Defending Science Isn't Always Pretty

By Sean Carroll | October 26, 2009 7:23 pm

This month’s issue of WIRED features a great story by Amy Wallace: “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All.” It’s an overview of the anti-vaccination movement in the United States, a topic that should be very familiar to anyone who reads Discover‘s baddest astronomer. At ScienceBlogs, Orac and Abel Pharmboy gives big thumbs-up to the article.

The anti-vaccination movement is a little weird — they claim that vaccines, which are universally credited with wiping out smallpox and polio and other bad things, are responsible for causing autism and diabetes and other also-bad things, all just to make a buck for pharmaceutical companies. The underlying motivation seems to be a combination of the conviction that things must happen for a reason — if a child develops autism, there must be an enemy to blame — and a general distrust of science and technology. Certainly the pro-science point of view is fairly unequivocal; like any medicine, vaccines should be used properly, but they have done great good for the world and there are very real dangers of increased risk for epidemics if enough children stop receiving them. Good for WIRED for taking on the issue and publishing an uncompromisingly pro-science piece on it.

But the anti-vax movement is more than just committed; they’re pretty darn virulent. And since the article came out, author Amy Wallace has been subject to all sorts of attacks. She’s been documenting them on her Twitter feed, which I encourage you to check out. Some lowlights:

  • I’ve been called stupid, greedy, a whore, a prostitute, and a “fking lib.” I’ve been called the author of “heinous tripe.”
  • J.B. Handley, the founder of Generation Rescue, the anti-vaccine group that actress Jenny McCarthy helps promote, sent an essay titled “Paul Offit Rapes (intellectually) Amy Wallace and Wired Magazine.” In it, he implied that Offit had slipped me a date rape drug.
  • Just now, I got an email so sexually explicit that I can’t paraphrase it here. Except to say it contained the c-word. And a reference to dead fish.
  • In his book, Autism’s False Prophets, Dr. Offit writes about scientists who have been intimidated into staying silent about autism/vaccines. If scientists – who are armed with facts and trained to interpret them – are afraid, can it be any surprise that a lot of parents are, too?

It’s pretty horrifying stuff. But there is good news: Wallace also reports that the large majority of emails she has received were actually in favor of the piece, and expressed gratitude that she had written it. There are strong forces arrayed against science, but the truth is on our side, and a lot of people recognize it. It gives one a bit of hope.

  • JB Handley

    I receive more hate mail in a day than Ms. Wallace has probably gotten in her lifetime. Unlike Ms. Wallace an Paul Offit, I just don’t whine about it. The much larger question: what does Ms. Wallace say to the many specific criticisms of her piece, like the one I wrote here:

    It seems to be a common misdirection ploy to focus on the insults, but never actually address the details.

    JB Handley

  • Thanny

    It’s surprising for moral people to find themselves disliked for telling the truth about something important.

    Perhaps that fact has escaped you, since you’re not a moral person, having spent too much time lying about vaccines, causing significant amounts of suffering as a consequence.

  • Pete

    @ Jb Handley

    Your salvo shows how far off the mark you are – you mention “The 50+ ingredients that no one has considered”, but do not show any evidence that those alleged ingredients are implicated in any autism signals. Without that, you’ve got nothing more than the DMHO scare.

    Also, you need to deal with the moving goalposts – thimerisol was the demon, until the autism rates failed to fall after it was removed; then it was the 3 vaccines in the MMR jab, but then the autism rates did not fall as those fell out of favor.

    Face the facts – the evidence does not implicate vaccines. You also need to face thatfact that the woo-woo factor of your so-called supporters weighs against the validity – even if a blinfd pig find a truffle eventually, it does not mean you can trust every squeal from that pig.

  • MartyM

    “It seems to be a common misdirection ploy to focus on the insults, but never actually address the details.”

    Sir, that’s a classic argument, but you might want to get your details correct:

    “Comment: If 1 in 100 kids have vaccine-induced autism, this may challenge your conclusion about “low-risk,” unless you like those odds. Few parents do, and your article is unlikely to change that.”

    The actual statistics 1 in 100 children between 3 and 17 may be diagnosed with autism, but there are no statistics that state all (let alone any) cases of autism are caused by vaccines. If you are indeed implying that, please post a link to your reference, but I expect that to be a great exaggeration or deliberate fabrication. And if it’s not too much to ask, leave out the ad hominid attacks as your reply demonstrates your skill in dealing them out like a deck of cards.

  • JB Handley

    Because I won’t take the time to respond to each and every insult, along with the occasional good question, I will simply provide this link, which is a website I wrote, which fully and completely refutes the idea that science has truly studied the link between “vaccines and autism” since it hasn’t remotely:

    Read it, really, I dare you. This issue has never been seriously explored by mainstream scientists, almost all of whom are intertwined with either CDC or big pharma.

    The “goalposts” argument, a very tired one, I tried to respond to here:

    JB Handley

  • Stephen
  • Phil Plait

    Ah, JB Handley himself! That’s a nice set of links there, Lou, but do you care to respond at all to what she said you sent her? I think rape, even when parenthetically modified as intellectual, is a pretty harsh thing to write.

    And your article about goalposts is loaded with logical fallacies. You try to connect vaccines to autism, but you fail to do so, noting only the coincidental timing between the two, and then the non sequitur about the number of vaccines growing over the years. But you failed to make a causal connection.

    And instead of moving the goalposts — which you may deny the antivax movement has done all you want, but that doesn’t make it untrue — why not address the actual science, like the study that showed no link between mercury and autism, or the one that shows that autism rates are the same across all age groups, meaning it is not more prevalent now nor that there has been an increase in some sort of trigger?

    Note that I have used no insults, no name calling: just cold facts.

    Have a care answering these, assuming you do. A lot of folks are reading what you write, and there are a lot of us who will not let you get away with equivocation or spin.

  • mirror2image

    I think it’s more distrust of corporations-government complex than distrust of science and technology. If government mandate something it should be bad, especially if someone making money from it.

  • Brian Mingus

    JB Handley, Master of FUD.

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  • tutifruti

    I’m always confused about what to think of people who “defend science” with dogma and insults. Wallace’s article was a good read, but I do think it seemed very one-sided.

  • Charon

    I taught a physics class out of Giancoli once. I found it very one-sided, though – no Ptolemy, no Anaximander, no Hermes Trismegistus.

  • bad Jim

    A poll at the Guardian’s Comment is Free section is confusingly phrased and the results are pretty discouraging:

    As innoculation becomes more widely available, will you get your shot?
    Yes. A jab now beats flu later (31%)
    No. I won’t follow the herd immunity (69%)

  • Christopher Ak.

    The particular debate is simply the side-effect of a much bigger issue. Scientists do not speak out as much as they should. They do not do enough to educate the public, to highlight and disprove false claims, to help people develop their critical thinking skills. Scientists need to step down from their pedestals and find ways to reach out to people they wouldn’t deign speak to.

    Just stop for a moment and consider how average Joe thinks. Joe will watch a 2-minute piece on TV, with someone claiming that the vaccine causes autism. Joe does not read Wired. In fact, Joe never reads anything, except maybe the sports page. If he’s lucky, Joe may see another 2-minute piece with some scientist, politician or other official, claiming that the vaccine is not dangerous. In Joe’s mind, there are two sides to the issue. Both are on TV, so both are acceptable. It’s simply a matter of who he chooses to trust.

    So the first option, is to gain Joe’s trust. Remotely controlling giant beetles with implanted chips and reprogramming flies’ memories does not help there. Joe is very skeptical of scientists and rightly so. The rate of scientific development has far surpassed society’s capacity to adapt, legally and morally. ‘Anathem’ by Neal Stephenson has very good illustrations of the various ways people respond to scientists. In the novel, scientists end up enclosed in cloisters, cut off from the world, so as not to endanger it with their strange toys. If scientists can not explain to Joe what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, if scientists do not care about whether the society cares for, or is ready for their work, then they willingly operate outside society and are not entitled to demand that society respects and trusts them.

    Another option is to help Joe develop critical thinking. How better would the world be if the scientific method found its way into Joe’s everyday thinking processes? Question, investigate, analyze, compare, synthesize… A much more ambitious, but uncomparably more rewarding goal.

    So I ask you, do you believe scientists care enough for Joe? If your answer is yes, I have only one word for you: Scientology.

  • Vincent Archer

    You know, when I read those arguments about the autism-vaccine links, I get some déjà-vu.

    The same arguments are regularly used in every scientific “controversy” which is usually the controversy of a couple scientists holding a contrary opinion against 99% of the rest of their peers. When those scientists are actually specialists of the field in question, which is sometimes not the case.

    In almost all cases, you get some Conspiracy Theory dominating the field. The idea that, somehow, thousands of scientists, everywhere, in every country, employed by dozens of universities, are somehow dedicated to propagating a dogma for reason X (usually “getting money”, “securing tenure”). And they all keep their mouths shut on that conspiracy, except for a pitiful handful of Brave Souls who breach the Covenant and dare tell the Truth.

