Vaccine science — why I do research better than anti-vaxxers

How many times have you read a comment from an anti-vaxxer that states, “I’ve done my vaccine science research, and it says vaccines are bad.” That comment seems to imply two things – that the anti-vaxxer believes they have done real vaccine science research, and those on the science/medicine side have not done real vaccine research.

What I’ve found is that the anti-vaxxer research into vaccine science is based on their Google University education rather than actual scientific education. Vaccine science is hard, and it cannot be done in a few hours searching for unimpressive memes.

The typical anti-vaxxer understates how hard vaccine research 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 that gives me a relatively decent background in vaccine science. And I’m going to state, without any remorse, that I am no Dr. Paul Offit, Dr. Peter Hotez, or any of the hundreds of researchers at the CDC and WHO. My background in vaccines is a result of my education, which is a lot more than a few hours on Google.

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Do your own vaccine science research

I was prompted to write this article after seeing a recurring comment that “physicians aren’t taught vaccine science.”

In Liz Ditz’s blog, I Speak of Dreams, she writes about an anti-vaccine claim that “physicians are uneducated about vaccines.” Liz found an outstanding quote from a real physician who has done real vaccine science 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 assess my background, and whether I had the bona fides to talk about vaccines and vaccine science. Am I guilty of my own Dunning-Kruger, or am I qualified to write about vaccines? So I decided to examine my own educational and research background in depth.

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The feathered dinosaur’s science background

I want to make something clear – the only thing in science that matters is the 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 Engineering from the Jim’s School of Auto Mechanics and Janitorial Services in Red Deer, Alberta. 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 what my credentials are.

However, I do have an advantage over most (if not all) of the anti-vaccine world. This old dinosaur studied biology (and minored in math) in college and cell biology (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 who claims to have performed vaccine science research ever spend that amount of time?

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. And this is strictly sitting in classes and labs, not all the time in the library trying to figure out how to balance a complex acid-base equation.

  • 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 discussed 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 a vaccine works unless you have a significant understanding of the foundations of how a vaccine works.

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 about vaccines.

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 delusions that my knowledge will earn me a Nobel Prize, but I do know more about immunology 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 the aging liver – roughly, that adds up a conservative 10,000 hours (and I officially meet the 10,000-hour rule) of hands-on research. And though I only occasionally 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.

shallow focus photography of microscope
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What I am saying about vaccine science

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 a nanogram of knowledge of vaccine science.

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. I know how to examine the statistical methods to see if the researchers are using some chicanery to make their point.

Here’s what my 10,000 hours (and more) 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 biased 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, is 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.

Fifteen years ago I was very skeptical about anthropogenic climate change. But I am not a climate scientist, so I decided to read every article and book I could find about the earth’s climate going back billions of years. I emailed researchers in climate change to ask them to refute this or that claim. I read the Skeptical Science website every day. I was convinced by the science of climate change, and I accept the settled science of anthropogenic climate change.

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 said, “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 your research on vaccines.” I have done my research on vaccine science, based on more than 10,000 hours to be an expert in the area, and I have seen no evidence that pushes the needle away from the scientific consensus on vaccines. None.

And if you’re going to claim you have done “research on vaccine science,” 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 high-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!