Biological plausibility — determining causation in vaccine adverse effects

biological plausibility

If you read enough of my verbiage around these parts, you know I point to biological plausibility as part of my criticism of claims that vaccines cause whatever adverse event of the day is being pushed. Why do I do this? Because without biological plausibility you cannot find causality.

How many times have you heard tiresome tropes about the HPV vaccine causing this or that? No matter how many times we debunk the nonsense,  it persists. One of the critical points I try to make is that the anti-vaxxer must provide me with a biologically plausible mechanism that will lead from the vaccine to an adverse event. In other words, can we establish a reasonable and plausible biological mechanism, without resorting to special pleading and pseudoscience, that can lead one from one action, say receiving a vaccine, to some result, real or imagined/

Biological plausibility is a requirement to establish that correlation means causation. It is almost an essential requirement for one to claim a causal association. But biological plausibility must be consistent with our existing knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, and medicine.

How many times has an anti-vaccine zealot tried to convince us that “mercury in vaccines causes autism” but ignores the basic scientific tenets of numerous fields of biomedicine like biochemistry, cell biology, toxicology, immunology, neurology – well, just about every field? Setting aside the fact that there is no “mercury” in vaccines and vaccines are not linked to autism.

Or someone who claims that acupuncture treats a bunch of diseases, yet we cannot find any reasonable biological plausibility between sticking a needle in the arm to treating some medical condition like pain. They tend to ignore that by using their anecdotes as “proof.”

That’s why science is much harder than what is said by the pseudoscience pushers. Establishing plausibility requires a strong knowledge of science to make the case. It’s much more than simply stating that plausibility does exist, you have to use actual real science, published in real scientific journals, to make the case of biological plausibility.

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VAERS once more with science — how to use it and how to abuse it

VAERS

I have written numerous times about the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) because it is the database of choice for the anti-vaccine world to “prove” that a vaccine is dangerous. It is misused even though it does not tell scientists whether a vaccine is harmless or harmful.

Even though I’ve discussed it many times, I’ve usually critiqued VAERS here and there in different ways, so I wanted to write down, in easy-to-consume, bullet points. I love bullet points since if you have a limited amount of time to read through thousands of words, you can find the information you need easily.

So here we go, let’s take a look at the dumpster-diving into the VAERS database.

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VAERS does not show causation between vaccines and adverse events

VAERS causation

Anti-vaxxers love to use the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) to make claims about causation between vaccines and some (or all) adverse events. They have doubled down on dumpster diving into VAERS during the COVID-19 pandemic, producing outright falsehoods and misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines.

But VAERS is not the way to determine causation. In fact, it’s not even a good way to determine correlation. At the very best, VAERS contains observational information that functions as a safety signal for the FDA and CDC, who have the resources and epidemiologists who can use other methods to determine if there is a correlation, and possible causation, between a vaccine and an adverse event.

It’s ironic that most of the so-called “VAERS data” used by the anti-vaccine activists are analyzed by amateurs, who have never taken an epidemiology or statistics course. Good research into vaccine adverse effects requires much better data than is found in VAERS.

Let’s take a look at VAERS, correlation, and causation. It’s much harder than you think.

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When does correlation equal causation in the research of vaccines?

correlation causation

One of the frustrating things when discussing the science of vaccines is the misuse of correlation and causation. Too many people accept that correlation implies or is even equivalent to causation.

One of the foundations of biomedical science is whether correlation implies causation. Anti-vaccine activists often conflate or misunderstand the two, rejecting or accepting correlation as long as it fits its narrative.  The “correlation implies causation” story is often abused, misused, and confused by many people who are examining studies that involve vaccines..

One thing we do know about correlation is that if you can’t establish correlation, despite numerous attempts, it is nearly impossible to claim causation. If you have a correlation between X and Y, you need a lot more data to establish causation between X and Y. Dumpster diving into VAERS, the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System may show a correlation between an adverse event and a vaccine (and I would contend you can’t even really do that), you are a long ways from showing causation.

