Salon mag pulls dangerous and fallacious antivax article

By Phil Plait | January 16, 2011 1:41 pm

Back in 2005, Salon magazine (along with Rolling Stone) published an antivax hit piece by Robert Kennedy Jr. called "Deadly Immunity". This article had so many basic factual errors in it that doctors and skeptics were appalled; it was clearly an egregiously slanted antireality screed linking thimerosal (a preservative that used to be widely used in some vaccines) with autism. Even when it was published it was wrong, and new studies published showed conclusively that thimerosal was unrelated to autism; the number of diagnosed autism cases continued to rise even after thimerosal use was stopped in most vaccines.

Now, Salon has announced that they have taken the Kennedy article off of its archive due to its overwhelming lack of accuracy. A big cause of this was the publishing of Seth Mnookin’s book The Panic Virus, which I’ve read and which is excellent. The book details just how awful the initial research into autism and vaccines was, the rise of the antivax movement, and how people like Kennedy and other journalists published articles that were almost entirely fact-free when it came to actual medical issues. Of course, having international headlines about Andrew Wakefield’s research being called fraud didn’t hurt, either.

I applaud Salon for doing this, but wish it had been done years ago, or better, that Salon had never published Kennedy’s piece at all. Once something like that is published, it gets placed into the antivaxxers’ quiver where it will remain forever. And no matter how much you can say the article is wrong, Kennedy was wrong, and the antivaxxers were wrong, those who fight against reality will simply say that Salon is clearly being pressured by Big Pharma or whatever made-up bogeyman they can find.

In fact, it would be best if they kept the article up with a big disclaimer on it, and a link to debunking articles, like the ones from Orac (here’s the original takedown) and Steve Novella. Then people could see how easily mainstream media get fooled, and have the information on-hand to see where reality exists.

As always, let me be clear: I am a parent, and went through all the worries every parent has for their young child. Even so, I can’t imagine what it must be like for parents whose child is diagnosed anywhere on the autism spectrum. My heart aches when I read about those families. But when we are scared, or looking for reasons when something bad happens, we cannot allow our emotions to trump our rationality. Sometimes it just leads to embarrassing mistakes… but antivaccination propaganda leads to children getting sick, and sometimes these diseases are deadly.

This isn’t spin, it isn’t some lie from nefarious organizations, this isn’t misinformation. Vaccines have saved hundreds of millions of lives, and have been shown not to have the deleterious effects the antivaxxers claim. Talk to your doctor, and read reputable websites. Anecdotes may sometimes be convincing, but they can also be very wrong. And in this case, we can’t take that risk.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Alt-Med, Antiscience, Debunking, Skepticism

Comments (35)

  1. Laroquod

    I have little sympathy with anti-vaccination arguments, but I find opinions about how dangerous it is to publish such skeptical articles in the first place, to be of questionable wisdom. Sure, maybe somebody will publish something false and someone will take it seriously, and as a result, someone will die. Them’s the breaks in a free society. Freedom means people are free to believe wrong things even if it risks their death or their loved one’s death. Any other arrangement would not be free, so the answer is clearly to publish counterarguments, not to move the discussion onto what should not have been published in the first place. That way lies further darkness, not light.

    Paul.

  2. Hephaestus

    Phil –

    I am a parent with a son on the autism spectrum. We’ve had both our kids vaccinated for everything that makes any sense at all. Vaccination is one of the great accomplishments of modern medicine and the antivax crowd is not only keeping the benefits from their own children, but they threaten the health of everyone else as well. Thanks for keeping on top of this issue. We’ve sent friends and family to your postings and to Orac’s as well.

  3. Darren

    I’m a father of preemie twins. We can’t take them in public because of an underdeveloped immune system coupled with low vaccination rates in our area.

    Please, please vaccinate your kids. One my girls develop sufficient immune function, I will be vaccinating them; but in the meanwhile, the antivaxxers have made our lives tremendously difficult.

  4. dcsohl

    In general I am a big fan of getting vaccinated. No polio, no smallpox, no measles, mumps or rubella. Yay us!

