Samoa vaccine story – tragedy abused by anti-vaccine websites

Samoa vaccine story

On Friday, July 6, a tragedy occurred in Samoa, a small country located in the Pacific Islands. Two children brought in for routine MMR vaccination died within minutes of receiving the vaccine (one report said hours and the first expert quoted below was responding to that, but the rest consistently said minutes – another question for investigation). The government reacted to the Samoa vaccine story immediately, opening an inquest into what may have killed the children. 

These are the known facts about the Samoa vaccine story. First, my deepest condolences to the families – it is beyond tragic. This tragedy should be investigated, and when the facts are known, they should be shared, steps should be taken to prevent recurrence, and consequences imposed where appropriate (the fact that a second vaccine was administered after the first death is especially troubling).

Unsurprisingly, this has been picked up by anti-vaccine pages and activists as evidence that vaccines kill and that there is a conspiracy of silence to hide that. Both of those storylines are wrong. I want to take a look the facts behind this Samoa vaccine story. Continue reading “Samoa vaccine story – tragedy abused by anti-vaccine websites”

“Bad Advice” by Paul Offit – a book review by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

Bad Advice

A new book, “Bad Advice: Or Why Celebrities, Politicians, and Activists Aren’t Your Best Source of Health Informationby Dr. Paul Offit, is different from his previous writings in two ways – much of it is autobiographical, with a lot of personal anecdotes, and it is about science communication rather than the actual science.

“Bad Advice” opens with a story of a 1997 TV interview Dr. Offit has, and how he bungled – by his account – a question about which vaccines children get, how many, and when. The story sets the tone for the book – it’s funny, it’s candid about what Dr. Offit did, in his view, wrong, and it offers sound advice for other science communicators.

To a large extent, this book was written for those engaged in science communication, and it is full of tips that can help every current or would-be science communicator.

What gives the book its charms are the anecdotes and the humor sprinkled throughout it, and its accessible and conversational tone, but I don’t think I can mirror that here without spoiling the effect – I think these are best enjoyed in context. So this review describes the content but does not capture what makes “Bad Advice” so much fun.

For full disclosure, I highly admire Dr. Offit, have sought his advice and help on many issues in my writing on and advocacy related to vaccines, and consider him a personal friend. I have also read a draft of the book and provided comments. 

Why Science Communication?

The first three chapters of “Bad Advice” provide important background by explaining why science communication is needed, and some of the obstacles to it. 

The first two chapters of the book set out what science is and what scientists do, and why their training and background make it difficult for them to be effective science communicators. Among the things covered – again, with a lot of humor, humility, and personal anecdotes – are that much of the scientific work is done alone, and much of what it requires makes people less, rather than more, suited to work with people. 

Dr. Offit discusses the fact that the scientific method trains scientists away from using absolute statements, but qualified statements can backfire when communicating about science; the challenge of reducing complex, nuanced reality into sound bites that work in a digital age; and more.

The next chapter analyzes why we need science communication, why people – however smart – may fall for misinformation. It looks at several natural, human features that make us easily wrong on scientific issues. “Bad Advice” also examines our difficulty identifying and assessing risks, the pull of celebrities as authority figures, even though they may not have the background to provide good information, and may, in fact, promote bad information (for example, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.  – revisited later in the book – constantly provides bad information about vaccines  ). The chapter also talks about other limits on the ability of humans to think rationally and the ways we acquire knowledge.

After thus setting the stage for why it’s important to engage in science communication and some of the challenges, Dr. Offit is ready for the next stage.

Good advice vs bad advice

Chapters 4 through 7 offer direct advice on communications through personal anecdotes of things that worked and things that didn’t in Dr. Offit’s over 20 years of doing it.

In chapter 4, Dr. Offit offers “some painful, hard-earned, and occasionally humorous lessons gleaned from personal experience” on communicating with the public. These range from the deeply practical (“be comfortable”) to the content based (“be sympathetic,” in the context of an eleven-year-old diagnosed with AIDS at the time when HIV was a death sentence, and “Don’t panic.

The facts are your safety net.”). But they’re invariably written as amusing anecdotes leading to a useful punchline. In one of the stories, Dr. Offit describes how he arrived at the famous “10,000 vaccines” quote that anti-vaccine activists like to misuse. The punchline? “You are going to say things that, although scientifically accurate, you will regret. It’s unavoidable.”

Chapter five addresses whether it’s appropriate for scientists to debate science deniers, using several examples. Dr. Offit’s recommendation is to avoid it, but he does provide three successful examples of such debates. His conclusion is that he, personally, is too angry and passionate on vaccine issues to successfully participate – because he annually sees children die from preventable diseases, “invariably, .. because parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children. And the reason they had made that choice was that they had read or heard bad information..”

