Antivaccination crankery on the CBS News website

While I'm back on the topic of vaccines and autism after a long hiatus, thanks to the Atuism Omnibus, don't know how I missed this article by Sharyl Attkisson, entitled Autism: Why the Debate Rages. I can't recall the last time I saw so many logical fallacies and doggerel packed into an article on an ostensibly "mainstream news" site. In fact, I don't think I've seen such antivax idiocy on a mainstream news site ever, but it's possible that I blocked it out of my mind. I don't have time to do a thorough fisking, but I will hit the main points. Here are the "reasons" that Attkisson lists as being responsible for the "debate" continuing. It's sheer crank thinking and conspiracy mongering.

Attkisson gets things rolling with the old tried-and-true "science has been wrong before" gambit (also here) with these sterling examples:

  • It's the same group that originally thought it was safe to use x-ray machines in shoe stores, gave pregnant women Thalidomide for morning sickness and once allowed mercury in medicines. They assured us Vioxx and Duract were safe painkillers, prescribed Rezulin for diabetics and then denied any of them were responsible for patient deaths. If we never questioned that group, we might not have discovered that Fen-phen and the dietary supplement Ephedra are not safe weight loss products, that antidepressants in kids can lead to suicidality and Viagra can cause blindness. The list goes on.
  • When it comes to vaccines, the same group failed to predict that the 1990's rotavirus (diarrhea) vaccine would have to be pulled from the market after infant deaths. They encouraged use of the oral polio vaccine (eventually discontinued after it gave too many children polio). And they allowed the use of a mercury neurotoxin preservative in childhood vaccines, only to admit later that they hadn't thought to calculate the cumulative amount kids were getting as more and more vaccines were added to the childhood immunization schedule.

Classic crankery. I tip my hat to her! Of course, the observation that science has on occasion made mistakes does not demonstrate that the consensus that thimerosal (or vaccines in general) does not cause autism is incorrect. You need some evidence to support an assertion that it is wrong, not anecdotes about other times that science has been wrong.. There are many ways of being wrong; pointing out the mistakes of science does not bolster an "unconventional" viewpoint, although it is a red flag that we're probably dealing with a crank. Also, science is an inherently self-correcting enterprise. The "mistakes" of science, by and large, were discovered and corrected by scientists, not cranks like Attkisson.

Next, she makes the claim that scientists take an "all-or-nothing" approach to vaccines because they are afraid that if one vaccine is found to be unsafe then it would jeopardize parents' faith in all vaccinations. Alone of all the crankery Ms. Attkisson lays out, this is the only assertion that has a grain of truth to it. Of course, she neglects to point out that it is the hysterical antivaccination loons like herself who stoke this hysteria any time safety issues about vaccines are brought to light. Scientists know this, and tend to react in a bit of an oversensitive manner at times. If there weren't such a rabid antivaccination contingent, it's possible that scientists wouldn't feel as though their backs are against the wall and they have to defend every vaccine so vociferously.

Of course, no crankery would be complete without the classic pharma shill gambit, wherein critics of antivaccination pseudoscience are painted as hopelessly in the thrall of the evil big pharma, and Attkisson does not disappoint here either:

  • There's so much overlap among pharmaceutical companies, government scientists and advisors that the information they provide at least has the appearance of a conflict of interest. Government scientists and advisors often do not mention their connections to the vaccine industry when they provide opinions on the vaccine/autism/ADD issue.
  • University and government researchers and advisors often do research for vaccine companies, help develop vaccines (even profit from them), and/or are paid to consult for them. Often, these researchers do not disclose their industry ties when they publicly dispel the notion of a link between autism or ADD and vaccines.
  • Non-profits that promote vaccinations have ties to vaccine makers that they often do not disclose when giving their opinions on vaccine safety. One example is "Every Child By Two." This group contacted CBS News several years ago in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent one of our stories about the vaccine safety from airing. In forms filed for the IRS, the non-profit lists an official from vaccine maker Wyeth Pharmaceuticals as its Treasurer. It lists vaccine maker Chiron as a paid client.

Well done! Beautiful crankery! I'm all for complete transparency when it comes to researchers being required to disclose any potential conflicts of interest, but the above quotes represent nothing more than a classic "poisoning the well" fallacy. If you're going to address the evidence, address the evidence. Conflicts of interest correctly lead me to be more skeptical of the data, but in the end it's the experimental design and the data that have to stand, regardless of the investigator. Also, if we're going to play this game, I could point out that many of the "expert" witnesses used in vaccine lawsuits have their own severe conflicts of interest. (Mark and David Geier or Andrew Wakefield, anyone?) Odd that Attkisson doesn't see fit to mention them. As for her attack on the Verstraeten study, that's yet another myth of Simpsonwood propagated in the conspiracy literature. IT's not at all uncommon for early study results to show an apparent correlation between a clinical condition like autism and some factor and to have that correlation disappear as more data comes in and inclusion and exclusion criteria are tightened up. What's funnier is that Mark Geier actually may have plagiarized part of the Verstraeten study.

