The zombie anti-vaccine lie–Peter Doshi and the appeal to authority

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Updated 4 November 2014 to add some ironic analysis of Doshi’s “not-an-epidemiologist” background.

A few  months ago, I wrote an article about Peter Doshi, a Ph.D. who is doing some postdoctoral work at Johns Hopkins University, one of the leading institutions of higher learning in the USA. Doshi is truly not very notable in science, except last year, he wrote an article about flu vaccines, basically employing the Nirvana Fallacy that because flu vaccines aren’t 100% effective they are worthless. Since vaccines are fundamentally a medical procedure to mitigate risk with a very low risk of adverse events, even 50% effectiveness will save thousands of lives. But we’ll get back to that.

The article he wrote is not actually based on real research, but appears to be an opinion paper–kind of like the opinion papers written by creationists who want to convince anyone who will listen that dinosaurs lived with humans. Doshi denies that most flu’s are even caused by the influenza virus. I guess the CDC’s high tech diagnostic tests for influenza are all wrong. But then again Doshi presents no evidence.

Because of the zombie myths of the antivaccination world, myths or papers that are reanimated every few months because the vaccine denier community actually lacks any fresh evidence to support their nonsense. So Doshi’s paper from 2013 is resurrected in the antivaccination press. A few days ago, an obscure pseudoscience promoting website started banging the drum about Doshi’s comments. The article, found in the Realfarmacy website, has this scary headline: “Johns Hopkins Scientist Reveals Shocking Report on Flu Vaccines.” Makes it sound like Doshi wrote another article. Which he didn’t.

As result of that website (and probably others), my original article about Doshi exploded on the internet. In fact, if you Google “Peter Doshi flu,” some of the top Google hits are my aforementioned article, one on the Poxes Blog (go read it, it’s good), the PubMed link to Doshi’s article, and something on Snopes (I had no idea that it was on Snopes until I did the search). And because of the high Google ranking, I got boatloads of hits to the article over the past 10 days or so. In fact, so many that it is close to being the most popular article I’ve ever written.

In a private conversation with the author of the Poxes Blog, a real, trained epidemiologist with a real epidemiology degree with real clinical and scientific work in real epidemiology, experienced the same huge increase in hits. He even wrote an article about the explosion in hits to his Peter Doshi, not-an-epidemiologist, posting.

What this means is that people aren’t taking the pseudoscientific, shock headlines from Natural News wannabe websites as scientific dogma, and going to Google for more information to fill in the blanks. And I guess writers like me and Dr. Poxes Blog are getting lots of eyeballs looking for confirmation.

But really none of this matters. All that matters is that the antivaccine world lacks evidence for their lies and misinformation, so their only choice, their last choice, is to rely upon the Argument from False Authority logical fallacy. Basically, this fallacy states that an authority, whether they are or not, speaks the “truth” on all matters, and can be used as evidence in a discussion, because they are an authority.

But in real science, the only thing that matters is published evidence. That’s it. Science is not a debating society where snarky arguments trump evidence, only evidence can frame the discussion.

Now this doesn’t mean that there are no authorities. In fact, one can be an authority in a specialized field because they have published extensively. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an authority on astrophysics. His education is in that area. He’s published in that area. He’s an expert, and if he says Pluto is not a planet, who am I to argue with that, especially since he’s published about that.

So what makes a real authority in science? There are two fundamental conditions that should be considered in vetting the quality of a scientific authority:

 
 

Doshi received his A.B. in anthropology from Brown University, A.M. in East Asian studies from Harvard University, and Ph.D. in history, anthropology, and science, technology and society from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In other words, he has no credentials in any of the areas of biomedical science that would make me think that he is an “authority” who has actually studied vaccines. Those areas include virology, microbiology, public health, epidemiology, immunology, physiology, and a few others. He does not have a broad research and publication record in any of those areas, save for his critique of the flu vaccines, which included a statement that “”influenza” (disease caused by influenza viruses) with “flu” (a syndrome with many causes, of which influenza viruses appear to be a minor contributor).”