    Anyone who thinks thousands of people of completely different places, venues, who merely happen to work in the same field in different people can be involved in some world-wide conspiracy to keep Things Secret need to do some serious self examination.

  • Ric

    And Phil Plait weighs in with excellent questions. Handley, let’s hear your responses (not your deflections).

  • Roman

    “Just stop for a moment and consider how average Joe thinks. Joe will watch a 2-minute piece on TV, with someone claiming that the vaccine causes autism. Joe does not read Wired. In fact, Joe never reads anything, except maybe the sports page. If he’s lucky, Joe may see another 2-minute piece with some scientist, politician or other official, claiming that the vaccine is not dangerous. In Joe’s mind, there are two sides to the issue. Both are on TV, so both are acceptable. It’s simply a matter of who he chooses to trust.”
    That’s how you “intellectuals” screw up everything. I can already see the educational piece you’re directing: naked chick on the hood of NASCAR machine drinks beer and explains the goodness of the vaccine”.

  • Ali

    I know someone who is against vaccinations (he was the one who first let me know that they were now vaccinating children for chicken pox… which, honestly, I do find a bit strange, since everyone I know who’s my age or older got chicken pox and survived quite nicely… but anyway). From listening to him, it has very little to do with an “anti-intellectual” or anti-science view. He is a scientist himself, in fact. His distrust comes from the fact that the government is so shady about its reasons and tends to put out a lot of misinformation, which makes him question the real necessity of such vaccinations. It’s not that he thinks all vaccines are bad, but that he needs a very convincing reason before he starts injecting things into his kids.

    For instance, CBS did a report recently on the H1N1 virus, in which they asked the CDC for the actual numbers of cases in the U.S. When the CDC refused to provide the information, CBS went to each state individually, and it turns out that the CDC had ordered states to stop testing for the virus BACK IN JULY, when it had already declared the swine flu an epidemic. Most states told CBS that, even at that time, their own numbers were actually startlingly low, lower even than the expected rate of normal flu for that season, but they assumed the CDC must have information from other states that they found worrying. The truth is, the CDC just decided to declare it an epidemic with absolutely no data to back it up, and has since discouraged people from testing to confirm the presence of the virus (since even in normal flu cases, only about 20% of people presenting the symptoms actually have the virus).

    So that does make me wonder. It’s not being anti-intellectual to ask for actual information, is it? I mean, it certainly makes sense to me when I hear that people over fifty in this country have stronger immune systems precisely because they didn’t grow up receiving a flu vaccination every year, and so their bodies learned how to fight such infections off. To me, it seems anti-intellectual and anti-science to lump all vaccines together, simply because those for polo and smallpox were effective. It may be annoying, but I’d like to see information about a vaccine’s effectiveness and necessity every time.

    It also seems anti-intellectual to lump all people together who challenge the necessity of vaccinations, and then accuse them of base ignorance and disgusting rudeness, just because there happen to be a few very vocal individuals out there who are ignorant and rude.

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  • MartyM

    “Another option is to help Joe develop critical thinking.”

    No one can make Joe want to learn about science or learn critical thinking. This is a personal choice and a personal responsibility. While, yes, I agree science and its study and application need to be introduced and accessible to everyone, not everyone will go for it. Especially if it induces tension among one’s political or religious bias.

    I remember while in college there was a continuous push to increase requirements for language, literature, and technical writing. I don’t recall the same increased requirement for math, physics, biology, and chemistry among the general student population, which I was in disagreement with. I would have like to seen that at the university level, and even high school. Though, I don’t think we can require calculus of anyone working at the mall, or anyone shopping for groceries. Those who really want to understand the details can find the resources to do so, but there are those who want to learn enough to support a particular point of view, and those who just don’t care at all.

  • Pieter Kok

    I mean, it certainly makes sense to me when I hear that people over fifty in this country have stronger immune systems precisely because they didn’t grow up receiving a flu vaccination every year, and so their bodies learned how to fight such infections off.

    Ali, it doesn’t work that way: when you are vaccinated, your immune system learns about the disease in the vaccine, just like for a non-vaccinated person. It just doesn’t make you sick (or at least very rarely). Moreover, it does not affect how the immune system tackles new diseases.

    Also, you are asking (rhetorically, I’m sure) whether one is being anti-intellectual for requesting actual information. That depends: it is not when one genuinely wants know the answer, but it is dishonest when that request is aimed to derail and call into question a practice that has proven beneficial beyond any scientific doubt.

  • John Phillips, FCD

    Ali: People over fifty haven’t a stronger immune system in general than those under fifty, it is just that they may have greater immunity to this particular strain of flu simply because a very similar strain was around in the 1940s and 1950s and so many already have antibodies capable of dealing with it. I.e. catching a similar strain to H1N1 gave those individuals over 50 the necessary antibodies to cope with future attacks from that or similar strains. Which is exactly what a vaccine does and the reason vaccines need to be changed periodically is that the flu virus evolves or mutates and if different enough then existing vaccines won’t produce the appropriate antibodies.

    Hence the reason that this strain is more dangerous to young people is that, unlike the over 50s, they won’t have the antibodies for defending against this or similar strains.

    As to the relevance of the strength of the immune system, I suggest you read up on the Spanish Flu Outbreak at the end of WWI. For it is thought that the reason that it was so deadly in young fit people was precisely because their strong immune system went into such an overdrive to combat the effects of the infection that it basically overloaded their systems in a cytokine storm. One of the effects of this storm caused so much fluid to form in the lungs that the sufferer effectively drowned. Apparently this strain is also capable of initiating such a response from the immune system.

  • Eugene

    This anti-vaccine “movement” is one of the most bizarre things I found in the US. How the hell did it become such virulent (pun unintended)??

  • kyllaros

    They stopped testing for H1N1 earlier for a very good reason. Infection rates increase exponentially, and it rapidly becomes untenable to continue testing everyone with the flu to see what strain it is. Preliminary testing showed that the vast majority of influenza A cases are being caused by the H1N1 strain. Testing to determine if you have influenza A or B is easy and can get done in regular medical labs – that’s a good enough proxy for public health purposes. It is also true that in a normal flu season, infections don’t become widespread until later than October. The fact that the flu is already swamping the country is strong evidence that the novel strain is most of what is behind it.

  • Raymond

    Mr. Kok, I really don’t see how this “vaccination” process involved with [insert trendy outbreak here] is a “practice that has proven beneficial beyond any scientific doubt.” First off, there are plenty of problems involved with receiving vaccinations and potential risks that one must compare to the risk associated with getting the common flu or even this “H1N1” variety. As of right now, the numbers and “threat” of the “new” flu are being drastically exaggerated giving everyone the impression that the new black plague is in effect. I find it a bit strange because if you look at the information from those reports that came out quite some time ago, you’d realize that this whole thing started as a result of some pretty shady practices (improper farming habits, refusal to act accordingly before the problem had spread, refusal to “vaccinate” near the point of origin, etc.). Also, consider that the one’s who are making out here are certainly the pharmaceutical companies because now they have to mass produce a drug/vaccine to use on the public, so in order to get more money for the drug/vaccine they have to establish a demand and a continued demand for their product. This is easily done if you establish a state of crisis or fear or declare an “epidemic” for something so that an antidote can continuously be developed and so on and so forth. I’m not saying that this is a conspiracy or any of that because this is been common practice for decades now. So I would urge people to be very careful when touting off about “defending science” and making claims that “the truth is on our side” because this current situation has as much to do with science as it has to do with ethics, social behavior, trends in group behavior, the power of institutions and traditions, etc. Science might give a person a number of “facts,” figures, and information to work with, but at the end of the day an individual has to make a choice about what to do with that information. And say what you will, but that choice is not limited to scientists alone.

  • JP

    I don’t see the point in getting the flu vaccine if you’re a perfectly healthy adult. I say let the virus run its course, it’s not terribly bad. There’s never been such a push for vaccinations against the common flu, why so much hype for the H1N1? It’s not much different from the common flu, people are overreacting. Vaccines should be reserved for those at highest risk, standard protocol doctors use to prescribe typical medications/treatments.

  • daniel

    The reason people are a little more jumpy about H1N1 is that fatalities are much more common in infants and young adults. For example, here in Los Alamos a perfectly healthy 21-year old woman succumbed to H1N1 last month.

  • AutismNewsBeat

    22. 22. Eugene Says:

    This anti-vaccine “movement” is one of the most bizarre things I found in the US. How the hell did it become such virulent (pun unintended)??

    American culture is a fertile medium for anti-vaccine sentiment, which goes back 200 years in the US. The culture favors individualism, and only favors collective action in times of national emergency (WWII, for instance). But there are lots of other reasons. Arthur Allen’s “Vaccine” is a great read in you want to better understand where this insanity comes from.

