Recognizing good and bad science in vaccine research

bad science

Figuring out the quality of sources, that would separate good from bad science, took me a long time. I was sleep-deprived, had postpartum anxiety, and was scared of something I had not previously thought that much about before having kids.

The woman who had been a mentor to me in my career, with whom I had entrusted my life and that of my child through my pregnancy and birth, whispered in my ear a few minutes after my son was born to not let the hospital give him the hepatitis B vaccine. This was the first and last communication we had about vaccination, but filtered through my trust for her it planted a seed of doubt and convinced me at the time there was a good reason to avoid it. Her suggestion that I followed could have cost my son his life, but it took me almost two years to figure out why.

I set out on a path of sleepless nights to figure out what those reasons might be, and the internet can certainly deliver on that front. The problem was, most of what I was reading was misinformation designed to exploit my fears. I wasn’t yet familiar with the idea of confirmation bias or that search engines had a lot of first page hits for poor sources because of the way the search algorithms work. 

It took me some time to figure out that Google is the confessional of our anxieties, the most commonly typed in fears get boosted, and higher quality links with more technical language tend to lag behind as we often don’t know what keywords will give us the answers we are looking for. If we think of the internet as a library, it would be like if register adjacent tabloids and flyers handed to you on the street by conspiracy theorists were filed in the most prominent shelf spaces amongst the reference books.

Quality information is available, but it can take some digging to get to it. As a result, I got a lot more scared before I learned how to better interpret the quality of what I was finding. I eventually learned to type whatever scared me alongside “+criticism” or “+debunked” if I wanted to find a different perspective on a topic. Doing that is how I stumbled upon Skeptical Raptor’s well-cited breakdowns of things I had been reading that had me all twisted up in knots. Learning to use Google Scholar for searches also helped to cut through the noise when I was looking for actual research.

I feel a lot of regret for the time I left my child vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases because of fear, and hopefully some tools I found along the way to help me evaluate sources might be helpful for other parents who find themselves facing the same stress. Continue reading “Recognizing good and bad science in vaccine research”

Courts and science – talc and glyphosate probably do not cause cancer

courts and science

I’ve written about this many times before – courts do not get to decide what is good or bad science. Although courts and science may not necessarily be incompatible, attorneys, juries, and judges are generally not trained in scientific research, scientific methods, scientific publications, and/or scientific reasoning.

Two relatively recent cases are strong evidence that courts and science can be quite incompatible. In the first case, a jury ordered pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson (JNJ) to pay US$4.69 billion in damages to 22 women who claimed that the company’s talcum powder products caused ovarian cancer. In the second case, a jury ordered chemical manufacturer Monsanto to pay US$289 million to a janitor who claimed that Round-Up (glyphosate) caused his terminal cancer.

The problem with both of these cases is that there is, at best, some weak, unrepeated scientific evidence that supports their claims. However, if you refrain from cherry-picking articles on PubMed, you’ll find that the vast majority of research either doesn’t support their claims or even shows that there are no links between talc or glyphosate and cancer.

Let’s take a look at the science in both of these cases, and then, let’s find out why courts and science are not necessarily compatible. And remember, this isn’t a recent problem – an American court once rejected evolution during the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. So science has been skeptical of the involvement of courts and science for a very long time. Continue reading “Courts and science – talc and glyphosate probably do not cause cancer”

Ten thousand years of GMO foods – making inedible edible

Ten thousand years of GMO foods

One of the tropes of the anti-GMO movement is that nature does it better for food, a logical fallacy. In other words, they believe that our ancestors’ foods are somehow better than our GMO foods. Of course, this belies the fact that there are over ten thousand years of GMO foods – it’s really not something that showed up during the last century or so.

People seem to endow “nature” with a special status that is ridiculous. Evolution proceeds along a random process where environmental changes select for certain mutations over time (and yes, I’m oversimplifying the process), which is called natural selection. Moreover, there are random mutations that just occur that provide no benefit to the organism, although they might in the future because of some environmental change.