Why do these credentials matter? Because they imply many things–a broad education in the science of the subject matter, hard work in the minutiae of that field of science, and approval by one’s peers. Getting a Ph.D. in epidemiology is not simply taking classes, but it’s actually doing research in the laboratory and field with a published thesis that is reviewed by numerous scientists, some of whom may not be in the specific field (to give some unbiased eyes to the research).

Furthermore, Doshi was never on the faculty of Johns Hopkins, he was a post-doctoral fellow, meaning doing post-Ph.D. research, and did not teach. He is currently an assistant professor (non-tenured) of pharmaceutical health services research in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Maryland. This field of study is not basic pharmacological and clinical research of pharmaceuticals–it is an economic based study for drug utilization and other areas. Pharmacy schools produce pharmacists, they generally don’t produce the type of basic biomedical research that is the basis of medical schools or basic science institutions.

Let’s be clear–Doshi does not have formal training in epidemiology, microbiology/virology, immunology or any other area of biomedicine that would make him an “authority” on the flu vaccine. Doshi is an anthropologist who studies comparative effectiveness research. Doshi never engaged in influenza or flu vaccine research at Johns Hopkins or at his current location, the University of Maryland.

More importantly, Doshi’s flu article was essentially an opinion piece, not an original research article with original data derived from experimental research–in fact, the paper did not report any new findings.

Lastly, Doshi did not represent Johns Hopkins University, not even in the wildest stretch of the imagination. Ironically, Johns Hopkins Hospital, the flu vaccine is required of all personnel who have contact with patients, as a good-practices effort to minimize the risk that a patient will catch the flu from a caregiver. Thus, if Doshi had any contact with patients, which he didn’t, to uncover some mysterious data about flu vaccines, he would have been required to actually get the flu vaccine. Let that sink in for a bit. My irony meter just broke again.

In other words, as authorities go in vaccines, Doshi is hardly an “expert” in the field. He is not a scientist, developing hypotheses that can be tested with the scientific method. He really is sniping about vaccines from the sidelines, pretending that his background gives him some level of authority about vaccines, when he’s missing even the most basic principles of virology. I mean, he’s trying to invent some difference between “flu” and “influenza.”

But it gets worse as far as virology goes. Peter Doshi denies that HIV causes AIDS. Unless you’re an AIDS denier, the science that HIV causes AIDS is so overwhelming that I’m frankly shocked that anyone would deny it. So, here’s the point–how can someone be considered an expert in the exact subject of vaccines, when they can’t even get the basics right.

Fourat Janabi recently wrote that,

Quite the small subject to dedicate 4-8 years of one’s life to; yet, that is the life of a modern scientist, for better or worse. The life sciences are among the most specialized of fields today. In biotechnology, to name just a few, there is biochemistry, bioinformatics, chemistry, molecular ecology, and microbiology. Just these few involve the further specializations of virology, bio-mathematics, epidemiology, and dozens more, which in themselves involve the specialist jobs as diverse as biochemists, biophysicists, bio-technicians, and epidemiologists. How can an hour, day, month, or year at the ’University of Google’ contend against that?

Here’s the major issue with Doshi–he has no knowledge, training or expertise in these highly specialized fields, yet he pontificates in a manner that makes one believe he is. It takes years to be an expert in virology, not overnight by reading a virology website on the internet. But if you have nothing, no evidence, then just make random claims, and convince a group of gullible people to accept those claims because someone like Doshi has a Ph.D. (though it has nothing to do with anything close to vaccines).

2. There is consensus among experts from the field in question based on high-quality, replicated data

One does not necessarily have to be an expert in a field to speak with authority about a subject. But if there’s a consensus of a large number of experts based on high quality evidence, then the only way to contradict that consensus can’t be with logical fallacies but with a nearly equal (or substantial minority) of data that supports the contradictory side of the discussion.

A scientific consensus is formed when the majority of the experts described in #1 are in agreement. This doesn’t happen by a vote, it happens over years or decades, as evidence accumulates. Yes, a consensus can be overturned, but again, it’s not done through the Harvard Debating Society, it’s done via publication of a large number of papers that describe a new principle of science.