  • Tom

    JB Handley brushes off violent sexual insults with, “I receive more hate mail in a day than Ms. Wallace has probably gotten in her lifetime. Unlike Ms. Wallace an Paul Offit, I just don’t whine about it.”

    The content of his character is on full display.

  • kyllaros

    JP: The reason why the H1N1 vaccine is being pushed is due to the fact that there is little to no natural immunity to this strain. Because of that, it is highly likely that most people will fall ill from it during the course of the season. Even if there are no complications, the flu lasts for ~7 days. For that time, you can’t work and are in quite a lot of pain (the flu is awful). Given that a flu shot costs about $20 and that the likelihood of catching this strain without the shot are quite high, economically it makes sense to get the shot. In addition, the normal flu does kill a decent number of people per year, and this strain has been shown to be slightly more lethal in people traditionally considered at lower risk (young people). All of this lines up as a pretty decent case for getting immunized.

  • JP

    I understand those reasons, but the overall survival rate is still around 99%. It’s not significantly more lethal than the common flu, but because of those few deaths among younger people, the cause for concern is being blown out of proportion in my opinion.

  • Chris W.

    JP, have you read anything about how the severity of H1N1 cases has been distributed with respect to age group? As I understand it, the distribution hasn’t conformed with the usually assumed risk profile.

    Also, it’s more than a little ironic that this contentious discussion is taking place while most people are going unvaccinated against H1N1 because there isn’t nearly enough of the vaccine available.

    As for the pharmaceutical companies “making out”, since when did they consider this an attractive market? Considerable effort by the government and the public health community has been required over the last few decades to ensure that adequate vaccine production capacity is in place. It’s an ongoing problem.

    The bottom line is this: Simply allowing large numbers of people to come down with the flu is a damned expensive way to establish immunity in the population. (Again, see Pieter Kok’s comment #21.)

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  • isles

    You know you’re doing well when the Sloth Himself ventures out of the echo chamber to post on your blog – as comment #1, even! I love it when antivaxers feel cornered – they get even more desperate and make even more implausible claims.

    Um, J.B.? We’ve been on to you for quite some time, and the brainier sectors of the media are quickly figuring it out. Produce some of that hate mail, for a start, and prove it wasn’t written by your own sly little self. (Oh, is it ever fun being on the side that gets to demand that others prove a negative!)

  • JP

    I haven’t seen the age distribution of cases, but the peak of H1N1 seems to have passed since its reached pandemic status. By time we get enough vaccines, the H1N1 virus will likely be winding down as the peak of the common flu season occurs. It’s so hard to discern H1N1 from the common flu by symptoms and most doctors have already stopped testing to confirm cases, so we may never truly know the severity of H1N1 over the common flu until after the peak of this common flu season for comparison of hospitalized cases.

  • JP

    Isles, I hope you’re not referring to me as J.B. I’m not an anti-vaccer, I’m simply questioning the hype over H1N1. We simply do not yet know, without a doubt, that H1N1 is any more severe than the common flu and so far it doesn’t seem to be. How many people are hospitalized or die every year from the common flu? Does the media report every one of those case? It’s a short lived hype because we have yet to prove H1N1 is more severe than common flu. Same as the hype when encephalitis first broke out a few years ago.

  • Cheyenne

    @JB Handley – Are you board certified medical doctor? Do you have any scientific degrees?

  • Ke

    Ali @18 wrote: “everyone I know who’s my age or older got chicken pox and survived quite nicely”

    Isn’t there a selection effect biasing your sample?

  • OmegaMom

    JP…First: Flu testing costs money. Flu testing takes time away from other testing. When the number of flu cases started increasing at a time when all flu cases should have been almost done for the season (late April/early May), the WHO suggested everyone stop testing on a routine basis. They began relying on the rapid-response flu test, which has a false negative rate for H1N1 of between 40% and 70%, depending on which manufacturer’s test is being used. (

    What is now being done is lab testing on severe respiratory illnesses. Currently, 99% of all RIs testing positive for flu are Type A; of those that have had subtyping done on them (70%), 99% of those are type 2009 A(H1N1). (See the CDC Flu Weekly Update)

    When 99% of flus are testing out as H1N1, why bother testing?

    Further, the wave has not peaked yet. Numbers are still increasing. (See the CDC Flu Weekly Update) The normal flu season just started three weeks ago, yet this flu started hitting hard as soon as the school year started across the country, and is currently prevalent across the country. (The Wall St. Journal has a lovely interactive graphic that shows how prevalent last year’s seasonal flu was–at the peak of normal flu season, around February and March–compared to how widespread the flu is currently, at the beginning of normal flu season.)

    In addition, whereas in seasonal flu it is usually people older than 60 who are most at risk, with the risk increasing with age, this flu is predominantly hitting people between 5 years of age and 55; if you look at the CDC Flu Weekly Update, you will see that there is hardly any effect on people older than 65, and it is currently behaving like there’s no disease at all for them. This is the pattern that held for the flu epidemic of 1918-1919.

    Lastly, seasonal flu deaths for those people older than 65 are typically from after-infections hitting a suppressed immune system–pneumonia, etc. There are currently enough troubling cases in the young people who have died, where they got sick and died rapidly (within two days) that it seems to have *some* (not many, but some) similarity to the flu epidemic of 1918-1919.

    (N.B. I am not a doctor or a medical person; I have simply been following this story since it began and have followed the CDC sites and a variety of sites devoted to influenza pandemic planning.)

    (N.B. 2: I have not linked to the CDC Flu Weekly Update or to the Wall St. Journal interactive graphic because I don’t want this comment held up in moderation due to too many links.)

  • Valdis Kletnieks

    Ali @18 wrote: “everyone I know who’s my age or older got chicken pox and survived quite nicely”

    Yes, chickenpox is in and of itself not usually a serious illness. However, if you have chickenpox as a kid, sometimes that virus will find places to hide in your body, only to emerge 50 or 60 years later as shingles, a quite nasty disease.

    That, plus the occasional person does get a lot sicker – pneumonia, encephalitis, Reye’s Syndrome, blindness can happen:

    And if you’re in early pregnancy (you may not even *know* you’re pregnant yet), there’s issues:

    (Ok, so I’m citing – deal with it. :)

  • Matt T

    @ Omega Mom #39. EXCELLENT summary of the situation!

  • giffy

    JP, the flu is unpleasant and carries some risk (30-50k die every year). The vaccine is easy and safe. Why not get it. I mean yeah the media likes to blow things out of proportion, but we are looking at a strain of the flu that will kill tens of thousands of people. Why not prevent that?

    There are some vaccines, like rabies that are expensive and more risky and those are rightly only given when needed since the risk of getting rabies is very small, but the flu, eh I paid my 20, got my nasal spray and now I don’t have to worry about spending a week in bed in pain.

  • JB Handley

    Phil: My reply in 2 parts, perhaps length was an issue:


    I have two goals in life:

    1. Find out what happened to my son
    2. Use that information to help him heal

    I feel I’m halfway through those goals, and he has benefitted tremendously by doctors who have helped him heal his damaged body.

    Your questions were good ones and you were able to ask them without insults, so I will respond in kind. You brought up 2 recent studies: 1 addresses blood mercury levels in autism, the other that rate of autism amongst an adult population.

    Blood mercury levels:

    The recent study you made reference to measured blood mercury levels of children with/without ASD and noted no differences, and found that diet (especially consumption of fish) seemed to be one driver of the differences in mercury levels. This has been mistakenly reported by some in the press as proof that “vaccines don’t cause autism.”

    Our community is focused on the vaccine schedule, and vaccines in general, as a primary trigger for a normal child to regress into autism. Mercury is viewed as a primary culprit, because its levels were way in excess of any federal guidelines, it’s a potent neurotoxin, and thousands of reports from parents point to regression soon after a vaccine appointment, including my son.

    As Burbacher noted in a key work on injected mercury several years ago:

    “The initial and terminal half-life of Hg in blood following thimerosal exposure was 2.1 and 8.6 days, which are significantly shorter than the elimination half-life of Hg following MeHg exposure at 21.5 days.”

    So, we know mercury’s time in the blood after vaccine injection is very, very short. Only ongoing exposure to mercury, like through fish consumption, would lead to a high mercury blood level reading, unless these children just had a flu shot. Here’s Burbacher:

    The lead author on the study you cite said the same thing, but few in the press reported it:

    “The bottom line is that blood-mercury levels in both populations were essentially the same,” said the lead author of the study, Irva Hertz-Picciotto, a researcher at the UC Davis, MIND Institute, in a news release. “However, this analysis did not address a causal role, because we measured mercury after the diagnosis was made.”

    So, does the mercury included in shots trigger autism? By design, this study does not in any way contribute to answering that question. So, when you cite it as somehow proof that I am wrong, I can’t help but think you only have a superficial understanding of the debate.

