Other than anecdotes, Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent study, and a handful of speculative studies published in low impact-factor journals, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that vaccines are not linked to autism spectrum disorder. The question has been asked in literally hundreds of real scientific articles, and the answer keeps coming back that there is no link. But that doesn’t stop one after another anti-vaccine pseudoscientist coming forward with pathetic evidence to try to “prove” (see Note 1) that vaccines cause autism. They always fail.
So today we’re going to look at another “study” from another anti-vaccine pseudoscientist trying to promote a false religious belief that somehow, somewhere vaccines are related to autism. Despite the scientific consensus that has refuted those beliefs with robust and repeated evidence, this pseudoscientist makes a vain attempt and fails. Let’s take a look.
Anti-vaccine pseudoscientist publishes a paper
Anyone who spends any time with this feathery dinosaur’s blog knows that I critique any paper from an anti-vaccine pseudoscientist from two perspectives – a meta view and a scientific view. Let’s start with the meta, 10,000-meter point-of-view, then drill down to the science. So much fun to be had.
The paper, “Autism is an Acquired Cellular Detoxification Deficiency Syndrome with Heterogeneous Genetic Predisposition,” published in Autism Open Access and penned by James Lyons-Weiler. Despite the scientific-sounding title, let’s be clear – it’s an anti-vaccine screed:
Only a few vaccines have been tested for association with autism, and it has been shown that improved diagnosis only explains a percentage of the increase in diagnosis.
Let’s do that 10,000-meter meta look at this paper because if that doesn’t convince you that this paper is malarky, I don’t know what will. I’ll still spend a little time with his pseudoscience, but for now, let’s stick with the top level view.
The first issue is that this article was published in the journal Autism Open Access, whose impact factor, a measurement tool for the quality of journals by measuring the average number of times an article in the journal is cited by other journals, is an abysmally low 0.53. To give you some idea of where that impact factor stands, most universities require science faculty seeking tenure to publish in journals with impact factors greater than 10. This paper would be ignored during tenure review.
Depending on the subject, because more niche journals don’t get cited a lot, I ignore research in journals below an impact factor of 3-5. It’s sort of an arbitrary line, but I feel that an average article in a journal ought to be good enough to be cited 3-5 times in a year. I know that this is unfair, but if you’re publishing groundbreaking research, you ought to be published in a superior journal. Like Nature, which has an impact factor 80 times higher than Autism Open Access.
Oh, but it gets worse. Autism Open Access is published by OMICS, a known predatory publisher according to Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers. What is a predatory publisher, you ask? Well, there are several characteristics of it, including payments to get published, lack of or cursory peer review, editorial boards filled with individuals with fake or weak credentials, and other items. They also constantly publish fake studies that people submit just to embarrass these worthless journals, like this one about some Star Trek science.
It costs several thousand dollars to publish an article in any of OMICS journals, and the peer-review is laughable at best. This article was submitted to the journal on 19 January 2018 and accepted on 26 January, a total of 7 days. Real peer review takes several weeks, because real scientists who do these peer reviews are busy, doing research, writing their own papers, and attending scientific meetings.
When my last paper was published, in a real scientific journal (with an impact factor of >20, and it didn’t cost any of the authors a single penny to publish), it took several months to complete peer review. Part of the process was answering questions from the anonymous reviewers, making corrections, and explaining data.
To be fair, I wish peer review was faster, but for it to be thorough and useful, it needs to take time. OMICS is not a real peer-reviewed journal. It’s a “pay to play” journal, and that is what matters.
Now, James Lyons-Weiler
We cannot complete this 10,000-meter review without talking about the anti-vaccine pseudoscientist, Lyons-Weiler, who wrote this travesty of an article. Myself, the cerebral Orac, Vaccines Work and False Prophets have all written extensively about Lyons-Weiler and his anti-vaccine shenanigans. He even claims that he’s not anti-vaccine (Jenny McCarthy says that all the time, so he’s in good stead with a D-level actress).
Essentially, our issue with this anti-vaccine pseudoscientist is that he represents a perfect example of a false authority in vaccines – Lyons-Weiler has all of the credentials of a scientist, but the only thing that matters is scientific evidence, and that’s where he falls short of any credibility with respect to vaccines.
Let me bullet-point a few items that cause many of us to reject much of what he writes:
- Although he has edited Linked-In page, removing his graduate degree for some odd reason, Lyons-Weiler received his Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution & Conservation Biology from the University of Nevada in 1997. He originally described himself as an “evolutionary biologist,” but now changed it to “neurodevelopment disorder research.” He actually has credentials in evolution, but he has 0 credentials in any neuroscience as far as we can tell.
