Vaccine pseudoscience from Blaxill and Becker – flunking epidemiology

Here we go, more vaccine pseudoscience from the Age of Autism as if that surprises anyone. They seem to have flunked courses in statistics, epidemiology, public health, and just about any science related to vaccines. I’m probably giving them too much credit for actually signing up for such complicated courses. 

I generally couldn’t care less what Age of Autism writes since they have about as much scientific credibility as does Donald Trump and hydroxychloroquine. That would be zero credibility, in case you’re counting.

Let’s take a look at this latest vaccine pseudoscience.

vaccine pseudoscience

So what did they do now? 

The Age of Autism published (see Note 1) a white paper, a method that Big Pharma used to abuse to push unapproved indications on physicians by making it appear to be a legitimate science article. Back before the internet and pdf files, the only way you could get a copy of a paper were ones that were printed on a glossy white stock usually shared directly by the author. 

Big Pharma would publish “white papers” that looked just like a reprint, which they no longer because if you want a copy of a peer-reviewed paper, you can get it pretty easily from academic accounts or from friends. 

So let’s be clear, in case you missed my point. A white paper does not include:

  1. Robust scientific data derived from large, randomized, double-blinded clinical trials or from even larger cohort or case-control epidemiological studies. 
  2. Robust statistical analysis. 
  3. Independent peer-review by anonymous, unbiased experts in the field.
  4. Publication in respected, non-predatory biomedical journals.

On the hierarchy of scientific research, a white paper is no better than a press release from the marketing people at a Big Pharma company. Kind of like what we are seeing from the hyping executives at Moderna

This vaccine pseudoscience white paper tries to show that mortality in children dropped during the COVID-19 lockdown in the USA because…

Wait, take a guess why. We’ve got time.

You in the second row, did you say, “because kids aren’t being vaccinated?”

Well, you would be correct, young padawan in the second row. Yes, the vaccine pseudoscience hucksters believe that because our children weren’t being vaccinated, they weren’t dying. 

And these quacks used some of the worst pseudoscience I’ve seen since about 10 days ago when Donald Trump was pushing hydroxychloroquine. Like all pseudoscience, this white paper attempts to sound like it’s good science by throwing around science-sounding terminology, but in fact, it does not meet even the most minimal standards of science.

What’s in this vaccine pseudoscience white paper?

This white paper (and let’s not call it a “paper,” since that implies scientific rigor) is entitled, “Lessons from the Lockdown – Why are so many fewer children dying?” by Amy Becker and Mark Blaxill.

Before we start, let’s take a look at the authors to see if they have any credentials or are they some sort of false authority

Mark Blaxill is neither a scientist nor a physician, but he seems to play make-believe at the anti-vaccine group, SafeMinds. He infamously pushed conspiracy theories and misinformation to the Somali immigrant community in Minnesota, which led to a major outbreak of measles

The Encyclopedia of American Loons presciently describes Blaxill with the following:

Among his most prominent techniques are faking statistics to show an explosion in autism the last thirty years, and looking at new studies to determine whether they are scientifically “solid” or not (meaning he determines whether they can be interpreted as agreeing with his lunacy or not).

I almost feel like we could call it day with that. 

I have no idea who Amy Becker is, but I’m only willing to dig so far into the rabbit holes of vaccine pseudoscience. Her name is relatively commonplace, so I wasn’t sure if she were anybody in the wor.d of anti-vaxxers. There were a couple of hits of women with her name pushing some serious woo, but no mention of vaccines.

I was so hoping to shame her too, but, as far as I can tell, she’s a nobody. She’s 

Basically, these pseudoscientists took CDC data (I always find it ironic that these anti-vaxxers hate the CDC until they need the CDC) for mortality rates during the COVID-19 lockdown (over the past three months or so) and compared it to prior years.

Of course, there’s a noticeable jump in deaths from early March 2020 through early June 2020 because of COVID-19. They then drilled down into the mortality statistics across all age groups in a laughable attempt to try to show that all of the increased mortality was in older individuals (furthering the COVID-19 myths that are pushed by the Republicans in the USA), but they claimed mortality rates in children were actually lower than in prior years.

As a scientist, I hate looking at population-level statistics for anything in public health.

Why?