    Further, we have a material issue of “simultaneity”, the notion of vaccines being added to the schedule very quickly and simultaneously. The data on the cross-reactivity of all these new vaccines is very limited – there’s no study comparing kids who got 6 vaccines at one time with kids who got 0 at one time – how do you measure adverse events without a control? And, of all the vaccines we give, only one – MMR – has ever been studied in any way for its relationship to autism. What about the other 34 shots kids receive? Are they innocent due to the transitive property? That doesn’t seem very scientific to me. I try to explain this in detail at, and the only criticisms of the site I ever read are focused on our grading system, not the central argument that the work has not been done to answer the question, do vaccines cause autism in some kids?

    If you are really open, I also recommend reading this report, which raises a lot of really good questions about what is going on with our kids:

  • spyder

    I have no stake whatsoever in this debate except for one small quibble. I find the subtitle of Amy Wallace’s essay a deeply disturbing attack upon my own cognitive liberty and freedom to choose what to do, and what not to do, with my own body. She presupposes an elitist arrogance that good science cannot afford to let stand.

    As one of those pesky seniors in this society, i grew up in a world much different than the current mix of impoverished humans battling all manner of viruses (and mostly unconsciously helping them change and become more resistant to the efforts of scientists). My youth was in places that contained polio virus and smallpox, and thus i received vaccines for those. I get my tetanus booster every decade, because i like to be out in the wilds across the landscape. I was too old for the recent DPT and hepatitis vaccines, and contracted hepatitis on top of mononucleosis back in high school. I got my mix of the so-called tropical vaccines so that i could visit the planet in places where human activities help pool terrible viral diseases. Those were all my choice, i was never forced to do that by some edict or government mandate.

    I also exercise my cognitive and physical liberty to have never gotten a flu vaccine in my life. Forty-two years of teaching has introduced so many versions of so many of those replicating bastards into me, that my immune system is quite an excellent cold and flu fighter. To be castigated as a “danger to society” because i choose to not get a vaccine for one (or apparently two this year) particular strain of the hundreds in the three major types and couple of dozen subtypes, borders on the same fear mongering as those opposed to all vaccines. I am not a threat, nor a cost, to the society as a whole because i choose not to be vaccinated.

  • JB Handley

    PArt 2:

    The second “study” you cite is not even a study. It’s a phone survey completed in the UK. I’m in complete agreement that science, ultimately, will settle who is right and wrong in this debate. Published science. Peer reviewed. Replicable. But, anyone being honest knows science publication is also political, and that there are good studies and bad studies. This thing from Britain, a phone survey, is not a published study. When published studies come out showing 1 in 100 adults have autism, I will listen. All the published research I have read shows the rate of autism is TRULY rising:

    The prevalence of neurological disorders amongst children is growing, which means the environment must be playing a role (because genetic conditions can only grow at the rate of population growth).
    We cite four published studies that support this position:
    Report to the Legislature on the Principle Findings from The Epidemiology of Autism in California: A Comprehensive Pilot Study
MIND Institute, UC Davis, Oct 2002.
Robert Byrd
    Using data from California, the state perceived to maintain the best data on autism, this report demonstrates clearly that the rise in autism is not due to improved diagnosis and expanded diagnostic criteria, but is rather a REAL rise for which some external factor must be playing a role. Excerpt:
    “There is no evidence that a loosening in the diagnostic criteria has contributed to increased number of autism clients…we conclude that some, if not all, of the observed increase represents a true increase in cases of autism in California…a purely genetic basis for autism does not fully explain the increasing autism prevalence. Other theories that attempt to better explain the observed increase in autism cases include environmental exposures to substances such as mercury; viral exposures; autoimmune disorders; and childhood vaccinations.”
    National Autism Prevalence Trends From United States Special Education Data.
Pediatrics, March 2005.
Craig J. Newschaffer, PhD [Johns Hopkins University].
    This study shows that the rise in the incidence of autism is real and that the greatest increase took place between 1987 and 1992, which matches the timing of the near-tripling of vaccines given to our children and the tripling of mercury within those vaccines.

    I’ll leave you with a press release of a very recent study on autism prevalence from California, a published study in a peer-reviewed journal:


    January 7, 2009
    (SACRAMENTO, Calif.) — A study by researchers at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute has found that the seven- to eight-fold increase in the number children born in California with autism since 1990 cannot be explained by either changes in how the condition is diagnosed or counted — and the trend shows no sign of abating.

    Published in the January 2009 issue of the journal Epidemiology, results from the study also suggest that research should shift from genetics to the host of chemicals and infectious microbes in the environment that are likely at the root of changes in the neurodevelopment of California’s children.
    “It’s time to start looking for the environmental culprits responsible for the remarkable increase in the rate of autism in California,” said UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute researcher Irva Hertz-Picciotto, a professor of environmental and occupational health and epidemiology and an internationally respected autism researcher.
    Hertz-Picciotto said that many researchers, state officials and advocacy organizations have viewed the rise in autism’s incidence in California with skepticism.
    The incidence of autism by age six in California has increased from fewer than nine in 10,000 for children born in 1990 to more than 44 in 10,000 for children born in 2000. Some have argued that this change could have been due to migration into California of families with autistic children, inclusion of children with milder forms of autism in the counting and earlier ages of diagnosis as consequences of improved surveillance or greater awareness.
    Hertz-Picciotto and her co-author, Lora Delwiche of the UC Davis Department of Public Health Sciences, initiated the study to address these beliefs, analyzing data collected by the state of California Department of Developmental Services (DDS) from 1990 to 2006, as well as the United States Census Bureau and state of California Department of Public Health Office of Vital Records, which compiles and maintains birth statistics.
    Hertz-Picciotto and Delwiche correlated the number of cases of autism reported between 1990 and 2006 with birth records and excluded children not born in California. They used Census Bureau data to calculate the rate of incidence in the population over time and examined the age at diagnosis of all children ages two to 10 years old.
    The methodology eliminated migration as a potential cause of the increase in the number of autism cases. It also revealed that no more than 56 percent of the estimated 600-to-700 percent increase, that is, less than one-tenth of the increased number of reported autism cases, could be attributed to the inclusion of milder cases of autism. Only 24 percent of the increase could be attributed to earlier age at diagnosis.
    “These are fairly small percentages compared to the size of the increase that we’ve seen in the state,” Hertz-Picciotto said.
    Hertz-Picciotto said that the study is a clarion call to researchers and policy makers who have focused attention and money on understanding the genetic components of autism. She said that the rise in cases of autism in California cannot be attributed to the state’s increasingly diverse population because the disorder affects ethnic groups at fairly similar rates.
    “Right now, about 10 to 20 times more research dollars are spent on studies of the genetic causes of autism than on environmental ones. We need to even out the funding,” Hertz-Picciotto said.
    The study results are also a harbinger of things to come for public-health officials, who should prepare to offer services to the increasing number of children diagnosed with autism in the last decade who are now entering their late teen years, Hertz-Picciotto said.
    “These children are now moving toward adulthood, and a sizeable percentage of them have not developed the life skills that would allow them to live independently,” she said.
    The question for the state of California, Hertz-Picciotto said, will become: ‘What happens to them when their parents cannot take care of them?’
    “These questions are not going to go away and they are only going to loom larger in the future. Until we know the causes and can eliminate them, we as a society need to provide those treatments and interventions that do seem to help these children adapt. We as scientists need to improve available therapies and create new ones,” Hertz-Picciotto said.
    Hertz-Picciotto and her colleagues at the M.I.N.D Institute are currently conducting two large studies aimed at discovering the causes of autism. Hertz-Picciotto is the principal investigator on the CHARGE (Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment) and MARBLES (Markers of Autism Risk in Babies-Learning Early Signs) studies.
    CHARGE is the largest epidemiologic study of reliably confirmed cases of autism to date, and the first major investigation of environmental factors and gene-environment interactions in the disorder. MARBLES is a prospective investigation that follows women who already have had one child with autism, beginning early in or even before a subsequent pregnancy, to search for early markers that predict autism in the younger sibling.
    “We’re looking at the possible effects of metals, pesticides and infectious agents on neurodevelopment,” Hertz-Picciotto said. “If we’re going to stop the rise in autism in California, we need to keep these studies going and expand them to the extent possible.”

  • JP

    JB, I’ve done mild research on the anti-vax movement, but haven’t come across evidence as strong as those in your arguments. I’d like to see American scientists conduct another study on Thimerosal. It seems there’s enough evidence to at least run more studies based on your sources.

  • Dawn

    Hey, JB. Seen any autistic adults lately?

  • TheBlackCat

    Even if you’re right and autism rates are rising, JB, it still doesn’t implicate vaccines in the slightest.

  • Gary Ansorge

    I love conspiracy theorists. They’re so oblivious to logic, as in:

    1) Doctors advise their patients to vaccinate
    2) Pharmaceutical companies advise people to vaccinate
    3) Insurance companies advise people to vaccinate

    Each of these stands to make a few bucks($25.00 at Publix groceries here in Georgia) off vaccines however:

    1) Doctors can make thousands of dollars treating a single individual for complications of a preventable disease.
    2) Pharmaceutical companies can make thousands for the drug support of that same individual
    3) Hospitals make thousands as well.
    4) The only loser here is the insurance company, in whose interests it is to encourage people to PREVENT disease.