Nature has no goal. It has no guidance. It has no underlying value of good or evil. Unless you believe that some higher being controls it, and at that point, you’re a creationist, claiming that “nature” is better than the alternative is basically ridiculous.

So, we’re going to talk about how genetic modification has moved from the early days of waiting for a random, beneficial mutation to the modern world of genetic modification.

Continue reading “Ten thousand years of GMO foods – making inedible edible”

Solid GMO scientific consensus – based on real science

solid gmo scientific consensus

Over and over, I’ve read comments on the internet (obviously, my first mistake) that there is no GMO scientific consensus regarding whether genetically modified organisms (generally crops or food) are safe for humans, animals, and the environment. Well, that’s simply not the case.

Furthermore, there are even claims that GMOs are not necessarily productive or provide higher yields, and so-called organic foods are healthier (they aren’t) and are better for the environment. Again, that’s not necessarily the case.

Let’s look at anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change since it also has this huge controversy over whether there’s a scientific consensus. Over 97% of published articles that expressed a conclusion about anthropogenic climate change endorsed human-caused global warming. If that were a vote, it would be a landslide that would make dictators jealous.

According to Skeptical Science, it’s even more than that:

We should also consider official scientific bodies and what they think about climate change. There are no national or major scientific institutions anywhere in the world that dispute the theory of anthropogenic climate change. Not one.

The consensus is so clear, outside of vocal, loud and junk science pushing individuals and organizations, that many scientists call it the “Theory of anthropogenic climate change,” which would mean it’s at the pinnacle of scientific principles, essentially an unassailable fact.

Continue reading “Solid GMO scientific consensus – based on real science”

Gardasil effectiveness – yes, HPV vaccine does protect you against cancer

Gardasil effectiveness

Although I have no poll numbers sitting in front of me, and certainly no scientific peer-reviewed research, I just have a feeling that if you scratch the surface of an anti-vaccine activist, you will find that if they could hate one vaccine, it would be Gardasil. And one of the arguments will be all about Gardasil effectiveness – they claim it doesn’t actually prevent cancer.

When you couple their false claims about the dangers of the vaccine with the claims about the lack of Gardasil effectiveness, you’d probably agree with the anti-vaccine crowd. Despite these false claims, HPV vaccine uptake has slowly grown in the US and other countries.

I’ve written nearly 200 articles about the HPV cancer-preventing vaccine, but most of those are focused on debunking myths and confirming the safety of the vaccine. I’m going to focus on a quick primer about Gardasil effectiveness in preventing cancer. Stay tuned for some interesting science. Continue reading “Gardasil effectiveness – yes, HPV vaccine does protect you against cancer”

Cervical cancer rate declines after introduction of HPV vaccine – new evidence

cervical cancer rate

One of the misinformed tropes of the anti-vaccine world is that there is no evidence that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine actually reduces cancer rates. Given that the vaccine was only introduced in the last 10 years, it would take time for researchers to study this issue. But now, we have more evidence that the cervical cancer rate declined after the introduction of the HPV vaccine in the USA.

We have robust evidence that the HPV vaccine actually stops HPV infections, which are linked to several types of cancer. Over the past few years, a number of published articles have provided us with powerful evidence that the HPV vaccine is significantly reducing the cervical cancer rate.

Although there is a myth that the HPV vaccine is just to prevent cervical cancer, I expect, over the next few years, there will be new research that shows reductions in other cancers, in both women and men, as a result of the introduction of the vaccine. Moreover, the effect of the vaccine on males may take longer since the vaccine was recommended for males only a few years after it was introduced.

This year, a solid systematic review, the most powerful research in the hierarchy of biomedical science, along with other studies, have been published that provide strong evidence that the HPV vaccine reduces the cervical cancer rate. Now we have a new study to add to the body of science supporting the effectiveness in preventing cancers of the HPV vaccine. Continue reading “Cervical cancer rate declines after introduction of HPV vaccine – new evidence”

Italian vaccine mandate – Senate may delay implementation until next year

Italian vaccine mandate

On Monday, the Italian Senate passed a large bill that, among other things, delayed the implementation of the Italian vaccine mandate passed in 2017 until the 2019-2020 school year. This short post explains what this means – and does not mean.

