The antivaccination cult’s idea of what constitutes “peer-reviewed”

autism-mercury-geier

Update 1. Added more criticism of this paper (since the data is not new) from Emily Willingham.

One of ongoing criticisms of science deniers (and more specifically, of vaccine deniers) is that they make claims without the support of peer reviewed published articles. What the antivaccination movement doesn’t understand (really, it’s about all anti-science groups, but this is about vaccines) is that “peer review” is not by itself some magical bit of information. It’s really the result of the quality of journal, the reputation of the authors, the methods that were used to gather the data, the quality of statistical analysis of the data, and whether the conclusion is supported by the evidence or data.

So it’s not magic, it’s discernible and objective quality.

Moreover, it’s important to know if this research is repeated and used to build stronger hypotheses in subsequent research. A scientific paper, standing by itself, may or may not have any usefulness going forward. I’m sure you’ve read how marijuana cures cancer, but the data supporting that is based on one-off, unrepeated animal studies. This happens all the time. The mainstream news will claim XYZ prevents ABC cancer. Within 12 months, no one talks about it anymore, because the research is never repeated.

That’s why, on the hierarchy of scientific research, systematic- or meta-reviews rank at the very top, because they roll-up data from all of the other studies, giving more credence to studies that are repeated over and over again. And the better the journal in which they’re published, the better the systematic review. Primary research exhibited at a medical conference, unpublished, and then loudly advertised by a press release ranks near the bottom (but still higher than anything at Natural News).

Put it this way: there are well over 100 articles that completely and utterly refute any causal link between the MMR vaccine, thiomersal, and vaccines in general to autism. These papers have been published over 15 years. They are published in the top medical journals in the world. They are written by some of the top biomedical researchers in the world, with expertise in toxicology, immunology, microbiology, physiology, public health, epidemiology and other fields that would be relevant to this field of study. The results have been repeated by independent researchers. And the statistical analyses is sophisticated and convincing. There is no cherry-picking of the data, it is a scientific consensus supported by the best available evidence and research.

To contradict or dismiss this consensus, we require the same quantity and quality of science, published in the best medical and scientific journals, written by leading researchers in the field, with the same defensible level of statistical analysis. This is how it works. Evidence matters, but quality of evidence matters more.

So, what do the antivaccination lunatics do to make their “scientific” case? They cherry-pick a “peer-reviewed” paper that states what they believe, rather than looking at all the evidence, then coming to a conclusion. And they’re highlighting it in their “evidence” that vaccines are so dangerous that we must stop vaccinating.

So here’s the paper:

Let’s go through a few matters at hand before we even get to the paper. The journal, BioMed Research International, is an open-access publications (meaning anyone can read it online, which is a good thing), published by Hindawi, an Egypt based publisher of a huge number of journals. There is no rule in science that journals published in Egypt are of lower quality, but most high quality journals are headquartered in the centers of modern science. But hey, maybe you can make a case that with an open-access, online journal, the publisher can be located in Antarctica, and still publish good work.

Hindawi does occasionally land on the list of “predatory publishers,” that is, a publisher who demands money to publish. Which Hindawi does for all of its papers. But, Hindawi, to its credit, does have an above average peer review process, which does weed out overtly unscientific articles. So we can give them some kudos. Just some.

BioMed Research International is, however, a fairly low quality journal, with an impact factor of 2.880. Roughly, that statistic means that an average article in that journal is cited by other journals roughly 2.88 times in an average year. For comparison, Nature, a premiere scientific journal, has an impact factor of 38.597, or approximately 13X higher. This happens because Nature publishes only the best articles, so it attracts the best research researchers, which bring their newest and best research, which gets cited by others more and more. Now, impact factors don’t mean everything, and have been roundly criticized as an absolute indicator of quality of journal. But it is a useful tool to compare one journal to the other.

Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a critical location for the publication of vaccine research, has an impact factor of 5.119. Now, that might seem like it’s just 2X better than BioMed Research International, but articles in Pediatrics are cited over 59,000 times a year, substantially more than the approximately 18,000 times that BioMed Research International is cited. Let’s make this clear. If you’re publishing some outstanding and critical information about vaccines, your choice would be Pediatrics. Or dozens of other medical journals with much higher impact factors.

A researcher’s reputation is often based on where they publish their papers. When one applies for tenure at a research based university, the tenure committee examines the papers published by the applicant. But it’s not just quantity, it’s the quality of publication that accepted the paper, especially journals that are in the field of study.

