Scientific orthodoxy is an oxymoron

I came to know about Dr. Malcolm Kendrick from his being attacked by the same trolls that attacked me (and that I am in the process of suing.) He describes himself as a “sceptic,” but it turns out that some kinds of skepticism are called, by believers in scientific orthodoxies, “denialism.”

In the name of “rational skepticism,” they attack anything that questions their beliefs, and I’ve been seeing this for years, often promoting “scientific positions” that I generally agree with, but with toxic argument, often severely ad hominem, and, themselves, pseudoscientific.

Hence these have been termed “pseudoskeptical,” the term first being used in modern times by one of my favorite skeptics, Marcello Truzzi.

Before I link to Kendrick’s post, I will point out that Kendrick expresses no opinion on the wisdom of vaccination or non-vaccination, he simply points to facts, and, as well, to the toxic treatment of anyone who questions what has become an “orthodox” opinion about vaccination, which I have also seen, and have pointed out in the past. Simply reporting in media that anti-vaccination opinions exist has been attacked, see my post, Astroturf or idiocy?

If we want public policy to be grounded in genuine science (don’t we?), it is crucial that scientific inquiry not be biased by reasoning from conclusions, by the emotional reactions that are actually not to fact, but to imagined conclusions from the examination of fact.

I.e., there are those who fear that if questioning the wisdom of requiring universal vaccination is allowed, or the questioning of claims as to the benefits of vaccination, people will not vaccinate, and, Millions of children will die! That is a hysterical reaction, and vastly exaggerated. Under some circumstances, non-vaccination may increase a risk, but how much? And mainstream opinion will not just vanish, if it is at all sound, and so most children will continue to be vaccinated, and so this imagined vast harm will not occur.

Science does not tell us what public policy should be. Rather, if used rationally, it can inform us as to probabilities and possibilities. If used under the domination of reactive psychology, it can lead us seriously astray, but that is not “science,” it is a social phenomenon that pretends to be scientific.

So, Kendrick. Enjoy.

My feelings about the vaccine debate


Author: Abd ulRahman Lomax


8 thoughts on “Scientific orthodoxy is an oxymoron”

  1. The vaccination debate is an interesting example where scientific facts hit both popular feelings and misconceptions, and societal good.

    Thus any speaking in public about vaccinations can have extraordinary effects. An obvious example being the (unevidenced) linkage of MMR to Autism that at the time severely reduced MMR take-up rate and now, may years later, is causing endemic measles in the population. Measles is a serious disease and serious illness or death can result from it.

    The moral and social issues here are peculiar. Suppose there is a very small risk of adverse reaction on being given a vaccination. If everyone else has vaccinations the disease will be effectively absent in the population and any advantage from being protected very small. Therefore it is selfishly optimal not to be vaccinated, as long as everyone else is. As soon as the level of vaccination decreases below 80% – 90%, whatever is needed to prevent spread in the population, the disease becomes much more prevalent and the much larger risks of harm from catching it dominate.

    In addition to the personal calculation, there is the moral one. It is profoundly bad for everyone to have immunisation levels low, because diseases then spread in the population and have adverse effect. Which makes the “immunisation is good” message pretty well a no brainer in terms of overall public good. Anyone not being immunised is creating severe risk for the whole population.

    This is the effect of individual decisions about to vaccinate or not to vaccinate.

    Now we must factor in popular feeling. Vaccination is a worrying process – giving your children an attenuated form of a sometimes deadly disease. It does have some side effects, usually very mild. It is highly technical and like all medicine exact effect is difficult to understand, and variable. So public worries about harm from immunisation are easily engaged. The MMR scare showed how easily a single maverick – scientifically wrong – could affect takeup rates and cause – 20 years later – very large harm to society.

    Personally I am all for exact transparency and honest scientific examination of all issues, no matter how difficult or emotive. But, in this case, public interventions of any sort that might cause a scare and reduce immunisation take-up are very likely to cause very major future harm (in the from of deaths and disabilities of children) many years hence.

    Our science students are now required to think about moral and ethical issues relating to science. This is one of them, and it relates not so much to what science is done but to how the results are communicated. The same work can be spun in many different ways, and medical studies in particular usually give very partial information. Careless presentation of such information, or careless advancement of specific low probability but interesting theories, can do great harm.

