Zombie anti-vaccine research returns from the dead – real science laughs

Here we go again. Fake anti-vaccine research, which has no scientific value, but beloved by the pseudoscience pushing vaccine deniers, arises once again from the dustbin of science like a brainless zombie on a popular TV show.

Since the anti-vaccine religion has little or no scientific evidence to support their myths and beliefs, they need to rely upon dead and buried anti-vaccine research to invent their fake science about vaccines. And here comes ambling, confused “research” that we thought was dead and buried five years ago (yes, five years ago) to try to eat the brains of people who listen to the anti-vaccine pseudoscience.

We are here with a scientific sword to destroy this zombie anti-vaccine research. 

What is this new/old anti-vaccine research?

The zombie anti-vaccine article that we’re going to discuss in this post was published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons by Brian S. Hooker. There’s so much to discuss with this trash heap of an article, so bear with me. And if all of this sounds familiar, it is.

The original version of this article was kind of a central aspect of the laughable CDC Whistleblowercontroversy” pushed by one of the greatest scientific frauds, Andrew Wakefield (not a doctor) which was immortalized in the fraudumentary, Vaxxed.

Hooker tried to claim that because of incompetence of CDC scientists (without a stitch of supporting evidence) they failed to see that black children were more at risk of autism from the MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps, and rubella) than other children.

In case you don’t remember, on 3 October 2014, the journal, Translational Neurodegeneration formally retracted the article by Brian Hooker with this statement:

The Editor and Publisher regretfully retract the article as there were undeclared competing interests on the part of the author which compromised the peer review process. Furthermore, post-publication peer review raised concerns about the validity of the methods and statistical analysis, therefore the Editors no longer have confidence in the soundness of the findings. We apologise to all affected parties for the inconvenience caused.

If you’re keeping score, the original version of this article was retracted by a predatory journal. Let that sink in, while I unpack my new irony meter. Then it gets republished, in nearly the same form, in a new journal.

As I do with all anti-vaccine “research,” it’s time to critique this pseudoscientific piece of manure from both a meta-level and a scientific aspect. It’s not going to be easy.

The 10,000-meter view of this paper

Let’s start with Brian Hooker. He is an engineer with no background at all in any of the key areas of study regarding vaccines: immunology, virology, microbiology, epidemiology, public health, or anything useful to this conversation. The anti-vaxxers seem to revel in using individuals with no knowledge of vaccines as their “scientists.”

He is on an untenured assistant professor of biology at Simpson University, an uncompetitive, low-ranked California-based Christian university, which teaches creationism in the biology department. The fact that Hooker is on the faculty of a science denialist university is a serious indictment of the intellectual and scientific credibility of any research performed there.

There is nothing in Dr. Hooker’s background that indicates he knows anything about vaccines, save for being a shill for the anti-vaccination organization, Focus for Health. Liz Ditz does an excellent job reviewing Hooker’s background.

Brian Hooker lacks any credibility as a vaccine scientist, yet he takes a study that was retracted by a low ranked journal and republishes it in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons (JPANDS). For those of you who don’t follow these things, JPANDS is a journal for the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS).

Sounds legitimate right?

The AAPS is a far-right organization that is anti-vaccine and supports Republican causes in the USA. They are opposed to their physicians accepting payments from Medicaid and Medicare, two of the greatest healthcare systems for the poor, disabled, and seniors in the USA. They are crackpots, and JAPANDS functions as a propaganda organ for their ridiculous pseudoscience and right-wing nonsense.

Moreover, the journal is so ridiculous, it is not even indexed in PubMed, which indexes even some horrible predatory journals. It has published “articles” that deny the fact of human-caused climate change and question the link between HIV and AIDS. It is very obviously parroting right-wing science denialism. I bet if I looked hard, they have published an article denying the fact of evolution.

So what can we conclude before we even get to the new/old data? Brian Hooker is not a vaccine scientist, he’s barely a scientist of any field. And second, Hooker was so desperate to publish his anti-vaccine research, he went to an avowed crackpot, anti-vaccine journal to publish his buffoonery. I guess it’s desperate times for a desperate man.

