Orac and Steve Novella's vaccination wonderfulness

By Phil Plait | January 10, 2009 9:56 am

You know, I tackle the antivax garbage here on occasion, and while of course it’s not my field of expertise, I know enough and have done enough research to understand the issue fairly well.

But Orac is the Man. When he gets the wind up about vaccinations and autism, all I can do is stand back and watch him work.

Another slice of awesomeness is Steve Novella (from Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe), a practicing MD and blogger of some repute. He is more, well, medicinal when he writes about vaccination, but his writing is no less damning of antivax nonsense.

Those two should always be the first places you go when you hear some health threat like Jenny McCarthy or David Kirby make ridiculous antiscience claims. You’ll get the facts from Steve and Orac, and be better armed to take on the people who want to sentence our children to diseases that might kill them.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Debunking, Science, Skepticism

Comments (41)

  1. Tomas

    You know, if Einstein’s theory of relativity is eventually proven “wrong” (which I wouldn’t be too surprised about), his “postulate” that human stupidity is infinite will, I believe, withstand human scrutiny for about 10^40 years (to quote that awesome book ofyours). Right now the UK (and EU) is on a verge of measles epidemy because the vaccination rates slumped in the past decade. Interestingly enough, the outbreaks seem to be centralized in low-populated, more conservative and “anti-science” areas (such as the Midlands) and not the traditional epidemy hotspots (such as London) … still see no harm in anti-vaxers?!

  2. The sad part is that there’s nothing new about antivax activism. When Jenner came out with vaccination for smallpox in the 1790s, there was widespread opposition. Critics raised all sorts of religious and moral issues including God’s will and using vaccines developed from animal tissues in humans (which was “against Nature”). Even when vaccination was proven to save lives, the lunatic fringe still continued.

    Only the arguments have changed.


    There is a Darwinian/evolutionary process at work here: those who embrace “woo-woo” nonsense inevitably help to improve the gene-pool when they and their sprogs succumb to diseases and, consequently, are eliminated.

    Call me callous for stating that, if you like, but the fact is that evolution is a harsh mistress and she takes no prisoners. C’est la vie!

  4. Todd W.


    Heh…treading dangerously close to eugenics, there.

  5. Michael

    It’s only eugenics if you choose it for them, if they choose it for themselves…

    I just wish they could do it in a way that didn’t harm innocents along the way.

  6. Todd W.


    Yeah. Too much collateral damage.

  7. Scott


    Problem is so many of these people survive long enough to reproduce.

  8. I’d like to think that IVAN3MAN was commenting tongue in cheek, but just in case, let me just state that he is categorically wrong. There are two things that he’s forgetting:

    1. Herd Immunity:
    Vaccinating ~95% of a population protects the entire population from outbreaks. It is not always possible or feasible to vaccinate the entire population, but if you can get 95%, then the other 5% are protected. Also, vaccines aren’t 100% effective. However, the probability of vaccine failure is close to nil if 95% of the population has been vaccinated. For both of the reasons above, antivaxxers are endangering other people’s children.

    2. This kind of stupidity is not genetic, but memetic:
    Idiots and con artists can proliferate their harmful memes even if they never pass on their genes. That is where the fight should be focused.

  9. Mchl

    I actually think that anti-vaccitnation stupidity spreads through quantum water memory vibrational wave energy field auras. In other words its homeopathic.

    (Yes… it is tongue in the cheek comment) 😛

  10. You know, if Einstein’s theory of relativity is eventually proven “wrong” (which I wouldn’t be too surprised about)

    General relativity has a huge mountain of evidence supporting it. There might still be some niggly details, but the core theory is sound.

  11. Gary Ansorge

    E Squid:
    Those “niggly details” are what make it difficult to nearly impossible to apply those(relativity) equations to quantum level processes. Which is why we had to develop quantum mechanics,,,too much math,,,

    GAry 7

  12. alnonymous

    Phil, as you and all SGU fans must notice, I think you meant:

    “StEEEve NOOOvella, a practicing MD and blogger of some NOTE”

  13. An interesting story today on CBS News: “Researchers Focus On Vaccine Deniers” [http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/01/09/health/main4711631.shtml]. How would you like your child to attend a school where 67% of the kids are not vaccinated?! Scary stuff….

