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

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.

Do your own vaccine research

I was prompted to write this article after reading a wonderful 18-part (yeah, real research cannot be explained in a meme) response to 18 standard bogus claims of the anti-vaccine religion. In Liz Ditz’s blog, I Speak of Dreams, she writes about an anti-vaccine claim that “physicians are uneducated about vaccines.” Yes, we on the science side have heard that about 250,000 times. If I were actually paid a $1 for each time I hear it, I could be retired on a beach somewhere, drinking margaritas. Instead, I receive nonexistent shill checks from the nonexistent Big Pharma companies who have no interest in what I write.

Anyway, Liz found an outstanding quote from a real physician who has done real research:

So I thought about that and added up time I spent learning immunology and infectious disease in the First Two Years of medical school. Without even counting the related fields of physiology, the respiratory system, gastroenterology, histology, neurology, etc, I came up with 920 hours of graduate education in immunology, microbiology, and infectious disease – and that’s before ever hitting the wards in 3rd and 4th years.

And of course that doesn’t even count the time spent in training by Family Practice, Pediatrics, or Internal Medicine residents.

If we presume that my (rather average) medical school was representative, then most doctors spend ~ 920 hours in graduate education in this field before ever being allowed to sit for the Step I Board Exam and, if we passed it, allowed onto wards and into clinics.

And all of that is minuscule compared to the amount of education involved for biomedical researchers in the field who are the ones figuring out these principles. We doctors need to know how to understand and apply those principles, since we don’t have to derive the background information ourselves. A PhD in the field would have easily spent 70-80 hrs/week in class, labs, and reading, at least 45 weeks per year, for about 4 years.

That’s 75x45x4= 13,500 hours of graduate education, not including Bachelor’s or Master’s Degrees. For a researcher with 10 years experience, that’s a minimum of 13,500 + (2080 hrs/yr x 10 yrs) = 34,300 hours of education, training, experience.

This prompted me to actually discuss my own background, and why it’s clear I have done my own vaccine research. And it far exceeds what any anti-vaxxer could even dream about.

The feathered dinosaur’s vaccine research

I want to make something clear – the only thing in science that matters is high quality and quantity of evidence, not credentials, debating ability, or false civility. I often claim, on Twitter, that I am a janitor at Big Pharma corporate headquarters with a degree in Janitorial Science from the Jim’s School of Auto Mechanics and Janitorial Services in Guam. Though I doubt anyone in the anti-vaccine world gets my sarcasm, my point is I have evidence on my side, it doesn’t matter who I am.

However, I do have an advantage over most (if not all) of the anti-vaccine world. This old dinosaur actually studied biology (and minored in math) in college and biochemistry (with a focus on Endocrinology) in graduate school, while spending decades in clinical research.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers: the Story of Success,” repeatedly mentions the “10,000- Hour Rule.” He claimed that the key to being a world-class expert in any field is a matter of practicing it over and over for a total of around 10,000 hours. If you do this just 8 hours a day, not including weekends, you’re looking at over 5 years. Does anyone claiming to have done vaccine research ever spent that amount of time? Other than the fraud Andrew Wakefield, I’d doubt it.

So let me see if I get close to that 10,000 hours – spoiler alert, I’m way over that. I’m going to include both my classroom experience and my research experience.

  • Chemistry – 2 semesters (see Note 1), approximately 90 hours
  • Organic chemistry (see Note 2) – 2 semesters, 90 hours
  • Physical chemistry – 2 semesters 90 hours

Anyone wanting to proceed into the field of my interest, biochemistry, required a lot of chemistry.

  • Undergraduate statistics – 4 semesters, 180 hours
  • Graduate statistics – 2 semesters, 90 hours
  • Medical statistics – 2 semesters, 90 hours

Statistics are an important facet of biomedical research.

  • Biochemistry (undergrad) – 4 semesters, 180 hours
  • Biochemistry (grad) – 4 semesters, 180 hours
  • Immunology (grad) – 2 semesters, 90 hours
  • Immunology (medical) – 2 semesters, 90 hours
  • Pharmacology (medical) – 2 semesters, 90 hours
  • Human physiology (undergrad) – 2 semesters, 90 hours
  • Human physiology (grad) – 2 semesters, 90 hours
  • Human anatomy (grad) – 2 semesters, 90 hours
  • Cell biology (grad) – 6 semesters, 270 hours
  • Microbiology (grad) – 2 semesters, 90 hours
  • Virology (undergrad and grad) – 2 semesters, 90 hours
  • Endocrinology (medical) – 2 semesters, 90 hours
  • Tissue culture techniques – 160 hours
  • Toxicology (medical) – 1 semester, 45 hours
  • Human genetics (undergrad) – 2 semesters, 90 hours
  • Cancer biology (grad) – 2 semesters, 90 hours
  • Developmental biology (undergrad) – 1 semester 45 hours

Of course, I had probably 10 other biology courses that aren’t as relevant, such as herpetology (the study of reptiles), mammalogy, botany, and other courses that weren’t directly related to what I discuss today on this blog. My classwork alone totaled nearly 2500 hours of study – enough to have a basic understanding of almost anything in biomedicine. You can’t claim that you understand how

No, my studies have nothing directly linked to vaccines, since I often deride anti-vaccine “scientists” who lack any background in real vaccine research. But two important things – first, my classwork means that I am very familiar with scientific methods, terminology, knowledge, and research; second, I don’t deny the scientific consensus.

