Category: vaccination

Institute of Medicine Slams Anti-Vaxxers, Again

By Chris Mooney | August 26, 2011 9:53 am

A new report is out from the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, on vaccine safety. In the voluminous report, the committee of course does not find that every vaccine is perfectly safe for all time–there are certainly some risks. But it once again rejects the claim that the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine causes autism–the evidence, the committee said, was more than adequate to reject this causal assertion.

You can read the report for free here. The New York Times report, titled “Vaccine Cleared Again as Autism Culprit,” is here.

Please note: Anti-vaxxers will not change their minds based on this major scientific consensus report. They will argue back and challenge its conclusions.

So it goes.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Motivated Reasoning, vaccination

More Polling Data On The Politics of Vaccine Resistance

By Chris Mooney | April 27, 2011 8:03 am

Okay, so, I owe Brendan Nyhan big time on this one.

In a debate last week that pulled in Kevin Drum, David Frum, Andrew Sullivan, Josh Rosenau, and Mike the Mad Biologist, we’ve been discussing whether vaccine denial is really a left wing phenomenon or not. One problem has been that the polling data on who actually resists vaccines is pretty scarce.

However, there are at least two polling results out there in the universe of public opinion data that have not been discussed yet, so far as I can tell. Neither is perfect for getting at the question of who has fallen for the vaccine-autism scare, but both are relevant. Let’s take them in sequence.

In late 2009, USA Today/Gallup asked a question about Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vax views:

Did Jenny McCarthy’s statements (she believes her son developed autism after getting a common childhood vaccine) make you more likely to question the safety of vaccines for children, or did her statements not make you more likely to question the safety of childhood vaccines?

Survey by USA Today. Methodology: Conducted by Gallup Organization, November 20 – November 22, 2009 and based on 1,017 telephone interviews. Sample: national adult. Interviews were conducted with respondents on landline telephones for respondents with a landline telephone, and cellular phones for respondents who are cell phone only. [USGALLUP.200921.Q21]

What Brendan Nyhan did for me was obtain the polling data from Roper, and then helped me break the results down by the political leanings of the respondents.

One major complicating factor here is that not everyone surveyed was aware of McCarthy’s claims. That makes the question less than ideal. Still, we can break the results down for liberals, conservatives, and moderates–and what we’re trying to see is if there is any strong correlation between political views and those who said they were “more likely” to question vaccine safety after having heard McCarthy’s (wrongheaded) views.

So here are the results: Liberals (41% not aware, 38 % aware but not more likely, 21 % aware and more likely); Moderates (48 % not aware, 28 % aware but not more likely, 24 % aware and more likely); Conservatives (49 % not aware, 28 % aware but not more likely, 23 % aware and more likely).

These results basically suggest that there’s little or no political divide in terms of who falls for Jenny McCarthy’s misinformation. Notably, liberals were somewhat more aware of her claims and yet, nevertheless, were least likely to listen to them. But not by a huge margin or anything.

I recently stumbled on a second polling result that is also relevant, although hardly perfect for our purposes–also from 2009. In a Pew poll that year that sought to differentiate between the views of scientists and average Americans of a variety of issues, people were asked whether childhood vaccines ought to be required, or if instead it should be left up to parental choice. 69 % of Americans thought they should be required (vs 82 % of scientists), while 28 % would leave it to parental choice (vs 17 % of scientists).

What’s interesting here is that Pew also provided a political breakdown of the results, and there was simply no difference between Democrats and Republicans. 71 % of members of both parties said childhood vaccinations should be required, while 26 % of Republicans and 27 % of Democrats said parents should decide. (Independents were slightly worse: 67 % said vaccinations should be required, while 30 % favored parental choice.)

Bottom line: There’s no evidence here to suggest that vaccine denial (and specifically, believing that childhood vaccines cause autism) is a distinctly left wing or liberal phenomenon. However, I will reiterate that we don’t really have good surveys at this point that are clearly designed to get at this question.

Vaccine Denial and the Left

By Chris Mooney | April 20, 2011 8:53 am

Kevin Drum has blogged my MoJo piece, and while he likes it, he adds this:

…be prepared to be annoyed when Chris wrenches his spine out of shape bending over backward to find an example of liberals denying science as much as conservatives. It might be true that you can find vaccine deniers in the aisles of Whole Foods, but if there’s any rigorous evidence that belief in the vaccine-autism link is especially pronounced or widespread among liberals, I haven’t seen it. Surely there’s a better, more substantive example than that floating around somewhere?

So I want to further explain my assertion that vaccine denial “largely occupies” the political left. It arises, basically, from my long familiarity with this issue, having read numerous books about it, etc.

First, it is certainly true that environmentalists and Hollywood celebrities have been the loudest proponents of anti-vaccine views. To me, that is evidence, although not necessarily definitive. So is the fact that we see dangerously large clusters of the unvaccinated in places like Ashland, Oregon, and Boulder, Colorado, which are very leftwing cities.