    ~Michael / WNMC-FM

  14. Kimpatsu

    Could I also recommend the excellent Dr. Ben Goldacre ar http://www.badscience.net, who fights anti-vaxxers regularly.

  15. And hopefully during the next year with the help of fellow skeptics we’ll be able to turn the Stop Jenny site into another strong go-to place for anti-vax mythbusting.

  16. The more I think about the anti-vax nonsense the more pissed I get. These people endanger not only themselves and their families but everyone else, too.

    Off topic… I just bought Death From the Skies! Does that earn me a free comment from the author on my blog? 😉

  17. Gil

    A large medical database exists to track reactions to vaccines. There are very few entries in this database. One possible interpretation of this lack of data is that very few people experience reactions to vaccines.

    Another interpretation is that very few reactions are reported.

    A couple of years ago, I had to receive an MMR shot in order to attend a university. When I had the shot, I immediately felt ill — my pulse and blood pressure went way up, I had a sick feeling for several hours, and I felt dizzy. When I reported this to the nurse, as the MMR pamphlet said to, she shrugged and dismissed it as a common reaction and that I was probably fine.

    After my nieces were born, my sister was pro-vaccination, and made sure they got their shots. On one vaccine, the younger of the two girls, Macy, had a terrible reaction, including fever, all-body swelling, and lethargy lasting several days.

    The kids’ doctor confirmed that Macy had a strong reaction to the vaccine and to report it to the hospital where the kids were vaccinated. Macy got an entry into the vaccination database: “Parent *believes* child had a reaction.” (emphasis mine)

    With strong dismissals and willful ignorance of anecdotal evidence such as this, there’s no surprise the anti-vaccination movement exists. Me and my sister are far from being raving anti-science fanatics (she’s a speech-pathology undergrad), and she’s nowhere near the level of paranoia about germs that most mothers are. Neither of us had heard of Jenny McCarthy’s campaign until I read it in your blog. Yet both of us have had first-hand experiences with problems that are said not to exist in a system that apparently works mostly because the implementers imagine it does.

  18. Grump

    While I believe your treatment was shocking, these cases may be isolated. Nurses are not doctors: There is a very wide range of competency in nursing staff, right from “teaches experienced MDs a thing or three” all the way to “incompetent, lazy and indifferent.” And even MDs occasionally fall into the latter category.

    So, while every system needs to be monitored, and abuses like this investigated, it does not necessarily mean the entire system is flawed, it could just be that both you and your sister had bad luck. Excrement occurs. :-(

    And while it is possible that some anti-vaxxers were put off by similar experiences, I think the main cause is a far more horrific one: Finding that your child is autistic. That would be a terrible shock, and it seems that it drives some people to want to blame someone, anyone!

    Even if that “someone” or “something” is completely blameless, and is just a convenient target for an embittered parent’s rage.

  19. jil

    One might say anti-vaxxers are good; nature’s way of cleaning the stupidity off the population. But then letting microbes linger in a section of the population while getting free exposure to the vaccinated population might just make it easier for resistant bugs to come along. Hence, it might be in our interest to educate the anti-vaxxers.

    Just a different angle :)

  20. John Fryer

    Not sure of the expertise of many people here.

    Trying to explain the problem is not easy.

    Is 12 million permanently neurologically damaged children in USA a problem?

    Is the death of no USA citizens from measles in the period 2000 – 2006 a problem?

    Is the 12 million patients in USA hospital that pick up a drug resistant illness a problem?

    Is the use of a brain destroying toxic chemical in vaccines a problem?

    I can give you simple answers to all these.

    But many people can’t accept that there are huge numbers of autism or that there are infectious illnesses that are a problem with NO Vaccine solution.

    Don’t criticise common sense unless your knowledge of health and medicine is not wider than the average brain washed medical student or qualifed practice doctor or nurse.

    And NEVER reject any cause until the cause is known.

    Not knowing what makes 12 million kids sick is proof of how ignorant we are.

    As a chemist, putting the worlds most toxic non radioactive element into 17 current USA vaccines is MASS MURDER and that leaves aside if it causes autism.

