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SASHA blog reader Cynthia Parker posted this comment (see below) in response to a previous post. Although she was responding to my mother (cancer researcher, hematology/oncology clinician, professor of medicine, and 2002 ACP Laureate Mary Muscato, MD, FACP), since Parker posted her comment here on our blog, I have taken the liberty of responding myself for the time being, and will ask Dr. Muscato to draft her own response soon.
Cynthia Parker’s comment:
December 16, 2011 at 7:11 pm
Thank you for your comment. I have a few observations, and a few questions:
1) “All of these studies which you say exonerate vaccines from causing autism were funded by pharmaceutical companies.”
Where the funding comes from is irrelevant unless you have solid evidence that the scientists are fudging their data, which is a very serious accusation. Although ideally, funding for studies should come from an independent source, it is totally legitimate to have drug companies fund studies to test the efficacy and safety of their products. The protocols and research themselves are under strict FDA approval and supervision, and the results are peer-reviewed and double-checked against data from other studies as well before they can be published in journals and used to back up or discredit any conclusions. In logic, attempting to discredit data in this way is a type of ad-hominem attack called ad hominem circumstantial:
and is fallacious.
Unless you have some solid evidence that the data have been falsified, it’s not enough to suggest that the studies cannot be trusted because the studies are funded by drug companies, any more than it would be appropriate for a prosecutor to say to a jury, “Don’t listen to the defense attorney; he’s being paid by the defendant!” – Of course that’s who’s paying for it; they’re the ones with a stake in it, to make sure it’s done right in the first place. That in no way suggests that the professional in question would be willing to risk losing his or her license or reputation for the sake of one specific case (or study).
I know a lot of scientists who would be (rightfully) horrified that you would make such an accusation against their professional integrity without presenting any evidence, and I know a lot of scientists who would be (rightfully) horrified that you would accuse researchers of being so cavalier about public health and the priority of the greater good. What is your evidence that these researchers have anything other than the interests of public health as their highest priority? While they do get paid for their work, trust me, there is not a lot of money in this type of research, and they have a lot to lose if they falsify and/or fail to be extremely thorough in their data – not to mention that it’s very difficult to do, seeing as that’s the purpose of peer review in the first place.
Vaccine studies take years and dealing with government bureaucracies requires a lot of patience and a lot of paperwork. Research scientists generally go to school for about 4-6 years after college (and have the student debt to show for it) before expecting to make any kind of major breakthroughs. A quick Google search and a quick informal survey of some scientist friends suggests that researchers can expect to earn somewhere between $40-60k/year for their work (many supplement their income by teaching or doing clinical work, especially if they also went to medical school, which describes my parents & the other doctors in their office). It’s not like they’re “selling out” to the big, bad drug companies!
All the data I’ve seen would seem to indicate that you’re promoting a conspiracy theory.
2) “Hundreds of thousands of parents, including me, say that their children became autistic or developed bowel disease shortly after getting the MMR or hep-B vaccines, sometimes after DTaP.”
Source? 20% of Americans can’t correctly identify the United States on a world map, believe witches are real, and think the Sun revolves around the Earth, too, you know. I wouldn’t trust “hundreds of thousands of parents” to tell me whether or not rain is wet!
There is more to establishing a correlation than parents making some claim, especially if they are looking for someone to blame or to be held accountable for a very unfortunate and terrible circumstance like an autistic child. And again, even if there is a correlation, that does not imply causation. As the previous post pointed out, linking cause & effect is a delicate process. There must be statistical significance, and even then, a link is only stated to within a certain confidence interval. This is Stat 101. The question is not simply how many parents believe their children developed autism or bowel disease following these vaccines. You also have to take into account other possible causes, as well as how many children do not develop autism or bowel diseases following the vaccinations. If it’s a very rare occurrence – say, many millions upon millions of vaccinations with no issues, and a few cases with alleged side effects that may-or-may-not be linked at all – it’s more likely that there is some other influencing factor that they all have in common besides vaccination, or even just plain coincidence.
I don’t know how old you are, but you may remember the polio & ice cream scare in the 1940s. In the days before Salk invented the polio vaccine in 1955, public health officials noticed that polio spread much more readily during the summer. They looked at other factors that increase significantly during the summer months to see if anything correlated, and found that ice-cream consumption was highly correlated with polio cases. Public health officials even went so far as to recommend against children eating ice cream (much to the dismay of dairy farmers, ice-cream companies, soda fountain owners, and children everywhere) as an anti-polio measure on account of this correlation. This sounds silly to us today, given that we understand how polio really spreads. But with 3,000 reported deaths at the height of the outbreak in 1952, people weren’t taking any chances. As it turned out, the reason polio spread more in the summer is simply because more children spent more time playing with their friends instead of cooped up (in isolation) at home, and like any virus, polio simply had more opportunities for transmission when people were in physical contact with each other. The ice cream, it turned out, had nothing to do with it.
The difference between the polio/ice-cream scare and the anti-vax conspiracy theory is that with the polio/ice-cream scare, the worst that happened is economic consequences: Some ice cream companies & dairy farmers went out of business, and children “suffered” through an ice-cream-free summer or two. The sad part is, this distraction may have delayed finding an actual cure, because research time, money, and effort was redirected toward spreading the word about the “dangers” of ice cream, rather than finding the real culprit.
Your efforts against vaccination are much worse than children simply going without ice cream and a few dairy farmers having a meager quarterly profit margin. Because most parents have no training at all in statistics, and because statistics can be counter-intuitive, people will listen to just about any conspiracy theory presented to them when their children’s health is brought up. But like I said, it’s worse than just denying your kids ice cream: Children are getting diseases that public health officials are dismayed to see back in circulation, after we thought we’d effectively wiped them out– diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, and yes, polio too. The fact is, anti-vax kills.
3) “ The Merck Manual states that vaccination sometimes causes encephalitis and subsequent autism.”
4) “The Manitoba study published in 2008…”
5) “M.A. Miller published a study in Pediatrics 1995 (4) proving that babies given the pertussis vaccine at the standard age of two months develop no antibodies at all to pertussis.”
What’s the (4) in the middle of your sentence there? Are you copying/pasting this from somewhere? Could you link me to it, please?
6) “I have a law degree and a Ph.D., and a vaccine-damaged child, and I, unlike you, have no financial or professional stakes in promoting the standard vaccine schedule.”
Did/does your law practice specialize in medical malpractice or public health, etc, and/or is your PhD in public health, statistics, epidemiology, etc? If not, I don’t see the relevance, and this would seem to be an example of the logical fallacy called an argument from authority. Not all appeals to authority are fallacious, but if the expert in question is credentialed in an unrelated field, it’s a big tip-off. You see this sort of fallacy commonly among Young-Earth creationist debates – for example, they will often call upon the “expert” testimony of engineers, mathematicians, or (in the case of the Dover trial) even sociologists, conveniently ignoring what experts in truly relevant fields such as geology, evolutionary biology, cosmology/physics have to say about the matter.
In your May 1 article, you stated:
Most cases of autism in the United States today are caused by vaccines, especially those for hepatitis B, MMR and DTaP.
May I see your source for this? That’s an incredibly bold claim and I would expect you to have rock-solid data backing it up if you’re going to publish it in the newspaper, especially in a guest article (and not just a letter-to-the-editor).
On a side note, I’ve been meaning to ask, are you the same Cynthia Parker who teaches in the romance language department at Mizzou? Though we may disagree about vaccination, I want to say that I admire your academic contribution there – I’m minoring in Latin myself.
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Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.
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