What’s tricky is, there’s not a standard left-right political ideology underlying this. Rather, it seems more associated with a Whole Foods and au natural lifestyle that, while certainly more prominent on the bicoastal left, isn’t the same as being outraged by inequality or abuses of the free market.

It’s also the case that there are some elected Republicans (Dan Burton) who have supported anti-vax views, and few elected Democrats who support them. This makes the issue complicated.

Finally, there’s the question of polling data, which is what Drum asked for. As far as I can tell, there’s very little and hardly definitive. That may be the subject of a future post.


Revkin on Biased Reasoning

By Chris Mooney | April 19, 2011 1:21 pm

Andy Revkin has done a post that combines together a discussion of my Mother Jones piece with, appropriately, an analysis of the recent claims and counterclaims over the greenhouse gas implications of fugitive methane emissions from unconventional gas drilling (e.g., fracking). It includes a Q & A between us:

REVKIN: I would love your sense of why climate, as a hot-button issue, is more salient than vaccines in the political arena. Presumably it’s because it’s a direct link to the wallet for anti-tax folks and vaccines are a much smaller base of concern (people with young kids)?

You didn’t mention genetically modified organisms or radiation, two other arenas where the communitarians [Kahan’s descriptor for what others might call liberals] have what seems to be a high “dread to risk ratio“….

Finally, this seems to clash with the enduring vision that inertia on climate (and related issues) derives from heavy spending by fossil fuelers and media muddle. My learning curve on cultural cognition has led me to mostly abandon my expectation that better information and communication could change the public debate.

Do you see any need for the environmental movement to abandon its longstanding claim that the public is inert on climate and energy because of the themes in “Merchants of Doubt” and, to an extent, “The Republican War on Science?” Read More

Deep Confusion About the Left, the Right, and Science

By Chris Mooney | January 18, 2011 8:10 am

Recently I came across this Ed Driscoll post at Pajamas Media, riffing on this editorial in Investor’s Business Daily. While the arguments advanced in these paired right wing science commentaries aren’t particularly nuanced, the basic theme is clear–it’s the left that abuses science! In particular–and this is something I discussed with Seth Mnookin on the latest Point of Inquiry–the vaccine-autism claim is becoming Exhibit A in a developing “Democrat War on Science” style argument.

What do I say to this, as the person who coined the phrase “Republican War on Science”?

First, I fully admit that a type of “war on science” has occurred with respect to vaccination over the last ten years; and furthermore, I agree that the animus against good science in this case tends to be located, broadly speaking, on the political left. However, I don’t see how the vaccine-autism case study refutes my broader argument, which was about the relationship between the right and science in modern U.S. politics.

The political “left”–in this country or elsewhere–can certainly serve as a haven for science denialism. Soviet Lysenkoism is by far the most famous case, as was discussed in The Republican War on Science; but there are many, many others.

But just because denialism occurs sometimes on the left does not mean that in the U.S. today–and particularly in mainstream U.S. politics–it’s predominantly a left wing phenomenon.

Having left wing science problems crop up occasionally is only to be expected, because people on both sides of the spectrum are wont to develop strong convictions that they can’t easily let go of–this is just human nature. However, the argument about the U.S. right today is a different one. It is this: Modern conservatism wedded itself quite deliberately to the Christian right and corporate America, leading to a very systematic and even predictable set of political science problems. And these are institutionalized now in one of our chief political parties.

Now, you might argue back that left wing science abuses also spring from a coherent set of political impulses or a worldview–and I might even agree with you. But you’d be hard pressed to show me how these tendencies are currently dominant in the Democratic party. Even in the vaccine case, I don’t see many Democratic politicians scoring points by denying the science on this issue; rather, it’s more part and parcel of a “natural”, Whole Foods lifestyle. Ditto for something like irrational left-wing resistance to genetically modified foods.

This is, however, an argument that could use further developing. I’m sure this post will prompt some comments–so that will be the beginning of that process.

Bravo to for Taking Down RFK Jr. Vaccine-Autism Article

By Chris Mooney | January 17, 2011 7:53 am

See here, from editor in chief Kerry Lauerman:

In 2005, Salon published online an exclusive story by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that offered an explosive premise: that the mercury-based thimerosal compound present in vaccines until 2001 was dangerous, and that he was “convinced that the link between thimerosal and the epidemic of childhood neurological disorders is real.”

The piece was co-published with Rolling Stone magazine — they fact-checked it and published it in print; we posted it online. In the days after running “Deadly Immunity,” we amended the story with five corrections (which can still be found logged here) that went far in undermining Kennedy’s exposé. At the time, we felt that correcting the piece — and keeping it on the site, in the spirit of transparency — was the best way to operate. But subsequent critics, including most recently, Seth Mnookin in his book “The Panic Virus,” further eroded any faith we had in the story’s value. We’ve grown to believe the best reader service is to delete the piece entirely.

“I regret we didn’t move on this more quickly, as evidence continued to emerge debunking the vaccines and autism link,” says former Salon editor in chief Joan Walsh, now editor at large. “But continued revelations of the flaws and even fraud tainting the science behind the connection make taking down the story the right thing to do.” The story’s original URL now links to our autism topics page, which we believe now offers a strong record of clear thinking and skeptical coverage we’re proud of — including the critical pursuit of others who continue to propagate the debunked, and dangerous, autism-vaccine link.