- But most importantly, he has no background, education, or experience in any critical field of vaccines – he has no formal training in epidemiology, immunology, virology, public health, or microbiology. And what he writes often betray his amateur knowledge of these fields.
- Calling Lyons-Weiler a “scientist” stretches the meaning of scientist. A review of his publication record tells us that he was not the first or last author of any primary or clinical research in vaccines or any other biomedical science. He is (or was, given that he’s not working at any academic institution) essentially a statistician who plugged in data from real scientists and provided an analysis to those same real scientists. A real scientist is involved in primary or clinical research that follows the scientific method and publishes the results of that research in high impact factor journals as a first or last author.
- Lyons-Weiler has, other than two recent articles, no history of published research in any area of neurodevelopmental disorders including autism. If we were to make a list of the leading authorities on autism in the world, this anti-vaccine pseudoscientist would not even make the top 1000, unless it’s at Age of Lying About Autism – oh wait, even they think he’s “lost it.”
- If you think I’m harsh in characterizing Lyons-Weiler as an “anti-vaccine pseudoscientist,” please note one important thing – in the forward of his book, “The Environmental and Genetic Causes of Autism,” he credits the aforementioned cunning fraud, Andrew Wakefield. We all know that Wakefield is the pope of the anti-vaccine religion.
There’s so much more to say about Lyons-Weiler, like his alternative personas on Facebook (really creepy, if you ask me) where he claims he’s in financial trouble. Maybe it was caused by having to pay to publish this article? Anyway, this isn’t the point of my article. Lyons-Weiler is a false authority lacking any credentials in the whole vaccines and autism story – this must be an important consideration when examining the veracity of his published articles.
Looking at the anti-vaccine pseudoscience
I spent a couple of days trying to figure out how I would discuss drilling down into this article. The problem is that there are so many errors in reasoning and science, it would take 10,000 words, boring you to death, to cover everything. Also, I don’t want to give any scientific credence to a blurb in a low impact factor journal – I mean in the scientific world that centers around anything but vaccines, this article would be laughably ignored.
Then, I thought it would be prudent just to point out the more egregious scientific errors. Maybe Orac or someone else can tackle other points if it’s really worth doing anything more than mocking an article published in a low ranked predatory journal. But I’m here for my readers because I think I personally lost some neurons reading this article – I can’t afford to lose too much more.
To make this easy, I’ll just list some of the most atrocious and abominable scientific issues:
- My biggest issue is that this article does not primary or clinical research – it is not a meta or systematic review, which are considered the pinnacle of the hierarchy of scientific research. Not to be completely dismissive, but it’s nothing more than a blog post – except Lyons-Weiler paid to publish it in a predatory journal.
- Despite high-quality research that is leading scientists to discover more and more genes associated with autism, with certain non-vaccine related triggers being involved, like fevers during pregnancy.
- Related to the previous point, and as I mentioned near the beginning of this article, there simply is almost no evidence that links any vaccine to autism spectrum disorder or any other neurodevelopmental issue. Lyons-Weiler published an article in a predatory low-ranked journal just to provide a citation of a potential pathway for vaccines to cause autism. If he knew anything about epidemiology, he would know that a researcher would establish correlation, then provide biologically plausible reasons that it might show causation. Whether we accept Lyons-Weiler’s op-ed piece or not is irrelevant – he has not established any correlation between vaccines and autism, but then again, he doesn’t do primary or clinical research.
- Lyons-Weiler claims that thimerosal (or thiomersal if you’re not American) is linked to autism. There are several issues with that particular claim, the most important of which is that a link between thimerosal and autism has been refuted. The second point is that only one multi-use vial of flu vaccine contains thimerosal any more – and that vaccine is for adults. And the third point is that despite the removal of thimerosal from childhood vaccines, the autism rate has increased – probably as a result of better diagnosis, irrespective of vaccines.
- Lyons-Weiler claimed that epidemiological studies are essentially worthless and that the only way to “prove” that vaccines are not linked to autism is to do a double-blind clinical trial between the vaccine and autism. This point betrays his lack of knowledge or experience in clinical trials. This type of trial would be highly unethical and would not receive any institutional review board approval. Why is it unethical? Because you’re intentionally putting children at risk of contracting a deadly disease by giving them a placebo – that is heartless and beyond belief. No physician would participate. And few parents would, which would bias the study. This is an absurd point that any real scientist would comprehend in about 1 nanosecond.
