About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Vaccines do not cause autism

“The evidence is in. The scientific community has reached a clear consensus that vaccines don’t cause autism. There is no controversy.” So begins an in-depth discussion of the vaccines-cause-autism nonsense penned by “SkepDoc” Harriet Hall in a recent issue of eSkeptic. It is a must read for any thinking person who has been baffled by the likes of Jenny McCarthy and her unconscionable sponsors, boyfriend Jim Carrey (who bankrolls McCarthy’s dangerous ignorance) and Oprah Winfrey (who provides McCarthy with television time so that she can endanger the lives of even more children).

The SkepDoc helpfully traces the history of this pseudoscientific tale, dividing it into three acts. The original claim came from a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield, who in 1998 published an article in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, proposing that the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine may cause autism because 8 of 10 autistic children he had examined seemed to have developed their autistic symptoms immediately after having been vaccinated, according to their parents. If this sounds like pretty flimsy evidence, it is: the paper was eventually retracted by the journal and by most of Wakefield’s co-authors. It turned out that the doctor did not use any controls at all, ignored negative virological studies that had disproved his thesis even before the publication of the paper, had undisclosed financial conflicts of interest in the matter (he was paid by the lawyers of some of the families whose children he used in his research), and had violated ethical rules of conduct (he bought blood by bribing the children at a birthday party). Moreover, Wakefield’s findings could not be replicated by other studies, so you’d think that would be the end of the story. Nope: the bastard — once charged by the British General Medical Council with professional misconduct — simply moved to the United States, where he is happily making money by working in an autism clinic. As a result of Wakefield’s unconscionable “study”, vaccination rates in the UK dropped, cases of measles went up, and children died. Pseudoscience can kill.

Phase two of the craze, according to Dr. Hall, can be traced back to legislation passed (also in 1998) with the aim of reducing the total amount of mercury that children get through the thimerosal that was used in vaccinations. The intention was good, though it turns out that the dangerous form of mercury is methylmercury, not the ethylmercury found in vaccines. Accordingly, the law was not prompted by any published research or serious assessment conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency. Instead, two mothers (!!) conducted their own “research” and claimed that the symptoms of autism are identical to those induced by mercury poisoning. As Hall points out, this is simply false, period. At any rate, thimerosal was eliminated from vaccines in 1999. You would therefore expect the rate of autism to have gone significantly down as a result, if the hypothesis of a causal link were somehow correct. It didn’t, in fact, it went up. Moreover, a dangerous cottage industry of people selling crackpot remedies against mercury poisoning has emerged, with quacks like Mark and David Geier selling a method that amounts to a very painful process of chemical castration for the hefty sum of $5000-6000 a month. Pseudoscience can hurt, badly.

The third phase of this saga identified by Hall is the one that has seen the above-mentioned McCarthy and Winfrey involved, among others, and it is the even broader (and even less substantiated) claim that all vaccines produced by “Big Pharma” are harmful and are causing an epidemic of autism. McCarthy has an autistic child, and of course she is absolutely convinced that her motherly instincts trump science. She apparently realizes the dire consequences of what she is doing, if somewhat dimly. Here is a quote by McCarthy from the eSkeptic article: “I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit.” The problem is, of course, that current vaccines are in fact as safe as vaccines are going to be, and the dangers are only in Miss McCarthy’s deranged mind. (Incidentally, there seems to be a reliable claim that McCarthy’s son developed autistic symptoms before he was vaccinated, thereby putting in question either the mother’s “instincts” or her good faith.) Pseudoscience can make you a celebrity, the health of the children be damned.

Dr. Hall very appropriately quotes Jonathan Swift in the context of this discussion: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after.” That, of course, is true for the lies of pseudoscience as much as for those of politics (which was Swift’s main concern). What is astounding and deeply disturbing to me is that America seems to be enthralled with this manufactured controversy about science: a substantial portion of the public is convinced that vaccines are bad, while scientists agree that they are as safe as they can be; half of the public thinks that global warming is a myth, while the overwhelming majority of competent scientists keep telling us that we are in dire straits that are getting more and more dire; and of course more than half of Americans reject evolution, despite the fact that the theory has been accepted in science since the end of the 19th century.