    There is a story I’ve heard, though, that the chicken pox vaccine is prone to complications like any vaccine, but that in this case, those complications actually kill more people than the chicken pox itself would. (Both the vaccine and the illness itself are fatal in extremely small numbers, but non-zero numbers.)

    Is this true? It certainly seems plausible, since most people think of chicken pox as being a mild illness you get when you’re 3, 5 or 8, and are then immune to.

    So what’s the truth? Why is this vaccine suddenly becoming mandatory in school systems?

  5. “On[c]e my girls develop sufficient immune function, I will be vaccinating them; but in the meanwhile, the antivaxxers have made our lives tremendously difficult.”

    But Darren, the anti-vaxers are happy that they’re “out of the clutches of Big Pharma” and content that now their kids won’t get autism. Why should they care about others when their own irrational and misplaced worries were placated by adopting reckless and selfish behaviors?

  6. Danny

    @dcsohl

    The story with the chickenpox vaccine, as I understand it, is that it leads to a greater chance of shingles in adulthood than would the actual virus itself. These shingles are painful, and are associated with most of the same problems as chickenpox (e.g. itching, malaise).

    Both the pox and shingles carry a greater mortality risk as you get older. I believe that the vaccine should be offered to those adults who have not had the disease as a child, but otherwise natural immunity to a fairly harmless illness is probably best, as shingles is still not an incredible risk regardless (not to mention that immunity is passed down from mother to baby, protecting them in their most vulnerable stage).

    I’m completely for having mandatory vaccinations in the case of virulent and life-altering or deadly diseases, but chickenpox generally fits neither. I would rather my child have a short bout of discomfort than to have to live with extra care to not be infected by children throughout adulthood, as well as having to receive booster shots.

  7. I tweeted last week at Joan Walsh that their anti-fax article was more dangerous to people than a certain someone’s metaphors. A viola! ;)

  8. Sam H

    I know autism is something that can make life difficult for most people, but in some cases it doesn’t have to – I’m autistic, and while it drives me crazy sometimes (ridiculous procrastination, sporadic behaviour, easy distraction, social awkwardness, almost complete lack of self-motivation unless it’s something I’m interested in, the list goes on :roll:), the knowledge it gives me, the obsessions with certain things, and the intelligence is something I wouldn’t trade for anything else in the world.

    Maybe the people who are so scared of autism to avoid vaccinating their children (and putting their lives in danger) have overlooked the benefits. I’m not advocating to forego preventive measures if possible, just a more positive attitude. :)

  9. Zucchi

    I can admire Robert Kennedy Jr.’s passion and dedication, but it’s not always reality-based.

  10. Steve

    I had polio as an infant. Would the anti-vax folks want their kid to walk with my pronounced limp, which led to spinal scoliosis, arthritis, and bum knees? Trust me, if I could have a vaccination to avoid flu, polio, smallpox, etc, etc, I would have no qualms. And I’d make sure any child in my family received vaccinations as needed. I would much prefer they still be around, autistic or not, rather than in a grave somewhere.

  11. Mary

    I agree with you, Phil. It would have been more useful to leave the article in the files, put a disclaimer on it, and provide links to appropriate sites. It would serve two purposes. Anti vax would be debunked. Also, it would point out that being a celebrity does not make one an expert. It is very unfortunate when someone with the notoriety of Kennedy jumps on a harmful bandwagon. His influence can be extensive, and assumed credible, even when he is talking about something about which he has no knowledge.

    dcsohl The statement that ‘those complications actually kill more people than the chicken pox itself’ says to me that this is, ideed, a story. For medications and vaccines to be approved for use, the benefits must be shown to far outway the negatives. There is no logic to approving/using a vaccine that ‘kills more people’ than the actual illness it is meant to prevent.

    Danny An initial infection with varicella causes chickenpox. The virus can remain dormant in the body for decades. A reactivation results in shingles. Shingles itself develops only from a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus in a person who has previously had chickenpox. So, it does not follow that the vaccine leads to a greater chance of shingles as it helps to prevent the initial infection. If the initial infection does not occur, it can not reactivare later as shingles.
    For adults, there is a vaccine for shingles. It is recommended for people over 60. This is meant to keep the virus from reactivating and causing shingles. As with other vaccines, it does not prevent shingles in 100% of people. However, for those who do get shingles, the impact should be less.
    I realize personal anticdotes do not count for much evidentiary wise. But, I will add– my little grandson contracted chicken pox a few weeks before he was old enough to get the vaccine. The doctor did explain to my daughter that, unfortunately, this now leaves him more susceptible to shingles in later life.

