Anti vaccine activists are angry about a new study…and they didn’t even bother to read it

14 Mar

This is a big piece of what the “vaccines-cause-autism” idea is built on. Really bad analyses. Another study shows up showing that vaccines don’t cause autism. People immediately jump to give talking points to their community: “ignore this study! In fact, it’s just another conspiracy to defraud you!!!!!”*

But they know from history, their community doesn’t check. They don’t test whether the talking points hold up. Either that, or they really are this bad at simple math.

One reason I slowed down a lot on writing debunks of the “vaccines cause autism” community is that it’s very repetitive. It only takes a few minutes to see where they make their mistakes. I admit, I have the training and the time to do that checking, but it leaves me wondering. As in, it’s hard to not ask: “are they really this bad at science? Are they so biased they don’t know they are wrong? Or, are they lying?” I don’t know. What matters most is they are wrong. I am grateful that I had the time to spend checking their claims and was able to not get sucked into that world.

That intro aside, there was a recent study that, once again, shows that the MMR vaccine doesn’t increase autism risk. 21 years since Wakefield’s junk study and we are still spending time and money countering his misinformation. When you look at what the autism community needs, it’s just sad to see resources used this way. But I get it. The anti-vaccine community is doing real harm (note the rise in measles in the US and elsewhere). But, dang, I’d like more work done to help my kid.

So, what’s this new study? Measles, Mumps, Rubella Vaccination and Autism: A Nationwide Cohort Study. With the conclusion:

The study strongly supports that MMR vaccination does not increase the risk for autism, does not trigger autism in susceptible children, and is not associated with clustering of autism cases after vaccination. It adds to previous studies through significant additional statistical power and by addressing hypotheses of susceptible subgroups and clustering of cases.

Thanks for doing this, but, again, the results are not surprising in the least.

Naturally this brought about a big response from the anti-vaccine community. The go-to place for defense of “vaccines cause autism” used to be the Age of Autism blog. I went there and found they just recycled a piece from a guy named James Lyons Wieler. Apparently he was once a scientist, but he now seems to be a guy asking autism parents for money to write bad articles about how vaccines cause autism. In this case has found the “Smoking Gun” for why the MMR study is so wrong.

(1) The smoking gun is the study-wide autism rate of 0.9-1%. The rate of ASD in Denmark is 1.65%. Where are the missing cases of ASD? Given past allegations of this group’s malfeasance and fraud, the rest of the study cannot be accepted based on this disparity alone: the study group is not representative of the population being studied.

Clearly they must be fudging the data!!!!!

This appears to have become the talking point that the anti-vaccine community is passing around. It was picked up by Brian Hooker. He wrote “A Scientist’s Rebuttal to the Danish Cohort Study“:

1. Children were notably missing from the study sample:

First and foremost is the underascertainment of autism cases within their data sample. The study authors used Denmark population registries of children born in Denmark of Danish-born mothers which should reflect the current reported autism incidence in Denmark at 1.65% (Schendel et al. 2018, JAMA). However, the autism incidence within the sample of the Hviid et al. paper is 0.98%, meaning that approximately 4,400 autistic children are missing from this study. The authors do not discuss the discrepancy in the number of cases.

Again, his number 1 point, the missing children!

Even JB Handley (remember him? Yes, he’s back) wrote about this. Focusing his whole piece on this “missing” group in the MMR study: New Danish MMR study shows autism rate of 1 in 100—CDC should rush to Denmark!

2. The most compelling data in the study will never get covered: why is the autism rate in this study only 1 in 100?

Here in the U.S. we’re at 1 in 36! Shouldn’t CDC researchers rush to Denmark to figure out why their autism rate is so much lower than ours? For every 1,000 Danish kids, only 10 have autism. But here in the U.S., we have 28 per 1,000, that’s 177% more autism! I thought Paul Offit wanted everyone to believe the autism rate was the same everywhere? What gives?

Hold on to your seat, Handley. It’s about to get discussed.

I had thought I’d take the easy route and just email the study author for an explanation. That could have answered the big question for Handley, Weiler, and Hooker. But that would take a day or two to get a response from Denmark. Why not just, you know, read the paper? Or, just the introduction?