Bad Advice ends with a recommendation that “debating the undebatable is worthwhile,” if, and only if, scientists can see the discussion as a teachable moment, and not focus on the people they are debating or the others in the room.

I’m not sure I agree, at least in terms of a televised debate. I think Dr. David Gorski said it well when he wrote:

…debating cranks doesn’t sway anyone, sharing the stage with a real scientist does unduly elevate the crank in the eyes of the public. Besides, whatever the seeming outcome of the debate, you can count on the crank to declare victory and his believers to agree. In any event, science isn’t decided by the metrics used to judge who “wins” a public debate, which rely more on rhetoric and cleverness rather than science to decide the outcome. Finally, such debates are not without risks. Although Julian Whitaker, for example, was terrible at it, other cranks are adept at the Gish Gallop, and an unprepared skeptic or scientist can be made to appear clueless in front of a crowd that is almost always packed with supporters of the crank, not the skeptic.

I think I agree with Dr. Offit’s initial position that agreeing to a debate is a bad idea.

Chapter six looks at the role of comedians in combating misinformation about science, focusing on vaccines – covering the Penn and Teller episode, Jimmy Kimmel, the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. And I’m really going to let you read that by yourselves. It’s fun.

Chapter seven looks at the ways the cinema helps or harms science communication. It opens by comparing two films about outbreaks – “Contagion,” that got the science right, and “Outbreak,” that did not. To give a flavor, when talking about “Outbreak,” Dr. Offit describes how a monkey carrying the harmful virus was caught, and the movie scientists had to “determine which antibodies are neutralizing the mutant virus, synthesize those antibodies, and make several liters of life-saving antisera. Assuming everything goes well, Hoffman’s task should take about a year. Cuba Gooding Jr. does it in a little less than a minute. (Now I understand why people are angry that we still don’t have an AIDS vaccine.).”

Nonetheless, Dr. Offit sees an important role for movies in science communications, and urge scientists to work with filmmakers to get it right.

Science communication in action – confronting the anti-vaccine movement:

The last part of the book uses the anti-vaccine movement as a story of the pitfalls and successes of science communication.

Chapter 8 of “Bad Advice” looks at how charismatic figures can promote anti-science misinformation. Although it covers several examples, the heart of the chapter is the case of Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who promoted misinformation about MMR. Dr. Offit tells the dramatic story of Wakefield’s rise, the scientific literature that showed him wrong, and the discovery of his misdeeds, that led to his fall. He describes Wakefield’s situation today – thoroughly discredited, on par with other conspiracy theorists – through his participation in the infamous Conspirasea Cruise.  The end of the chapter examines different explanations for why Wakefield sticks to his original claims, years after they’ve been thoroughly disproven. I’ll let you find out yourselves. It’s not exactly flattering to Wakefield, though. 

Chapter 9 looks at the role of politicians in promoting anti-science misinformation, focusing on Dan Burton’s hearings that tried to make a case that vaccines cause autism (YouTube snippets of the hearings, out of context, are still used by anti-vaccine activists. Dr. Offit will give you a more comprehensive view). Dr. Offit also tells of his own experience in the hearing, and what he sees as errors committed because of his naiveté and inexperience. It’s half sad and half comical to read through both his preparation for the hearing, and the actual experience of Mr. Burton, who came into the hearing with a set conclusion and a set role he wanted Dr. Offit to play, trying to delegitimize him. 

Chapter 10 warns science communicators to expect a campaign of personal delegitimization and attacks, drawing on Dr. Offit’s own extensive experiences with anti-vaccine efforts to attack him. It goes from hateful emails, through lawsuits, to death threats. It’s painful but incredibly important for people who go into these areas to be prepared for the ugly reaction from misguided but passionate people on the other side, in all its extreme forms. 

Chapter 11 goes more deeply into Dr. Offit’s own reasons for entering the fray. It is very autobiographical (some of the events in it were described in some of Dr. Offit’s other books, but many will be new to readers), telling his career story – again, with lots of humor, more than a few lumps. This is to explain what motivates him to speak up, and to some degree, to counter the claims accusing him of having a conflict of interests because of his involvement in the creation of the rotavirus vaccine. It’s a powerful chapter.

Chapter 12 ends on an optimistic note, pointing out things that have improved in the war for science – the rise of science bloggers, the better attitude of the media. And in the epilogue, Dr. Offit ends with the March of Science, as an embodiment of the willingness of science supporters to fight back.

