Vaccines and Autism: This is Starting to Get Really Weird

You know, I have very well developed ‘just stay out of it’ instincts – as a kid, older siblings would fight, people start yelling, and my self-preservation instincts kick in, and I whistle off into the corner and mind my own business.

Those instincts have failed me.

There’s just way way way way WAY too much (understandable) emotion running high in this issue. People are not rational. Even those trying to be rational are usually wrestling a tiger just off-stage. And I have tons of sympathy – If any of my kids were autistic, it would be really, really hard to be objective.

What I’m getting at: my feeble attempts to look at the evidence, look at the methods, and pronounce science or Science! on the web on this issue are so doomed. So, so, doomed. So, with any luck, this will be the last thing I’ve got to say on this topic.

Dr. Stacy Trasancos has responded to Dr. William Briggs’ analysis of Theresa Deisher’s paper on the link between vaccines and autism. I was struck by how little effect Dr. Briggs’ criticisms had on Dr. Trasancos take on the paper. In a very restrained and polite way, Briggs pretty much ran it through the wood chipper: in Aristotle’s famous phrase, her premises are false and her conclusions do not follow. So, he’s calling bad science on the paper. Politely, precisely, as a complete gentleman – but damning it nonetheless.

In my foolish hope to keep things cricket, I tried in the comments section to point this out very gently, as follows:

Thank you for this post, and for turning to Dr. Briggs for analysis. However, it seems to me that you missed a couple significant points in his criticism.

First off, I’m an educated layman – my first love, back in grade school, was science, but I pursued philosophy and a little math in college. So my understanding and analysis tends to be more conceptual than anything specifically related to the domain. I’m the anti-Bones: I’m a philosopher, not a doctor. And I’m a father of 5, so I get the importance of this question.

So: a key point in Dr. Brigg’s analysis is that the paper does not make a critical distinction between *incidents* of autism from *diagnoses* of autism. This is, in itself, a hopeless flaw – do not pass go, do not collect $200. One cannot conclude that the increase in diagnoses is representative (entirely, partly or even a little) of an increase in incidents. May be. May not be. One certainly can’t tell from this.

Yet, you repeat that claim – that incidents of autism are on the rise – here in this post. It may very well be true. But it may not. One would certainly never know based on this paper – no valid conclusions can be drawn from it one way or the other. That’s not good science.

Second, based on this paper alone, it is incorrect to say that Dr. Deisher is doing good science. This paper presents very poor science: good science doesn’t include the methodological problems and poor use of statistics present here, as Briggs explained. She may do very good science elsewhere, but not in this paper, based on Brigg’s analysis. Aside: the very poor quality of medical research in general is not an excuse for this – just because Dr. Deisher’s paper looks good in comparison does not make it good in itself.

This is getting long, sorry. Couple more things:

It’s pretty clear that there are really only two general approaches to answering the question: does vaccine X cause autism? 1: experiment on children (I’m against this); 2: select a large pool of people who are sufficiently homogenous in all ways except that some have taken vaccine X, some have taken some other vaccine, and some have taken no vaccine. Then establish a very specific consistent protocol for diagnosing autism, and have every person in the pool so assessed by a third (blind) party. Then check it out: do those in the group who took vaccine X have a higher incidence of autism, as diagnosed using a single consistent independent method, than those in the other groups? If so, there’s a correlation in the real world between autism and vaccine x. Causality could only be established once we have a tested theory, but the correlation alone would be enough for *me* to decide to not use vaccine X. Such a study would completely outweigh and obviate Dr. Deisher’s paper.

Saying “Wakefield was discredited” is like the British calling WWII “the late unpleasantness”. Understatement doesn’t do it justice. if I weren’t morally obliged to oppose the death penalty, I’d want him hung, drawn and quartered.

With all this in mind, this post still seems to have a bit of the ‘she’s a saint, therefore her science is good’ vibe about it – otherwise, why mention what a wonderful human being Dr. Deisher is? No doubt, she is wonderful – but if we’re going to discuss science, perhaps it would be best to leave such information out?

Thanks, keep up the good work.

Yep, I even threw in a ‘keep up the good work’ – I’m referring to the rest of her blog, the few bits of which I’ve read are, in fact, good work. But that was weaselly, in retrospect. The particular post to which this comment was appended wasn’t good work. It was actually kind of frightening, coming from a scientist.

Then, in the comments, Simcha Fisher rolls out the 75s and lays down withering fire.  I think the screen was smoking as I read it. And, in retrospect, she’s, well, right. What Dr. Trascanos is saying is an embarrassment to both science and Catholics: that criticism of the science needs to take into account who is making the claims, and if that person is good and on the right side, we cut them slack for their science.

It doesn’t get any wronger than that. Lysenko standing on his head.

A 75. Simcha rolled out several.

Now, off to whistle in the corner.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

16 thoughts on “Vaccines and Autism: This is Starting to Get Really Weird”

  1. fine commentary Joseph, I’m with you all the way. Until the Church turns on science we have to use the scientific method where it applies, or the evangelical atheists will be on our tail.