  12. Salon should have kept the article, but moved it to a different section. I’m thinking it would fit well on the ‘short fiction’ shelf, alternate Earth sci-fi.
    “In a world… where ingredients which are no longer in use… are blamed for conditions the victims already have… one man stands inoculated …” Read that in Don LaFontaine’s voice of course.

  13. I don’t like this. Not because I think the article was correct, it wasn’t then and definitely isn’t now. But it was published and should remain part of the archive. BUT since Salon now admits the article was wrong it should add a large disclaimer to that effect so that everyone who stops by the article (including anyone following a link from an anti-vax site) knows the article is wrong.

    By removing it people following links to the original article will find only a broken link, and not know why it was pulled.

  14. Ben Goldacre has something up at the Guardian’s Bad Science this week concerning retractions, “Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Why Journals Need to Rethink Retractions”.

    It may be more helpful if Salon kept the piece up and had actual experts’ comment throughout it, no holds barred.

    This would foster transparency and be a ‘teachable moment’.

    -r.c.

  15. Grizzly

    @SamH: Thanks for sharing. I am the dad of a young man on the spectrum (Aspie) and while I do worry for him at times, I worry about as much for his twin brother for other reasons!

    Who defines what “normal” is, anyway. I wouldn’t have him any other way.

  16. Steve Metzler

    11. Mary Says:

    Solid stuff, good advice, well said. My mother had a nasty bout with shingles a few years ago. I’m coming up on the 55 mark myself, had chicken pox, thinking that checking out that vaccine might not be a bad idea…

    ETA: for those against retracting articles, I’m with you on that. Much better to put a big disclaimer on it and make it a teaching moment than to disappear it.

  17. Wayne Robinson

    I’m 55, and I’m uncertain as to what childhood diseases and immunisations I had. I know I had mumps (the infection, because I was old enough to remember the bed rest and the swollen parotid glands). I know I had chickenpox, because I had shingles over 5 years ago (a blood donation 2 days before the rash appeared had to be discarded, but I was very popular with the Red Cross for many months after that, harvesting my Herpes zoster antibodies for the immuno-compromised). The shingles were very mild, because of or in spite of prompt treatment with the antiviral drug acyclovir.

    I am currently reading ‘the Panic Virus’, great book. I’m surprised that I’m enjoying it so much, having only just finished Paul Offit’s ‘Deadly Choices’.

  18. Daniel

    I must be one of the people that antivaxxers hate more than most. My son was diagnosed on the autistic spectrum (thankfully on the high functioning end) and I sure as hell don’t blame vaccines for it. I will make sure he receives every single vaccine recommended by his doctor. There would be very, VERY few reasons to exclude a PROVEN, EFFECTIVE method of preventing a host of very dangerous, very deadly diseases. A science based approach to his disability is the intelligent and most potentially helpful way to deal with it. I truly feel sorry for other parents who grasp at fairy tales and snake oil in an attempt to deal with this problem when they can be much more fruitful by looking at it logically.

  19. Kerry Maxwell

    @Laroquod I don’t see how a higher standard of fact-checking for what gets published leads to darkness and a loss of freedom. And your concept of “them’s the breaks” freedom dooms the poorly educated among others. I think it’s reasonable to demand that if a periodical want’s to participate in the marketplace of ideas and be respected, they maintain a level of fact-based information that correlates strongly with reality. There aren’t two sides to science, there is science and not-science. The reporting of not-science as science is not freedom and light.

  20. Chemmomo

    Danny @6 and Mary @11: As I understand it, the increased risk of shingles is for *our* generation, who had actual chicken pox, *not* the children who received the vaccine. As long as wild-type chicken pox virus is circulating among the general population, our immune systems respond to it, giving us the equivalent to a booster shot, preventing shingles. Now that the younger generations are immunized, less wild-type virus is circulating, and our immune systems are no longer holding the virus in check as effectively as occurred in the past.