Of course, if you look further at Attkisson's article, you can find other doggerel, including "science doesn't know everything" (also here), swallowing whole the concept of an "autism epidemic," even though the real reason for the greatly increased number of autism diagnoses is not an "epidemic" but rather a broadening of diagnostic criteria and increased surveillance to look for signs of autism in young children. There's even a bit of Galileo gambit thrown in there for good measure, when she points to the "scientists" who think a link is credible, even though those scientists go very much against the consensus, although my favorite is when she writes in a serious, non-ironic way, "A lengthy Congressional investigation also concluded that the autism epidemic is likely linked to vaccinations."

Because Congress is so good at determining what is and is not good science.

All in all, there's so much crankery, distortion, and misinformation in Ms. Attkisson's article that it depresses me to see it on the CBS News website. CBS News in general and Katie Couric in particular (the article appears under Couric & Co.) should be ashamed for promoting the most tired canards from the antivaccination movement.

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Nice picture of Sharyl, she's awfully cute! She and Katie make a great team. I would like to see more of mix of technical and some fashion articles. There something kinda sexy when they talk technical don't ya think? I think her new hairstyle really brings bit of sassy authenticity to the piece don't you?

Sorry, How is it that Eagles song "All she wants to do is dance" goes ?
"the bubble headed bleach blond comes on at five, she can tell ya about the plane crash with a gleam in her eye"

Soemtimes there is little difference between supposed reporting and yelling fire in a crowded theater...

By Uncle Dave (not verified) on 19 Jun 2007 #permalink

Sorry, How is it that Eagles song "All she wants to do is dance" goes ?
"the bubble headed bleach blond comes on at five, she can tell ya about the plane crash with a gleam in her eye"

Actually, that's from a Don Henley (formerly of the Eagles) solo piece, Dirty Laundry, which is all about the excesses of media. It was released back in 1982, and it's just as true today.

Correct me if I'm wrong about scientific research. Isn't it nearly impossible to prove that something doesn't cause something else?

"6. There is no definitive research proving a link between vaccines and autism or ADD, but there is also no definitive research ruling it out."

That's on the same level as: Prove vampires don't exist.

You can show that as the amount of mercury in vaccines goes down there is no decreases in the prevalence of Autism. You can show that people in developing nations without vaccines have Autism. You can show that people who come from other countries that do not have the same amount of mercury have Autism.
Also if there was a definitive study done with complete transparency and it showed no link between vaccinations and Autism would the anti vacs people believe it. No. They would do one of two things: 1) They would rework the statistics to either show a link or as a minimum muddy the water. 2) Failing the stats massaging game scream phara shill. Also the advanced statistics used in large trial studies are beyond the average engineering college graduate, not to mention laymen. I have an ME and I have to looks at the stats a bit before I understand what they mean.

As far as the final point of the argument she hits the nail on the head, or the anti vacs movement on the head. The idea that the drug companies are intentionally poisoning their children is less frightening than the unknown. There is also the fact that it's less frightening then the idea that something the parents did (insert any culprit you want here) around conception or while carrying the baby, caused the Autism.

As far as the ADD correlation. I have ADD and out of respect of Orac I'm not going to touch that subject. The reason being I wouldn't be able to do so without strings of bilingual expletives and the questioning of the parentage of certain individuals.
The comments would be extremely insolent and not remotely respectful.

Interestingly, a recent study by U. Maryland ranked CBS's website pretty highly on transparency. (They were tied with the BBC, the Christian Science Monitor and NPR, and surpassed by The Guardian and the New York Times.)

While there is no standard corrections page, a blog off the CBSNews website, called Public Eye, posts narrative corrections and amendments to stories. However, for online news sites, navigation and useability are paramount, and the lack of a single page or link on Public Eye to corrections makes it hard for visitors to get an overview of how many corrections CBS news has made.

The owner information can be found, but it is not clearly available. CBS does cover stories on its parent company Viacom.

Both a code of ethics and information on conflicts of interest are available and both are clearly defined, however, you have to access them through the CBS Corporation web site, not CBS News. Public Eye also posts videos of editorial meetings, bringing visitors into the decision-making process. That site also interviews reporters and producers about specific stories.

There is not a direct or obvious link to "News Values" on the web site. However, extensive information on CBS news values can be found in different sections on its website, especially on postings on Public Eye.