    So how come those pharmaceutical companies/doctors go to such great lengths to encourage people to vaccinate, when that can only diminish their bottom line?
    Could it be they actually want to keep people healthy?

    Gee, how financially foolish of them.

    I often refer to the Danish study that compared autism rates between 400,000 vaccinated children vs 100,000 unvaccinated children and found no difference between those two groups. As far as I am concerned, that’s pretty much the last word.

    Gary 7

  • Dean

    @JP: One thing I’ll add. The swine flu isn’t very lethal _right now_. Hopefully it stays that way. Hopefully we get a large proportion of the population vaccinated before it gets bad, if it does.

    But all I can say is…I’m sure there were some people in Sept 1918 who were saying “Oh, it doesn’t look that bad”.

    Then look what happened.

    I’m NOT saying this is going to happen. I’m saying it’s possible, if it mutates. And vaccination is an incredibly efficient way of making sure that doesn’t happen again.

  • Astrofiend

    1. JB Handley Says:
    October 26th, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    So that is justification for the obscene hate mail sent to Ms. Wallace, for no other reason than writing an article that wasn’t favorably disposed to your ’cause’? And then you have the nerve to claim that because Phil didn’t use insults in his response to you, you will respond in kind?

    Just goes to show what simmers beneath your shaky facade.

  • Henry

    Vaccines aren’t perfect and it seems that unless a person accepts whatever doctors and public-health officials say without reservation, that person is considered an ignorant, anti-science jerk. People should maintain a healthy skepticism about all medical treatments. Doctors and medicines have been around for thousands of years and we know for a fact that 99% of all the medicines and procedures during that time were at best worthless and frequently outright harmful.

    If you think only a fool would question the value of the H1N1 flu vaccine, read this:

    And if you think the mainstream media is unbiased about reporting on vaccines, consider this: On October 28, 2008, the New York Times published an article by Donald McNeil stating that Type 2 polio had been eradicated from the planet in 1999. Not only was the Times mistaken, but they have failed to report that Type 2 polio is on the rise and that it is actually CAUSED by the vaccine that was designed to prevent it. (See Science 325, 660 for details.)

  • changcho

    Mmh, that issue of Wired has been sitting on my desk for a while; I better go read it…

  • Dean

    I’ll see you one Brownlee H1N1 article and raise you one Revere rebuttal on why that article is a piece of crud.

  • JB Handley

    Gary 7 said, “I often refer to the Danish study that compared autism rates between 400,000 vaccinated children vs 100,000 unvaccinated children and found no difference between those two groups. As far as I am concerned, that’s pretty much the last word.”

    Gary: that study didn’t do what you think it did. For one thing, all the kids WERE vaccinated. If you’d care to see a different take on the study, please read:

    I think it is a very poorly-designed studies with many conflicts and a fatal flaw in how they collected data.

    JB Handley

  • Astrofiend

    Still no comment on the ‘essay’ sent to Ms. Wallace? Wouldn’t think so – I’d be embarrassed too.

  • Bill

    So who is right about the Danish study – this is *really* annoying.
    It is just a simple empirical question. The internet is full of reports
    that about 100000 Danish children in the study were *not*
    vaccinated; see e.g.:

    which says among other things:

    “There was no increase in the risk of autistic disorder or other autistic-spectrum disorders among vaccinated children as compared with unvaccinated children (adjusted relative risk of autistic disorder, 0.92; 95% confidence interval, 0.68 to 1.24; adjusted relative risk of other autistic-spectrum disorders, 0.83; 95% confidence interval, 0.65 to 1.07).”

    This is apparently a quote from the study article itself.

    So – are the authors of the study just lying here, or is someone else
    lying and/or twisting the truth?

  • Richard

    I find it absolutely bizarre that these folks are so focused on vaccines when their entire environment has been contaminated with toxic chemicals. Fifty components to a vacine? They should check out what can be in a bottle of perfume or cologne. I’ve seen studies finding large lists of organic chemicals, including benzene, in perfumes and colognes. Then there’s all those artificial laundry scents, fire retardants in clothing, furniture and mattresses, formaldehydes in building materials, lawn chemicals, pesticides, cleaning materials with toxic chemicals, mercury and other contaminates in fish, etc. Our bodies probably have thousands of chemicals in them that weren’t there prior to the industrial revolution, and the list probably gets longer every day.

    I am 58, had measles in 1960, and apparently just got it again. I was recently hospitalized for four days with a mystery infection that might as well have been measles if it wasn’t. (If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then …) It was finally diagnosed by eliminating about 15 other types of infections and finally a skin biopsy. No one at first imagined it could be measles because young doctors don’t see it anymore, so proper testing for it was done too late for a definitive standard lab diagnosis. I was extremely ill with high fever, a nasty itchy angry red rash all over my body, and I also had coughing, vomiting, diarrhea, and general respiratory distress requiring oxygen and nebulerizers (measles is a respiratory infection, and possibly the most contagious infection known). Fortunately I did not get the encephalitis that can go along with it. Measles is very dangerous for adults, and I got again possibly because I have an antibody deficiency. This is just one of those nasty infections that needs to be kept in a bottle.

  • Jeremy


    The reason for your confusion is that Mr Handley is referring to a different study. The one you cite is this: “A POPULATION-BASED STUDY OF MEASLES, MUMPS, AND RUBELLA
    VACCINATION AND AUTISM” New England Journal of Medicine 2002.

    It compared, as you say, all the children born in Denmark between 1991 and 1998, approximately half a million children. Of those, 440,000 were vaccinated and 96,000 were not. There was no increase in autism or autism spectrum disorder diagnoses in the vaccinated group. A very well done tight study that is significant evidence against the vaccine-autism hypothesis.

    The critique Mr Handley linked to is this study: “Thimerosal and the Occurrence of Autism: Negative Ecological Evidence from Danish Population-Based Data” in Paediatrics 2003. This looks like an analysis of the data from the earlier NEJM study, but this one I haven’t read, so can’t comment on the critique offered.

    I would be interested to hear Mr Handley’s comments on why a study of half a million children that shows no increase in autism rates with vaccination can be easily dismissed.

  • chris

    Not that this has to do anything with the autism debate – but i too got told by a physician that it’s probably better not to get the first batch H1N1 vaccination.

    so there always should be a risk analysis, but in some cases, like MMR it seems pretty clear that the outcome is in favour of vaccinating. the problem with the individual decision however remains, and this is the crux. for cases where it is clear that the vaccination is the preferred alternative and especially in cases where a potentially dangerous disease can be eliminated entirely, i think the public actually has a right to demand that everyone gets the shot. i’m always horrified by the anti-vaccination parents sending their children to the same kindergarten where my children are before they got the full protection package. i feel this is completely irresponsible on their part.

  • Vincent Archer

    “I am not a threat, nor a cost, to the society as a whole because i choose not to be vaccinated.”

    Actually, you are. Despite illusions to the contrary, you’re probably no better off against any strain you have not encountered than Joe Random, unless Joe Random has complications weakening his general immune system. Have you submitted to testing to see how much above average your immune system is? Or is that something that anybody can figure out, in which case can someone point me to a site that explains how this self-evaluation is done?

    When you refuse immunisation, you voluntarily choose to become a potential infectee (which will become a cost to your company/business, thus society as a whole, when he has to spend two weeks in an unproductive state), and a potential carrier of disease, contaminating others. Your choice is not an individual choice, it’s a choice that engages everybody around you. It’s an hermit choice : it’s justifiable if you do not interact with society, if your work has no value and you don’t meet any other people.

    There’s plenty of personal choices that run the risk of profound repercussions on others. Driving while drunk could be argued to be a personal choice (it’s me, it’s my car, I’m aware of the risks), yet society will not tolerate it even if you do, because you put yourself at risk (and ruin your contribution to society), and you put others at risk by your reckless decision. Of course, refusing to vaccinate oneself against epidemic diseases isn’t driving after two drinks, but the difference here is a difference of degree and magnitude, not one of quality.

    And it’s up to society as a whole to draw limits where your individualism overspills “too much” into others. For vaccination, it’s not drunk driving, it’s driving when tired – something that’s entirely legal, but that everyone will tell you it’s bad for you, put pressure on you to avoid doing, and which entails real consequences. Even if you’re an übermensch that can’t get ill (me, falling asleep at the wheel? no way)

  • kyllaros

    @spyder: As the the new H1N1 strain is novel – that is, never before seen in humans, your experience with cold and flus is likely entirely irrelevant. The immune system doesn’t learn how to fight generic viruses; it builds antibodies which target specific proteins on each specific virus. For some viruses, like measles, the proteins involved never change much, so one vaccine (or encounter with the virus itself) is usually enough to teach the body how to fight it off in the future. For the flu, this is not true. There is often considerable cross-immunity for different flu types – that is, if you are immune to one variety, you’ll get partial immunity to another. It has been shown that this particular new strain evades any such cross immunity except possibly in people who were around during the 1918 flu pandemic. That strain had enough in common with this one that there may be some cross-immunity, but really, that’s it.