  1. Ignoring confounders. In statistical analyses, confounding data (I always giggle at that word for some odd reason) are data that have undue influence on other variables which leads to spurious relationships. So, Blaxill and Becker think that the reduction in the mortality rate for infants is because of the lower vaccination rates during this time. This ignores all of the confounders that are associated with the shelter in place orders – less driving, less traveling in general, more attention from parents, less time in possibly dangerous activities, and dozens of more things that contribute to infant mortality. It also could have been because influenza cases dropped thanks to mitigation efforts, thus, fewer flu deaths. Of course, we won’t know whether there was a drop in flu deaths until real scientists take a few months to analyze flu data!
  2. Lack of adequate controls. It is possible to have large population epidemiological studies, but they require careful and meaningful controls. Like taking a population of 200,000 children and comparing the mortality rates between those who were vaccinated and those who were not. Or getting a cohort of children who were vaccinated and not vaccinated during this period of time, examine each of their medical records, and determine if there are any statistically significant trends. I’m not an epidemiologist, nor do I play one on Facebook, and I’ve set up two studies that might tell us something. But Blaxill and Becker, who have zero knowledge of epidemiology as far as I can tell, did not set up a study but instead sat at their computers dumpster diving into CDC statistics trying to find anything that confirmed their pre-existing bias. That’s not science.
  3. Randomness. Because the vaccine pseudoscience-pushing pair wouldn’t know statistical analyses if it stood in front of them with a big sign, they don’t understand that for a short 60 days or so, random effects could be huge. In fact, randomness in mortality rates does happen, that’s why studies take time. 
  4. Small numbers. In terms of total mortalities, infants and children represent the smallest subsection of all mortalities. And again, we’re looking at just two months, so the numbers are even smaller. Just small random events can make it appear that there are changes when there are not.

Overall, as a “scientific paper,” this white paper is worthless. They can’t even put together a minimal biostatistical analysis that would meet even the lowest standards of peer-review that are favored by the anti-vaccine pseudoscientists.

Real science.

Trying to prove pre-ordained conclusions

There are many traits of pseudoscience, but one of the major ones is having a conclusion, “vaccines are dangerous,” then attempting to find all of the evidence they can to “prove” that pre-ordained conclusion. In fact, Blaxill and Becker (sounds like a bad law firm) started their white paper with:

Covid-19 is a serious public health issue, but the breathless reporting among the media of positive tests and an ever-rising death toll does little to instruct us about the true nature of the virus and the unprecedented steps taken to prevent its impact. As in many complex and pervasive health phenomena, there are many ways to measure health effects, but in our view the proper measure of impact is not a narrow or intermediate metric, but rather total health outcomes. In the case of a pandemic virus affecting large populations and where the immediate concern is sharp increases in deaths, the best measure of outcomes is not a selective measure of deaths somehow attributed to the disease but instead is deaths from all causes. For perspective, these deaths must be compared to historical death rates from all causes in prior years (Percent of Expected Deaths). As we will show, a balanced view of the broader American Covid19 experience demonstrates both the scale and variability of its negative outcomes in older Americans, especially the elderly, but also some unexpected positives. Surprisingly, U.S. mortality rates have declined among young people during the lockdown, especially among infants. These trends have gone largely unnoticed and remain unexplained.

They want to explain it by accusing vaccines.

Before we delve into the vaccine part of this white paper (remember, not peer-reviewed, not science), Blaxill and Becker decide to restate a few COVID-19 denialist garbage such as:

Attributing a Cause of Death (COD) to COVID-19 is not always clear-cut, due to significant overlap among COVID-19, Pneumonia, Influenza, and presumably other primary CODs.

That said, the spike in deaths officially attributed to COVID-19 occurred in tandem with the spike in all-cause deaths, leaving little doubt that Covid19 was the main contributor to the excess of expected deaths between March 22 and May 9.

At least in this 8-week period, the Covid19 pandemic was considerably worse than a typical flu season. To the extent that all-cause deaths fell back to expected levels during May, the excess mortality attributable to the pandemic has passed.

Wrong. I haven’t really delved into the whole COVID-19 denialism, but it’s a thing, like HIV/AIDS denialism. Or vaccine denialism. Or climate change denialism. I’m sure they’ll be all in attendance at the annual science denial meeting where they can spread COVID-19 amongst themselves.

Anyway, Blaxill and Becker pontificate on how this data shows that COVID-19 wasn’t as serious or other nonsense as scientists claim. Go read it if you want to lose a few neurons.

Back to vaccines.

After their COVID-19 rant, the vaccine pseudoscience team throws several graphs at the reader in a vain attempt to be “science.” Skeptics call this “JAQing off” by presenting data followed by leading questions. It’s not science, it’s just a rhetorical ploy to make you think that because X it’s obviously Y.

