There’s an old phrase among critical thinkers: you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts*. The idea is that these are two different things: opinions are matters of taste or subjective conclusions, while facts stand outside that, independent of what you think or how you may be biased.
You can have an opinion that Quisp cereal is, to you, the best breakfast food of all time. But you can’t have the opinion that evolution isn’t real. That latter is not an opinion; it’s objectively wrong. You can have the opinion that the evidence for evolution doesn’t satisfy you, or that evolution feels wrong to you. But disbelieving evolution is not an opinion.
The same can be said for many other topics of critical thinking.
Deakin University Philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes makes just this case in a well-written piece called No, You’re Not Entitled to Your Opinion. For his basic example of this he uses the modern antivaccination movement, specifically Meryl Dorey and the Orwellain-named Australian Vaccination Network, or AVN.
Dorey’s name is familiar to regular readers: she spews antivax nonsense at nearly relativistic velocities, able to say more provably wrong and blatantly dangerous things than any given antiscience advocate after eight cups of coffee (just how dangerous the antivax movement is has been written about ably by my friend Seth Mnookin in Parade magazine). She never comes within a glancing blow of reality, and has been shown to her face that whatshe says is wrong, but stubbornly refuses to back down. She claims vaccines are connected to autism, that vaccines contain dangerous levels of toxins, that vaccines hurt human immune systems. None of these things is true. Reasonable Hank, who is outspoken about Dorey, has an exhaustive list of the awful things she’s said and done.
But some media pay attention to her, and in Australia the rate of pertussis is skyrocketing. Babies have died from this illness – not that Dorey actually believes that. Despite this, some media let Dorey rant on with her medical health conspiracy theories, citing "balance" when doing their stories. This is, simply, crap. Talking to doctors and researchers with years of experience in public health, and then Dorey (who has zero qualifications to discuss this topic) gives her de facto equal footing with reality. It would be like having astronauts interviewed about the space station, then talking to a UFO hunter.
Specifically, the article by Stokes I linked above takes the station WIN-TV to task for interviewing Dorey, and lays out just why this was a boneheaded thing to do (the ABC program Media Watch did an outstanding job destroying WIN-TV and Dorey, too). His bottom line: sure, you get to have an opinion, but don’t confuse it with fact, and don’t think you have a right to state your opinion in the media.
Predictably, and with predictable results, Dorey herself has jumped into the fray on the comments to the article. She has an uncanny ability to completely miss the point of what’s being said, and as usual is tone-deaf to what’s being said. It’s fascinating, in its own way.
I don’t think Dorey will ever change. I’ll note too that there are groups out there looking for the real causes of autism; the Autism Science Foundation is one. They even have a page up showing no connection between autism and vaccines. It’s wonderful and refreshing, and we should praise them for it. I have, like here and here. They’re good folks.
And remember another stock phrase in the critical thinking community: Keep an open mind, but not so open your brain falls out.
Image credit: Shutterstock (jimmi)
* The phrase is generally attributed to NY Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
A few months ago I posted about the Autism Science Foundation: an organization that funds real research into autism. We don’t know what causes autism, but ongoing research is making progress, and ASF is helping support that.
For today only, they are featured on the Philanthroper home page. Philanthroper is a group that helps raise money one dollar at a time. I like this idea. Giving a dollar isn’t all that hard for a lot of people, and the process is pretty painless: if you have a buck and a Paypal account, it takes less than a minute.
A lot of time, money, and effort is being wasted looking into a connection between vaccines and autism when we know no such connection exists. I’m glad there are groups out there trying to find the real causes, and that’s why I already donated to ASF.
I do so love to report these wins for reality, as rare as they are: the very vocal antivax advocate Mark Geier has had his medical license revoked in Maryland. Why?
The Maryland State Board of Physicians reviewed nine cases of autistic children seen by Geier, of which he treated seven. Of those nine, the Board found he misdiagnosed six of them. He (mis)diagnosed them with "precocious puberty", a medical condition where kids have extremely early onset of puberty. Why would he do such a thing? Well, this condition can be treated with Lupron, a drug which lowers testosterone (it’s used to chemically castrate adult men). Geier happens to think Lupron can also help autism — despite there being no evidence at all that’s the case — which makes his diagnosis very suspect. It implies strongly that he used the precocious puberty diagnosis as an excuse to prescribe the drug.
By the way, Lupron costs $5000 – $6000 a month to administer. The side effects can be severe as well, including seizures, and it’s known that autistic children are prone to seizures. That’s why the Board wrote that Geier’s treatment "exposed the children to needless risk of harm, " (pp 12 – 13). As far as his medical expertise, the Board also wrote that Geier’s "assessment and treatment of autistic children as described herein, however, far exceeds his qualifications and expertise" (p. 13). That dry assessment does nothing to convey the horror I felt reading the Board’s document, though. In several cases, he didn’t even diagnose the children in person.
