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Research Fraud and the Spread of Dangerous Woo

Posted June 3, 2009

The Skeptics Society publishes a weekly newsletter (online and via email) which I at least skim as soon as it hits my mailbox. An email subscription is a must-have for any skeptic living in southern California (or anywhere else for that matter) because it contains announcements & reminders of events, book releases, & upcoming lectures, a link to the latest Skepticality podcast, at least one featured article, and more.
This week’s eSkeptic features a piece by Harriet Hall, a.k.a. “SkepDoc”, on what she calls the manufactroversy (manufactured controversy) over vaccines and autism. It is a thorough, but concise history of the fraud committed by the despicable Andrew Wakefield, the consequences of that fraud, and the persistence of a battle that never should have begun. This is one of those articles which every anti-vaxxer should read, but will not. A number of things are made so incredibly clear that I cannot imagine anyone denying them, but they will nonetheless:

  1. Vaccines do not cause autism.
  2. Thimerosal does not cause autism.
  3. Wakefield has committed numerous acts of the worst kind of fraud.
  4. The anti-vaccination movement has resulted in the return of preventable illnesses that can maim and kill.

If we do not fix this problem, more children will die. The children at risk are NOT just the unvaccinated children. For any vaccine, as with any medication, 100% effectiveness is not a reasonable expectation. Some vaccinated children will get the disease and there will always be children who cannot be vaccinated due to immune system deficiencies. These children are only protected when herd immunity thresholds are reached. Herd immunity is required for vaccines to work. For the average vaccine, the proportion of the population required for herd immunity is over 80%. For pertussis, a.k.a. whooping cough, the threshold is over 90%. A particularly heart wrenching story about the preventable death of a 4-week-old girl has become the center of the debate in Australia, where vaccination rates in her area are so low that she acquired whooping cough and died before she was old enough to be vaccinated. Yet anti-vaxxers will tell you that childhood diseases are not harmful, that nobody dies from them, and that they are actually helpful. I have even heard some say that these diseases exist to boost the immune system! mccarthy-green-vaccine
At the center of the debate in the U.S. is, of course, former Playboy playmate Jenny McCarthy. Hall makes note that McCarthy’s story is inconsistent with the facts and that the focus of her movement keeps changing.

Jenny and her cohorts claim they are not anti-vaccine, but they are certainly a good facsimile thereof. The goalposts keep moving. First it was the MMR vaccine, then it was thimerosal, then it was mercury from all sources, then it was other vaccine ingredients, then it was too many vaccines, then it was giving vaccines too early. They will not be satisfied until science can offer a 100% safe and a 100% effective vaccine proven to have no side effects of any kind even in a rare susceptible individual. That’s not going to happen in this universe.

Jenny claims that her status as a mother trumps science. She claims that her ignorant ideas are valid, but that scientists will not listen to them. Here’s what Hall has to say about that:

Scientists had been urged to “listen to the parents.” They did listen to the parents and then conducted research to test the parents’ hypotheses. There were various kinds of studies in different countries by different research groups. The results were consistent:
* 10 studies showed MMR doesn’t cause autism
* 6 studies showed thimerosal doesn’t cause autism
* 3 studies showed thimerosal doesn’t cause subtle neurological problems
Now it’s the parents who won’t listen to the scientists.

In addition, Hall discusses the dangers of quack treatments (peddled by those who created the anti-vax movement) like chelation therapy. This is the real motivation behind this movement — give parents a quack theory about the cause of their problems, then offer them the solution. Insurance companies will not pay for this solution, so it must work (they won’t pay for it because they are evil corporations who want you to remain sick and not because the treatment does not work or carries risks). This does not make sense at all to anyone considering it rationally, but a scared, desperate parent who only wants a healthy child? It’s exactly what they want to hear.oprah_secret1
Finally, Newsweek published a brilliant article about Jenny McCarthy’s new sugarmommy, Oprah Winfrey. It is a long article, but well worth every minute spent reading it. It’s well-written and describes some pretty silly stuff which Oprah, the most powerful woman in the country, is selling.

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