There is no simple solution to this problem, though these “controversies” are making the American population more ignorant (evolution), sick (vaccines) and environmentally unconscionable (global warming) than ever. Scientists and science educators need to do their part to counter this nonsense, of course. But celebrities like Carey and Winfrey ought to stop promoting bullshit because they are sleeping with a nutcase or out of a misplaced sense of wanting to help others from the dangerous depths of sheer ignorance. And of course the public at large has a duty to society to be informed and attempt to make the best decisions based on the most reliable sources of evidence. The information is out there, people, just use your brains.


  1. Your link at the beginning of the post is faulty. ;)

    I don't know what's more disturbing--vaccine denial, AIDS denial, or global warming denial. Each has the potential to reek massive havoc on humanity. And they each have something in common--they each involve denying the existence of something that is invisible at a casual glance, and can only be seen by looking at statistics and measuring probabilities, something most people aren't good at.

  2. I don't know what's more disturbing--vaccine denial, AIDS denial, or global warming denial. Each has the potential to reek massive havoc on humanity.

    At least vaccine and AIDS denial only hurts humans.

  3. Correct URL for Harriet's article: http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/09-06-03

  4. I cannot believe that people take a condescending and ignorant paternalist (or maybe more aptly maternalist) like Jenny McCarthy seriously.

    For one think, maybe expect that her son doesn’t even have autism. Rather, they misdiagnosed his Landau–Kleffner syndrome as autism. [1] Her son’s developmental peculiarity began with seizures and once the seizures were treated he improved, characteristic of Landau-Kleffner syndrome (This must have given her the false impression that autistic spectrum conditions can be removed).

    This is a women whose (coauthored) books call autistic children “soulless”. [2] That must be really encouraging news for children and adults on the autistic spectrum.

    This is a self-important New Ager who has the arrogance to call herself an “indigo mom”. [3]

    She is completely ignorant of the field she wants to be an activist in. Let’s just look at a telling Larry King interview [4]:

    KING: What happens to the autistic child when he or she grows up?

    MCCARTHY: That's a good question. I mean I don't know. Evan...

    KING: The adult autistic?

    What are they like?

    MCCARTHY: You know, to tell you the truth, I haven't really met any.

    I'm hoping...

    She’s completely unaquainted of people like Temple Grandin or Daniel Tammet.

    I can only conclude that McCarthy is to autistic activism what Sarah Palin is to foreign policy.

    And don’t excuse her pseudoscientific cheerleading and non-acceptance of autism (if her child even posses that condition) on “maternal instincts”. There a plenty of mothers more reasonable and accepting than she.

  5. Kudos to Amanda Peet for lending her star power in the fight against anti Vax woo.


  6. Thanks for pointing this out. FYI, I wrote about this problem in the May issue of PLoS Biology, talking to medical historians and anthropologists to shed light on the persistence of the vaccine-autism myth. If anyone's interested, you can find it here: http://tiny.cc/GZPrG. Needless to say, it was not well received in some circles.

  7. Oh, there's a even better McCarthy quote displaying her ignorance of autistic adults [1]:

    PR.com: You never hear about it, you never see it. Where are the autistic adults?

    Jenny McCarthy: It’s cause there weren’t any. It’s all now.

  8. "The information is out there, people, just use your brains."

    Sadly, many well-intentioned people simply don't know how to do this. Critical thinking should be part of the school curriculum.

  9. In the midst of this complex issue, how do you believe the arrogance that is often portrayed by "scientist" affects the situation?

    This is an issue in the public arena and therefor goes well beyond the measures of reason and science. I think most people, given the time to explore the information and analyze the intentions of the talking heads involved, will likely understand the merits of vaccines. That said, if we choose to martyr the "opponents", who may be misguided from our standpoint, who are acting "within" the ranks of the general public (many of us academics are viewed as "outsiders") with what they assume to be valid information, than I fear we do the issue, and our desired outcomes, greater harm than good.