The other factor in determining the quality of a published article is the reputation of the authors. And by reputation, I don’t mean just public ones, I mean scientific reputations. And it’s important to know all about the authors of this article. Let’s look at the authors of this antivaccination paper:

  • Brian Hooker. Dr. Hooker is an engineer with no background at all in any of the key areas of study regarding vaccines: immunology, virology, microbiology, epidemiology, public health, or anything. He’s on the faculty of Simpson University, an uncompetitive, low-ranked California based Christian university. It teaches creationism in the biology department, so being on the faculty there is an indictment of scientific knowledge. There is nothing in Dr. Hooker’s background that indicates he knows anything about vaccines, save for being a shill for the anti-vaccination group, Focus Autism.
  • Janet Kern. There’s nothing remarkable about her except almost all of her publications are with the Geiers. We’ll get to them in a second. She’s an RN (a noble profession, but not exactly one with a research-based focus). Oddly, Kern claims she’s on the faculty of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Except, she isn’t.
  • Boyd Haley. He is one of the “grand old cranks” of the mercury scare. He was once a Professor of Chemistry (again, NO expertise in any of the key research areas for vaccines) at the University of Kentucky, which has gone to great lengths to distance themselves from this lunatic. All of his recent work is with the antivaccination cult, including the Geiers. Seriously, just hang on, we’ll get to them.
  • Lisa Sykes. Sykes has absolutely no credentials, not even weak credentials, in any science. So why is she on this publication (which goes back to the quality of peer-review, did the editor, who would know the authors, do a cursory background check before taking their money to publish this article)? Sykes is the President of the Geiers-founded organization the Coalition for Mercury-free Drugs (CoMeD), an antivaccination front. Sykes adds nothing to the reputation of the authors, has no educational background in the hard sciences behind vaccines, and is merely a shill for a vaccine-hating front organization. 
  • The Geiers. And here we go with the real disgusting part of this article. Mark, and his son David, Geier, are famous (or infamous) “researchers” who push the “vaccines cause autism” lie, who used to push the horrific Lupron Therapy. Essentially, the Geiers believed that mercury causes autism (no, it doesn’t), that chelation removes mercury (which is incredibly dangerous), but testosterone in children binds to the mercury (no it doesn’t) so injections of Lupron, a potent drug that has specific uses in treating some types of cancer, are used to remove the testosterone. Horrifying. In fact, their Lupron therapy was so dangerous to children that several medical boards stripped them of their licenses. Neither of the Geiers, including David who has no known advanced degree in anything and may have been practicing medicine without a license, have any experience in pediatrics, immunology, epidemiology, virology, vaccines, or anything related to vaccines. They are, at best, delusional, and at worst, a clear and present danger to the children that were under their care. They are charlatans. They violated all aspects of the physician oath of “do no harm.” It is irresponsible that any journal, even a low ranked, barely credible, barely cited journal like BioMed Research International  would publish any article that had the Geiers as co-authors. It’s not just the pro-science/pro-vaccination crowd despise them–it’s that the whole medical community despises them, and they have lost their licenses (well, the one that’s a real M.D.) to practice their snake oil medicine.
© 2011, Chicago Tribune. Mark Geier immediately after Maryland upheld stripping of his license to practice medicine.
© 2011, Chicago Tribune. Mark Geier immediately after Maryland upheld stripping of his license to practice medicine.

Let’s ignore the low quality journal that doesn’t vet the authors (the Lancet, a real journal, didn’t vet Mr. Andy Wakefield, so there’s that). Let’s see what the article says:

  • It presents no original data that support a hypothesis that vaccines (or thiomersal in vaccines) cause autism.
  • They critiqued 6 well-designed, epidemiological studies, Andrews 2003, Hviid 2003, Madsen 2003, Price 2010, Stehr-Green 2003, and Verstraeten 2003. For each paper, the Gaiers and their antivaccine ilk co-authors, try to invent these nonsensical conspiracy theories that somehow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pharmaceutical companies, or something controlled the outcomes.
  • For example, for the Verstraeten study, the Geiers reference an article that is more of a summary, and complain that it shows no data. In fact, the real Verstraeten study, published in Pediatrics, included all of the data. The Geiers absolutely cherry-picked a short summary of the Verstraeten study rather than examining the fully published article. This is laughable, except for those who “believe” in the Geiers’ conclusions, won’t look that deeply.