  21. John Fryer

    Gil sums it up beautifully with the mother ‘believes’ etc. I look at cases where children die and the same thing. Before the last vaccine stories to the doctors of fever, seizures et al are just brushed away with laughter. But then at the death its always the parents and not the vaccine that gets the blame.

    There are VAERS databases and it stands at 250 000 adverse reactions to date.

    As you say this is but the tip of what is going on.

    Why is there a problem?

    You need to look at the last 40 years of vaccines and how the government have decided that contraindications and over vaccination and early vaccination have been pursued in spite of good science to show we will have SIDS and autism as a result.

    I suggest people start with the work of the French Nobel Prize winner Professor Charles Richet and compare with the current practice of repeating vaccines often 4 times in less than 1 year.

    Look at death rates of 7 per thousand (USA) and compare to countries with possibly less than 2 per thousand (dozens of countries with less deaths than USA) and compare who vaccinates most and what the rate of autism is.

    You will have an answer that no one will publish.

  22. Charles Boyer

    I’m a bit surprised that the usual anti-vaxxers aren’t here spewing their nonsense yet.

  23. Charles, it’s the weekend. They usually do their goofing off during work time. Wait till Monday…

  24. space cadet

    Both Drs. Gorski and Novella are featured frequently on Science Based Medicine, a blog I first read about here. Although rather doctory, it’s always interesting. (BTW IANAD)

  25. Julian

    “I’m a bit surprised that the usual anti-vaxxers aren’t here spewing their nonsense yet.”

    what? Gil isn’t good enough for you?

  26. Nah, Gil doesn’t seem like a frothing-at-the-mouth antivaxxer like some of the others.

    @Gil, sounds like you had a bad experience but you mention a MMR pamphlet and imply it suggests possible reactions to the vaccine? Reactions can occur to some people with almost any procedure and that is why there are warnings. Stuff happens unfortunately but it also sounds like the reaction wasn’t autism which is what the antivaxxers claim.

  27. IVAN3MAN

    Shane: “[I]t’s the weekend. [The anti-vaxxers] usually do their goofing off during work time. Wait till Monday…”

    That’s why the world economy is in a mess!

  28. There was an excellent episode of THIS AMERICAN LIFE a couple weeks back which told the story of a measles outbreak in a mid-sized town when some kids in an “anti-vax” family came back from overseas.

    This blog and other sources have been great about the statistics and logic of anti-anti-vax, but that show was excellent at telling the human story of why this is a bad idea. There was one set of working parents who had to quarantine their toddler and almost lost jobs because of it (you can then question whether they would have lost more, like their savings or their house), and another parent whose toddler actually got the disease and spent days in agony. That parent now says she can’t talk to anti-vaxers without losing it.

    If you know someone who cavalierly thinks it is not so bad to have kids unvaccinated for measles, download and send them that show.

  29. HCN

    Charles Boyer “I’m a bit surprised that the usual anti-vaxxers aren’t here spewing their nonsense yet.”

    May we introduce you “John Fryer”, an ex-chemist who is in the UK, yet feels free to spout off without any evidence dire stuff occurring in the USA. Including such idiocies of:
    “Look at death rates of 7 per thousand (USA) and compare to countries with possibly less than 2 per thousand (dozens of countries with less deaths than USA) and compare who vaccinates most and what the rate of autism is.”

    Death rates from WHAT!?!!!?

    May we remind you AGAIN, John, that the USA is the third most populous country on the planet. Of course you don’t reference your data, nor do you even bother to compare like to like. Also, let it be known that autism is counted differently in other countries (you should really really read this book, though I doubt you could understand it: http://www.unstrange.com/ )

    Also, you will be reminded AGAIN that the VAERS database is self-selected raw data and not worth much. Even incidences that have no temporal relationship to vaccination are reported as vaccine injuries, especially when there are lawyers involved (just like the ones that paid Wakefield for his “research”).

    Now, John Fryer, if you ever want to be taken seriously (and, seriously you are not, because it is assumed on the ‘net that you have some kind of psychiatric condition that contributed to you becoming an EX-chemist), you will have to reference your rantings with real documentation. Like actually show what real scientific data exists that show the DTaP vaccine is worse than tetanus (which has not one but TWO nasty toxins!), diphtheria, and pertussis (which has death toll of over a dozen American babies each year, and it is growing!).