But there are powerful scientific methods to establish causation from observations of correlation. Correlation can imply causation if hard scientific work was done to establish that the correlation equals causation. This article will try to walk the reader through the methods to determine causation between an adverse event and a vaccine. But again, it’s not going to be easy.

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COVID-19 vaccine mortality risk is lower than in an unvaccinated group

COVID vaccine mortality

The COVID-19 vaccine mortality risk has been a subject of a lot of myths and misinformation ever since the vaccines were released. Too much of the false information relies upon dumpster diving into the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) rather than good science that might show causality.

The CDC published a study in the peer-reviewed Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on 22 October 2021 which examined the risk of non-COVID mortality in a COVID-19 vaccine group compared to an unvaccinated group. So that I don’t bury the lede, the risk of death from non-COVID causes was much higher in the unvaccinated group compared to the vaccinated one.

Let’s look at the details.

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Correlation and causation between vaccines and adverse effects

correlation and causation

Correlation and causation are topics that have become a part of the anti-vaxxer claims regarding the links between vaccines and adverse effects. I hear both terms thrown out so frequently, it’s hard to determine what is what.

How many times have you heard tiresome tropes about the HPV vaccine causing this or that? No matter how many times we debunk the nonsense,  it persists.

Correlation is a statistical technique that tells us how strongly the pair of variables are linearly related and change together. It does not tell us why and how behind the relationship but it just says a relationship may exist. 

Causation takes a step further, statistically and scientifically, beyond correlation. It is any change in the value of one variable that will cause a change in the value of another variable. It is often referred to as cause and effect.

But there are ways to establish causation from correlation. But it must happen with a logical process that does not resort to special pleading and pseudoscience

For example, biological plausibility is one of the requirements to establish that correlation means causation. It is almost an essential requirement for one to claim a causal association. But biological plausibility must be consistent with our existing knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, and medicine.

How many times has an anti-vaccine zealot tried to convince us that “mercury in vaccines causes autism” but ignores the basic scientific tenets of numerous fields of biomedicine like biochemistry, cell biology, toxicology, immunology, neurology – well, just about every field?

Or someone who claims that acupuncture treats a bunch of diseases, yet we cannot find any reasonable biological plausibility between sticking a needle in the arm to treating some medical condition like pain. They tend to ignore the need for biological plausibility by using their own personal anecdote as “proof.”

That’s why science is much harder than pseudoscience. Establishing correlation and causation requires a strong knowledge of a scientific or medical specialty to make the case. It’s much more than simply stating that plausibility does exist, you have to use actual real science, published in real scientific journals, to make the case.

So let’s talk a little bit about correlation and causality. Continue reading “Correlation and causation between vaccines and adverse effects”

Pseudoscience vs science – former is fake, the latter is fact for vaccines

pseudoscience vs science

Pseudoscience vs science – the former is a belief system that uses the trappings of science without the rigorous methodologies that value evidence. The latter is an actual rational methodology to discover facts about the natural universe.

Pseudoscience is bullshit. Science is rational knowledge.

Pseudoscience is seductive to many people partially because it’s not only easy to comprehend, but also it oversimplifies the understanding of the natural universe. Pseudoscience is the basis of alternative medicine, creationism, the anti-vaccine religion, and many other “fields” that true believers try to say is science.

Pseudoscience tries to make an argument with the statement of “it’s been proven to work,” “the link is proven”, or, alternatively, they state some negative about scientifically-supported ideas. It really is appealing because it oversimplifies complex systems and ideas.

For example, alternative medicine relies on this pseudoscience by creating the illusion that medicine can be really easy if you drink this blueberry kale shake, you will have a 100% chance of avoiding all cancer. Real science-based medicine provides real clinical information about every cancer, how it can be treated, and what the real prognosis is.

Acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, naturopathy, and many other “alternative medicine” beliefs are pseudoscience. They simply lack robust evidence to support their efficacy. In fact, science has failed to establish the clinical usefulness of most alternative medicine (CAM) therapies.