The vaccine pseudoscience beliefs of Blaxill and Becker include the claim that vaccines cause SIDS or sudden infant death syndrome. This is one of the new anti-vaccine tropes, which is contradicted by the lack of scientific evidence supporting that belief. In fact, cases of SIDS have dropped significantly since the early 1990s while the number of vaccinations has increased slightly. 

One of their JAQing off efforts (among so many) is this graph:

It shows a decline in deaths in the USA for children under the age of one year from 2/1/2020 through 5/16/2020. It appears to have dropped around 32.7% during that time, although if we use the time period between 3/14 and 5/16, which was when the COVID-19 mitigation efforts were in full force through most of the country, the decline was closer to 23.8%. 

 Either way, it seems dramatic. 

However, as someone (since I forgot to get permission to get their name, they shall remain anonymous) wrote:

Uhh…. look at your own graphs? this is false. In fact it looks like the effect was GREATER in the teens, falling nearly 50%. The difference is there is a larger baseline number of infant deaths, so the graph looks more dramatic even though the fall was only 30%.

And teens aren’t usually vaccinated during this time, it’s usually just before school starts, whether it’s a high school or college. 

The imitable Orac in his luscious takedown of this pseudoscience paper wrote about the same graph:

So, from between the week of February 1 and May 16, the number of deaths of infants under 1 year old fell from roughly just under 400 a week to around 250 a week, a greater than 35% decline. But what about Becker and Blaxill’s claims that there was “very little” effect among school age children or adolescents? As an absolute number, that’s sort of true, but as a percentage? Not so much. Again, look at the graph.

Between the weeks of February 1 and May 16, deaths of children 5-14 years old fell from over 100/week to roughly 75 a week, a fall of close to 25%, not much less than that among infants. During the same time period, among children aged 1-4 years, the number of deaths fell from around 70-90 a week to 50-60 a week, a similar decline. Of course, one thing that has to be noted about these numbers is that they are so small that it’s had to say if this trend is even real, particularly given the lag in reporting that means that later statistics are almost certainly undercounts, because of the several week delay in processing some death certificates. Basically, Becker and Blaxill probably jumped the gun, because they are relying on statistics that are incomplete, the more recent the statistics, the more incomplete.

Right. Because that’s how real epidemiologists work. They take all of the data from every single reported death (if they can), pour over the information, then sort it appropriately, and finally providing us with robust statistical analyses.

Blaxill and Becker did none those things.

They then said something that made me laugh, cry, and scream in roughly that order:

We have no specific data on the trend in SIDS deaths during the pandemic. We have, however, heard anecdotal reports from emergency room (ER) doctors suggesting some have observed a decline in SIDS. One doctor who says he might see 3 cases of SIDS in a typical week has seen zero cases since the pandemic and associated lockdowns began.

WHAT?!?!

Their evidence in the graph above was specious at best, explained by at least 10 confounders. Then they use anecdotal evidence (anecdotes ≠ data), which may or may not be actually factual, to try to tie this all together with a neat anti-vaccine SIDS trope. 

Fail.

And back to the respectfully insolent Orac:

This leap to a conclusion is unsurprising, given the antivaccine myth that vaccines cause sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). They most definitely do not, even though antivaccine cranks love to promote this myth, the Vaccine Court once made a dubious ruling suggesting a link, and grieving mothers who attribute their baby’s SIDS to vaccines make for sympathetic and compelling figures, which is why antivaxxers try to convince mothers who’ve lost babies to SIDS that it was vaccines that caused it. In fact, although it’s very clear that vaccines do not increase the risk of SIDS, it’s actually likely that they decrease the risk of SIDS.

I’d trust what Orac writes any day of the year over Blaxill and Becker. And twice on the day that baseball returns in 2020 if it returns in 2020. 

And of course, there is more in this steaming heap of vaccine pseudoscience. But I don’t have the time or inclination to spend more of my precious few neurons trying to debunk all of their gibberish. 

My snarky summary

So let me give you my tl;dr summary in case you are in a rush and have better things to do with your life.

The vaccine pseudoscience white paper from Blaxill and Becker did not use epidemiology or any science.

It did not use any meaningful statistical analyses.

It did misuse data from the COVID-19 crisis.

It did not show anything about vaccines and mortality.

It did not establish any link between vaccines and SIDS.

In other words, this white paper was worthless.

Notes

  1. I don’t link to pseudoscience websites like Age of Autism or Natural News, as it is not my goal to give them more clicks to their scams. If you want to read their “white paper,” a pdf copy is linked.

Citations



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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!