  2. No, it is helpful. Thank you, Joseph. (And Simcha linked to your page from FACEBOOK! You’re, like, a celebrity now or something! 😀

  3. My position is this: Deisher’s assumptions have been criticized in the scientific blogging community since oh, 2009.

    “Ugh. First off, this doesn’t make a lot of sense, strictly from the standpoint of a temporal correlation. After all, these cell lines were derived over 40 years ago. If there was a correlation between DNA from these cells in vaccines and autism (or any other of the problems blamed on vaccines), wouldn’t it have started decades before the early 1990s, which is the time anti-vaccinationists peg as the start of the vaccine-induced “autism epidemic.” It also doesn’t make a lot of sense from a genetic standpoint, either. The reason is simple. the genetic alterations that are associated with autism are not acquired. They are in the germline. Children have these genetic differences right from the time their parents’ egg and sperm unite to form an embryo. They do not acquire them after they are born, and it’s almost as improbable as homeopathy to think that somehow a tiny bit of DNA from a human cell line could somehow enter enouth cells and somehow recombine in these “hot spots” in such a way to affect the entire nervous system of the organism.

    Indeed, from a strictly physical standpoint, this is pretty ridiculous. Vaccines are injected intramuscularly, and any contaminating DNA that might be present doesn’t go very far. If it goes anywhere into the body, it’s the muscle cells nearby, which can take up DNA in a functional form. Indeed, I know this from direct experimental experience. Back when I was a graduate student, one of our projects was to inject plasmid DNA into rat muscle and determine whether we could get reporter gene expression appropriately regulated by the promoter controlling the gene. Finally, if Dr. Deisher’s saying that nanogram quantities of DNA can provoke a severe autoimmune response, she has to explain why this doesn’t happen every time a person undergoes significant trauma (i.e., as bad bruise) and releases DNA from his own damaged cells. If it’s because the DNA is foreign, then it doesn’t understand why this doesn’t happen frequently from the many viruses humans are exposed to each and every day or after a blood transfusion. Or what about childbirth? There is almost always some mixing of fetal blood with the mother’s blood upon childbirth, meaning that the mother is exposed to fetal DNA from white blood cells and monocytes in the fetal blood. Why is it that mothers don’t all get anti-DNA autoimmune diseases after childbirth?

    Such a linkage between DNA being introduced into the body and autism or autoimmune diseases is–to put it as politely as possible–pretty freakin’ improbable. No, it’s not impossible, but, as they say, some data would be nice. Given the improbability of the hypothesis, in fact, a lot of data would be nice. I suspect I will be waiting a long time.”

    (There were other similar critiques from science-based autism bloggers, but several of those blogs have gone dark.)

  4. In 2013, Theresa Deisher sought to have access to the Vaccine Safety Data Link. The request was denied, in an unusually frank opinion from the Vaccine Court Special Master: (VCSM). What follows is an excerpt from a longer post from LeftBrainRightBrain Autism, a science-based blog on things autism, written by Matt Carey PhD:

    “In a recent decision, the Court heard arguments that the information in the Vaccine Safety Datalink Project should be turned over to their expert, Theresa Deisher, for analysis”

    Quote from VCSM:

    “Petitioners seek access to data from the Vaccine Safety Datalink Project (hereafter the VSD Project) to allow their expert, Theresa A. Deisher, Ph.D., to conduct an original study comparing the rate of autism disorder incidence among children who received a particular vaccine, with the rate among children who did not receive that vaccine. As discussed more fully below, petitioners’ expert does not seek to study the MMR vaccine at issue in this matter, but rather the varicella vaccine.”

    “That last sentence is important. The Special Master points out the decision to research whether the varicella vaccine (chickenpox) is associated with autism for good reason. The petitioners are not arguing that the varicella vaccine caused their child’s autism. No, they argue that the child reacted to DNA in the MMR vaccine resulting in autism. So, how a study on the chickenpox vaccine would further their case is somewhat unclear. Why they are not asking for data on chickenpox is even less clear.”

    “The petitioners asked for $260,000 up front to fund the study. To my knowledge, the Court does not fund expert witnesses for efforts not yet performed. Aside from that fact, the Special Master noted that Theresa Deisher’s studies on the subject done to date were already funded.”

    Quote from VCSM:
    Dr. Deisher notes that this work was funded by the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust, Pet’rs’ Ex. 26 at 18, which according to information on Deisher’s CV, provided her with a $500,000 grant to study “Population, Bioinformatics and In Vitro Studies into the Relationship between Residual Human DNA Vaccine Contaminants and Autism.” Deisher’s CV at 3. Dr. Deisher’s inability to produce a paper of publishable quality, after receiving a substantial grant, does not lend support to petitioners’ claim that she is capable of competently leading a study.