Under the “Abstract” section of the MMR paper, which has the “missing” autistic kids and a lower prevalence rate:

Participants: 657 461 children born in Denmark from 1999 through 31 December 2010, with follow-up from 1 year of age and through 31 August 2013.

Under the methods section for the earlier Denmark paper, which has the higher prevalence rate:

All live births in Denmark between 1980 and 2012 were identified in the Central Person Register and followed through 2016 for an ASD diagnosis

It’s not that hard to compare the two studies.

One study looked at Danes born from 1999 to 2010. And took data from 2013. This is the MMR study.

The other study looked at Danes born from 1980 and 2012. And took data in 2016.

Apples, meet Oranges.

Seriously, people are surprised that they came to different answers as to the overall prevalence? I mean, this is your “smoking gun”? This is the best the “vaccines cause autism” community can do? If nothing else, one study took data later than the other. You are the “it’s an epidemic!” team, surely you accept that the autism rate is higher in the later dataset.

But, hey, this didn’t take the full 5 minutes I allocated to check the claims of this “smoking gun” against this new study. I still had 4.5 minutes.

So, let’s see if the data really are compatible. Can we take the data from the prevalence study and get the same number as in the MMR study? Yes, I’m a geek and this is what I do. But we just saw that 2 Ph.D.’s (Hooker and Wieler) and a business guy (Handley) didn’t think to do that. Is it really that hard? (I do wonder how Handley made money. Seems like he must have relied on someone else to do the numbers.)

I just wrote about the autism prevalence study: Yes, there are a lot more adult autistics than commonly thought. The real question is what we do with this information. I have the graph from the prevalence study, so I ran the numbers quickly. If we limit ourselves to the autistics in the MMR study (born 1999 to 2010) and take data in 2013, we get a prevalence value of 1.02%.

1.02% using the prevalence study. Compared to 1% in the MMR study.

They are the same. No “malfeasance”. No “fraud”. No “discrepancy”. And, Mr. Handley, no evidence you can use to blame the HepB vaccine for autism.

Now for the dull part. Here’s my math.

Step 1: I digitized the graph. The red points are where I took prevalence data from the graphs. Each line represents 2 birth years, so I took points where for the age of the average kid in each cohort in 2013.

Here’s the summary table from those data points.

I did this fast. Let me know if I made a mistake. That’s why I’m showing my work. It’s not precise because, well, it’s done by hand. Also, there’s the fact that the MMR paper was for kids born from 1999 to 2010. The prevalence study has kids grouped by 2 years. So I have data for 1998-99 where I only really want 1999. It’s good enough. The “age in 2013” is what the digitizer gave me for the datapoint positions I chose. I can’t get exactly, say, 10.5. But, again, it’s good enough.

Anyway, there’s no “smoking gun” as James Lyons Weiler says. There aren’t children “notably missing” as Brian Hooker claims. And the “most compelling data” according to JB Handley is just that he can’t read a scientific paper.

This is a big piece of what the “vaccines-cause-autism” idea is built on. Really bad analyses. Another study shows up showing that vaccines don’t cause autism. People immediately jump to give talking points to their community: “ignore this study! In fact, it’s just another conspiracy to defraud you!!!!!”*

But they know from history, their community doesn’t check. They don’t test whether the talking points hold up. Either that, or they (people like Handley, Hooker and the rest) really are this bad at simple math.


By Matt Carey.

*Yeah, you guys are pushing a conspiracy theory. I know you like to say “oh, he called us conspiracy theorists, therefore we don’t have to listen to him.” Surprise me. Grow a backbone and defend the points in this commentary rather than either (a) ignoring it or (b) dismissing it because I pointed out that you are claiming scientists conspired to fool the world.

14 Responses to “Anti vaccine activists are angry about a new study…and they didn’t even bother to read it”

  1. doritmi March 14, 2019 at 18:03 #

    Thank you.

  2. Scientistabe March 14, 2019 at 18:19 #

    Reblogged this on The Blood-Brain Barrier Scientist.

