A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 14 No. 2

March 2015

“Almost every single nutrient imaginable has peer reviewed publications associating it with almost any outcome. In this literature of epidemic proportions, how many results are correct?” --John P. A. Ioannidis

What's New?

The What's New? page has been moved to the Index page of the Skeptic's Dictionary.

New entry in The Skeptic's Dictionary: Fatima "prophecy"

New book review: James Michener's unpublished manuscript on fortune-telling

Revised entry in the SD: Transcendental Meditation (updated info on TM finances and program to introduce meditation into public schools)

New reader comments: vaccinations and Dr. Blaylock (another Google Medical School grad takes on the morons who wasted 10 years getting a medical degree)

Several articles were updated:

Rights and Vaccinations

Recent news item:

Determined to curb Pakistan’s polio crisis, police officials in the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa [Peshawar] said ... that they had issued hundreds of arrest warrants for parents for refusing to vaccinate their children.*

Does the state have the moral right to require parents to have their children vaccinated? What would give the state such a right? For those who look to the Bible for all their moral guidance, your guide is silent on such matters. Oh, you may quote something like "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, etc.," but that doesn't help when the issue is what is and what is not within the state's right when it comes to ordering us to do or not do certain things. There's no commandment that says "Thou shalt vaccinate thy children against communicable diseases." Nor is there a commandment that says "Thou shalt not vaccinate thy child." Damn. It looks like we can't rely on a hand-me-down moral guideline from a religious tradition to direct our thinking here. We may have to rely on reason. Oh, the horror, the humanity....use our brains when our gods and religious leaders let us down? How scary is that? Not as scary as looking to religious traditions to guide us. Why would we put our faith in bastions of irrationality when we have reason, experience, and empirical knowledge to guide us?

Do parents have a moral obligation to have their children vaccinated? Those who think like David Brooks lament the fact that "an age of mass secularization is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves." Brooks and his ilk think we're better off getting our morality from religions because "Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries" and "Religious people are motivated by their love for God [sic] and their fervent desire to please Him [sic]." Sorry, Mr. Brooks. No religious creed can help us here and, in any case, the last people we should want advising us on moral matters are people who think that what they do is some god's will. Such people are dangerous and a menace to constitutional democracies based on the rule of law. (Many readers may think I'm alluding to ISIS, but those fanatics are just an egregious example of religion gone wild. Discussing crusaders who behead people because they're not Sunni Muslim allies and posting videos on YouTube of their brutality cannot be part of any meaningful examination of moral issues.)

One might argue, however, that all religions agree that it is wrong to kill people unjustly and that not vaccinating children against diseases like measles, diphtheria, rubella, etc., would be indirectly killing people who did not deserve to die. One problem with this approach is that there are people who believe that vaccinating children is a way of killing some children who do not deserve to die. There are many others who believe that vaccinations are certainly harming many children, if not killing them, and these children do not deserve to be harmed. I have recently been taken to task by two anti-vaccinationists, one of whose position is that I and all who defend vaccinations are complicit murderers and defenders of irreparably harming children. She calls herself "Sissy" and she told me I am irresponsible and should be arrested for posting "false and ignorant information" about vaccines. She said that I'm "ruining the internet one false statement at a time!" I asked her for specifics and she sent me a number of links to anti-vaxxer websites and videos, including one to Mike Adams's Natural News. When I told her that my view of Adams is exactly the view she has of me, she asked me who Mike Adams is. When I told her that he is the author of the article on naturalnews.com that she sent me a link to, she replied [no editing done on my part of her emails]:

I'm not sure who mike Adams even is? But I sent you stuff from very credible sources?? That were backed by even more  reliable evidence! But like I said "tricking people is easier then convincing them they have been tricked! Have you got any thing that proves that anything you have said is true? Cause I sure have :) oh how I love to win!

 I just proved you wrong...more then once!? Take that shit off! Im gonna work on getting it removed and exposing your site! Tell me again how there are no toxic ingredients in vaccines, how thousands have died from measles, how no ones had lifelong side effects from a vaccine. You are beyond uninformed! I have a passion for proving people just like you wrong! My nursing degree and BS in microbiology help alot :) bye now...or shall I keep sending things that prove you wrong??