- Further to that point, Lyons-Weiler seems to take a false dichotomy about clinical research – a double-blind clinical trials are great science and epidemiological studies are worthless. In fact, on the hierarchy of scientific research, a well-designed cohort study is ranked just below a clinical trial. And way above an op-ed piece that was written in a low-ranked predatory journal.
- For example, a meta-analysis, published in the journal Vaccine, of five cohort studies involving 1,256,407 children, and five case-control studies involving 9920 children, showed no link between vaccinations and autism. A meta-analysis stands at the peak of the hierarchy of scientific research, several levels above a blog article published in a pay for play journal.
- Lyons-Weiler claims that there is a link between acetaminophen (Tylenol or paracetamol), vaccines, and autism spectrum disorder backed by a “surprising number of studies.” I could find one highly criticized study that was based on parental surveys – this is one of the worst ways to perform an epidemiological study. To be fair, it’s better than an opinion piece published in a junk journal.
- Lyons-Weiler cherry picks citations that support his hypothesis that vaccines cause autism, but only cites a handful of “pro-vaccine” articles mostly to criticize some aspect of them.
I have a list of other concerns – Lyons-Weiler makes odd claims about vitamin D, the MTHFR gene, and other random points to make a link between vaccines and autism. Moreover, he attempts to create a complex biochemical pathophysiology that may lead autism – on those points, he seems to be an outlier in the field of autism, but not so far to think he’s a crackpot or anything. We still can’t overlook the fact that if it was a groundbreaking hypothesis, why didn’t he publish it in a real journal?
It’s his lame attempt to link that pathway he proposes to vaccines where he goes off the rails, and clearly why this ended up in a terrible predatory journal. He fails to do real science. If I believed (and remember, it’s a belief, not supported by real evidence) in Lyons-Weiler’s claims, I’d test the hypothesis that vaccines cause autism this way:
- Establish in a cohort study that there is some correlation between vaccines and autism. Yeah, this takes money, time, and expertise in epidemiology.
- Once you can show correlation, then establish whether it’s biologically plausible that the correlation could be, in fact, causation.
- And finally, show experimentally that vaccines are linked to autism through that proposed biochemical pathway.
This takes work and years of research. But real money, real time, and real epidemiologists have made the effort to find whether there is a correlation, and they haven’t. And irrespective of Lyons-Weiler’s protests to the contrary, epidemiological/observational research, if done properly, is considered high-quality science, not to be dismissed by a wave of the hand.
Anti-vaccine pseudoscience – the summary
According to David Gorski, MD, “hostility towards the concept of scientific consensus is a good sign of pseudoscience.” This is why I consider most anti-vaccine “researchers” as pseudoscientists – we have a solid scientific consensus that vaccines are safe and effective.
Yes, scientific research could change that consensus, but not with rhetoric and whining about a ridiculous claim that epidemiological research is worthless. As they say these days if you’ve got real evidence of a causative link between vaccines and autism, “bring it.” Unless it’s written in secret ink in ancient Sumerian and hidden in a cave in the Andes – then no real scientist has seen this evidence.
And if you have real evidence, and it really disrupts the scientific consensus, every top journal would want to publish it. But cowards publish their pseudoscience in predatory journals because they know it won’t stand up to real peer review.
But really, let’s be clear – vaccines are not related to autism, and we have overwhelming evidence to support that claim.
- “Prove or proof” are not words used by science and the scientific method. Mathematics does have proofs, because they can be definitive. As almost any scientist will tell you, all scientific theories and scientific consensuses are provisional – new evidence, in the same quality and quantity as the original evidence, can be used to overturn or modify the original theory or consensus. But it can’t be done with rhetoric or speculation – only high quality and quantity of evidence matters in real science. Thus, don’t use “proof” with respect to science (unless it’s mathematics).
- Pichichero ME, Cernichiari E, Lopreiato J, Treanor J. Mercury concentrations and metabolism in infants receiving vaccines containing thiomersal: a descriptive study. Lancet. 2002 Nov 30;360(9347):1737-41. PubMed PMID: 12480426.
- Schultz ST, Klonoff-Cohen HS, Wingard DL, Akshoomoff NA, Macera CA, Ji M. Acetaminophen (paracetamol) use, measles-mumps-rubella vaccination, and autistic disorder: the results of a parent survey. Autism. 2008 May;12(3):293-307. doi: 10.1177/1362361307089518. PubMed PMID: 18445737.
- Taylor LE, Swerdfeger AL, Eslick GD. Vaccines are not associated with autism: An evidence-based meta-analysis of case-control and cohort studies. Vaccine. 2014 Jun 17;32(29):3623-9. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2014.04.085. Epub 2014 May 9. PubMed PMID: 24814559.