The outlet has what it calls an "nonbudman"—the editor of Public Eye who performs many of the same functions of an ombudsman. There are blogs by reporters, but there are no live chats or links to submit traditional "letters to the editor." Readers can, however, comment directly right after a story and see others' comments as well.

That must be why I apologized in advance before I said "Hows that song go" :)

By Uncle Dave (not verified) on 19 Jun 2007 #permalink

Actually, Attkisson has a pretty long trail of this at CBS (Headline News reader at her previous job). I recall an obnoxious piece about recycling nickel from Oak Ridge. She was in high dudgeon because they were going to release nickel that had been EXPOSED TO RADIATION into the mainstream for stainless steel production.

Never mind that the levels of radioactivity were at (or about) background.

Never mind that the group leader demonstrated on camera that an off-the-supermarket-shelf salt substitute was more radioactive than the nickel (due to the potassium-40).

Nope. The nickel had been EXPOSED TO RADIATION and was therefore too dangerous for words.

As an intellect, she sure is purty...

Having ground through the comments about the article I'm rather frightened. I think we as a species are screwed. I have begun to lose faith in the "average human" since I was about 12 years old. Now as I learn more about humanity I have gone beyond a lose of faith and have reached a point of pity and contempt. One or two voices of reason in pages of scaremongering.

Who is this guy? He posted two responses to her article??

Sharyl Attkisson;

Thanks for this story on Autism but more broadly the issue of "whom does one trust?"

I have a story on a vaccine program that I have researched and "lived" for 6 years which I would like to convey to a responsible investigative reporter.

Thanks for contacting me at or cell- 570-242-1414

Be Well,

Rick Lippin MD
Southampton, Pa

By Uncle Dave (not verified) on 19 Jun 2007 #permalink

They encouraged use of the oral polio vaccine (eventually discontinued after it gave too many children polio).

Sigh. Polio gave too many children polio. It's not as if the kids were being inoculated for kicks.
Up here in Ontario there is a medical talk show on 1050 CHUM. I was much encouraged when the host gave a longish lecture on the differences between relative risk, absolute risk, and why the actual numbers matter. Unfortunately, there is a bizzare idea in this culture that any risk is unacceptable, except when it comes to familiar risks.

By Andrew Wade (not verified) on 19 Jun 2007 #permalink

Regarding risks, you could follow the security expert Bruce Schneier's blog or read his books. My impression is that this is a subject we must be taught because we don't seem to handle things well purely by intuition.

>Never mind that the group leader demonstrated on camera that >an off-the-supermarket-shelf salt substitute was more >radioactive than the nickel (due to the potassium-40).
>Nope. The nickel had been EXPOSED TO RADIATION and was >therefore too dangerous for words.

AUGH! You don't know how many times I've had to explain - to smart people - that passing radiation through something DOES NOT make it radioactive. Folks who are against irradiated food (or say that it's not vegan, organic, "natural," etc) really piss the hell out of me. We need better science education!

This has got to be the guy. Wow. He doesn't seem to believe in the germ theory of disease. He thinks colds aren't caused by viruses, but by "parasympathetic breakthrough or payback" phenomena. Seriously.

AUGH! You don't know how many times I've had to explain - to smart people - that passing radiation through something DOES NOT make it radioactive. Folks who are against irradiated food (or say that it's not vegan, organic, "natural," etc) really piss the hell out of me. We need better science education!

Posted by: lydia | June 19, 2007 05:20 PM

Well what is the point of irradiating food? To increase the fecal count?

Well what is the point of irradiating food? To increase the fecal count?

I don't quite see how irradiation would increase the coliform count. As I recall irradiation serves the same functions as pasturization--it increases the time to spoilage by killing micoorganisms.

By Andrew Wade (not verified) on 19 Jun 2007 #permalink

Andrew Wade: monson seemed to me to be making a comment re the people who say irradiated food isn't "organic" or "natural," i.e., would you *want* food to contain natural levels of fecal coliform bacteria?

Orac: Re an "increase in autism" being purely an artifact of broader diagnostic criteria and greater vigilance, I don't know that that's been conclusively established. I've kind of wondered myself from time to time whether increasing age of fathers might correlate with autism as I've read that it does with schizophrenia. Anyone know of any studies that have been done on this?

...that passing radiation through something DOES NOT make it radioactive

Unless it is irradiated by neutrons. Then we could analyze the celery for trace metals!

Andrew Wade: monson seemed to me to be making a comment re the people who say irradiated food isn't "organic" or "natural," i.e., would you *want* food to contain natural levels of fecal coliform bacteria?

Ah, my sarcasm-detector must be misadjusted. Sorry monson.

By Andrew Wade (not verified) on 19 Jun 2007 #permalink

Regarding risks, you could follow the security expert Bruce Schneier's blog or read his books.