Takeaway

In this very autobiographical, often humorous, extremely candid and full of good advice book, Dr. Offit does a service to science communicators by telling them what worked, what didn’t, and some thoughts on what comes next. You may not always agree with his advice, but you are very likely to agree with large parts of it, think about much of it, and enjoy the way it’s delivered. It’s a very fast read, and worth reading and probably rereading. And rereading.





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Vaccine research – it doesn’t mean what the anti-vaxxers think it means

vaccine research

How many times have you read a comment from an anti-vaccine zealot along the lines of “do your research, vaccines are bad.” That comment seems to imply two things – that the anti-vaxxer believes they have done real vaccine research, and those on the science/medicine side have not done real vaccine research.

Typical of nearly every claim made by the anti-vaccine religion, this is another one where they understate how hard vaccine research really is while overstating their actual skills and experience in comprehending real scientific research. I suppose this is a perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger effect – a cognitive bias wherein people without a strong scientific background fail to recognize their actual ineptitude in the field and mistakenly overrate their knowledge and abilities as greater than it is.

On the other hand, I’ve done real scientific research and worked hard at it. Time to explain. Continue reading “Vaccine research – it doesn’t mean what the anti-vaxxers think it means”

Another anti-vaccine myth debunked – “too many, too soon” is bad science

anti-vaccine myth

I’m on like a 40-article streak of writing about vaccines. Each day, I have plans to write about something else, but like Al Pacino said in the Godfather, “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” And debunking another anti-vaccine myth pulls me back in, and my seminal article on whether Sasquatch exists has to wait for another time. Sorry kids.

Seriously, the “too many, too soon” trope pushed by the anti-vaccine religion is one of the most annoying in the discussions about vaccines. What they mean is that we give children too many vaccines too early in life, and that causes all kinds of harm. Per usual, the anti-vaccine religion lacks any robust scientific evidence supporting this claim, but you know those guys – there’s no trope, myth, or meme that they won’t employ, irrespective of evidence, to push lies about vaccines.

So let’s take a look at this old, but never boring, anti-vaccine myth in light of a recently published, powerful study that provides more evidence that this particular myth doesn’t hold any water. Continue reading “Another anti-vaccine myth debunked – “too many, too soon” is bad science”

Using NVICP cases to prove vaccine-autism link – anti-vaxxers get it wrong

vaccine-autism link

In general, the anti-vaccine religion lacks any scientific evidence supporting their beliefs about vaccine safety and effectiveness. So, they have to default to using memes and tropes based on anecdotes, fake science, or decisions made by the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Plan (NVICP). A recent paper, written by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss and Rachel Heap, reviewed how NVICP cases are being used and misused by anti-vaccine forces to prove an autism-vaccine link.

Mostly, the anti-vaccine zealots use NVICP cases to attempt to convince the world that there is actual “evidence” that vaccines cause autism spectrum disorders. Of course, we know that the vast body of scientific research tells us that there is no vaccine-autism link. Professor Reiss’ article examines key NVICP cases and shows how they are being used and misused by anti-vaccine forces.

This post is going to review some of the key points presented by Professor Reiss and Ms. Heap in their published article. Of course, their article is over 70 pages long (with extensive footnoting), so I’m just going to hit the key points. However, the full article (pdf) is an important and detailed discussion of the misuse and abuse of NVICP cases in an attempt to claim that there is a vaccine-autism link. Continue reading “Using NVICP cases to prove vaccine-autism link – anti-vaxxers get it wrong”

Scientific consensus – collective opinion of scientists

scientific consensus

In the hierarchy of scientific principles, the scientific consensus – that is, the collective opinion and judgement of scientific experts in a particular field – is an important method to separate real scientific ideas and conclusions from pseudoscience, cargo cult science, and other beliefs.

I often discuss scientific theories which “are large bodies of work that are a culmination or a composite of the products of many contributors over time and are substantiated by vast bodies of converging evidence. They unify and synchronize the scientific community’s view and approach to a particular scientific field.”

A scientific theory is not a wild and arbitrary guess, but it is built upon a foundation of scientific knowledge that itself is based on evidence accumulated from data that resulted from scientific experimentation. A scientific theory is considered to be the highest scientific principle, something that is missed by many science deniers. In addition, a scientific consensus is formed by a similar method – the accumulation of evidence.

I have written frequently about the scientific consensus, because it is one of the most powerful pieces of evidence in a discussion about critical scientific issues of our day – evolution, climate change, vaccines, GMOs, and many areas of biomedical knowledge.