    We can solve this problem by getting the vaccine against shingles. For more information, see this Science Based Medicine Post: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=5814

    and this information from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia:
    http://www.chop.edu/service/vaccine-education-center/a-look-at-each-vaccine/varicella-chickenpox-vaccine.html
    (scroll way down to find the discussion of shingles vs vaccine)

    There have not yet been any reports of shingles as a result of the vaccine (although since shingles is something that usually happens in older adults, the jury may still be out on this one).

    There’s another thing to consider when we’re weighing risk vs benefit for the chickenpox vaccine. While the economic impact of parents missing work to care for sick children has been stressed, we also need to consider the impact on the *child.* When I had chickenpox, I was out of school for several weeks. I was in the 7th grade and getting straight A’s. My studies suffered. Kids missing *weeks* of school due to a preventable disease is just senseless.

  21. JMW

    Laroquod, there’s a thing called “herd immunity”. If there are enough unvaccinated people around, the disease can perpetuate itself in a population, and consequently spread to an as-yet unvaccinated infant whose parents are waiting to the appropriate age to vaccinate. And kill that infant.

    Them’s the breaks? I doubt you’d be able to maintain the same fatalistic attitude if your child was so affected.

    For those of you wishing that Salon would leave the article up with appropriate disclaimers…you’re forgetting that Salon is not in the business of publishing scientific papers. They’re in the business of selling entertainment. They’re not going to offend a potential part of their audience by leaving the article up with big signposts saying “Anti-vax is false!” even if it is true. They’re going to take the article down and avoid losing any anti-vax subscribers.

  22. Gonzo

    Freedom means people are free to believe wrong things even if it risks their death or their loved one’s death.

    Or my death? Listen, look up herd immunity. Your precious freedom stops the second it threatens my life.

  23. JB of Brisbane

    Seen in the comments on a YouTube clip I saw recently –

    “Herd immunity?… I ain’t no goddamn cow!”

    This is what we’re up against.

  24. Nigel Depledge

    Laroquod (1) said:

    I have little sympathy with anti-vaccination arguments, but I find opinions about how dangerous it is to publish such skeptical articles in the first place, to be of questionable wisdom. Sure, maybe somebody will publish something false and someone will take it seriously, and as a result, someone will die. Them’s the breaks in a free society. Freedom means people are free to believe wrong things even if it risks their death or their loved one’s death. Any other arrangement would not be free, so the answer is clearly to publish counterarguments, not to move the discussion onto what should not have been published in the first place. That way lies further darkness, not light.

    So, does this mean that you do not believe widely-circulating publications should demonstrate some kind of journalistic integrity? Y’know, like doing some basic fact-checking perhaps?

  25. Jenn

    Well at the very least they acknowledged they made a mistake and have been assertive in calling the article for the BS it is. My experience is that a lot of news organizations don’t even get to that stage when they make a mistake – they try to delete innacurate reports discretely without anyone finding out. But well done to everyone who has been loud and clear about being against antivax propaganda.

  26. RobertC

    At a steakhouse in NC, I-95, Exit 93?.

    Above the urinal is a poster of a Rolling Stone cover with a prominent black box trumpeting this very article.

    I spoke to the manager, who, being female, was unaware of it. She seemed to be aware of the issue, we spoke about Wakefields fraud, touched briefly on the broad knowledge of study results, and she was headed to take care of it.

    Bravo to her. (I don’t know if it is really down)

  27. Matt B.

    My niece is mildly autistic, she’s in the normal grade for her age, but even so, it’s very trying for the whole family. She has to have speech therapy (and they can no longer afford all the sessions she should have), her parents have had to send her to a different school in order to get teachers who really care. So I can’t imagine how it is for families with a more severe case.

    We need to find the actual cause and an actual cure, and we shouldn’t have to waste our time with diversions.

    @8 Sam H, you sound just like me! :) Except I don’t have the “obsessions with certain things”, unless my nitpicking of grammar counts. I wouldn’t trade my intelligence either.