These experts who come to a consensus ought to know more than the lay public or false authority figures. That’s because they rely upon high quality evidence. They do not accept anecdote as data (nor more anecdotes as more data). The data is nearly always published in peer-reviewed articles that are available publicly. The data is almost always replicable, meaning data from one laboratory or study can be replicated by another laboratory or study somewhere else. Finally, real scientific evidence must be falsifiable, that is, one could conceive an experiment that can provide contradictory evidence (it does not mean that it’s actually falsifiable, just that there’s a way to test it).

Testing (or falsifying) a hypothesis is not simple. Doshi just can’t say that HIV doesn’t cause AIDs or that the flu vaccine does not prevent influenza without actually providing rigorous scientific evidence in the form of experimentation. This is especially true if someone like Doshi, who chooses to stand in the face of the scientific consensus–he can only do this with actual real data based on real research in a real field of vaccines. Doshi fails miserably here.

In case you were wondering, there is a scientific consensus on vaccines, written by the the most prestigious scientific academy in the world, the National Academy of Sciences:

Vaccines offer the promise of protection against a variety of infectious diseases. Despite much media attention and strong opinions from many quarters, vaccines remain one of the greatest tools in the public health arsenal. Certainly, some vaccines result in adverse effects that must be acknowledged. But the latest evidence shows that few adverse effects are caused by the vaccines reviewed in this report.

Peter Doshi will never be on the National Academy of Sciences, because he lacks the intellectual rigor of a real scientist. He’s going to sit in his office at the University of Maryland babbling about economic rationales for medication use, a highly important field of interest to helping Big Insurance manage health care costs. But unless he quits, gets a Ph.D. in epidemiology (and given that he already has a Ph.D., at least he knows how hard it is), then get real research done in real vaccines, all he is an Argument from Authority to be used by vaccine deniers, because they have nothing else.

TL;DR version

  1. Peter Doshi is not an authority or expert in vaccines. He studied the history of science. Interesting field, but not a hard science.
  2. Peter Doshi has no published evidence that disputes the consensus on vaccines
  3. Peter Doshi is an HIV/AIDS denier.

Key citations:

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!
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  • Pony Driver

    So, it took you just 5 sentences to ridicule creationists. That tells me something about you.

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  • Joyce Eley Johnson

    There is archeological non mainstream accepted evidence in prehistoric art that shows man and dinos together. Creationists have nothing to do with it. Your opinions and source material is as fuzzy as that whom you critisize here.

    • kellymbray

      Art interpretation……… OK that trumps all of the other sciences like geology, biology, radio chemistry, physics, genetics, and the others

    • No it doesn’t.

      I have no opinions. I only have what is supported by high quality scientific evidence. A bunch of 50,000 year old drawings in charcoal is not evidence.

      Humans and dinosaurs did not live together. Case closed, unless you have REAL evidence. But someone as close-minded as you….well, I’m not going to hold my breath.

    • lilady R.N.

      Did you go to a creationist’s theme park to find dinosaurs coexisting with humans?

      http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Dinosaur_Adventure_Land

    • Say, on youtube they show a tractor trailer transforming into a robot. Is this proof the optimus Prime is real, too?

      • kedwa30

        You’re an arrogant prick on all of your comments. Is that the alcohol talking or are you ever sober? You remind me of Frank Gallagher.

        • Scintillating retort. Absolutely spellbinding.

  • Austin Harris

    Nice article. Stumbled across the sensationalist article you referenced, and, as predicted, googled accordingly.

    Excellent work categorically dismissing Doshi and the relevance of his claims. But, you do recognize that you are falling into the same error every third-year biochemistry undergraduate makes, right? This article shows far too much reverence for the “hard-science” mentality, to the point that you are actually exhibiting values you so strongly oppose? Check it out.

    “Science is not a democracy” Boom. Catchy tagline. I like it. Has a good meaning behind it right? “So what if a bunch of people say one thing. Doesn’t make it valid.” and “Only refuted evidence is to be trusted, and even then, always with healthy skepticism.” Right? You’d agree with all that, I’m sure.

    Do you recognize that you compromise these principles with this article, right? If you want to stand up for academic rigor and the scientific method, you have to maintain the stoic impartiality that befits that approach. That means never even considering conventional wisdom as you evaluate a theory. And, while mountains of credible and refuted scholarship may undeniably validate that conventional wisdom, a real, “hard” scientist would still be willing to challenge it.