    “Yes, half a million dollars so far with no papers published. A manuscript was submitted to Autism Research and rejected. My guess is that the manuscript will soon be submitted to a journal (there are those which will welcome this). Or, one of these journals will seek out Ms. Deisher for her work (I could easily see this being published in a certain Polish journal, for example).”

    “One can apply to gain access to the VSD databases. However, Ms. Deisher has not attempted to access the data in this way, opting instead to gain access through a court order.”

    Quote from VCSM:
    As discussed in more detail later in this Order, petitioners acknowledge that Dr. Deisher has not followed the CDC’s usual Data Sharing application process and that she has no intention of doing so.

    “She did, however, apply for an NIH grant to perform this research. The petitioners claim that the controversial nature of the study resulted in it not being funded. The referee reports, however, were clear that the planned study was weak and Ms. Deisher’s skills were not strong in epidemiology and statistics (among other weak points).”

    Quote from VCSM:
    Although petitioners make assertions to the contrary, the evidentiary record before the undersigned contains a withering assessment of Dr. Deisher’s ability to competently lead the proposed study. Petitioners here seek extraordinary relief, and the undersigned is reluctant to substitute her scientific judgment for that of the NIH reviewers—a panel of Dr. Deisher’s peers—who have found her proposed study to be critically deficient. In the undersigned’s view, the NIH reviewers’ comments merit weighted consideration.

    “Withering assessment”.

    The special master also notes that the request for data from the VSD exceeds the data needed to do the proposed study.

    Quote from VCSM:
    The petitioners do not limit their data request to information that is needed for the study they propose:

    Despite the stated limits of her study, petitioners’ request for production from respondent and the MCOs lacks correlative limits for patient age and injury. Instead: petitioners seek authority to issue subpoenae to compel [respondent and the MCOs] to grant the petitioners full and unrestricted access to all data collected by the respondent within the VSD related to the administration of vaccines, and the occurrence of neurodevelopment and other disorders from the inception of the VSD to date.

    “Which, in my opinion, points to this as a fishing expedition. An attempt to gather any and all data and test multiple questions later–with the probability of a chance “hit” going up with the number of questions tested.”

    “Since the Special Master did not grant access to the VSD, the funding request was also denied.”

  5. I am keeping up with the critiques (only) of the Deisher paper (and previous critiques of Deisher’s ideas about vaccination and autism) at my blog. Usually I do lists of posts critical and posts favorable, but with the Deisher paper…well the posts favorable all seem to be based in emotion and I have run out of the desire to keep up.

    I’ll be adding this post in a bit; stand by.

    1. Wow, you are really on top of this. I’ll check it out when I get a minute.

      Here, since I’m not a scientist, I focus on methodological and philosophical issues. Sadly, most medical research that makes it out to the public (I depend on the google science news feed for my news) has problems obvious to the educated layman. It would be nice if this paper by Dr Deisher was an outlier in terms of quality, but it seems, while perhaps a bit more extreme than most, not all that outrageous in comparison.

      I hope there’s a whole bunch of good science being done that just doesn’t make the news. Otherwise, we’re so doomed.

  6. It is really good to see other Catholics being able to recognize that this is fundamentally not a sound paper. Thanks for being willing to engage in the hard work of policing our own.

  7. When I said “I’m with you all the way”, I should have excepted the comment about Stacy Trasancos “being an embarrassment to both science and Catholics”. That was a bit harsh, and I think a gentler way of putting it might have been found.

    1. Just the other day, we were sitting in parent orientation at TAC, when a mom decided to pitch for no cell phones on the premise that she and her sons were very sensitive to radio waves, and that the rest of us were just unaware of how damaging those radio waves could be.

      I was embarrassed for her. If she were self-identified as a Catholic and a Scientist, I would have been embarrassed for Catholicism and Science as well.

      Note that this in no way implies that she was anything other than a wonderful mom and wife and devote Catholic, kind to children and pets, and the life of any party, all of which I would readily assume in the face of no evidence to the contrary – and all of which just happens to be irrelevant to the point being made.

      As professor Digory says: what *are* they teaching in schools these days?

    1. This reminds me of the medieval arguments about the Pope in his various roles, in which it was argued that, if the Pope were to take up arms as a secular prince, a Catholic could in good conscience fight against him with everything he had, yet, if that same Pope were to make judgements about faith and morals, you’d be obliged to at least respectfully listen. That ‘always distinguish’ thing the Dominicans were always going on about.

      Put on the Sacred Lab Coat of Science, and one set of rules of engagement obtain; take it off, and another set comes into effect. Judgements made in one realm have no bearing on judgements made in the other. Thus, Newton was a snob and jerk, but holds the pinnacle of science. In the same sense, it is to be expected that wonderful, loving human beings will be stone wrong about science – happens all the time.

      1. As you point out, character and scientific ability do not always go hand-in-hand. Einstein may have abandoned his first wife, and Schrodinger was a reputed womanizer (story has it that he conceived the Schrodinger equation while on an idyll with a lady not his wife). Heisenberg acquiesced to the Nazi regime, and so it goes.

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