    Testimony and authority are difficult elements of public communication to accurately predict. Science and reason may not always win the battles we expect, sometimes to fault of our own efforts. We may want to be more careful with terms like "self-important" and "ignorant paternalist", or the irony may bite us where the sun don't shine.

  10. Monkey sees Monkey does. Dont just blindly follow this monkey. This monkey is talented enough to spew his disinformation about the safety of vaccines without a single piece credible evidence. Show me the evidence monkey.
    In reality, there are thousands of cases of vaccine trauma and severe adverse reactions which have been to courts and won. If you have the see the effects of vaccines on children especially, go to www.ageofautism.com

  11. The antivaccine movement has become a real problem, thanks to Jenny McCarthy and her equally dim boyfriend Jim Carrey. Before McCarthy, there was no celebrity face to the movement. After McCarthy, there is not only a celebrity face but major fundraising activity for anti-vaccine cranks.

    In any case, I'm glad that the skeptical movement is finally waking up to this problem. For far too long it's been a minor part of the skeptical agenda, but since Phil Plait took over JREF's management things have improved:



    For a lont time, other than a handful of other bloggers who took on the anti-vaccine movement I sometimes thought I was virtually alone.

  12. Massimo "There is no simple solution to this problem, though these “controversies” are making the American population more ignorant (evolution), sick (vaccines) and environmentally unconscionable (global warming) than ever."

    There is a simple solution...you'll make yourself the test subject.

    During the Gulf war the French troops refused the coctail of vaccines that were offered to the troops while the US military were absolutely forced to take the the series of vaccinations. The French troops to this day show no evidence of Gulf War syndrome.

    Massimo, since you consider me SO clueless all the time every time on all subjects known to man and beast, I'm sure you wouldn't mind subjecting yourself to that particular regime of vaccinations, would you?

    For the sake of science, of course. I'm sure you'll be okay. You said there's nothing to this, after all

  13. Each has the potential to reek massive havoc on humanity.
    Wes, I think that should be "wreak" (as in cause a negative outcome), rather than "reek" (which means to stink unpleasantly).
    Cal, I don't understand what you're actually asking Max to do; take vaccines for which he has no need (unlike childhood illness vaccines)?
    And what does Gulf War Syndrome (which I think is what you're alluding to) have to do with childhood illnesses?
    Please clue us all in. The connection seems to be all in your mind.

  14. kimpat
    - I think it would be best if he didn't take the series of vaccines that soldiers were asked to take. But if he is confident that there is no real problem with such practices, he should have no problem with it. Nor should you.

    Why do you think it is better for children to take combination's of diseases in their bodies all at the same time, but not adults? In the case of Gulf War Syndrome, the evidence is rather clear.

    One of my kids had to be re-vaccinated before school and it caused a lot of problems. But like Jenny McCarthy, moms just apparently don't know a thing.

    I don't give a flip what people (educated or not) think of me. That was the LAST TIME I EVER took a drs word on anything at face value.

  15. One of my kids had to be re-vaccinated before school and it caused a lot of problems. But like Jenny McCarthy, moms just apparently don't know a thing.

    Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

  16. My husband works in the medical field, and as such had to have proof of various vaccines. For one reason or another, some of the records went missing. To date, he has had (we think) 6 or 7 MMR jabs, at least 3 of which in childhood. Unless you count a tendency to get up in the middle of the night in search of chocolate and not remember it the next day, he has apparently suffered no ill effects.

    There. If we're going by anecdotal evidence, beat that one.

  17. I too seem to suffer the "middle of the night in search of chocolate" problem. Let's start a support group, someone, please!? At least, I didn't get to risk having poliomyelitis.

    Now, seriously, what's wrong with these people? Of course there will be some cases of reactions and etc. for anything we do. Let's ban peanuts, my girlfriend is deadly allergic to the stuff!

    In Brazil we had the "vaccine riots" early in the 20th century. It took a little while, but the craze passed and yellow fever, among other things, came under control. Nowadays, people can't hear about a vaccine, they want to take it, even if not needed. I guess people there still have in memory how it was before vaccines were available for all, even the many poor.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.