I haven't been to his blog in a while, but I recall it being good stuff.

My impression is that this is a subject we must be taught because we don't seem to handle things well purely by intuition.

Hmm. Naive intuition is pretty awful when it comes to estimating risk, but I don't know that it does that bad a job at handling it in general. Still, there are cases where our intuition breaks down pretty badly, and I'm all for education.

By Andrew Wade (not verified) on 19 Jun 2007 #permalink

Actually, as I understand it, the issue with irradiating food isn't that people think it'll make the food radioactive, though it wouldn't surprise if many do, it's that irradiation induces chemical changes, and we don't know what effect some of the resulting compounds will have on health. Mind you, I don't know that those compounds are created in large enough quantity to have an effect.

Another concern that I saw mentioned in The New Laurel's Kitchen was that radioactive materials would need to be transported to the irradiation sites, which brings up security concerns. Again, I don't know enough to know if these are valid worries.

If anything, I'm more disturbed that autism "advocate" Doherty recently linked to the article approvingly on that little blog of his than simply it's existence. But it did make me wonder about what these types of groups he advocates for get in not oppossing the mercury militia forcefully and directly. Are they afraid of the possibility of the lessening of donations if they put aside campaigns of panic and concentrate on a growing public health issue due to hysteria over autism that they in fact helped create? Montreal already has a measles epidemic. There will be many more like this in the future.

And as if on cue, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has a new article up at HuffPo. Apparently you hate mothers, Orac.

I took the bait and read the Kennedy article and the comments that followed. It makes for predictable and depressing reading. Some of those commenting beat up on one person who points out that the rise in autism is an effect of changing classifications and diagnoses. Having some ancestors who were regarded as "odd" in various ways (in at least one case to do with extreme social unease, lack of eye contact, rarely speaking) but never clearly diagnosed in one way or another, this makes sense to me. At least those individuals lasted long enough to make some kind of impression on the world; others were swept away in early childhood by diseases that can now be prevented with immunizations, diseases that people who have no immediate family memory of their horrors seem perversely willing to allow back.

Yeah, I saw the RFK, Jr. piece last night, but unfortunately (or fortunately) it was too late for me to have time to comment. Whether I say anything about it for tomorrow depends on whether I can stomach going back to read it again.

Looks like the Denialism boys took care of it.

My spouse who is a 29 year veteran of special education has over the years developed a pretty good sense for diagnosing and getting background information from parents and or gaurdians concering special needs children. Basically, when you dig far enough into the family (questions about parents, aunts uncles etc.) you find that indeed there is usually some relationship to having a close relative that needed special care or was unique in some way and to some varying degree of severity (Uncle Ken could do integral equations in his head but he always ate the same thing every day and would never leave the house etc.etc.)
I find that for the most part some parents are reluctant to see the correlation or any connection with relatives.
This is not to say this is always the case as far as gathering complete information, but many of these people need to understand the incomplete nature of some of these cases of autism (documentation). Unlike Down's syndrome and other obvious at birth conditions, symtoms of autism are not readily aparent until around age 2, thereby leading people to believe in an environmental causation (and there are varying degrees of severity as well). I had no idea how many so called crank doctors there were previous to my excursion into basic autism and educational therapy. There is nothing more emotionally charged than a parent with an special needs child (not a judgement just an observation). When no diffinitive smoking gun cause is known, it opens the door to the "I may not be a research scientist, but I stayed at a Holiday Inn last night" types. Thanks for all the information Orac, I have found your links and blog on autism to be most interesting.

By Uncle Dave (not verified) on 20 Jun 2007 #permalink

Concerning Thalidomide:

Isn't it the case that it was not approved for use in the USA (at least not for morning sickness)?

I find that for the most part some parents are reluctant to see the correlation or any connection with relatives.

That's interesting; I've had a very difficult time persuading my parents that there might be a thread of Tourette's running through my matriline (incidentally, a first cousin of the guy I mentioned in the first comment... yes, all the funky stuff seems to be traveling along one lineage as far as I can tell). It's only with tremendous persistence that I've elicited information that, once disclosed, seemed to me to be pretty strong evidence of the disorder in at least one individual in the past two generations.

Of course, nothing can be determined with any certainty, since the individuals concerned are dead, and there is only the memory of telltale symptoms, certainly nothing that rises to the level of a proper diagnosis. Still, the refusal to acknowledge any kind of connection is startling, especially in light of reminiscences like, "he was shuddering so badly at 14 they thought he had St. Vitus Dance." In my family's case, I think it is a difference in generation; any admission of developmental, psychological or neurological illness seems to them to be abhorrent and shameful. Then again, they are pretty old, and I wouldn't expect younger people to express such attitudes, but then perhaps I'm wrong. Any other ideas?