  30. Julian

    “You need to look at the last 40 years of vaccines and how the government have decided that contraindications and over vaccination and early vaccination have been pursued in spite of good science to show we will have SIDS and autism as a result.”

    I’d love to see the good science behind those claims, John.

  31. Richard

    Wow. I just read up on “chelation therapy.” It seems that in the past, pharmaceutical companies produced compounds that removed heavy metals from the human body. In fact, chelation is used today to remove deadly heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic, radioactive elements, and li’l ol’ mercury.

    See the connection?

    Okay, here it goes. Alternative medicine practitioners knowing that thimerosal was mercury-based (basically, it’s a compound wherein the mercury is sequestered) used chelation therapy to trap and eliminate mercury from the body. That the mercury is still sequestered in a different compound once thimerosal is metabolized isn’t part of the equation. What’s even funnier, is that alt-med doctors are using chelation therapy on heart disease.

    So, in short, alt-medicine doctors are using a traditional-medicine compound for use on something it was not intended. (Again, the mercury is already sequestered in a compound.)

    Can you see it now? Alt-med is pissing on trad-med by using a trad-med treatment in an alt-med way. It’s like using guns for gun control, or eating butter to diet, or a PETA member using a leather whip to get her point across.

    Oh, sidenote: the next time someone yells, “The thimerosals is giving the kids the autisms,” check to see if they have tattoos. Apparently, some tattoo inks have thimerosal in them.

    Did I mention that thimerosal can cross the placenta?

    As to the statement: “And NEVER reject any cause until the cause is known.”
    Fine then, how about we say that tobacco smoke causes autism. Sure there’s no link, but second-hand smoke is everywhere and we have lots of autism. It kinda makes sense that all that tobacco smoke would cause something. Therefore I propose that second-hand smoking is a cause of autism. That tobacco smoke contains lots of nasty chemicals, formaldehyde being but one, doesn’t help tobacco’s case. Since no one’s disproven that second hand smoke causes autism, it is so. (There’s prob’ly such a study, but many have put their head in the sand about the lack of connection between thimerosal and autism, I think we can put our heads in the sand regarding an anti-smoke/autism link. Right?)

    (I swear I’m gonna have a cow if I see sites that claim a link between tobacco smoke and autism. There may be more information out there in the Internet, but it seems like most of it is junk.)

  32. RickK

    I love Mr. Fryer’s quote:

    “Is the death of no USA citizens from measles in the period 2000 – 2006 a problem?”

    EXACTLY – vaccinations work. Now compare that record to the days before vaccinations:

    And what the heck do vaccines have to do with drug resistant organisms? Vaccines aren’t antibiotics. They’re just “lessons” to help your immune system do this better:

  33. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    FWIW, for my money anti-vaxers are the lowest of the anti-science freaks out there, as they willingly participate in getting people killed unnecessarily.

    It wasn’t fun to read recently that if it weren’t for them, measles would have been on the timeline for eradication. Now, with the vaccination program in UK going badly and measles making a comeback, it is anybody’s guess what will happen.

    And isn’t it ironic that the anti-vaxers will contribute to getting more people vaccinated due to destroying the minimal practical timeline of all these efforts, for no good reason to booth?

    if Einstein’s theory of relativity is eventually proven “wrong”

    Depends on which theory you mean. The special theory based on Lorentz invariance is a hard sell to modify, it is at the basis of such theories as quantum field theory and strictly constrained by them. And while I’m not aware of the details I think it is used, at least in the form of local realism, in Bell test experiments. Which I hear in some forms are tested to ridiculously high significance, 10-20 sigma or so. Even if it is a mere consistency, not a strict test, it is still a provocative result IMHO.

    As regards the general theory you can say that it is wrong from the get-go, as you can only quantize an effective theory of gravity.

    We have what is, for many purposes, a perfectly good effective field theory description of quantum gravity. It is governed by a Lagrangian […] at low energies, i.e., for ε ≡ E2/Mpl</sub2 << 1, we have a controllable expansion in powers of ε. […] We have a finite number of experiments to do, to measure the values of those couplings. After that, everything else is a prediction.

    In other words, as an effective field theory, gravity is no worse, nor better, than any other of the effective field theories we know and love.