  • Michael

    @JB Handley

    You say the 2nd study linked to by Phil Plait is “…not even a study. It’s a phone survey completed in the UK”

    I went to the link and read the PDF and I can find nothing in the paper that mentions a phone survey. It was done in two phases. One was either a paper survey or an online survey. Phase 2 used a subset of the Phase 1 respondents and the paper suggests they were face-to-face interviews conducted by people with clinical training in diagnosing ASD.

    I have spent some time at the Age of Autism site reading and your faulty information regarding the UK study matches a general pattern I saw at Age of Autism which is misinterpretation and half-truths. I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are just misinterpreting the UK study rather than just flat-out lying about it.–report-from-the-adult-psychiatric-morbidity-survey-2007

  • JB Handley

    Re: MMR in Denmark.

    Sorry, I referenced Hg study from Denmark, not MMR.

    My perspective:

    The use of the term “unvaccinated” in this study ONLY pertains to the MMR, not other shots, so the term is misused and misleading. Kids in Denmark, where vaccination rates are very high, receive 8-10 other shots before MMR, and the study remains silent.

    Also, here’s some helpful critique of the study, for those who care to consider it:

    nterestingly, Kreesten Meldgaard Madsen, author of “A Population-Based Study of Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccination and Autism”, (5) the study funded by the CDC stated “Studies designed to evaluate the suggested link between MMR vaccination and autism do not support an association, but the evidence is weak and based on case-series, cross-sectional, and ecologic studies; No studies have had sufficient statistical power to detect an association, and none has a population-based cohort design” (References 10-16).” In the Madsen bibliography, reference 10 is the first Taylor study (The Lancet); reference 11 is the one by Kaye (BMJ) and reference 12 is the study by Dales (JAMA). For reasons known only to him, Dr. DeStefano still mentioned the Taylor, Kaye and Dales studies as reliable and listed them as references 23, 22 and 19 respectively.

    Dr. DeStefano and Associates describe the Madsen MMR study as “particularly persuasive”. In fact, that study, because of an integral flaw in its design, could not have shown, that indeed there had been an increase in autism after routine MMR vaccination was initiated in Denmark.

    The following is part of the analysis by Dr. Gary Goldman and myself of data from the Danish Psychiatric Central Register, the same data that Madsen used. It clearly shows that there has been a serious increase in autism in children under 14 in Denmark in the last few years. (Graph I)

    Graph I Incidence of Autism in Denmark by Age Group
    Source: The Danish Psychiatric Central Register

    The MMR vaccine was introduced in Denmark in 1987. It has been estimated that only 70% of the 15-month old children received the triple vaccine in 1987-1988. The percentage of vaccinated toddlers then reached and remained at 80 to 88% for several years. It is estimated that in the last three years about 95% of the 15-month old children in Denmark received the MMR vaccine.

    The present rise in autism in Denmark has clearly started 4 to 5 years after the introduction of the MMR vaccine and it appears to correspond with the percentage of children who received the MMR.

    The mean age at the time of diagnosis in Denmark is probably around 4.7 years (“The mean age at diagnosis for autism was 4 years, 3 months, and for autistic spectrum disorders 5 years, 3 months.”) Approximately 25% of autism cases in Denmark are reported in children under the age of 5 with the remainder 75% of affected children being reported when they are 5 to 19 years old. Given these percentages, any inferences about disease in the under-5 group, in which the disease has not yet become manifest, are potentially flawed.

    The 2,129,864 person-years reported in the Madsen study divided by the number of children 537,303 indicates that the average age of the children in the study is less than 4 years (range 1 to 7 years). Those children would be 5 to 12 years old in 2003. Because the mean age at diagnosis is 4.7 years in Denmark, the Madsen study could NOT have detected many of the cases of autism that were subsequently diagnosed when these children were older, thereby missing the temporal connection between MMR vaccination and autism.

    The 0-4 year old group of children (Graph I, black) remains the lowest from 1980 to 1991, because autism was/is rarely diagnosed under the age of 4 in Denmark. The prevalence of autism in that age group starts climbing after 1991, 4 years after the introduction of the MMR vaccine, to become the second highest by 1993.

    The 5 – 9 age group is the earliest cohort that received the MMR vaccine after coverage has improved and is also old enough to be diagnosed. There are consistently more and more affected children in this age grouping.

    The 10 –14 age group (dark green) represents the earlier cohort that first received the MMR vaccine, but at lower coverage rates. Those affected children aged 10 to 14 in 2003 were aged 1 to 5 in 1994. They reflect the startup of the autism increase associated with the startup and progression of the MMR vaccination program.

    The 15 –19 age group (light green) were aged 1 to 5 in 1989; their number increases but at a much slower rate than in the younger age groups.

    Lastly, the 20 – 24 age group (brown) shows only a slight increase starting in 1994 possibly because few if any of this cohort, received the MMR vaccine at a vulnerable age.

    Even when one takes into account the classification change that took place in 1993/1994 and the addition of outpatients to the database in 1995, it is evident, when five additional years are considered, that the conclusions of the Madsen group are invalidated and that the data appears to support the hypothesis that increases in autism in Denmark, may be correlated with increases in percentage coverage and number of children receiving MMR vaccination.

    It is likely that in Graph I, the 0 – 4 year group of affected children represents those who were not generally diagnosed earlier, that the 5 – 9 age group represents the highest increase that occurred after wide-spread coverage of the MMR vaccine and that the 10 – 14 age group represents the earlier cohort that first received the MMR vaccine, but at a low coverage rate.

    It is possible that the rate of autism will now level off at the higher rate since children receiving MMR immunization have now saturated the age groups and replaced individuals in the age groups that were previously unvaccinated.

    Approximately 65,000 babies are born every year in Denmark. Graph I shows the early slow ramp-up period due to low vaccination rates. When MMR vaccination coverage improved beyond a certain level, from 1993 to 2001, there was a steady and increasing trend in autism every year. That gradual rise leveled out after the entire cohort aged 95%). It is entirely possible that many of the children of the most affected 5 to 9 group, could have started with symptoms as early as the second year of life.

    The prevalence rate of autism in Danish children under the age of 14 has increased by 729% from 17.67 per 100,000 Population in 1980 to 146.42 in 2002. (Graph II)

    Graph II Children with Autism under Age 14 In Denmark per 100,000 Population.
    Source: The Danish Psychiatric Central Register.

    The prevalence of autism in children and teens under the age of 14 in Denmark, which was 131.42/100000 in the 7 years before the MMR vaccine, increased by 542% to 843.73/100000 in the last 7 years. Indeed, the prevalence of autism in that group was 11% higher (146.42/131.42) in 2002 alone than in the combined 7 years before the introduction of the MMR vaccine.

    Two doses of MMR are administered in Denmark, one at age 15 months, and one at age 12 years. The data suggest that the main concern is the vaccination given at age 15 months.

    The prevalence of autism in Denmark in the 0 to 14 year-olds leveled off in the last 3 years, when toddler MMR coverage reached the 95 – 98% level. The reason why this did not take place in the United States in the 90’s was probably because pediatric vaccines in the US contained Thimerosal, further supporting the argument that the study was flawed in principle because countries with strikingly different vaccination practices cannot and must not be compared.


    Autism has increased in Denmark after the introduction of the MMR vaccine as evidenced by the fact that the rate ratio i.e. the incidence of autism after vs. before MMR vaccination is 8.8 (95% C.I., 6.3 to 12.1) among 5 to 9 year old Danish children.

    The Madsen study did not reveal this statistically significant increase.

    Dr. DeStefano and his colleagues at the CDC should research the causes of Regressive Autism rather than defend a vaccine in trouble.

    Parents are more likely to forgive errors than cover-ups.

  • Katharine

    Mr. Handley, I’ll leave the critiquing of the methodology to Phil and the others who are better at this than me right now. I do, however, want to skewer your lack of training and your impetuosity on this.

    Let’s pull a couple of quotes, shall we?

    “I’m not intellectually intimidated by any of these jokers. Their degrees mean zippo to me, because I knew plenty of knuckleheads in college who went on to be doctors, and they’re still knuckleheads (I also knew plenty of great, smart guys who went on to be doctors and they’re still great, smart guys).
    ” I chose a different path and went into the business world. In the business world, having a degree from a great college or business school gets you your first job, and not much else. There are plenty of Harvard Business School grads who have bankrupted companies and gone to jail, and plenty of high school drop-outs who are multi-millionaires. Brains and street-smarts win, not degrees, arrogance, or entitlement.”