My job here is to examine research or claims, whether it’s about GMOs, evolution, vaccines, or anything scientific, apply both my knowledge and scientific analysis, to determine if those claims are valid. The feathered dinosaur doesn’t do original research anymore. But the point is, I didn’t get a University of Google degree based on an hour of searching for information that confirms my pre-ordained beliefs.

I studied immunology for 2 years at the graduate level in very hard, competitive courses. I understand its mechanisms very well – I have no illusions that my knowledge will earn me a Nobel Prize, but I do more than just about any anti-vaxxer who crosses paths with me.

And yet, there’s more. I spent 5 years doing graduate research in endocrinology, specifically looking at insulin effects on aging liver – roughly that adds up a conservative 10,000 hours (I officially meet the 10,000-hour rule) of hands-on research. And though I rarely write about it, I am truly an expert on diabetes.

I also spent at least 20 years in clinical research – I organized, managed, reviewed, and analyzed dozens of large clinical studies across the world. I can’t even begin to calculate the number of hours that I spent in clinical research, but, again conservatively, I probably have 20,000 hours of hands-on research.

What I am saying

None of this is to brag about my background. It’s pedestrian compared to the hundreds of biomedical researchers whom I’ve gotten to know over the past two or three decades.

I have tremendous respect, if not pure fanboy excitement, for real researchers like David Gorski and Paul Offit, who have devoted their lives to saving human lives. Compared to their metric tonnes of knowledge in the fields of cancer and vaccines, I have but a couple of kg of knowledge. Yet they both get attacked by people who have microscopic knowledge of science, even compared to me. It’s laughable.

My point is, when I read a scientific paper about vaccines or GMOs or anything, I know how to read it beyond one sentence in the abstract. I review the methods, and I know where to look to determine if it’s outside of the bounds of good science. When I read a paper about an immune response, I have an instinctive knowledge of the mechanisms, not based on a few minutes of Google, but on years of science.

Here’s what my greater than 10,000 hours means – I can examine the best research in most biomedical fields, including vaccines or GMOs, comprehend what it’s trying to say, and critically analyze it. Too many people look at vaccine research, and either accept it or reject it based on whether it fits their own conclusions.

Moreover, because I understand that “science” is not a magical endeavor that requires belief, I am willing to accept the scientific consensus. I reject silly claims that it’s some sort of conspiracy or that it’s a belief. A scientific consensus, or even more a scientific theory, are based on the best scientific evidence reviewed by the best scientific minds in a field. They don’t arise from a secret vote in a dark chamber hidden beneath a wizard’s lair on the Isle of Skye.

I am not a climatologist, nor do I pretend to be one on the internet. Yet, the science behind human-caused climate change is overwhelming. A consensus of the scientists in the field (you know, greater than 10,000 hours studying it) say it’s so. Moreover, I have not seen any convincing (or even weak) evidence that can overturn the consensus. None.

Yes, a scientific consensus is provisional – it can be overturned, but not by rhetoric or wishing it to be wrong, only by high-quality evidence of similar quality and quantity that contradicts the consensus. And as the aforementioned Dr. Gorski has sad, “Hostility towards the concept of scientific consensus is a good sign of pseudoscience.” The scientific consensus on vaccines (and many other “controversial” scientific issues like climate change GMOs) is settled – vaccines are safe and effective.

The anti-vaxxers say “do vaccine research.” I have, based on more than 10,000 hours to be an expert in the area, and I have seen no evidence that pushes the needle on that scientific consensus on vaccines. None.

And if you’re going to claim you have done “vaccine research,” you better be prepared to outline your full academic and research experience that will convince me that you have the expertise to actually comprehend real scientific research. And you better have high-quality and -quantity of evidence that contradicts the scientific consensus. Otherwise, you are subject to mockery, derision, and laughter.

Notes

  1. My undergraduate education was in a quarter system, which I believe is rare these days. I converted quarter-hours to semester-hours just so that it’s clear.
  2. I’m sure a lot of the readers will be nostalgic for the days when they carried the extraordinarily heavy text, Morrison and Boyd’s “Organic Chemistry,” to class across campus.





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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!