I am not a fan of Peter Doshi, one of the go-to “authorities” for the anti-vaccine crowd. He has no credentials that would indicate that he is an expert in vaccines, yet one of his opinion pieces (not real science lacking data and evidence) is used as “proof” that flu vaccines don’t work. And of course, like all zombie memes of the anti-vaccine universe, it comes around every year or so, requiring a new debunking.
Let’s talk about Peter Doshi and his latest conspiracy theory. It’s always fun.
Who is Peter Doshi?
Peter Doshi received his BA in anthropology from Brown University, MA in East Asian studies from Harvard University, and PhD in history, anthropology, and science, technology and society from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Those would be fine credentials for someone who is going to teach history or anthropology. But does it make one a vaccine expert? Absolutely not.
For most of us, an authority in vaccines requires actual studies in those biomedical science fields like virology, microbiology, epidemiology, immunology, cell biology, and a few others. Even then, there are fake authorities, like Tetyana Obukhanych, who actually have some credentials, but deny basic science. So credentials actually don’t matter, what does matter is evidence. And we want quantity and quality of said evidence.
Doshi 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 claims that “influenza” (disease caused by influenza viruses) is different than “flu” (a syndrome with many causes, of which influenza viruses appear to be a minor contributor).” That makes me suspicious that Doshi actually fails to understand the basic principles of diseases.
But there are substantial reasons why credentials matter. 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).
Peter Doshi 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. These fields might be interesting if I was writing about pharmaceutical economics, but is nearly irrelevant to understanding vaccines.
And I hate belaboring a point, but the only thing that matters is evidence. And has Doshi lead clinical research into any aspect of vaccines? No, his scientific credentials in that area are totally lacking.
Peter Doshi and VAERS
The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a system where individuals can report supposed adverse events post-vaccination, to “prove” certain adverse events. The reports can be made online, by fax or by mail. However, there are no investigations to show any type of causality between the vaccination event and the claimed mortality that are reported to the VAERS database, and, frankly, it can be gamed by those with nefarious intentions. Vaccine deniers, especially in the USA, use the passive data from the VAERS as “data” to show that vaccines are dangerous.
However, without an active investigation, the data derived from VAERS is just barely above the level of totally meaningless – at best, it’s observational data which cannot show correlation or causation. Importantly, most epidemiologists know it is valueless. Even the VAERS system itself says that the data cannot be used to ascertain the difference between coincidence and true causality.
Many people miss this point – the VAERS database can be used to provide observational data that could be used to form a testable hypothesis, the hallmark of real science. Using VAERS as evidence to support a hypothesis, for example, “vaccines cause people to die”, is pseudoscience, pure and simple. Using the observation that there seems to be more XYZ events after vaccines in the VAERS database can be used to formulate a hypothesis that “vaccines cause XYZ”, and thus becomes experimentally testable, usually through epidemiological data or in a clinical trial. At that point, we would either have evidence that supports the hypothesis or nullifies it.
In other words, VAERS does not constitute evidence in determining whether any vaccine is dangerous. It’s just not built that way. You cannot determine the mortality rate. You cannot determine the adverse reaction rate. VAERS is simply not built to do that.
For some odd reason, Doshi went on BMJ to make the following claim:
For over three weeks, the website of the US government Vaccination Adverse Reporting System (VAERS) has been inaccessible to most users. The website address, http://www.vaers.hhs.gov, is printed on the vaccine information statements (VISs), short documents listing the benefits and risks of vaccines that are required by law to be distributed with every vaccine dose administered in the US.
But the website link leads anybody using the web browsers Chrome, Firefox, and some versions of Internet Explorer to a warning page. “Your connection is not private,” it says in large font on my screen. “Attackers might be trying to steal your information from http://www.vaers.hhs.gov (for example, passwords, messages, or credit cards).” The only browser that seems to consistently connect properly is Safari, used by only around a quarter of people accessing government sites.
That sounds serious. Except, Doshi violates the basic principles of Occam’s razor – instead of finding the simplest explanation for this issue, he Gish gallops all the way to some nefarious and evil conspiracy:
I can’t speak for others, but I suspect most people will respond to such a warning by closing their browser and moving along. The adverse event will go unreported.
Of course, Apple’s Safari browser worked – obviously Apple was involved with this conspiracy.
So Doshi now thinks that no one is going to report adverse events, somehow corrupting the database. Just to be clear, VAERS reports can also be made by fax, and snail mail. If one really believes that there is an issue, how hard is it to post a letter to VAERS? Sure online is easier, but it doesn’t imply any vast governmental conspiracy about VAERS.
Apparently, Doshi’s education in anthropology not only didn’t make him a vaccine expert, it also didn’t make him an HTTP/IPv6/internet expert. He decides to push his conspiracy by naming names:
It’s not known how long this problem has been going on, but I informed the US Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the VAERS program, on 25 April. After not hearing back, I sent another email on 2 May. I then received a call from Elisa (she wouldn’t provide her last name out of a concern for confidentiality), who said the information technology staff were working on it. Presumably they’re still working on it as the problem isn’t fixed.
Is this guy serious? I am not an expert on the internet, but I seem to know at least 5 orders of magnitude more. There are standard protocols for HTTP, but not every browser implements them in the same way. In this case, Safari worked, probably as a result of random luck, and the other browsers didn’t. I have to constantly test this website on 5 or 6 different browsers, and sometimes there’s some weird error that I can’t fix, it’s a bug in the browser itself. What is VAERS supposed to do? Get on the phone with Apple and ask why theirs works? Then get on the phone with Microsoft and find out why there’s doesn’t? Do you think Apple and Microsoft have the resources to figure out what VAERS is doing right or wrong? It’s not very high priority when they may have thousands of websites with different levels of implementation of modern HTTP code, all working or not working depending on literally thousands of different factors.
So what really happened?
Well, as one of The Poxes Blog readers pointed out, the error was rather trivial:
The problem is the SSL certificate was generated for vaers.hhs.gov but he is going to http://www.vaers.hhs.gov.
Because of this mismatch, the browser is rejecting it. HHS needs a certificate that covers both vaers.hhs.gov and http://www.vaers.hhs.gov. It is indeed a misconfiguration but it’s relatively minor.
The government is making a sincere effort to make sure their web sites are more secure, but sometimes they mess up. Most users will
SSL certificates facilitate encryption of traffic between the user and web site. They also allow users to verify that they are connected to the real web site, rather than a hacker’s web site. The mismatch is causing the browser to think that the user is not going to the genuine site.
This happens all of the time, and I’ve experienced it, and this website is quite a bit smaller than VAERS. If you don’t do everything quite right, you get all kinds of errors. I am certain that programmers for HHS are quite busy. They have to watch over dozens of websites that are in the department, from the FDA, to the CDC, to everything else. Maybe someone forgot to get the right certificate – that happens all the time, and is generally fixed as soon as practical. Then again, I’m using Occam’s razor instead of looking for mysterious reasons why a website stops working properly.
Obviously, Peter Doshi lacks knowledge of both vaccine science and web design. That’s OK, most of the world is ignorant of both. But he continues to get a platform to rant about vaccines and conspiracies through BMJ, a relatively well-respected medical journal. Which begs the question – why does BMJ employ him?
Nevertheless, watch out. I’m sure a bunch of anti-vaccine activists will try to make this out to a huge conspiracy that the CDC is suppressing the valuable information provided by people who see dangers in vaccines. Just so you know, there isn’t a conspiracy. But you already knew that.
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