  3. Sullivan (Matt Carey) March 14, 2019 at 22:29 #

    I read through the comments on James Lyons Weiler’s blog post. There’s a guy named Peter who was trying to get Lyons-Weiler to look at exactly the issue I bring up above. But Lyons-Wieler couldn’t understand the point. Here’s part of that discussion.

    Whatever the reason, he’s just not very good at this. (this being science, logical thinking, simple math…)

    • vaccinesworkblog March 15, 2019 at 03:38 #

      I have had a pet theory for a few years now that James is suffering from some health issues which affect his ability to work and think clearly. I could be wrong but this would explain his deteriorating ability to grasp logic. Makes me feel sorry for him.

  4. Sullivan (Matt Carey) March 14, 2019 at 23:11 #

    And more from Peter. He makes clear and repeated attempts to show Lyons-Weiler his mistake.

    Lyons-Weiler again fails to understand a simple concept or take the time to do a simple check. He’s comparing numbers from two very different groups and acting surprised (maybe it’s not an act–maybe he really just can’t understand such a simple concept) that the values for the autism prevalence in those groups is different.

    Peter, you are a patient man. But it’s hopeless. Yes, Lyons-Weiler is comparing apples and oranges. And Lyons-Weiler 100% wrong. This is why I went into such detail above.

    You compare two different groups and you get two different numbers. Pretty simple. But, I went even further–make the valid comparison, and you get the same number.

    The sad thing is that the anti-vaccine community doesn’t care. For all their talk of “doing their own research”, they don’t question when one of their people make a claim. There are probably many reasons for this, but the fact is that people like Lyons-Weiler, Handley, Hooker (and many more) get away with spreading misinformation because they have a community that is perfectly willing to repeat what they say without taking the time to do any analysis.

    Yes, there’s a huge irony in this. But this also shows why it is so hard to counter this misinformation. Good information can only go so far. There is a small core of people who put out really bad information. They Lyons-Weiler’s, Hooker’s and Handley’s of the world. It doesn’t matter whether they believe it or not, whether they are lying or not. What matters is that the information is wrong. Demonstrably wrong. It’s bad information that leads to bad decisions. A few people giving out bad information is not so bad, but there’s a larger group of people willing to accept the message and amplify it.

    Many people don’t have the time and resources to check on claims like the ones above. They just see a lot of people claiming “there’s fraud and malfeasance in vaccine research” and they get understandably cautious. And this is where the real harm comes from to the broader community.

    Of course, within the autism community, there is even greater harm. The message of guilt and shame that the anti-vaccine movement (both those who are autism parent and those who are not) spread with the vaccine-causation message is one of the worst things to happen since the days of Bettleheim and the refrigerator mother theory. It’s extremely damaging.

    • doritmi March 14, 2019 at 23:12 #

      Peter is, indeed, very patient.

  5. vaccinesworkblog March 15, 2019 at 03:39 #

    Well done and I especially appreciate a really good graph. Thanks!

  6. Mary March 15, 2019 at 04:31 #

    I shared information from this study (in a New York Times article mind you) and let me tell you the anti-vaxxers had a field day. A normal human being would feel relief knowing that yet another study shows that the link doesn’t exist. Here’s what I got
    1) The study must be wrong because it took place in Denmark. Vaccines don’t cause autism in Denmark but they must in the US because of pollution. Of course I dug up some facts and figures there and explained how to do a controlled experiment.
    2) The creators of the MMR vaccines sponsored the study (no they didn’t). I had to give a history lesson there.
    3) Then it became the people doing the research develop and study vaccines and must be bias. I had to then explain to them why you would want scientists who study vaccines to conduct a study on vaccines.
    4) Big pharma is trying to kill us all. Conspiracy theory.
    Thank god I am a trained social scientist and was able to show how idiotic their statements were. But it was exhausting because I used data and facts from reliable sources to prove them wrong. When they realized that they weren’t going to be able to use their bullshit and pseudoscience past me (I’m very good at logical reasoning and seeing through bullshit and can pretty much make everyone who is stupid sound stupid) they started to attack me personally. That’s when I had to draw the line and block these people and then delete the article. It’s just so sad because I have friends or are having kids and they are being exposed to junk science all the time whereas people like me who have a genuine interest in sharing reliable information get personally attacked and want to stay away. I’ve never commented on an anti-vaxxers thread only on my own page. These people are nuts. I’m sorry I hope you all keep fighting the good fight but I don’t have the energy for it. It’s beyond lunacy.