In response to a large measles outbreak in Italy that killed about 1:1000 (around 8 in the past year) and hospitalized thousands, the Italian government then in power passed a law that mandates that children 0-6 be vaccinated with ten vaccines (before that, four were required) before attending daycare or school. It also imposed fines on parents of children 0-16 who were not vaccinated with these vaccines.

In the 2018 election, two anti-establishment parties joined the coalition government. One, the 5 Star Movement, includes people who are openly anti-vaccine. It’s not clear to what extent their anti-vaccine views affected their election results, but among other things, the party promised to roll back the Italian vaccine mandate.

As a first step, the new health minister allowed parents to self-certify vaccines for the 2018-2019 school year – to declare whether or not their children were vaccinated (in a sense, rewarding dishonest anti-vaccine parents over honest ones). 

The new Italian Senate law included many things, but the most important issue is that they delayed the implementation of the mandate for the school year 2019-2020. Importantly, the law will not become effective until it passes Italy’s lower house, which is on recess until September 11, 2018, so it will not apply in the school year 2018-2019.

During the current year, the mandate still applies, as does the self-certification decree, probably. But if it becomes law, it will mean that the law is not applicable the following year, giving the new government a chance to try and overturn the mandate completely. 

Naturally, medical societies – as well as politicians from other parties – are concerned about the repeal of the Italian vaccine mandate.

The measles outbreak, which was the impetus for the original law, is still going strong. In fact, the CDC has issued a level 1 travel warning for Italy because of this ongoing outbreak.

Several people in Italy have died recently from the measles, and many were hospitalized. Almost all the cases are in the unvaccinated, including those too young to be vaccinated. This is not a great time to roll back the Italian vaccine mandate intended to protect children and contain the outbreak. 

Samoan vaccine tragedy – investigation update – nurse charged

samoan vaccine update

Recently, Dorit Rubinstein Reiss wrote an in-depth article here discussing the Samoan vaccine tragedy – two children died within minutes after receiving the routine MMR vaccine. The government reacted to the Samoan vaccine issue almost immediately, and they opened an inquest into what may have killed the two children.

At the time, the story was picked up by the anti-vaccine religion as evidence that the MMR vaccine kills children while claiming that nefarious forces are conspiring to hide the truth about the vaccine. Except that is the farthest thing from the truth. Continue reading “Samoan vaccine tragedy – investigation update – nurse charged”

Vaccines and autism – science says they are unrelated

vaccines and autism

Vaccines and autism are not linked or related according to real science, published in real scientific journals written by top scientists and physicians.

But this false claim is in the news again. Probably as a result of reports that more and more children are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. So let’s take a look at the science.

On 26 April 2018, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that new data showed a continued rise in the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is considered to be a disorder of neural development, usually appearing before the age of 3 years, characterized by impaired social interaction and verbal and non-verbal communication, and by restricted, repetitive or stereotyped behavior.

Predictably, the anti-vaccine community jumped on this information (despite their hatred of the CDC) to make unfounded claims, not backed by science, that this was all the fault of vaccines. Of course.

Continue reading “Vaccines and autism – science says they are unrelated”

Hygiene hypothesis – what is it, and why the anti-vaccine religion abuses it

hygiene hypothesis

One thing you’ll notice from all science deniers is a tendency to overstate or overuse a fairly solid scientific principle inappropriately. The anti-vaccine crowd takes this to a whole new level. And what we’re going to discuss today is the hygiene hypothesis, which describes how early exposure to microorganisms may assist the immune system to avoid allergic reactions.

Although we’ll discuss the scientific evidence in support of the hypothesis later in this article, anti-vaxxers tend to abuse it. They conflate potentially beneficial organisms, such as the gut biome, with dangerous and deadly pathogens, like measles and polio. The former may be a critical component of the hygiene hypothesis, but the latter is not.

Time to tackle this scientifically controversial topic, and put to rest one of the tropes of the anti-vaccine religion that all germs are good. Continue reading “Hygiene hypothesis – what is it, and why the anti-vaccine religion abuses it”