Vaccines, Autism, and Low-Information Voters

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[Update March 12, 2013: Sarah A. Hoyt has written an autobiographical tale about the damage public schools are doing to children.  Highly recommended.]

“Low-information voter” is the term applied to voters who really don’t bother investigating issues in any depth before they vote.  I have argued elsewhere that lack of information is only half the problem.  The other half is their apparent inability to process information in any meaningful way.  They cannot discern the logic that if A causes B and B causes C then A must cause C.

In this article I’ll offer an example of one of these voters.  I’ve transcribed about 15 minutes of a Science Friday episode made over two years ago.  The complete transcription is at the end of this article, along with a complete citation and a few observations that are not transcribed directly.  I have done my best to accurately transcribe the audio, but there may be errors remaining.  If you spot any mistakes, please let me know so I can correct them.  (As far as I can tell the audio of this segment is not available for downloading and no transcript seems to exist at ScienceFriday.com.)  The subject under discussion was vaccines and autism.  This article relates vaccines, autism, and low-information voters.

My Summary

One of the guests on Science Friday January 7, 2011 was Dr. Paul Offit, the author of Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All.  Dr. Offit has examined the many, many studies done on this subject and has concluded that there is no causal relationship between vaccines and autism.  At about 8 minutes 15 seconds into the interview, host Ira Flatow takes a call from Leslie in Oakland (presumably California).

Leslie opens with a statement that includes this: “… I think he’s cherry-picking when he cites this one study that has been widely discredited when there are literally dozens of studies whose methodologies have been impeccable and have not been discredited.”  She is referring to the discredited work by Andrew Wakefield that seemed to show such a relationship.  (A summary of Wakefield’s “research” is in the following section.)

Dr. Offit replied by detailing the problems with Wakefield’s work.  He then pointed to fourteen separate studies on three different continents, each including hundreds of thousands of children, that unanimously reported that vaccines don’t cause autism.

Ira Flatow then asked Leslie whether there was any amount of research that would change her mind.  She replied yes, with disparaging references to “… the yahoos who just don’t look at scientific processes at all and people who blindly trust what clinicians tell them …” adding that there was “something between” the two groups. She then states that “… the vast number of immunizations that you’re requiring at such a young age really is taking a toll on the immune system. I think that’s just logic.”

Dr. Offit patiently replies that the number of immunological components in all 14 vaccines combined was 160. By contrast, each of the 100 trillion bacteria that our bodies host contain somewhere between 2,000 and 6,000 immunological factorsIf the human immune system was really that fragile, the human race would have died out millennia ago.  (There is additional talk about the mercury in preservatives, but today’s childhood vaccines no longer contain thimerosal, the preservative that includes ethyl mercury.)

Leslie replies, “I can’t accept what you’re saying. It just sounds like pap to me, it sounds like panacea. A two year old cannot accept this kind of chemical onslaught.”  But, of course, two-year-olds have the same 100 trillion bacteria on their skin that all of us have.  After a few more interruptions, the following exchange ensues:

Ira Flatow: “… Leslie, it doesn’t look like anything he’s going to tell you is going to change your mind.”

Leslie: “Well, I’m not hearing anything that sounds credible to me as an educated adult.”

Got that?  Leslie was presented with a mountain of scientific evidence.  She simply refused to believe it.  It’s not a lack of information.  It’s an inability to process information when it’s presented.

A Longer Summary

The guest on Science Friday was Dr. Paul Offit, the author of Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All.  Dr. Offit has examined the many, many studies done on this subject and has concluded that there is no causal relationship between vaccines and autism.  At about 8 minutes 15 seconds into the interview, host Ira Flatow takes a call from Leslie in Oakland (presumably California).

Leslie opens with a statement that includes this: “… I think he’s cherry-picking when he cites this one study that has been widely discredited when there are literally dozens of studies whose methodologies have been impeccable and have not been discredited.”  She is referring to the discredited work by Andrew Wakefield that seemed to show such a relationship.  Wikipedia describes Mr. Wakefield’s “study” thus:

[pullquote]On 28 January 2010, a five-member statutory tribunal of the GMC found three dozen charges proved, including four counts of dishonesty and 12 counts involving the abuse of developmentally challenged children. The panel ruled that Wakefield had “failed in his duties as a responsible consultant”, acted both against the interests of his patients, and “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in his published research. The Lancet immediately and fully retracted his 1998 publication on the basis of the GMC’s findings, noting that elements of the manuscript had been falsified. Wakefield was struck off the Medical Register in May 2010, with a statement identifying dishonest falsification in The Lancet research, and is barred from practising medicine in the UK.

In January 2011, an editorial accompanying an article by Brian Deer in BMJ identified Wakefield’s work as an “elaborate fraud”. In a follow-up article, Deer said that Wakefield had planned to launch a venture on the back of an MMR vaccination scare that would profit from new medical tests and “litigation driven testing”. In November 2011, yet another report in BMJ revealed original raw data indicating that, contrary to Wakefield’s claims in The Lancet, children in his research did not have inflammatory bowel disease.