  28. Maria

    I also agree that they should have kept it up but with really big ass links to all the science that debunks it (and a letter of apology for allowing it to be published in the first place.)

    The memory hole is a very real danger. Too much disappears online as it is.
    The “mysterious disappearance” of the article is already getting traction in some circles as “evidence” that Salon caved to evil corporate pressures. It’s messed up.

  29. In fact, it would be best if they kept the article up with a big disclaimer on it, and a link to debunking articles, like the ones from Orac (here’s the original takedown) and Steve Novella. Then people could see how easily mainstream media get fooled, and have the information on-hand to see where reality exists.

    Phil (and others) I disagree.
    The article is out in the wild now — it’s still up on RFKjr’s site, Jay Gordon MD’s site, and exists in multiple PDFs from anti-vaccine sites (I have 3 in my collection). In addition, the various interviews RFKjr gave touting his polemic are widely available on YouTube, etc., and are cited to this day.

    What I wish Salon would do, in addition linking to their generally-excellent autism coverage, would be to have a down loadable PDF of Chapter 18 of Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus. The chapter title is “A Conspiracy of Dunces” and it details RFJjr’s inaccuracies, distortions and quote-twisting. (Subject of course to Mnookin’s and his publisher’s agreement.)

    MattB

    We need to find the actual cause and an actual cure, and we shouldn’t have to waste our time with diversions.

    Autism’s presentation is wildly heterogeneous, from folk who are mildly affected to those with (as Shannon Rosa says) “intense autism”.

    I sincerely doubt that “an actual cause” will be found — just as people with autism have varying levels of skills and challenges, the causes are multifactorial.

    As far as “an actual cure” — well, them’s fighting words in some quarters. Adequate supports for people with autism (and their families/caregivers, as necessary)? Yes please. Better employment opportunities with adults with autism? Yes please. Housing options? Yes please.

    But please, not the cure discourse.

  30. Joseph G

    I still like Penn and Teller’s “worst case scenario” take on the issue. I know that P&T are entertainers first and foremost, and they’ve said some dubious things, but their vaccine episode was right on the money.
    They say, basically, “Let’s assume that everything the anti-vax people are saying is right – that vaccines ARE in fact the one-and-only cause of autism.” For the record, I believe unequivocally that they are wrong, as do P&T. But just for a moment, assuming they’re correct…
    Then they look at the numbers – they change a lot depending on the diagnosed definition of “autism,” but the rate of one per 150 is a fairly common one.
    Then you look at historical records and determine how many people died of vaccine-preventable illnesses before those vaccines were available? The answer: A lot. Something between “a terrifying number” and “how did people actually believe in a loving God?” It used to be not uncommon for a woman to have, say, six children, and have two of them survive to adulthood. Your odds of dying of a (now preventable) disease were at least an order of magnitude greater then even the most pessimistic numbers for autism prevalence.
    ‘Nother words, even if everything that the biggest zealots in the anti-vax crowd claimed were true, vaccines would still be the responsible way to go. A 1 in 150 chance of developing autism versus, say, a 1 in 10 chance of death – not a hard choice!

  31. Joseph G

    @#8 Sam H: You have a good point. There is a significant community of people with autism who are quite happy with it – either it “makes them who they are” or its benefits outweigh the detriments, or some similar opinion.
    Somehow I very much doubt that there was ever a similar “polio community” who gathered to talk about the benefits of being partially paralyzed.

  32. @32 – yup. Sitting in the 1:1,000 to 9:100,000 intelligence bracket, and being an extreme systemiser, I’m pretty pleased with myself. The fact that I don’t have any common sense and am pretty naive is immaterial :P

    Coupled with co-morbid chronic depression (sometimes with psychotic episodes), social exclusion and poor interpersonal interaction it can be a real downer sometimes… but when I get paid a lot of money to do what I like doing, I suppose you could say that I’m living the dream… it’s just a shame that people aren’t falling overthemselves to give me work…

  33. Well, that’s what Salon is like; they have a somewhat shaky grasp of scientific fact and are not exactly the most honest of people.

  34. Joseph G

    @#33 Al Feersum: What do you do, if you don’t mind me asking?

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