznitzer came across as unteachable, and as "We know what we know and we don't want to deviate from it." Less than two days after my daughter's four month shots, she became allergic to her milk based formula. On her second day of rice cereal at 6 months, she threw it all up. After a tough year, she was allergy tested (18 months) and she tested positive for peanuts, nuts, milk, eggs, beef, chicken, pork, lamb, garlic, mustard, even rice, etc.. She is 9 years old now and by 4, had outgrown the rice and chicken allergies. I think her problems are due to three factors: 1. A few mild allergies on my side of the family. 2. I've had A LOT of dental work, including mercury-containing amalgam fillings. 3. Her vaccines, as evidenced by the timing of her milk based formula allergy. I want to know why we need shots like Rotavirus for diarhhea, chickenpox vaccine, Hep B shot if the parents don't have Hep B, flu shots (many still contain mercury) every year? Why is there monkey kidney tissue, formaldehyde, MSG, aluminum, etc. in these vaccines? And why is there little focus on nutrition and vitamins?

why the vaccinated versus unvaccinated studies have yet to be done by the AAP?

Because that would be monstrously unethical? How many children do you want to sacrifice to easily-preventable diseases for the sake of this hypothetical study?