    Do I have a right to exercise free speech in a way that I know is likely to cause many others to die? It is one of those difficult moral problems. I’d take a middle view, and say that in any such area extreme tact and care is needed, and should be enforced inasfar as this is possible. Anything can still be said, so we are not actually preventing debate. But how things are said (in public) matters.

    1. THH – “An obvious example being the (unevidenced) linkage of MMR to Autism” may not be actually unevidenced. If you read the comments on Dr.Kendrick’s blog you’ll find that such evidence exists but has been somewhat suppressed. The problem is that every person is genetically different, and thus you don’t have the “normal” scientific method of being certain that thing a caused result b, but can only look at the statistics and make a good guess that will hopefully (mostly) be right. With that report in Lancet that over 50% of studies could not be replicated, medical science does not (and probably cannot) meet your high standards of provability.

      It remains that autism is now at a much higher incidence than it used to be before mass vaccination, and that diagnoses of autism have often been associated with the event of vaccination. Since I had Measles and Mumps when I was a kid (before the vaccines became available), and I was vaccinated against Polio and (IIRC, it was a long time ago…) Tuberculosis when young and a few other things later (Yellow Fever, Tetanus, and a few others) I obviously think that in general vaccination is a Good Thing, but I suspect that too many too fast when too young may not be. Based purely on precautionary principle, I’d thus want to leave kids to be somewhat older before starting vaccinations and to leave it longer between shots. Mostly, we could rely on the herd protection to stop the youngest (unvaccinated) kids getting the diseases, and of course vaccinate against the most dangerous ones first. As far as I can tell (personal experience) Measles and Mumps aren’t that bad (but sometimes kids die from them), and the main problem with Rubella is if you catch it during pregnancy (not a problem I’d have anyway) and so it doesn’t need to be vaccinated against that early.

      For the MMR/autism cases, it seems that the common factor for getting autism was a mitochondrial disease. AFAIK it’s not known if this mitochondrial disease was existent before the vaccination, whether it was a result of genetics, or whether genetics meant that the vaccine or its adjuvants caused the mitochondrial problem to appear. It’s the wrong response to assert that the science is settled and that there are no problems at all with vaccination. Possibly a test for the mitochondrial disease before vaccination would be all that is needed to eliminate the problem. Possibly not, if the vaccine causes that mitochondrial problem.

      There’s also the point that catching the disease may cause the same problem (autism) as is attributed by some to the vaccine. It’s thus possible that the kids who get some degree of autism from the vaccine could be the ones who would have had that problem if they had remained unvaccinated and instead caught the disease at that age. Unvaccinated, if they got the disease it would probably be later when the brain wasn’t growing so fast, and maybe the effects would thus be less. Again, we’re dealing with a large number of one-off experiments here, since with any particular person you can’t go back and try a different sequence of events and see what happens. It’s not really standard science since nothing is repeatable, although obviously people try to apply scientific principles.

      From the statistical point of view, vaccines are a success. It would thus be reasonable for a government to insist on children being vaccinated before going to school (and the corollary that unvaccinated kids would need home schooling). It would however be more useful if any problems were faced up to rather than there just being a blank assertion that there are no problems.

      There’s a new Ebola vaccine being tested in Africa. I figure it would be highly-demanded by people in general even if it had a known significant risk of greater than 1%, given that if you get Ebola then most of the time you die. As it happens, the risks of the vaccine aren’t yet known – we have to wait for data from the ground (how many people have problems or die from the vaccine), but I doubt if that would stop anyone in that area from having the vaccine if it was offered.

      It’s all really about relative risk factors. What’s the risk to me if I take the vaccine or if I don’t, and how does that risk vary depending on what the majority of people are doing? If vaccine take-up is low, and the risk of disease is high, and the risk of major damage or death from the disease is high, then I’d be a fool to not be vaccinated. On the other hand, if the risk of damage/death from the disease is medium, but it’s not that prevalent because most people are vaccinated, I’d get vaccinated for the public good to help protect those who can’t be. If the disease is very prevalent but the damage is low (such as the yearly ‘flu) I won’t get vaccinated, since I perceive more risk from the vaccine than the ‘flu itself.