    With that in mind, a writer fully committed to the principles of academic rigor wouldn’t even bother to discredit their opponent as an individual. Simply find the evidence and let the findings speak for themselves. We know Doshi is a crackpot, spare him the humiliation.

    It goes without saying that the lapses in specificity, (re: AIDS denier (ad hominem in its own right), the Offit hero worship from your other article) are out of place here.

    I get that being surrounded by idiots is upsetting, and your whole gimmick is that you are “hunting pseudoscience” but c’mon. If you’re going to adhere so strongly to the value of fundamental science as a principle, you have to go all the way with it. It will hurt your page views, and make you completely incomprehensible to many readers, but you can do it, and you should.

    • john doe

      Austin Harris,

      What do you think of this?
      http://foodallergycauses.wordpress.com/

      • It’s a blog site that uses some of the worst logic, but the best logical fallacies, I’ve ever read. Go get yourself an education. It’s hard for you to be skeptical with that 3rd grade science.

      • Austin Harris

        I would agree with the ever-so-rude moderator who deigned to respond to the question addressed to me while wholly ignoring my comment. The writer’s lack of comprehension of established scientific principles, and general lack of writing ability, severely hampers the efficacy of the piece. To the point that it offers no substantial information.

        To be sure, I oppose any outright rejection of an argument without giving the greatest possible deference to their premises, but the premises in question rely on overtly ignoring (denying) other scientific arguments, I see fit to disregard the overall argument. (I’m a hypocrite to some degree, I know)

        • I know your type. Pretend to be all fair and balanced, but really are a denier. Kind of like Fox News.

          Offit is a hero. His vaccine saves about a quarter million children’s lives every year. What the fuck have you ever done for humanity?

          Oh, wait. I know. NOTHING. I don’t have patience for slime like you. Go over to Wikipedia and edit articles. They like fakes like you.

          • Austin Harris

            I don’t mean to stoop too far into the ad hominem realm, but are you actually an undergraduate student? The latent childish behavior here is very telling.

            I am denying nothing, good sir. I am allowing every argument with an equal assumption of credibility, in fact. I think any Fox News corespondent will struggle to make that claim.

            And yes, Offit can be hailed for his good deeds. That is a wonderful discussion for a sociologist or public health theorist. But a virologist who aims to be wholly committed the principles of “hard” science has no time for that discussion. Not that I mean to pigeonhole you as the former or the latter, but the attempt at reliance on scientific principles in your article should place you firmly in the second category.

            As for the Wikipedia comment, I’m sure this is an affront to your ever-so informed and valuable internet-blogging self, but Wikipedia is the most accurate, complete, compendium of human knowledge ever assembled. Show it some respect. While I myself do not edit it, I assure that the good people, acclaimed researchers and writers, work very hard to provide such a valuable service.

            TL/DR. Get fukkin faced, m9. #rekt

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  • Guest

    TL;DR

    • kellymbray

      TL;YI

      Too long (because) Your illiterate.

      • john doe

        “Your illiterate” is incorrect. You mean “You’re illiterate”

        • kellymbray

          Thank you. I didn’t see what my auto correct had done.

    • I guess it takes a serious education to read my writing. Sorry that you flunked out of elementary school.

  • john doe

    Skeptical Raptor,

    Care to comment about this:

    http://foodallergycauses.wordpress.com/

    • Once someone writes “Vaccines work by causing allergy to viruses and bacteria”, I’m done reading. Allergies and immunity work through two different pathways. The author is full of shit.

      • notation

        Well, then, that says much about cia parker and HER spew, doesn’t it?

      • john doe

        That shows you did not even look at the references. It has been known since the 70s that vaccines cause IgE development to viral and bacterial proteins. So, allergies and immunity are not as independent as you think they are. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/830756

  • Steven Salzberg

    See my article about Doshi’s article, which was prompted in part by your blog post:

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevensalzberg/2014/11/03/shocking-report-on-flu-vaccine-is-neither-shocking-nor-correct/

    • I saw it a couple of days ago on my Google news feed. I like that Forbes has a bunch of pro-vaccine writers on staff.
      Thanks for linking it here.