I sent Sissy a statement from the United States Centers for Disease Control that reads: "Worldwide, an estimated 20 million people get measles and 146,000 people die from the disease each year—that equals about 400 deaths every day or about 17 deaths every hour." Her response: "Seriously...do you just make stuff up and send it!!?" What would have been the point of sending her a link regarding the 300,000,000 people who died of smallpox in the last century alone, a disease we have eradicated? Like many other anti-vaxxers, she probably would have responded by telling me that the eradication of smallpox was due to better hygiene and nutrition, not a vaccine. (We just haven't gotten clean enough and aren't eating well enough to eradicate measles, mumps, rubella, etc., I guess.) And there certainly would be no point in telling her that the amount of "poisonous" aluminum in a dose of vaccine is less than in a glass of beer. Aluminum occurs naturally in the soil and in drinking water. An infant would be likely to get much more aluminum from drinking baby formula over a year's time than from vaccines. Sissy would probably accuse the FDA of making stuff up when it did a study that found that the maximum amount of aluminum an infant could be exposed to over the first year of life would be 4.225 milligrams (mg)--which is about two eye drops worth--if the infant followed the recommended schedule of vaccines. (For example, the amount of aluminum in the hepatitis B vaccine given at birth is 0.25 mg, about the same as in a half-liter of beer. There are 48 mg of aluminum in a kg of chocolate.)

You may be thinking: "why is he bothering with this nut?" After 25 e-mails from Sissy, I found out that the source of her rage is her belief that her niece was killed by vaccines.

When my niece was 10 days old she was given 3 vaccinations on the way home she  went into grand mal seizures! Because the seizures wouldn't stop they were forced to put her in a coma she never woke up from! My sister won 1.7 million dollars in court because it was proven without a shadow of a doubt that the vaccines killed my niece! So...how dare you! You are spreading false information about a very very serious topic! And someday you will wake up...i just hope, like in my families case, it won't be to late! Seriously shameful!!

I replied with what I thought would be my last email to Sissy: "Now I understand your rage and why any further discussion of this issue with you would be pointless." She had to get in one more jab: "how dare you disregard a childs death in that way! Its heartless, irresponsible, unintelligent and so much more!" I felt obliged to reply and I did:

I didn't disregard your niece's death. It was to avoid being heartless that I did not challenge your belief that because a court ruled vaccines caused the child's death that, in fact, vaccines caused the death. Courts have lower standards than medical science does for establishing causality. I wish no child would suffer or die of disease and that is why I fight for vaccines. You think vaccines are killing children; I know vaccines are saving millions of lives.

Sissy also wanted me to know about a conspiracy involving the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suppressing proof of a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. Barbara and David Mikkelson of Snopes.com already covered this false story. We can thank a man named Brian Hooker for the false claim that data collected by the CDC showed that African American males who received the MMR vaccine before age 36 months were at a 340% increased risk for autism. "Did collected data actually prove that the MMR vaccine produces a 340% increased risk of autism in African-American boys? The answer is no, it did not."*

About the same time Sissy was bombarding my email box with links to anti-vaxxer materials, another critic wrote to tell me that she is a skeptic but in the past month had gone from a supporter of vaccines to an opponent. Her conversion, it seems, came from reading articles by and about Andrew Wakefield, the discredited physician whose license to practice medicine was revoked for his dishonest and fraudulent activities.  "I am only beginning to investigate this issue," she wrote, "but I have gone from a vaccine supporter to a vaccine skeptic in one month. Not because I think vaccines are bad, but because I do not think we know what we are doing with them right now."

The merchants of doubt have snared another one. This critic ends all her emails with the notice: "Ideology is the science of idiots." John Adams. She says the quote is "to remind people not to lose sight of the bigger picture and get trapped in dogmatic thinking!" For me, she added a special notice: Skepticism is healthy, denial is deadly. She found it amusing that I took it personally.