      Having an autistic kid affects the whole family, and it now seems that around 1 in 70 kids is being diagnosed as such. Hard to compare these figures exactly with earlier results, of course, since there are various degrees of it and it’s likely being noticed much more than it used to be. Still, that’s really a very large number of people affected, and who need extra help with caring. Of course there would be legal problems if this was pinned on vaccinations, but I think it’s better to find out if there’s a problem and, if so, try to ameliorate it if we can’t fix it. You can’t fix the past, but at least you can try to fix the future.

    2. THH, you have mixed something up here. You ask “Do I have a right to exercise free speech in a way that I know is likely to cause many others to die?” That question is a red herring, because the answer is obvious: unless there is a greater good expected, no, of course not! But those questioning the wisdom of current vaccination practice do not “know” what you posit. Indeed, many of them believe the contrary, that present-day vaccination is doing more harm than good, actually causing more deaths than are prevented. What is the scientific reality? And how do we know it and recognize it?

      Essential to science is freedom of speech. Yet the “think of the children” argument is used to squash freedom of speech, on the argument that it is causing harm. What harm? Exactly what harm? (quantitatively!) The issues are quite complex, in fact, and there is disagreement among experts, and there are plausible claims that research and the interpretation of it has been affected by economic interests. If we want actual science-based medicine — as I do — , we must ensure that scientific process is not warped by politics and other irrelevancies. Part of academic freedom is the freedom to make mistakes without being pilloried, or, even more important, to be able to publish one’s findings without retaliation because what they imply is disliked.

      I’ve covered one case of a journalist who has been widely condemned because she reported on the controversy, not as an advocate for one side or another, but as a journalist. Precisely, she was condemned as irresponsible. “Children will die!!!”

      (Children will die if we are informed there is a controversy? Really? Big Brother will never allow that to happen.)

      1. Well, OK, I agree that those doing this will not think that. I think though my point is more about the issues here when there is some scientific uncertainty (as there always is) but the overall case is very strong in one direction, and where popular action will be influenced by popular reporting of the issue. In that case popular reporting tends to be inaccurate and can lead to poor decisions made by many in the population.

        In that case there is a good argument for what Simon notes: de-emphasising some aspects of the scientific debate in order to prevent erroneous and harmful popular reporting.

        If you say “MMR risks autism” it does not matter what the risk is. People will tend to avoid it, because they do not process risk. And in medicine pretty well anything can have some possible correlation with pretty well anything else when you look at low probability studies. Simon quotes anecdotal coincidence evidence – but that cannot be helpful unless compared statistically with expected coincidence. A lot of Autism is naturally diagnosed around a 1 year (?) window during which a lot of MMR vaccination happens. Given everyone has MMR, we get a 1 month coincidence 10% of the time, etc. Adjust the figures for a more accurate determination of the amount of coincidence you’d expect (I’m not sure about the 1 year window estimate).

        The scientific debate as to harm from MMR disease (given no herd immunity) and harm from MMR vaccine is clear. The vaccine harm is much much lower than the disease harm without herd immunity.

        1. THH – whereas the Hypocratic Oath is basically “do no harm”, the statistics that are gathered are about harm happening that might have been caused (possibly) by what the doctors have done. As you say, though, getting correlations can be very difficult, and being absolutely certain of anything in medicine is probably not possible (except of course that if you remove someone’s blood supply, then they’ll die).

          There’s a possible mechanism in the mitochondrial disease, and thus the reduction in ability to produce energy at what is maybe a critical point in brain growth. The study had the odd 10 kids so it’s hardly persuasive, but may be a pointer. I doubt if many people would be persuaded to change the way things are done based on such a small study. The sad thing is that you’d only get good data on that if you changed the timing of the vaccinations and showed that you then got fewer autistic kids. There’s of course also the possibility that you’d get more, or that no statistically-valid difference was seen.

          I agree that the (likely) harm from the vaccine is lower than the harm from not vaccinating, and that vaccinating reduces the overall risk by a lot. The question is really whether it’s possible to reduce that harm further by changing *something* (maybe formulation, maybe the age at vaccination, etc.). There’s also the possibility that changing what is done results in more harm. Unintended consequences…. Nobody will want to get the blame for making a change that proves to have been for the worse, maybe especially in the USA where the legal bill can be a major problem.