The statement by the Board goes on and on, and every page paints Geier with a more and more damning brush. That’s no surprise, as Geier has long been known to play fast and loose with reality… like so many other antivaxxers.
I’m very glad to see this happen. So many alt-med promoters can at least claim caveat emptor, but when it comes to antivaxxers, the emptores are children. This puts the lives of kids directly at risk, and indirectly the lives of many, many others.
As it happens, Geier is also licensed to practice medicine in California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, New Jersey, Virginia, and Washington. At least now children in Maryland are safe from him, but there are still ten states to go… and a lot more people like Geier out there.
Tip o’ the syringe to pro-health hero Dr. Rachie.
Jessica Hagy has a terrific website called Indexed, where she uses simple, hand-drawn charts and Venn diagrams to make some pithy point in a funny way. She’s tackles all kinds of topics, and recently, to my heart’s delight, made a very simple point about vaccines:
Yup. Hard to be any more succinct than that.
This is HUGE: The BMJ, an online medical journal, has accused Andrew Wakefield — the hero of the modern antivaccination movement — of being "a fraud".
The skeptic and medical community have been hammering Wakefield for years; his study linking vaccines and autism was shaky from the start, and he suffered a series of humiliating defeats last year: the Lancet medical journal withdrew his paper, he was struck off the UK General Medical Council’s register, and was found to have acted unethically.
Of course, the word "fraud" implies intent; when writing about Wakefield I had my suspicions, but always wrote as if he were just wrong, and not deliberately lying to vulnerable parents.
But deliberate fraud is what he’s now accused of. Brian Deer, an investigative journalist, has written a multi-part series on the BMJ site which slams Wakefield. Fiona Godlee, BMJ’s editor-in-chief, also writes about this… and just to be clear, she uses the word "fraud" nine times in her editorial. Not surprisingly, it’s been picked up by several news outlets like CNN, MSNBC, and ABC.
Deer has been on Wakefield’s case a long time, and has been critical in exposing Wakefield’s shenanigans. Wakefield and the antivaxxers have attacked Deer many times, but their accusations are as hollow as the claims of links of autism to vaccinations. And let’s be clear: vaccines don’t cause autism.
Deer has long shown that Wakefield had a lot of financial incentive to create a fear of vaccines, including lawyers paying him to find a link to autism, as well as Wakefield developing his own version of a measles vaccine. From CNN:
According to BMJ, Wakefield received more than 435,000 pounds ($674,000) from the lawyers. Godlee said the study shows that of the 12 cases Wakefield examined in his paper, five showed developmental problems before receiving the MMR [measles-mumps-rubella] vaccine and three never had autism.
"It’s always hard to explain fraud and where it affects people to lie in science," Godlee said. "But it does seem a financial motive was underlying this, both in terms of payments by lawyers and through legal aid grants that he received but also through financial schemes that he hoped would benefit him through diagnostic and other tests for autism and MMR-related issues."
The original study has been shown by several investigations to have been terrible; as the quoted part above mentions several of the children never had autism, and many showed signs of it before they were vaccinated. Despite this, Wakefield became a hero to the antivax movement.
Brian Deer’s article on BMJ is nothing short of a tour-de-force, and is a horrifying tale of how Wakefield allegedly falsified medical research deliberately while operating under a huge conflict of interest. Deer’s article is meticulously referenced and footnoted… but still, I know this won’t stop the antivaxxers. The large movements aren’t based on good evidence, and no matter how much solid evidence you show them, they’ll reject it.
What I do hope is that parents out there will see this and pause. I am a parent, and I went through all the usual fears you get when you have a child. I can only imagine the suffering so many parents out there have undergone, and with tremendous heartache I’ve read many, many accounts of their feeling of desperation and hopelessness. But we cannot let our fear override what’s best for our children.
The antivax movement is dangerous because when vaccination rates drop it puts everyone at risk, but especially the most defenseless among us: infants. We are seeing outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease all over the world, and we’re seeing infants too young to be vaccinated dying because of lowered herd immunity. This is no joke, no exaggeration: babies are dying. There are many potential causes of lower vaccine rates, but the antivax movement is is not helping the situation.
Andrew Wakefield may not have started the antivax movement, but he certainly egged it on very strongly, along with such mouthpieces as Jenny McCarthy, and Meryl Dorey and the AVN in Australia. If the charges of fraud can be made to stick, then we might be able to make some progress toward reality once again, and lower the rate of outbreaks of measles, pertussis, and polio… and save a lot of lives in the process.
[Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be posting some calls to action for donations and such. I don't want to overdo them, so I'm only putting up ones I feel strongly about - ones that promote science and skepticism. This blog reaches a lot of people, and we are mighty. Thanks.]
I write a lot about the antivaccination movement, people who think vaccines cause autism (among other ills). This movement is very strong, despite there being no real evidence to support their claims, and tons and tons of solid evidence against them. The antivax message puts children’s lives at risk, and that’s something that must not stand.