    • Sullivan (Matt Carey) March 15, 2019 at 18:47 #

      These people are not “nuts”. They are wrong. Many of these people are quite bright. Being smart, being educated doesn’t protect one from being wrong. From being fooled.

      I don’t appreciate using the term “nuts” here.

  7. louveha March 15, 2019 at 10:15 #

    I also read “The study has other major flaws as well, such as only (again) studying MMR so we’re looking at the effects of one vaccine.”
    I hate this new AV talking point. “They say vaccines are safe but they only studied MMR and thimerosal, not every ingredients in every vaccines in every schedules !!!”
    aka “Waaaaah, they are not studying what I want them to study.”
    Totally discounting the fact that the MMR and thimerosal hypothesis were originally the most well known, and are still in the mind of enough people. That’s why there are still studies on it.
    It makes me think of another thing, but it is horribly disparaging towards parents, especially when expressed bluntly, without boatloads of tact :
    “Look. 20 years ago, we listened to people who were oh so certain that their child suddenly changed when injected with MMR / thimerosal containing vaccines. Several serious studies have been done, with negative results.
    So, now that you are claiming that your child changed after too many vaccines / aluminium-containing vaccines, why should we study this, so that 1-2 generation later, other people blame something else in vaccines and claim that our research is only deflecting attention from the real problem ?”
    It’s sad, because I think it damaged the credibility of autism parents, when it was beginning to heal from the old “refrigerator mothers” days, when it was systematically discounted.

  8. Tin Foil Awards April 10, 2019 at 21:51 #

    Too bad the anti-vax crackpots won’t read this article, either…

    • Sullivan (Matt Carey) April 10, 2019 at 22:33 #

      It wouldn’t matter if they did.

      James Lyons-Weiler is too obtuse to accept that he can be wrong. As demonstrated by his responses to Peter on his site, and his comments years back here (and many places elsewhere).

      People like JB Handley are far too political to let go of a talking point. Further, Handley is of the mindset that admitting mistakes and/or making apologies makes him appear weak. Sad, really. It’s quite the opposite. Avoiding clear mistakes takes the sort of courage people like JB only dream about. But JB has learned that his followers accept bluster in place of courage or competence.

    • Sullivan (Matt Carey) April 10, 2019 at 22:36 #

      I will note that I am not fond of “crackpots” or “tin foil”. People like Handley and, I guess Weiler, are quite bright. They are wrong. Seriously wrong.

      But they believe that in order to be wrong they must be “crackpots”. Or they must be “stupid”. And that makes them targets for charlatans, and their own hubris.

      • Chris April 11, 2019 at 03:18 #

        They seem to be prime examples of motivated reasoning, and believing their own publicity with a touch of victimhood tossed in. I cannot be sympathetic to them when they spout all sorts of nonsense that endangers vulnerable populations.

        I confess years ago I did have some fun at Handley’s expense when he was promoting Rashid Buttar’s topical chelation cream, I could not resist calling it Buttar Cream. But I now know there is no way to reason with Weiler, Handley and others. So I have stopped trying.

        I just do the ultimate “JAQing off” by asking some questions to those who try to “enlighten” us on ScienceBasedMedicine and elsewhere. I know I won’t get an answer, I just want those who are on the fence to have something to think about. Things like why did no one notice a rise in autism in the USA in the 1970s/1980s way before the UK started using several MMR vaccines, and why would it be cheaper to let kids get sick instead of preventing diseases (usually when vaccines are supposed to be a big money maker).

        The latter is more important now as kids are now getting hospitalized with measles, and one little boy’s life was saved from tetanus at the cost of almost a million dollars: https://www.oregonlive.com/clark-county/2019/03/rare-case-of-oregon-tetanus-required-care-of-100-doctors-nurses.html

        And still, the parents refused catch-up vaccines.

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