Wakefield’s study and public recommendations against the use of the combined MMR vaccine were linked to a steep decline in vaccination rates in the United Kingdom and a corresponding rise in measles cases, resulting in serious illness and fatalities. Wakefield has continued to defend his research and conclusions, saying there was no fraud, hoax or profit motive.[/pullquote]

Leslie is willing to admit that the Wakefield paper is invalid.  But she refers to the “dozens of studies whose methodologies have been impeccable and have not been discredited.” Of course she never gives a citation for any of them.

Dr. Offit replies with an explanation of the many fraudulent aspects of Wakefield’s paper.  He then goes on to say that, “… if you want to answer the question, the way you answer that question is that you look at hundreds of thousands of children who did or didn’t get MMR vaccines to see whether the incidence of autism is greater in the vaccinated group. That’s been done by fourteen different groups of investigators on three different continents and the answers have been very clear and consistent and reproducible. So we can say with comfort that MMR vaccine does not cause autism.”

Ira Flatow then asks Leslie whether there is any amount of research that would change her mind.  Leslie replies, “”Oh, absolutely. This is what I’m saying is that he’s presenting a false dichotomy. There is something between the yahoos who just don’t look at scientific processes at all and people who blindly trust what clinicians tell them, of which there are a number, many, many people. You know, getting 26 vaccines, in some cases before the age of two, is a devastating thing for a person’s immune system. I’m 49 and …”

Mr. Flatow attempts to interrupt the incessant flow of words without a great deal of success.  When he finally gets her attention he asks her for evidence that the 26 treatments (actually 14 vaccines, some have multiple doses) have detrimental effects.  She mentions the preservatives that use mercury (which has been removed from all childhood vaccines in the U.S.), then says “…the vast number of immunizations that you’re requiring at such a young age really is taking a toll on the immune system. I think that’s just logic.”

Dr. Offit replies that the critical issue is the number of immunological components in the 14 vaccines.  Today there are 160 such components. And we know a lot about the human immune system.  Each of us has about 100 trillion bacteria on our body.  And each bacterium has between 2,000 and 6,000 immunological components.  If our immune systems were really that fragile, human life would have been wiped out millennia ago.

Leslie replies, “I can’t accept what you’re saying. It just sounds like pap to me, it sounds like panacea. A two year old cannot accept this kind of chemical onslaught.”  In other words, actual scientific data  and facts — information — are irrelevant.  Ira Flatow tells Leslie that it doesn’t look like anything Dr. Offit says will change her mind.  She replies, “Well, I’m not hearing anything that sounds credible to me as an educated adult.”

Educated, perhaps, but completely unable or unwilling to appreciate science, the scientific method, or logic (despite her statement to the contrary).

Conclusion

It’s not just an information problem.  It’s an information processing problem.  Until we can figure out a way to get these folks to think, the country will remain in a lot of trouble.

Appendix: The Complete Transcript

This is my transcription of the audio of this show available at http://sciencefriday.com/segment/01/07/2011/paul-offit-and-deadly-choices.html.

One of the guests on Science Friday January 7, 2011 was Dr. Paul Offit, the author of Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All.  Dr. Offit is an expert on vaccines and autism. He has also written Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure. Here’s a very brief summary of the first eight minutes of the show:

There is a great deal of evidence against any linkage between childhood vaccines and autism.  Dr. Offit’s wife is a GP who struggles with this issue all the time. If parents reject vaccines, she has to be careful because she wants to keep them coming into her office so they don’t go to a chiropractor or other “alternative medicine” practitioner instead.  So she has to be careful about how she approaches this issue.

The telephone call in question starts at 8 minutes 15 seconds of the segment.

Leslie in Oakland: “Hi, thank you very much for having me, my name is Leslie, I’m calling from Oakland. I want to make a statement regarding the doctor’s artificial, I believe, polarization of the issue. I think he’s cherry-picking when he cites this one study that has been widely discredited when there are literally dozens of studies whose methodologies have been impeccable and have not been discredited.”

Ira Flatow: “Let me get an answer. Dr. Offit?”

Paul Offit: “If she’s referring to the Wakefield publication as being a study that was discredited, first one should say that nothing was studied. That wasn’t a study, that was merely a series of eight children who had received the MMR vaccine who then, within a month, developed symptoms of autism. Dr. Wakefield postulated that the vaccine had caused intestinal damage which then allowed for brain damaging proteins to enter the body and cause autism. That wasn’t a study.  In fact, now we know that even what was presented was incorrect. Some of those children were said to have autism and they didn’t. Some of those children were said to have received the vaccine just before they got symptoms of autism. That wasn’t true, they’d either  received it afterwards or well before. None of that was right.  But if you want to answer the question, the way you answer that question is that you look at hundreds of thousands of children who did or didn’t get MMR vaccines to see whether the incidence of autism is greater in the vaccinated group. That’s been done by fourteen different groups of investigators on three different continents and the answers have been very clear and consistent and reproducible. So we can say with comfort that MMR vaccine does not cause autism.”