This critic didn't claim to be a nurse with a B.S. in microbiology, however; in addition to one month's worth of investigation, she has an M.B.A. and a J.D. Those credentials may trump a Ph.D., an M.A., and a B.A. with over a decade of experience at investigating claims about vaccines and autism (my first post on the issue was in May 2003). She also has "a high functioning autistic son with a chronic bowel disorder of unknown etiology" and now thinks that vaccines may have caused both.

This critic says I should "research the European vaccine courts which have found, based on documents from Glaxo Smith Kline [sic], (apparently these documents are not available in US) that the MMR vaccine CAUSES autism. Also look into the sealed US vaccine court cases finding the same thing." In searching for info on this alleged scandal, I found that The Motley Fool thinks it is a good time to buy stock in GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) (3 Reasons GlaxoSmithKline PLC Could Soar in 2015) despite the fact that last September an Italian court ruled that a vaccine developed by GSK caused brain damage and autism in an infant boy. The document in question lists all reported adverse events that followed the administration of GSK's Infanrix Hexa. The vaccine is designed to protect children from polio, diphtheria, tetanus, hepatitis B, pertussis and Haemophilus influenza type B.* There are five reported cases of autism that occurred during clinical trials, but it would be wildly illogical to take these cases as proof that the vaccine causes autism. Proving a causal connection is much more involved than collecting data of what occurred to some people during a clinical trial. The conclusion of the confidential (to regulatory authorities) document is hardly an admission of guilt:

From the review of data received during the reporting period and presented in this PSUR [periodic safety update report], it has been concluded that the safety profile of Infanrix hexa is adequately reflected in the RSI [Reference Safety Information].

There have been no amendments to the Reference Safety Information (RSI) in the current reporting period and no further amendments to the RSI are considered necessary at this time.

The benefit/risk profile of Infanrix hexa continues to be favourable.

The Company will continue to monitor cases of anaemia haemolytic autoimmune, thrombocytopenia, thrombocytopenic purpura, autoimmune thrombocytopenia, idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, haemolytic anemia, cyanosis, injection site nodule, abcess and injection site abscess, Kawasaki’s disease, important neurological events (including encephalitis and encephalopathy), Henoch-Schonlein purpura, petechiae, purpura, haematochezia, allergic reactions (including anaphylactic and anaphylactoid reactions), cases of lack of effectiveness as well as fatal cases.

The document is hardly a smoking gun, but to the Italian judges who ruled on the case, the testimony of expert medical witnesses proved to them that this one particular case of autism was caused by the vaccine. The court concluded that the child "more likely than not" suffered autism and brain damage "because of neurotoxic mercury, aluminum, and his particular susceptibility from a genetic mutation."

Mary Holland, the author of the article "exposing" this scandal in GlobalResearch.ca, ("U.S. Media Blackout: Italian Courts Rule Vaccines Cause Autism") described the conclusion of the GSK report as showing "lack of concern for the vaccine’s adverse effects." She writes that this "is notable and perhaps not surprising." Actually, the report lists hundreds of reported adverse events that occurred after receiving the vaccine (nobody could have proved that each of these was caused by the vaccine). Holland describes the judges' decision as "sober, informed and well-reasoned." She provides no details, however, and I don't read Italian so I can't comment on the specifics of how the judges reasoned. I do know you can hire medical experts to testify to just about anything and that anybody with access to a computer can find at least one peer-reviewed study claiming to show a correlation between vaccines and just about any outcome you want. In any case, the judges presumably used some standard to determine that the preponderance of the evidence showed that the child's brain damage and autism was caused by his having a genetic mutation that made him susceptible to the mercury in thimerosal and to small amounts of aluminum. Whatever that standard was, it is obviously significantly lower than the standards used by scientists around the world who have studied the relationship of vaccines to autism. (I don't discuss thimerosal here but I have followed this issue for many years and have posted all my findings here.)