Anti-vaccine research data manipulation

Hooker attempts to rejigger data from a  study by Dr. William Thompson (the so-called CDC Whistleblower) and prolific CDC researcher, Frank DeStefano. This study concluded that there was no difference in the rate of autism in Atlanta-area African-American children between those who were vaccinated and those who weren’t. It’s one of dozens upon dozens of studies that have shown NO link between vaccines and autism.

As far as I can tell, there is no real difference between the new JPANDS article and the original, retracted article. So, let’s go back to a thorough analysis of Hooker’s article by David Gorski, MD,

Hooker did a cohort study. He analyzed data collected for a case-control study as a cohort study. Basically, he looked at the risk of an autism diagnosis in the groups first exposed to MMR at different age ranges. Remember, case-control = comparing risk factor frequency in people with a condition compared to controls; cohort = examining risk of condition in people with different exposures.

Dr. Gorski again summarizes the quality of the research in another post:

But first, for those who might be entering this saga right now, let me recap a moment. I’m referring to a conspiracy theory, which has been flogged to death by the antivaccine movement for nearly two weeks now, that there is a CDC whistleblower who has made “devastating” reports that the CDC hid data that showed a 3.4-fold increased risk of autism in African American males, based on an incompetent “reanalysis” of a 10 year old CDC study that found no evidence that children with autism were more likely to have received their first MMR vaccine earlier than neurotypical controls.

But the critiques of Hooker’s article get worse, much worse. According to the Poxes Blog (subscribe to it, it’s great), the statistics that Hooker used was borderline (hell, it was over the line) ludicrous:

Next come the statistics. Hooker uses Pearson’s chi squared test to see if there is a significant association between MMR and autism in children at different ages. DeStefano et al used conditional logistic regression. For the non-biostatisticians out there, the technique that DeStefano et al used accounts for confounders and effect modifiers, different traits in their population that could skew the results. Hooker’s technique doesn’t really do that, unless you stratify results and use very, very large datasets. Hooker’s approach is more “conservative,” meaning that it will detect small effects and amplify them, and those effects can come from anything.

So why did we not see this in the other ethnic groups or in girls? The answer here is simple, again. Hooker had a limited dataset to work with when he boiled it down to African-American baby boys. In this table, for example, he tells us that he had to modify the analysis to 31 months instead of 36 because he had less than 5 children in that group. It’s the same goddamned mistake that Andrew Jeremy Wakefield wanted to pass off as legitimate science. You cannot, and must not use small numbers to make big assertions…

So, let me summarize – Hooker took data collected in one manner (a case-control study) and chose to analyze it as if it had been collected in another methodology (a cohort study). Hooker performed this pretzel logic of analysis so that it would fit with his own pre-established conclusions – that vaccines cause autism (and somehow the CDC criminally withheld this data). Moreover, part of Hooker’s rejiggering was to try to increase the number of children included, because it was so small – this is a totally inappropriate manipulation of data.

Hooker’s methodology reminds me of a quote from Mark Twain (probably the most quotable American author ever): “Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.”

Furthermore, even if Hooker had shown some level of correlation (and he didn’t), he has not established any biologically plausible mechanism that would even begin to explain why black children would be at higher risk of autism than white children. In fact, DeStefano has shown in more recent research that there is no link between vaccines and autism, irrespective of ethnic background. Of course, Hooker ignores this, because it doesn’t fit with his pre-conceived conclusions, a hallmark of pseudoscience.

Summary

And there it is. Zombie anti-vaccine research, thoroughly discredited once, comes back alive five years later to be published in a right-wing, science denying “medical journal.” And we know the anti-vaccine forces will jump up and down claiming that “science proves that vaccines cause autism.”

No, science has firmly established that vaccines are not linked to autism. They are neither correlated or causal to autism. It is settled science, except for true religious believers in the anti-vaccine cause.

Well, I do enjoy writing about zombies, so I don’t mind debunking another piece of pseudoscientific junk medicine from the anti-vaxxers. It makes my day.

Citations

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!