This tome has one goal – to clarify our understanding of the scientific consensus, and how we arrive at it. Through this information, maybe we all can see the power of it in determine what is real science and what are policy and cultural debates.

Continue reading “Scientific consensus – collective opinion of scientists”

Bernard Dalbergue and Gardasil – another anti-vaccine shill says nothing

Bernard Dalbergue

About 4 years ago, I wrote about a new anti-Gardasil name being foisted upon the internet. His name is Bernard Dalbergue, a French physician who may or may not have had some role with Gardasil development. Or manufacturing. Or sales.

Well, he had something to do with something with regards the HPV cancer-preventing vaccine. He’s another false authority pushed by the anti-Gardasil religion, a particularly nasty sect of the anti-vaccine religion. They bring out these individuals because the anti-vaccine troupe lacks the evidence to support their specious and deceptive claims about Gardasil.

So let’s dig in to this Bernard Dalbergue. Let’s see if there’s anything there.  Continue reading “Bernard Dalbergue and Gardasil – another anti-vaccine shill says nothing”

The myth of Big Pharma vaccine profits – it’s not what they say it is

Several of the ongoing memes, tropes and fabrications of the vaccine deniers is somehow, somewhere, in some Big Pharma boardroom, a group of men and women in suits choose the next vaccine in some magical way, and foist it upon the world just to make billions of dollars through vaccine profits. Of course, while magically concocting this vaccine brew, these pharmaceutical execs ignore ethics and morals just to make a profit on hapless vaccine-injured victims worldwide.

The Big Pharma vaccine profits conspiracy trope ranges across the junk medicine world. Homeopathy, for example, claims that Big Pharma suppresses the data that shows water cures all diseases. Like Ebola.

But the Big Pharma vaccine profits conspiracy is still one of most amusing myths of the antivaccination world.

Continue reading “The myth of Big Pharma vaccine profits – it’s not what they say it is”

Dr Paul Offit is the Skeptical Raptor – anti-vaccine Natural News is wrong

Dr Paul Offit

Here we go again – the pseudoscientific, conspiracy theory pushing, birther, truther, vaccine denying, woo-pushing website, Natural News, is now claiming that Dr Paul Offit is yours truly, the feathery dinosaur known as the Skeptical Raptor.

Yes, you read that right. The Donald Trump-supporting ignoramuses at Natural News think that the Skeptical Raptor is some nom de guerre for Dr Paul Offit. To quote those crackpots, “Insidious Pharma Shill #1: D. Paul Offit, a.k.a. “Skeptical Raptor” – chemical violence promoter and quack pediatrician.” Wow. The feathery dinosaur is laughing hysterically.

I was cackling so hard (it’s hard to describe this old dinosaurs laughing) when I read this that I almost choked on my dinner. Chicken wings, if you must know. Yeah, it’s hard to scroll through an article with chicken wing grease on your hands.

Let’s take a look at this Natural News “claim” – heads up, it’s lame. It’s really lame. But when has that anti-science website gotten anything right. Seriously, have they ever published anything accurate? I doubt it. Continue reading “Dr Paul Offit is the Skeptical Raptor – anti-vaccine Natural News is wrong”

Vaxxed bus tour – one man trolling against anti-vaccine lies

Vaxxed bus tour

I haven’t written much about the Vaxxed bus tour, except in the context of how Australia has banned entry of a couple of the anti-vaccine participants from re-entering the country in the future. In case the Vaxxed bus tour isn’t at the top of your daily reading material,  it is a gang of anti-vaccine radicals have been traveling in a bus across America promoting the anti-vaccine fraudumentary, Vaxxed.

The movie, directed by the cunning con-man Andrew Wakefield, promises to feature “revealing and emotional interviews with pharmaceutical insiders, doctors, politicians, parents, and one whistleblower to understand what’s behind the skyrocketing increase of autism diagnoses today.”

This bus tour pushes pseudoscience and vaccine lies to gullible audiences across America. And the Vaxxed bus tour was heading to Australia to promote that unscientific nonsense to the continent down under. But Australia did the aforementioned banning of the participants.

The Vaxxed tour bus has included some of the most unprincipled and shameless anti-vaccine radicals. The fraud, Andrew Wakefield. The loon, Suzanne Humphries. The crackpot, Polly Tommey. All of them making the unscientific claim that vaccines cause autism.

Except, we know that vaccines are not linked to autism. Real science is searching for the real causes of autism, and they still have concluded it’s not vaccinesContinue reading “Vaxxed bus tour – one man trolling against anti-vaccine lies”