  • zapp7

    I read Doshi’s article and then yours, and I have to say you haven’t really convinced me. I agree with all the points you made, but you didn’t really address any of his arguments directly. He points to references to support what he is saying, and as far as I can tell they are consistent with other studies I’ve seen on the influenza vaccine. For example, the large Cochrane review that found very limited effectiveness. We’re talking specifically about influenza vaccines here, not others. I totally agree that a lot of quackery is spread around regarding MMR, etc.

    • You didn’t read my article very well. First, he doesn’t get a pass based on the Appeal to Authority. I don’t a crap about his article, he has no authority, and he’s simply a shill for the antivaccine cult.

      Second that Cochrane review was laughable. It uses bias in that the author, Tom Jefferson, cherry picked which data he wanted to use. It’s like the worst piece of junk I’ve read from the Cochrane crowd, and lately, there’s a lot of competition for that honor.

      • zapp7

        I’m not trying to give him a pass. I’m a scientist, just not an epidemiologist. I was just saying that this article wasn’t very convincing since you basically just bashed his credentials and explained how scientific consensus is achieved. You then quoted National Academy of Sciences, which was a quote about vaccines in general, and not specific to the flu vaccine.

        I guess I was hoping for some references to studies on flu vaccine so that I could do my own reading, because what I have found hasn’t been very convincing (i.e., the Cochrane study). Guess I came to the wrong place.

        • Read the title of my article. It’s about an appeal to authority by anti-vaxxers. I have written literally 50 articles on the flu vaccine, and all it takes is using the search function up there on the right.

          I can’t hand feed you. If you are a scientist, and so far, I’m not sure I accept that claim, then you’d wonder if I wrote about the flu vaccine. I have presented dozens of articles that support the safety and effectiveness of the flu vaccine.

          The only way you can reject the consensus on this is to A) Present overwhelming evidence (it can be from others) that has been repeated by others. Or B) deny it because “that’s what I believe.”

          I’m not here to convince vaccine deniers who think science is magical. I’m here to ridicule antivaccine dumbasses for the dangerous people that they are.

          So, learn to research.

          • lilady R.N.

            I’m glad you mentioned Dr. Tom Jefferson and his young acolyte Peter Doshi.

            There’s nothing sadder than a formerly respected researcher who goes over to the dark side, by providing an interview to Gary Null about seasonal influenza vaccines provided to pregnant women:

            http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2013/01/25/cochranes-tom-jefferson-on-gary-null-show/

            • zapp7

              Wow, you’re right. He gave an interview, so that must completely destroy his credibility as a researcher. I guess Cochrane just hires quacks these days…

            • Strawman bullshit. Jefferson is a quack, so they do occasionally hire them. Cochrane puts out crap articles about acupuncture, so bad that almost no one accepts them but acupuncture quacks. LOL.

            • lilady R.N.

              Wow, I am right about Dr. Tom Jefferson…who gave an interview to quackster “Dr.” Gary Null.

              Wow, you could have viewed that interview with Null and Orac’s blog, to tell us why we shouldn’t criticize Dr. Tom Jefferson’s recent statements about seasonal influenza vaccines…and the CDC/ACOG recommendations for vaccinating pregnant women.

  • You know, I’ve often wondered why these science deniers don’t spend their time actually doing something useful rather than wasting it essentially saying, “Nuh-uh.”

    I get science is hard, I was headed to the fields of physics & astronomy when I was distracted by the idea of making things go Boom! in the US Navy, but the hours they waste online could be more readily used for – I don’t know – figuring out how to rapidly replicate a patient’s endorphins for a safer anesthetic for surgeries.

    Instead, they’d rather put it to denying basic science. (smh) Idiots.

    By the way, Raptor, do you think my idea with endorphin’s might have merit?

  • Sandy Perlmutter

    What an idiot! Thanks for the Snopes reference. I like those. Peter hangs with a lot of anti-vaxers, HIV deniers, and quackers. http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/crank-conferences-a-parody-of-science-based-medicine-that-can-suck-in-even-reputable-scientists-and-institutions/

    • He’s just part of the huge group of science deniers. But that’s the best the anti-vaxxers can do.

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