    Oh! You went into business! Like that helps you understand this at all. Let’s set one thing straight: it takes brains to get a degree, and street-smarts don’t count for anything in a world where knowing the field counts. An individual who only knows stocks, bonds, and businessese is not someone anyone should trust to know anything about science.

    “I have been astonished by the culture of arrogance and elitism that medical schools appear to breed in their doctors and scientists. The culture tends to produce an “us vs. them” mentality, where doctors collectively back each other up on controversial issues, typically without understanding the issue for themselves.”

    Actual controversial issues actually make people within the scientific community fight EACH OTHER, not do what some perceive as science against the tiny little pseudo-mavericks. I’m not saying the scientific or medical community is monolithic, because there are a few crackpots, but, uh, most of us agree that autism isn’t caused by vaccines.

    In fact, both of my parents are vaccinated; they are not autistic.

    And mind you, the fact that you’re the parent of an autistic son doesn’t make me give you any sympathy either when it’s obvious that you think you know better than someone who’s taken basic sciences and gone through four years of medical school in addition to getting a college degree and usually also gone through a residency.

    Parents are not the experts on their children. Pediatricians are.

    Quit the sob story.

  • Janne

    Unfortunately the sort of attitude towards the autism stereotype on the comments and surrounding issues is just the tip of the whole complex iceberg. Usually the media is driven by the curebie agenda which is evident from the negative response. The autistic spectrum side of things on these issues is readily available on the web on numerous blogs.

  • David Ker Thomson

    I don’t have a particular opinion about vaccines one way or the other, but I do hate to have my time wasted. Someone at 3QuarksDaily thought fit to call our attention to this silly, facts-free piece, as if science were some sort of flag or banner to be waved rather than a cogent set of arguments in relation to experiment. I’m going to check out the person at 3Q who wasted my time, and revise my opinion of a site I had been coming to like. I can see why the author here, “Sean,” wouldn’t want to have his or her full name appended to this bit of fluff. I’ll leave my full name.

  • Katharine

    By the way, squalene, one of the compounds antivaxxers whine about, is present in humans already, and also present in olive oil and other sorts of oils that go into food that – guess what? – humans eat.

    LOL, antivaxxers’ bodies generate toxins! OH NOES!

    (If you honestly think an endogenous compound is toxic to humans, you’ve got problems.)

  • Jeremy

    Mr Handley,

    I have taken a close look at the critique of the NEJM study that you posted. I would like to go through it, as its conclusions do not seem valid.

    Firstly, you point out that the study examined only MMR vaccinations and so the children were not “unvaccinated” in this sense. It is true the study does not mention other vaccinations, and so we simply do not know if the children in the unvaccinated cohort received other shots or not; the authors evidently did not address this issue. However, the rest of your critique explicitly examines the connection between MMR and autism – you specifically state your data supports the notion “increases in autism in Denmark, may be correlated with increases in percentage coverage and number of children receiving MMR vaccination.” Given that this is your hypothesis, the methodology of the NEJM study is entirely appropriate to examine it.

    Your main concern with the study, as far as I can understand it, is that you believe the average age of the children in the study was under 4 years, and that as autism in Denmark is usually diagnosed over this age, the study could not have detected cases occurring later in these children, thus missing the temporal connection.

    This is not a valid criticism. The average length of follow up for each child was around 4 years; the study ended 1 year after the last birth cohort of 1998. It is true that if this period had been longer some more cases from the latest cohorts would be picked up, but even without that there is a huge cohort of children with an ample time of follow up. All children were followed up for at least one year after they received the MMR vaccine – given that parents who believe their child has been damaged by vaccines do so because the start of the symptoms is associated with vaccine being given, any significant association would have been noted. To suggest anything else is to imply you believe the vaccine induces autism years after it is given.

    The rest of the data you produce just aims to show a correlation between increasing diagnoses of autism and the introduction of the vaccine. As always, this does not show causation, and this very convincing paper that, despite your criticisms, does show no increase in autism diagnoses associated with MMR vaccination does much to disprove this suggestion.

  • Matt

    It seems to be a common misdirection ploy to focus on the insults, but never actually address the details.

    Did you actually type that? Are you, one of the great purveyors of insults in the autism world, expecting anyone to take you seriously in this statement?

    Take away your insults and your junk science and you have nothing left.

    JB, if I call you out for the clown you are, does that make this hate mail?

  • Chris

    David Ker Thompson, if you click on the blogger’s name (Sean), you will find his last name in the URL: …/cosmicvariance/author/scarroll/ … See, it is Carroll.

    Does that help you understand the content of what he wrote any better? Did you understand it was not really about science, but the reaction some unschooled people have about writers of science? Kind of like the behavior you displayed.

  • Matt


    I use your fourteen studies website in lectures on denialism and bad science.

    I have yet to hear anyone disagree with my position.

  • Broken Link

    JB Handley claims “I receive more hate mail in a day than Ms. Wallace has probably gotten in her lifetime. Unlike Ms. Wallace an Paul Offit, I just don’t whine about it.”

    Sure you do, JB, sure you do. If you stopped censoring comments at AoA, we might see those hate mails, but until you do that, we just aren’t going to believe you. All we see is the fawning adorations of your sycophants.

    On the other hand AoA implicitly supports “outing” those they don’t agree with, allows publication of their place of work, and allows people to insult them openly. Look at the comments on this piece. You need to read the comments from the bottom up, and there are two pages, so start at the bottom, and read up, then go back to the bottom and click on “previous”.

    I fully expect to see the AoA post disappear after I make this comment, so I’ve grabbed a screen shot.

  • Matt

    JB Handley screwed up when he made his “date-rape” comments to Amy Wallace.

    Instead of doing the right thing and apologizing, he is trying a classic diversion strategy. The strange part, he’s whining about how he doesn’t whine. He wants to come across as strong and in-control, when he obviously wasn’t when he wrote Amy Wallace.

  • Kevin

    Just to point out something that should be obvious to anyone giving the matter any critical thought:
    An increase in diagnoses of autism does not necessarily imply an increase in the number of actual autistic people. It is beyond simple to point out that the increase in autism diagnoses and the increase in vaccinations are both symptoms of a third trend, which is our general increase in medical knowledge. In fact, this is an example of the classic case of correlation not equaling causation.

  • Calli Arcale


    Parents are not the experts on their children. Pediatricians are.

    I have a child with PDD-NOS. During one of the conferences with the after-school care teachers, I remarked that “My experience with children consists of two children — my own. Yours consists of hundreds. I will defer to your expertise.” They were very pleasantly surprised; they said they almost never hear that, because parents are generally convinced they know more about raising children by virtue of having spent a few years raising a couple of kids, whereas as the educators have been specifically trained, and have worked with dozens or even hundreds of children, often for many years. One of the teachers has been working in the field for twenty-five years. I’ve been working with kids since my eldest was born six years ago. She definitely trumps me when it comes to experience.

    It’s interesting to learn how few parents acknowledge that — or at least, how few parents of challenging children realize that. But I suspect it is a common failing. We all have to believe that we are competent (have faith in ourselves) in order to get through our days, and it’s easy to overdo that.

  • Bill

    Anyone still talking about thimerosal can’t be taken seriously, as it hasn’t been present in childhood vaccines nearly a decade.

    And if one wants to avoid thimerosal (or any other preservative) in the seasonal influenza vaccine all they have to do is pony up the cash for the single-dose version.

  • JB Handley

    Man, who to believe? Paul Offit & Amy Wallace, or Dr. Jon Poling? You be the judge:

    Blinders won’t reduce autism
    Friday, March 13, 2009
    For the million plus American families touched by autism, like mine, there is real urgency to find scientific answers to help loved ones and prevent future victims. Unfortunately, some doctors still fail to even accept the increasing autism rate as real, rather than their own better diagnosis.

    The collateral damage of “better diagnosis,” the idea that we are simply better at detecting autism, is the abandonment of families coping with autism by the medical establishment, government and private insurance companies.

    Beyond the high emotional toll autism takes on a family, many have been financially ruined. Public school systems are drowning in the red ink of educating increasing numbers of special-needs students.

    Fortunately, the ‘better diagnosis’ myth has been soundly debunked. In the 2009 issue of Epidemiology, two authors analyzed 1990 through 2006 California Department of Developmental Services and U.S. Census data documenting an astronomical 700 to 800 percent rise in the disorder.

    These scientists concluded that only a smaller percentage of this staggering rise can be explained by means other than a true increase.

    Because purely genetic diseases do not rise precipitously, the corollary to a true autism increase is clear — genes only load the gun and it is the environment that pulls the trigger. Autism is best redefined as an environmental disease with genetic susceptibilities.

    We should be investing our research dollars into discovering environmental factors that we can change, not more poorly targeted genetic studies that offer no hope of early intervention. Pesticides, mercury, aluminum, several drugs, dietary factors, infectious agents and yes — vaccines — are all in the research agenda.