Because I can’t help writing about vaccines, the pseudoscience vs science discourse applies perfectly to it. Pseudoscience uses logical fallacies, anecdotes, and misinformation to make it appear there is evidence supporting the anti-vaccine beliefs. Real science has debunked the claim that “there is a proven link between vaccines and autism,” a common and rather dangerous belief of the anti-vaccine world. 

This article will explore the pseudoscience vs science debate (not really a debate) by examining what exactly makes an idea scientific (and spoiler alert, it isn’t magic), and contrary the logic of science, what makes an idea “pseudoscientific.” So sit down, grab your favorite reading beverage, because this isn’t going to be a quick internet meme.

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Correlation implies causation – when it does or does not with vaccines

correlation causation

I originally wrote this article in 2014 to discuss whether correlation implies causation. Not that I expect everyone to read and remember this one article, but it’s frustrating when I see a conversation where people who deny science and accept science both misuse correlation and how it relates to causation. So, I decided to update this article and republish it as a reminder that the relationship of correlation to causation isn’t as easy as a simple trope or meme.

One of the foundations of biomedical science is whether correlation implies causation. Anti-vaccine activists often conflate or misunderstand the two, rejecting or accepting correlation as it fits its narrative.  The “correlation implies causation” story is often abused, misused and confused by many writers.

One thing we do know about correlation is that if you can’t establish correlation, despite numerous attempts, it is nearly impossible to claim causation. Also, if you do observe correlation, it also doesn’t imply causation. 

But there are methods, grounded in powerful science, to establish causation from observations of correlation. So sometimes correlation does not imply causation. But sometimes correlation implies causation. 

This article will help show how we may be able to establish causation from observations of correlation. And, like all science, this is hard stuff. Continue reading “Correlation implies causation – when it does or does not with vaccines”

Biological plausibility – a keystone of medical and vaccine research

biological plausibility

How many times have you heard tiresome tropes about the HPV vaccine causing this or that? No matter how many times we debunk the nonsense,  it persists. One of the critical points I try to make is that before an anti-vaccine claim can be made, there has to be a biological plausibility. That is, can we establish a reasonable and plausible biological mechanism, without resorting to special pleading and pseudoscience, that can lead one from one action, say receiving a vaccine, to some result, real or imagined.

Biological plausibility is a requirement to establish that correlation means causation. It is almost an essential requirement for one to claim a causal association. But biological plausibility must be consistent with our existing knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, and medicine. How many times has an anti-vaccine zealot tried to convince us that “mercury in vaccines causes autism” but ignores the basic scientific tenets of numerous fields of biomedicine like biochemistry, cell biology, toxicology, immunology, neurology – well, just about every field?

Or someone who claims that acupuncture treats a bunch of diseases, yet we cannot find any reasonable biological plausibility between sticking a needle in the arm to treating some medical condition like pain. They tend to ignore that by using their own personal anecdote as “proof.”

That’s why science is much harder than what is said by the pseudoscience pushers. Establishing plausibility requires a strong knowledge of science to make the case. It’s much more than simply stating that plausibility does exist, you have to use actual real science, published in real scientific journals, to make the case.

So let’s talk a little bit about causality. And a large dose of biological plausibility. Continue reading “Biological plausibility – a keystone of medical and vaccine research”

European court vaccine ruling – the vaccine deniers think they won

European court vaccine ruling

On 21 June 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in a case that examined whether Sanofi-Pasteur’s hepatitis B vaccine caused multiple sclerosis (MS) in a patient. Although the ruling might, on the surface, be considered bad for vaccines, we need to look more carefully at that European court vaccine ruling.

There are several questions that we need to answer. First, what did the court actually rule? What can courts say about science? And, is there any evidence that the hepatitis B vaccine causes multiple sclerosis? Continue reading “European court vaccine ruling – the vaccine deniers think they won”