But what about Rolling Stone? To repost a Seth Mnookin tweet:

Important diff in RFK Jr autism-mercury: RS disappeared w/no mention; @Salon stepped up/acknowledged

I was not aware until just now that the Rolling Stone version had disappeared. I remember reading it when I was working on my Discover vaccines piece in 2009, and indeed, we linked it in the online version of that article.

All in all, this is just further evidence that finally, the worm is turning on vaccine-autism claims. However, as both Mnookin and also Paul Offit document in their latest books, much of the damage has already been done. There are a lot of lessons here–and many touch on the media’s role in fanning a panic.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media and Science, vaccination

The Irrationality Vaccine–New Point of Inquiry with Seth Mnookin

By Chris Mooney | January 15, 2011 2:10 pm

panic virusMy new episode of Point of Inquiry is now up. The guest is Seth Mnookin, author of the new book The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear.

Here’s the write up:

Recently the British Medical Journal dealt yet another blow to 1998 scientific study that first terrified the public about the possibility that vaccines might cause autism. The paper, the Journal alleged, was nothing less than “fraudulent.”

Amazingly, however, no one expects anti-vaccine advocates to retract, change their minds, or cease their activities. Which raises the question: How did they grow so strongly and doggedly convinced to begin with?

That’s where Seth Mnookin’s new book The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear comes in. It tells the page turning story behind the thoroughly refuted-but still devoutly believed—claim of a link between vaccines and autism. The book explores not only the science, but also the parents involved, the autism advocacy and support community, and the crucial role of the media, the Internet, and celebrities like Jenny McCarthy in spreading misinformation about vaccines.

Seth Mnookin is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and was previously a senior writer at Newsweek. He’s the author of two previous books: Hard News: The Scandals at the New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media and the bestselling Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top, about the Boston Red Sox. The Panic Virus is his third book.

You can listen to the show here.

Two New Books Destroy Anti-Vax Claims

By Chris Mooney | January 13, 2011 8:06 am

panic virusIn the latest New Scientist, I have a lengthy review of the following new books, which couldn’t be better timed in light of the recent devastation of the Wakefield paper that started the whole autism scare:

The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear by Seth Mnookin, who’s an editor at Vanity Fair and wrote the New York Times bestseller Feeding the Monster.

Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All, by Paul Offit, previously well known as the author of Autism’s False Prophets and a Point of Inquiry guest

Deadly ChoicesYou can’t read the full review online unless you have a subscription, but suffice it to say that these are both great books and they’re actually quite different and complementary as well. Mnookin is more of a narrative writer. Offit is devastating on the science, and on the incredible risk now posed to innocent children by those who fail to vaccinate. If you care about science and reason, both should be in your library.

I want to add something else: Please go to Amazon and see all the one star reviews that vaccine denialists are giving to Offit’s newest–and it doesn’t seem like they’ve even read the book. Guess he touched a nerve. After you read it, I recommend going over there and balancing the score.

I’m also going to be having Mnookin on Point of Inquiry tomorrow. Stand by for that.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Announcements, Books, vaccination

Vaccine-Autism Coffin Has No More Room for Nails

By Chris Mooney | January 6, 2011 2:57 pm

Here’s CNN doing some really impressive science and medical journalism–although notably, it’s Anderson Cooper, not Sanjay Gupta.

The occasion is still more debunking of the study that started it all–Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet paper accusing the MMR vaccine of causing autism through a novel (and implausible) pathway. Now, the British Medical Journal is calling the work an outright “fraud” based upon a series of reports it is beginning to publish by investigative journalist Brian Deer.

All the details can be found at those links, and you can evaluate them yourself–but at this point, I think it’s fair to say that no open minded person who surveys the evidence can conclude anything but that vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and the real threat to public health are the activists, and tiny handful of scientists, who tried to convince us otherwise. (Not that they would, like, change their minds or anything.)

And just in time for Seth Mnookin’s and Paul Offit’s new books–my review of which will be out very soon!

Update: I was unfair to Sanjay Gupta, he did a tough interview with Wakefield too–not nearly as tough as Anderson Cooper, but still fairly tough.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Books, vaccination

Here Come Two New Pro-Vaccine Books

By Chris Mooney | December 20, 2010 2:31 pm

panic virusI’m currently reading the following books for a review–both come out in January:

The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear by Seth Mnookin, who’s an editor at Vanity Fair and wrote the New York Times bestseller Feeding the Monster.

Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All, by Paul Offit, previously well known as the author of Autism’s False Prophets and a Point of Inquiry guest

Deadly ChoicesI’m not going to comment more right now, as the books are stirring up a lot of ideas but my thoughts aren’t complete.

But these are both pro-vaccine books by well established authors, and for that reason, I know blog readers here will be interested in both of them.

So click the links or the covers for more.

I’ll say a lot more once my review is published.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Books, vaccination

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