Most of the Geiers’ complaints about the other mainstream articles were based on some fanciful repurposing and review of the data presented. They tried to nitpick tiny little issues, like one article having a slightly confusing datapoint in one year (out of like 20) as cause to dismiss everything. It’s impossible to argue the negative, so trying to refute each point would be counterproductive. In one case, they took an email out of context by one of the authors of one of the mainstream articles that they didn’t want their data to be used by antivaccination groups. I look at that as someone who is trying to be as scientifically responsible as they can, and because people might misinterpret their data, the antivaccination cult might think that he was one of them. He wasn’t.

Apparently, these authors have been making these outlandish claims about the efforts of the CDC to squash, hide, or destroy data regarding vaccines and autism. This pathetic paper is hardly their first trip to the rodeo (always enjoyed that metaphor). Earlier in 2014, Emily Willingham, Ph.D., a Forbes‘ science writer and expert in autism, deconstructed and dismissed a huge portion of these authors’ previous attempts to slander the good name of the CDC.  Apparently, the data in this paper, such as it is, has been an almost 10 year crusade by the authors, especially Brian Hooker, to make their case. Except, they’re using zombie data. They bring it up one year, it gets crushed by the skeptics and scientists, it dies. Then Brian Hooker, using the magic of reanimation, zombifies the data so that it is presented again, as if it was new. It gets crushed again, and then we repeat it.

According to Dr. Willingham, various combinations of the author group for this antivaccination paper brought up the same trope in 1999, 2000, 2004 2005, 2009, and of course this year (and this paper isn’t the first time this year that they have tried to make this nonsense claim about the CDC). Honestly, reading Dr.. Willingham’s article, it’s almost like a comedy, if it weren’t so serious.

Finally, Dr. Willingham really tries to slam the door on this ignorant trope about the CDC hiding data that’s presented by this antivaccination group of authors:

Doesn’t matter, really. What does matter is that the information it contained is not new in 2014. It wasn’t new even in 2005. What matters is that in 1999, last century, it was preliminary, an opening analysis from a study that continued on through two phases and subsequently found no evidence linking thimerosal and autism. What matters is that in the ensuing 15 years after those preliminary data were submitted for a conference presentation, in the second decade of this century, the accumulation of evidence worldwide showing no link has been compelling. Indeed, it is was so substantial by 2002 that the American Academy of Pediatrics retired that year a recommendation that thimerosal be removed from vaccines, a recommendation made in 1999 in spite of no evidence of harm.

This paper was just an attempt to create a series of conspiracy theories about the CDC (in fact, mentioning the great organization about 40 times). As I’ve said, and as Dr. Willingham states, there’s nothing here. Not only does the emperor have no clothes, I’m certain he doesn’t exist with this trope.

Let me give you my hopefully useful TL;DR version:

  1. The journal, BioMed Research International, is a low impact-factor, low quality, weakly peer-reviewed journal where the authors pay to have their paper published.
  2. All of the authors are unqualified to discuss immunology, virology, epidemiology, microbiology, vaccines, and public health.
  3. Two of the authors have been in trouble with legal authorities for pushing a dangerous and harmful “cure” for autism.
  4. Vaccines do not cause autism.
  5. Thiomersal does not cause autism.
  6. At the Omnibus Autism Hearing, where Vaccine Court Special Masters for the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program reviewed thousands of pages of documents to examine the tie between vaccines and autism, the Special Masters rejected all claims that vaccines or thiomersal caused autism. Oh, and one more thing. The vaccine court said this about Mark Geier: “I will not likely be inclined to compensate attorneys in any future opinions for consultant work performed by Mark Geier after the publication date of this opinion.” Incredibly, Mark and David Geier tried to bilk the Vaccine Court out of nearly $200,000 to pay for bogus articles that they published to try to support the cause of those trying to win the case. (Note: the Special Master did decide to award Mark Geier around $33,000 in compensation. The Vaccine Court, in the way it is currently is structured, pays for “expert” witnesses whether the plaintiffs win or lose.) Some of those bogus articles were published in, you guessed it, Hindawi publications.
  7. Geier’s paper presents not one single bit of primary research data that supports an alternative hypothesis, that vaccines and thiomersal cause autism. NONE.

OK, time to move on. If you’re a vaccine denier, and use this article, you’re seriously don’t know anything about real science and real peer review.

 

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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!