    An inspiring new text, “Autism-Current Theories and Evidence,” has successfully navigated the minefield of autism science without touching the “third rail,” as Dr. Sanjay Gupta aptly describes the vaccine-autism debate.

    Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, who has studied autism for decades, prophetically writes, “The clinical heterogeneity of this disorder, together with the inherent dynamic changes during children’s growth and development, confound static, linear models and simplistic, unilateral approaches.”

    Zimmerman’s book is dense with cutting-edge science on cell biology, metabolism, oxidative stress, neuroinflammation, auto-immunity and brain pathology. That’s right — autism isn’t simply a genetic program for brain development gone awry. Dr. Martha Herbert, of Harvard Medical School, writes the final chapter defining autism in the larger framework of a multiple organ system disease with potentially reversible impairments.

    As an affected parent, I am left with a sense of hope that these professionals will produce results to stem the tide of new autism cases and ameliorate symptoms of those currently suffering.

    On the other hand, Dr. Paul Offit, the vaccine inventor whose Rotateq royalty interests recently sold for a reported $182 million, has written a novel of perceived good and evil called “Autism’s False Prophets.”

    The tome is largely a dramatic account of why Offit, who self-admittedly is not an autism expert, feels vaccines should be exonerated in the autism epidemic. In the story, Offit takes no prisoners, smearing characters in the vaccine-autism controversy as effortlessly as a rich cream cheese.

    “False Prophets” has curiously garnered support from several senior physicians in respected medical journals.

    After Offit’s drama is complete, these cheerleaders fail to realize they have traveled the road labeled “Dead End — No Through Traffic.” In his epilogue, Offit credits autism parents who have likewise gone down the dead end path to autism acceptance, without search for cause or cure.

    As both parent and doctor, I cannot fathom turning my back on a child nor science, in order to avoid inconvenient questions about vaccine safety or any other reasonable environmental factor.

    President Obama has recognized that “we’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate” and plans to appoint an “autism czar” to coordinate his policy efforts. Science is moving forward to connect the three dots of environment, genes and plasticity of a developing child’s brain circuitry. In the end, logic and reason will prevail over politics and profits.

    • Dr. Jon Poling, an Athens neurologist, is an assistant professor at the Medical College of Georgia. His daughter, Hannah Poling, has been a successful petitioner in the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.

  • JB Handley

    No, you aren’t buying what Jon Poling said? How about Bernadine Healy?

    Here’s Bernadine Healy, talking to CBS Evening News:

    “We have to take another look at that hypothesis, not deny it. I think we have the tools today that we didn’t have 10 years ago, 20 yrs ago, to try and tease that out and find out if there is a susceptible group…A susceptible group does not mean that vaccines are not good. What a susceptible group will tell us is that maybe there is a group of individual who shouldn’t have a particular vaccine or shouldn’t have vaccines on the same schedule…I don’t believe that if we identify the susceptibility group, if we identify a particular risk factor for vaccines or if we found out that maybe they should be spread out a little longer, I do not believe that the public would lose faith in vaccines…

    I think that the government or certain public officials in the government have been too quick to dismiss the concerns of these families without studying the population that got sick…I haven’t seen major studies that focus on 300 kids who got autistic symptoms within a period of a few weeks of a vaccine…I think public health officials have been too quick to dismiss the hypothesis as irrational without sufficient studies of causation…I think they have been too quick to dismiss studies in the animal laboratory either in mice, in primates, that do show some concerns with regard to certain vaccines and also to the mercury preservative in vaccines…The reason why they didn’t want to look for those susceptibility groups was because they were afraid that if they found them, however big or small they were, that that would scare the public…I don’t think you should ever turn your back on any scientific hypothesis because you’re afraid of what it might show…

    Populations do not test causality, they test associations. You have to go into the laboratory and you have to do designed research studies in animals…The fact that there is concern that you don’t want to know that susceptible group is a real disappointment to me. You can save those children…The more you delve into it, if you look at the basic science, if you look at the research that’s been done on animals.

    If you also look at some of these individual cases and if you look at the evidence that there is no link what I come away with is the question has not been answered.”

  • Matt

    Quick question for JBHandley.

    Since the rooster crows, and then the sun goes up, it is roosters that are responsible for causing the sunrise, right?

  • Broken Link

    Jon Poling, he of “The Appalling Poling Saga” (just google this) doesn’t have much credibility left in the scientific community. Bernadine Healey was a member of TASSC, an association that promoted the interests of tobacco companies.

    And those are the only two experts that JB Handley can trot out to partially support his position. Weigh that against thousands of scientists who oppose his views.

  • Fill

    You will always be able to find at least one scientist that supports a position that is not supported by the data and opposed by the mainstream community.

    Global warming
    Evolution and ‘design’
    vaccines etc etc

    The lack of any causal link between vaccination may not be as well established as truth of global warming and evolution, but what is is the fact that if parent stop vaccinating their children, every child will experience an increased risk of serious infection.

  • steeleweed

    More and more these days I remind myself that “freedom of speech does not include yeling “FIRE!” in a crowded theater”.

    When a company wants to market a drug, it has to undergo an extensive testing process, both for its function and its side-effects. If negative side-effects surface later (Thalidomide?), the company is liable for corrective measures. If the same standards were applied to those making bogus claims, I suspect there would be a lot fewer such claims.

    If someone knowingly endangers public health: delberate AIDS infection, poison food/medicine, selling dangerous products, etc., the offender is put behind bars.
    Anti-vaccine agitators should be taken to court, as threats to the general welfare and if found guilty, should be given substantial penalties. If McCarthy were fined $500,000 and given 5 years in jail, she might pull in her horns. If a doctor or scientist cannot establish the truth of his allegations – and is using his medical/scientific status as justification – that status should be terminate. An MD’s license can certainly be revoked. Maybe we need some way to strip a PhD…

  • Bill

    Still waiting for Handley to explain why discontinuing thimerosal in childhood vaccines didn’t result in a measurable drop in autism.

    The latest articles he posted here contain nothing more than generalities, with no causal hypothesis for any alleged vaccine-autism link.

  • Kevin

    Personally, I’m waiting for Handley to stop committing the fallacy of appeal to authority by asking us if we “believe” one or another supposedly expert doctor. The factual correctness of an argument is independent of who supports it.

  • eric gisse

    I skimmed this thread and noticed an incredibly amusing similarity between two other loud and stupid groups of people: anti-relativity kooks, and “apollo hoax” kooks.

    All the hallmarks are there. Wingnut supporters, rampant intellectual dishonest, inability to stay on topic, constantly moving goalposts, etc.

    I’m sure its’ a complete coincidence that all the behavioral markers are the same.

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  • Jane

    Henry @52: thanks for that link. Very enlightening read.

    Re: cures as causes of disease…the 1976 swine flu vaccine campaign resulted in a number of deaths and a slew of lawsuits from over 500 cases of apparently vaccine-related Guillain-Barre Syndrome. The campaign was stopped after a couple of months. Apparently several countries are now keeping an eye out for an increase in cases as the latest vaccination campaign gets underway…

  • Broken Link

    Don’t expect Mr. Handley to reply any more here. He’s run off to defend his behavior/ideas on other blogs. You can see him in action here:
    (posting as Dr Snotfit)

    And over on that bastion of anti-vaccine wing-nuttery Environment of Harm, Amy Wallace and Paul Offit hatred is in full flight:

    Calling Amy Wallace a “whore” is not okay. Unless of course, you called her a
    “pharma whore,” and said she was “prostituting herself out for WIRED,” which is
    different than simply calling a whore and a prostitute. Hmmm.

    In any event, she got what she wanted, which is everyone now knowing her name.

    I wanted to be Paul Offit for Halloween, I could not find a big enough syringe or a scary enough costume. Lucky for him, he doesn’t have to dress up to be scary..


    Alternatively, you could have dressed up as a baby with a multitude of hypodermic needles sticking out of you with all the names of various vaccines on them, and a sign that Paul Offit says that all of these vaccines will keep you healthy (NOT!).

    Boo hoo,




    Seriously, it should not no be all that hard, This year I paraded around in my serial/cereal Killer costume yet again. I did have to tell kids not to eat the cereal on my costume!


  • MedallionOfFerret

    I myself am convinced the peas in peanut butter have caused not only my own exceptionally severe mental derangement but also that of my friends and family and of the society I live in. You’n me J.B.–we’ll make this a better world, as soon as we get rid of vaccines and peanut butter!

    Well, maybe we really ought to keep vaccines–they save lives. But peanut butter! How many lives do any of you Great Brains know of that have been saved by peanut butter? Join your work to mine, and we’ll rid the known parts of the multiverse of this scourge forever! Subscribe now, at!

  • Richard Weed

    They develop vaccines in pig byproduct cultures,so that precludes Jewish,Muslim and Witness use. Dump it on the Catholics,Protestants and Buddhists. Education is not salvation.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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