    The trouble is that all hell breaks loose for ε ~ 1. Then all of these infinite number of coupling become equally important, and we lose control, both computationally and conceptually.

    Which means that sooner or later you will make observations that fundamentally can’t be predicted by GR – it is not the right theory for that regime. Presumably that is why nature invented string theory.

  34. Chris

    RickK said “I love Mr. Fryer’s quote:

    “Is the death of no USA citizens from measles in the period 2000 – 2006 a problem?””

    Actually that is wrong. For a comment on Orac’s blog I looked at the CDC Pink Book’s Appendex G and found a death in 2006, and someone else noted that there has been about one per year using another CDC resource:

    Also note that death is not the only outcome from measles, mumps and rubella.

  35. Chris

    I cannot type… I found a death in 2003. aargh

  36. Bo

    Is there not a solution here that will quiet everyone? Find a vaccine preservative that is not as toxic.

  37. Rene

    The problem with trying to take the lot at scienceblogs credibly is that they fail to consistently apply scientific reasoning. Mixed messages and the sprinkling of woo in their own articles make it hard for scientists to take them seriously. Environmental scares are promoted with regularity, which perhaps is a reflection of the media company funding them or their political bent. Orac insists vaccines are safe while at the same time promoting scares about minute trace amounts of mercury and methylmercury, leaving parents no better off in knowing what to think. But the biggest reason they probably turn off a lot of people is a really nasty, condescending attitude towards the public that’s not something I would ever want in a doctor caring for me.

  38. Todd W.


    Find a vaccine preservative that is not as toxic.

    What preservative is currently being used that is proven to be toxic? If you mean thimerosal, it hasn’t been in any of the common vaccines administered in the U.S. (flu vaccine being one exception) since about 2001-2002. And even then, it was removed due in large part to public opinion, rather than any scientific validity…a “better safe than sorry” approach. Furthermore, thimerosal has been used for many, many decades with no major direct injury in the vast majority of the population. There may be some few people that have an allergy to it, but that is rare and, given proper medical supervision, is very unlikely to cause any significant harm.

    So, in the U.S., MMR (never had a preservative), DTaP, varicella, Polio, Smallpox, HepB, etc., either contain zero preservatives or trace amounts at most. The “preservatives are toxic” angle, therefore, is an empty argument.

    I think the new baby of the anti-vaccine movement, since thimerosal has been ruled out with no change in autism numbers, in addition to the MMR (which has also been shown to be false) and a “too aggressive schedule” argument, is aluminum, since some vaccines contain that metal. The schedule thing is relatively moot, since parents can opt to adjust the schedule as they and their doctors feel fit. The aluminum thing, like thimerosal or MMR, is likely to be disproved, as well.

    Heck, I expect that even when a cause (or causes) of autism spectrum disorders is found, there will still be people saying that vaccines are these awful things that are poisoning our children causing all kinds of problems.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying vaccines are 100% safe, but they’re pretty darn close. There will be some people that have bad reactions, but even some of these can be prevented by proper medical training of the doctors and nurses, thorough family history records, and possibly screening. At any rate, the overall risks of abandoning vaccines are far greater than a proper vaccination program.

  39. Chris

    Bo, the MMR comes as a dry powder that is mixed with sterile water and must be used before eight hours. There are also very crucial environments that must be maintained to keep the vaccine safe.

    Thimerosal has been removed from all pediatric vaccines. The way they did that was make single use vials, which increased the cost of the vaccine.

    There has NEVER been any antifreeze in any vaccine (just in case Bo finds that on a random website). That is just someone not knowing the difference in chemical names, like mixing up the terms “methanol” and “ethanol.”

    Rene said “Orac insists vaccines are safe while at the same time promoting scares about minute trace amounts of mercury and methylmercury,”

    Linky please? Because I don’t think I have ever seen that. I have seen that there have been discussions noting the difference between “ethyl” and “methyl”.

    Todd, the MMR has also never contained aluminum. It is in some other vaccines as a salt to help increase the immune response (so less vaccine needs to be used).

  40. Todd W.


    Thanks for the bit about aluminum. I mentioned it because I recalled some anti-vaxers claiming that it was to blame. Just another move of the goalposts.


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