Holland begins her article thusly: "While the Italian press has devoted considerable attention to this decision and its public health implications, the U.S. press has been silent." Hence the headline claiming a U.S. media blackout. Nonsense. The U.S. media needn't follow this non-story. The science is what matters and the science is in: vaccines do not cause autism. Most journalists in this country know that judges do not use the same standards as the scientific community does when determining liability for harm done. Journalists also know that juries are often moved to tears by sad stories of one tragic event after another occurring after breast implants, cell phone usage, and medical malpractice regardless of the proof of a causal connection between the injury and the breast implant, etc. Juries are also likely to feel that making a big drug company pay lots of money to a harmed individual is fine even if the drug company isn't actually responsible for the injury of the plaintiff. It is because judges and juries have much lower standards than scientists for establishing causality that U.S. lawmakers have seen fit to protect manufacturers of vaccines. If they were not protected, no pharmaceutical firm would dare produce any vaccine; to do so would be to guarantee bankruptcy. (The same protection is given in Italy and other countries. Claims of harm from vaccines are handled by special agencies and the manufacturers generally can't be sued.)

Those of us who have been following the vaccine/autism issue for many years are familiar with the general form of the anti-vaxxer's irrefutable argument that some children are "especially sensitive" to vaccines and scientific control studies can't be refined enough to validate this claim. Of course the drawback to this argument is that it can't be verified. The Italian case makes a specific claim about a genetic mutation, however. As noted above, I don't read Italian, but I did a search of the Italian court ruling for 'mutazione genetica' and came up empty. It would seem to me highly relevant and important to specify the exact nature of this genetic mutation and to reference all the studies done that show that children with this mutation are susceptible to brain damage from vaccines or the adjuvants and preservatives in vaccines. Neither the Italian document nor Mary Holland mention either the specific mutation or the scientific studies that provide evidence of a causal link between vaccines and autism or any other neurological condition. At the very least, one should want to know what percentage of children with the mutation in question but who weren't vaccinated developed brain damage and autism. If this child was so sensitive to aluminum that the small amount of aluminum in the vaccine he received caused his brain damage and autism, it is very likely that he was doomed because he would get more aluminum from his mother's milk, water, and many of the foods he would be given than he would be exposed to from a single dose of a vaccine. In any case, there should be some science to back up the claim that his genetic mutation made him susceptible to brain damage from a vaccine.

I should also note that the Milan case (and one that preceded it in Rimini, which I'll get to shortly) were first brought to the Italian Ministry of Health, which rejected both claims. Furthermore, the Italian Ministry of Health is appealing the Milan decision. Mary Holland writes that the "appeal will likely take several years, and its outcome is uncertain."*

Another vaccine injury claim was filed with the Italian Ministry of Health in 2012. That case centered on a 15-month-old boy who developed bowel and eating problems soon after getting the MMR vaccine. This infant was diagnosed with autism and cognitive delay within a year of being vaccinated. Judge Lucio Ardigo ruled that the boy had “been damaged by irreversible complications due to vaccination (with trivalent MMR).” As Holland correctly notes: "The decision flew in the face of the conventional mainstream medical wisdom that an MMR-autism link has been 'debunked.'" Holland also correctly notes that the Italian courts' decisions "flatly contradict" the judgment of the U.S. Court of Federal Claim’s Vaccine Injury Compensation Program:

....from 2007 to 2010, in the Omnibus Autism Proceeding, three decision makers, called Special Masters, found that vaccines did not cause autism in any of the six test cases, and one Special Master even went so far as to compare the theory of vaccine-induced autism to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Why would anyone trust the reasoning of a few judges--experts in the law but no more expert than you or I when it comes to evaluating the testimony of medical experts--to the reasoning of thousands of experts in scientific medical research and practice? The answer is obvious and needs no comment from me except as a reminder of how important it is to know something about causal reasoning, confirmation bias, and the power of emotions to drive beliefs. (For those who are interested, I have posted a case study about a mother who became an anti-vaccinationist after her child died and she convinced herself that vaccines killed him.)