Flatow: “Leslie, let me ask you the same question I asked of Chantelle [sp?] in 2008. Is there any amount of research that could be presented to you that would change your mind?”

Leslie: “Oh, absolutely. This is what I’m saying is that he’s presenting a false dichotomy. There is something between the yahoos who just don’t look at scientific processes at all and people who blindly trust what clinicians tell them, of which there are a number, many, many people. You know, getting 26 vaccines, in some cases before the age of two, is a devastating thing for a person’s immune system. I’m 49 and …”

Flatow [interrupting]: “How do you — Leslie — Leslie …”

Leslie [continuing] “… I had six or seven and I think they were great, I had polio, I had measles, [Flatow continuing to say her name] you name it I had the things that we know are really bad. Meningitis I’m on the fence about, I don’t know much about that one …”

Flatow: [raising his voice]: “Leslie — Leslie — could I interrupt.  You said it was devastating to get 42 immunizations. Can you tell us what evidence you have that it’s devastating?”

Leslie: “26.  …”

[Talking over each other.]

Flatow: “Well, tell me what evidence you have …”

Leslie: “there’s really a lot of evidence that the preservatives that are used include mercury. And the vast number of immunizations that you’re requiring at such a young age really is taking a toll on the immune system. I think that’s just logic.”

Flatow: “All right, let’s get an answer from Dr. Offit.”

Offit: “Leslie raised two issues. I’ll actually do it, if you don’t mind, in the order in which she raised them. The first was she raised the notion that, it’s actually 14 different vaccines that can be included in as many as 26 inoculations. But, certainly, if you look 100 years ago we only got one vaccine. Today we get 14 different vaccines and certainly the number 14 is greater than one. But the critical thing is whether the number of immunological components in the vaccines, which is to say the immunological challenge in vaccines, is greater today than it was 100 years ago. The answer, interestingly, is no. You actually receive about 160 immunological components. By that I mean bacterial protein, bacterial polysaccharide, or viral protein, as compared to the smallpox vaccine which was the only vaccine we got 100 years ago which contained about 200 immunological components. Secondly, the notion that vaccines would overwhelm the immune system just flies in the face of everything we know about the immune system. You know, when you’re in the womb you’re in a sterile environment. When you enter the birth canal and the world, you’re not. And very quickly you have living on the surface of your body trillions of bacteria, literally trillions, I’m not trying to sound like Carl Sagan, it’s literally trillions, you actually have 1014 which is 100 trillion bacteria on the surface of your body. That’s actually ten times more than you have cells in your body. …”

Leslie: [Interrupting] “Aren’t immunological viruses engineered in a laboratory, it’s not naturally occurring in nature?”

Offit: “OK, I can address that, too, but, you know, a person makes grams of immunoglobulin-G every day, grams of secretory immunoglobulin-G to handle that sort of natural insult, so the 160, and remember each bacteria [sic] has between 2,000 and 6,000 immunological components. If we were overwhelmed by vaccines, our species would not survive. Believe me, that’s not a problem. Secondly, the issue of mercury, you know, the quantity of ethyl mercury that was contained in vaccines is less, and remember ethyl mercury is excreted from the body much more quickly than methyl mercury, and ethyl mercury is essentially out of vaccines given to young children. It still is contained in some multi-dose preparations of the influenza vaccine. It’s the quantity that matters. Obviously mercury at high quantities is a neurotoxin, but we’re all exposed to levels of mercury because we live on this earth and the earth’s crust contains mercury, so mercury is in the water we drink, it’s in breast milk …”

Leslie: [Interrupting] I can’t accept what you’re saying. It just sounds like pap to me, it sounds like panacea. A two year old cannot accept this kind of chemical onslaught.”

Offit: “Of course they could …”

Leslie: “Maybe an adult could.”

Offit: “But a child does  …”

Flatow: “Let me just jump in, this is Science Friday from NPR.  Leslie, it doesn’t look like anything he’s going to tell you is going to change your mind.”

Leslie: “Well, I’m not hearing anything that sounds credible to me as an educated adult.”

Flatow: “Ah. OK. Thanks for calling.”

Leslie: “You’re welcome.”

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About Tony Lima

Retired after teaching economics at California State Univ., East Bay (Hayward, CA). Ph.D., economics, Stanford. Also taught MBA finance at the California University of Management and Technology. Occasionally take on a consulting project if it's interesting. Other interests include wine and technology.

2 Replies to “Vaccines, Autism, and Low-Information Voters”

  1. Clayton Herra

    Autism has a strong genetic basis, although the genetics of autism are complex and it is unclear whether ASD is explained more by rare mutations, or by rare combinations of common genetic variants.*”.:

    Check you later
    <http://healthmedicine.co/

  2. Kourtney Matthai

    Smallpox is a disease caused by the Variola major virus. Some experts say that over the centuries it has killed more people than all other infectious diseases combined. Worldwide immunization stopped the spread of smallpox three decades ago. The last case was reported in 1977. Two research labs still house small amounts of the virus. Experts fear bioterrorists could use the virus to spread disease.^,^.

    Our web blog <http://www.healthmedicine101.com/index.php