But an important point gets lost among the shouting: while we know vaccines do not cause autism, we don’t know what does. The good news is, while the antivaxxers tilt at windmills, there are scientists out there trying to find out the roots of autism. One organization, the Autism Science Foundation, is just such a science-based group. They’re running a year-end campaign called recipe4hope, and they’ve put together this cute video:
As they say, every little bit helps. If you’ve got something, please send it along. Thanks.
You may have heard the recent news that an expert panel of pediatricians reviewed the literature on gastrointestinal disorders and autism, and found no link between them. A key phrase in their findings was
The existence of a gastrointestinal disturbance specific to persons with ASDs (eg, "autistic enterocolitis") has not been established.
They also found that there was no evidence that special diets help autistic kids. Mind you, this was a panel of 28 experts, scientists who have devoted their careers and lives to investigating autism.
So if you were a reporter at ABC News, who would you turn to to get an opinion on this? If you said Jenny McCarthy, then give yourself a gold star, because that’s just what ABC News did. Go and watch that interview (have some antacid ready). In it, she says that scientists need to take anecdotes seriously, a statement so awful it’s hard to know where to start with it.
First of all, scientists did take the anecdotes seriously. That’s why they investigated any possible links between GI disorders, diets, and autism. What they found was that there is no link.
Second, McCarthy confuses anecdotes with data. As I have said before, anecdotes are where you start an investigation, not where you finish one. That’s the difference between science (aka reality) and nonsense. You can convince yourself of all manners of silliness through personal experience. I decide to whistle before drinking my coffee one morning, and I find a $20 bill in the street. So does that mean if I whistle every morning before my java I will find money? No, of course not. But that’s precisely the type of thinking McCarthy is promoting.
Getting back to ABC News, they also posted a story that tries to throw all sorts of doubt on the results of the report by the pediatric experts. I suppose they’re trying to find balance and all that in this issue, but again, as I have said before, sometimes stories don’t have two sides. There is reality, and there’s fantasy.
Should they post a rebuttal by an astrologer every time we find a new extrasolar planet? How about getting a creationist’s opinion on a new malaria vaccine?
Sadly, Jenny McCarthy is news because she’s the voice of a group of people who listen to her, but that’s at least in part due to the fact that the news organizations treat her seriously. It’s a self-fulfilling news cycle, and ABC News just gave it another nice little boost.
Shame on you, ABC News. Shame.
Happily, not every news outlet is so gullible. USA Today just posted a great article about the dangers of not vaccinating your kids, and they don’t pull any punches. Because people like Jenny McCarthy muddy the waters and add so much noise to the real science, people are turning away from real medicine and embracing "alternative" methods that we know don’t work.
The result it not just that kids who need help aren’t getting it (the so-called "what’s the harm?" fallacy). The result is that kids are getting sick, and some of them are dying. When you reject reality and turn to nonsense, it has real effects. And it’s not just affecting your kids, it affects all kids.
Talk to your physician about vaccines, autism, and diets. Read the real work being done.
Tip o’ the syringe to Gary Schwitzer.
Oh, my brain! It’s all asplodey!
Dennis Leary is sometimes funny, but he can also be a serious jerk. It’s part of his schtick, but there are times… In a book he wrote, Why We Suck: A Feel-Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid, he says that some claims of autism are really just an excuse by “inattentive mothers and competitive dads who want an explanation for why their dumb-ass kids can’t compete academically, so they throw money into the happy laps of shrinks . . . to get back diagnoses that help explain away the deficiencies of their junior morons.”
|In a more perfect world…|
He says this quotation is being taken grossly out of context. I have not read the book, so I can’t say for sure, though I can see where this might be the case. For example, he might be saying that most cases of autism are real, but only some parents use it as an excuse. Or maybe it’s simply an excrutiatingly poorly-aimed joke. He does say that he talks about autism being a real disorder, and "that I not only support the current rational approaches to the diagnoses and treatment of real autism but have witnessed it firsthand while watching very dear old friends raise a functioning autistic child."
So it sounds like he may be trying making a what he thinks is a legitimate point, though doing so in a very crass and ill-advised manner.
But then the crazy gets, well, crazier. Enter Jenny McCarthy.
“Whoo! First of all, let me tell you, the autism community has received probably 10,000 emails [saying] ‘Go kill him!’ ‘Go yell at him,’” McCarthy, 36, told Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush.
“[But] it’s so hard to even get up enough juice in me or energy in me to even try to fight someone that is obviously stupid.”
Wow. Where to start? With the "autism community" threatening him with death? Or her saying someone else’s claims about autism are "stupid"?
I think Leary’s comments were pretty dumb, whether he’s right or not. Stirring up an issue with this much emotion to make a joke is not such a brilliant idea. Of course, he’s not trying to spearhead a movement that creates a huge public health hazard and is literally putting the lives of our children at risk.
Having McCarthy jump on this already exploding dumbosity… well…