For the record, Mary Holland is the co-editor of Vaccine Epidemic: How Corporate Greed, Biased Science and Coercive Government Threaten Our Human Rights.

So, on the one side there are those of us who believe the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that vaccines are safe, effective, and essential to public health. We believe that the evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that vaccines save lives. On the other side are those who believe the evidence overwhelmingly shows that vaccines cause more harm than good, that they are not safe or effective, nor are they essential to public health. Those of us who defend vaccines are dupes of Big Pharma. The science we appeal to is biased and unreliable. Finally, regulations that require vaccinations before children can be admitted into public schools is a human rights violation.

I won't try to address all these issues here. (See my articles on the anti-vaccination movement, and the autism/thimerosal issue, the autism/MMR scare timeline, and the flu vaccine for a more detailed examination of the anti-vaccine arguments.) Here I will conclude with some comments on the morality of requiring parents to have their children vaccinated before enrolling in schools. Should parents be required to have their children vaccinated against communicable diseases before the children are allowed to attend school classes with other children?

Some people want to argue this question in terms of moral rights. The obvious problem with that approach is that there are conflicting claims about moral rights and no universally accepted standard by which to judge them. Many religions claim they have a special direct line to some supernatural being who reveals to them their rights and duties. Secularists appeal to reason and ideas based on the notion that states exist to protect people from harm and to promote the general welfare, which involves at a minimum the protection of freedoms such as the freedom to think and speak and write what's on one's mind. States have a duty to protect us from enemies without and within. Does that duty include protecting the health of its citizens? I think so because without a healthy body the citizen's chances of growing up and contributing to society are diminished. If its citizens are healthy, the state has a better chance of doing its duty to promote learning in its citizens so that their skills and knowledge can contribute to the well-being of themselves and of society. The duty of the state to protect citizens from communicable diseases seems obvious to me. Fulfilling this duty will harm some people and be a major inconvenience to others. Some will object to the government doing anything that restricts them from doing what they want to do. The state can't let such people off the hook by creating exemptions for them. There should not be any religious exemptions or exemptions of conscience for parents who don't want their children vaccinated should the state determine that the public health and safety requires it. The only people who should be exempt from getting state-mandated vaccinations are those who are too sick or weak to be vaccinated without causing them physical harm. If enough people around the sick and weak are vaccinated, they will be protected by what is called "herd immunity."

The state has a duty to protect its citizens and sometimes to fulfill that duty will require citizens to do what they don't want to do. Citizens can disobey the law if, in good conscience, they can't bring themselves to obey it. But such citizens don't have a right to break the law. If they did, then we may as well have no law at all. What kind of society could survive with a legal system that said everyone must obey the law except when they don't think it's right? So, yes, the state has a right to require parents to vaccinate their children for the protection of society. And parents can disobey that requirement, but they should not expect to be able to do so without consequences. Will we in the United States ever get to the place that Pakistan is now at, where the situation is so dire that the state must arrest parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated? I don't know. I hope not, but given the acrimony and general distrust of the anti-vaccinationists for medical science and government, it's not inevitable that we will be able to avoid such a police action. On the other hand, the percentage of people who actually oppose vaccinations is very small--less than ten percent of the U.S. adult population. The anti-vaxxers are, at this point in American history, a tail wagging the dog. They are full of sound and fury, but they signify a small segment of society. They shouldn't be allowed to control the dialogue over public health issues.

Some may argue that vaccines can harm some "especially sensitive" children and these children should be exempt from having to be vaccinated. I agree, but those who receive an exemption must be able to prove that they are likely to suffer harm from being vaccinated. Claiming that it is possible your child is "especially sensitive" is not sufficient reason to be given an exemption. Will some people be harmed by vaccines? Maybe many people will be harmed by vaccines, but that alone would not be sufficient reason to deny the state its right to require vaccinations. What would suffice to negate the state's claim to require vaccinations would be strong evidence that vaccinations would bring about more harm than good to society. Given all the evidence that is already in the can, that notion is unlikely to ever be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.


Written by Bob Carroll
with the assistance of John Renish
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