          If people really want to avoid vaccinating their kids, they of course have the option of going to another country or location where that is not legally required. They then have to face the realities of no herd-immunity and the very real risk of the disease having worse effects than the vaccination (though, as I said, I contracted both Mumps and Measles as a kid, and survived, and it wasn’t that bad except very boring staying in bed a couple of weeks). The varying effects of the disease on different kids implies anyway that the effect of the vaccination is likely to affect different kids differently as well. As always, there’s a genetic lottery involved that we don’t yet know enough about to know who is going to be hit badly.

          Medical stuff is always a risk, and deciding whether it’s less of a risk to do something than to not do it is always tricky. Get as much information as you can, decide which of it can reasonably be trusted, make the decision based on that, and then take the consequences. I think doctors should only be taken to court for obvious malpractice (as attested by their peers), and not when the known probabilities of failure happen to turn out badly. Nearly all of them do the best job they can based on the current state of knowledge, and there won’t be many who deliberately cause harm.

          As I found in my years in industry, the first step in solving a problem is to admit that there might be one. The possible MMR-vaccination/autism link is currently absolutely denied by the authorities, so if there is one it’s not going to get fixed. To me, it seems possible that there is some link, and that autism seems to be far more prevalent than it used to be. It seems that collecting more data about possible reasons for that would be useful, even though as I said the probability of harm is less by vaccination that by not vaccinating. Reducing the possibility of harm further can’t be a bad thing.

        2. For me, the political and social issues loom large. Who decides what and whom to trust? Who makes medical care decisions, i.e., who decides what advice to seek and respect and how and when to apply it? What has become clear is that this issue is heavily contaminated by economic and political forces. Spend some time reading what those who question contemporary vaccination practice are saying. Some of them are hysterical, but some are not. What I see in your comment is a set of assumptions that may not be solidly based.

          Consider this: there is a risk from vaccination. It is not zero. There is a risk from measles, as an example. It is not zero. Who balances these, who makes the decision for the individual? And the science on which medical recommendations are supposedly derived? Is that based in a system with full academic freedom? Or is some research suppressed for political reasons? Are economic forces involved?

          The issue gets complex because children are involved, but we depend heavily on parents to care for children and to make choices for them. Is it child abuse to not allow a child to be vaccinated? Should we remove custody of such children from their parents? Who is at risk from children not being vaccinated? The story is told as if that non-vaccinated child is endangering all the other children, but, wait!

          (I had a friend who died from polio. In about 1980. His child had been given Sabin oral vaccine. Rare, but it happens. Was he informed of risk? I don’t think so.)

          Are the other children vaccinated? Does vaccination actually protect from getting the disease? What is the level of vaccination required for “herd immunity”? Reports I’ve seen indicate that the strains of measles appearing are not wild measles, but the strains used for creating vaccines. Are these reports valid? Or are they fake news? Or have I misunderstood? And who decides?

          One of the dangers of knowledge is fascism. When we believe that we know better what is good for people than the people themselves, it is easy to fall into supporting coercive policies. In a field where I have much more knowledge (nutrition and health, and heart disease) there have many situations where “scientific consensus” was terribly off, probably causing millions of premature deaths, while contrary research and analysis was — and still is — suppressed because “people might follow bad advice.” It appears that the science behind vaccine safety was shortcut. One size does not fit all. People vary greatly in how they respond to an immune system challenge. I’m quite suspicious of the idea that vaccination causes autism. But, again, who decides? Who balances benefit and harm, and who suffers the most from making a decision that may not have been optimal?

          I have been very concerned about campaigns to denigrate journalists who simply reported fact, which I have seen. This is fascism, and eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

          1. Abd – I think my assumptions are logical, since if I thought they weren’t I’d change them. I can’t however be sure that I’m either in possession of correct information or that there isn’t data around I haven’t seen that would change my mind if I came across it. Some information has been suppressed in the past, and it’s thus pretty likely that some information is suppressed today. There’s a lot of fake news around, and I may not be able to recognise it as such. I’ve also become less certain that some conspiracy theories are actually wrong. Seems like we just need to accept that there’s uncertainty and make the best decisions we can anyway.

            Since I haven’t been that involved in the vaccination debate, the odd bits of information I’ve picked up over the years haven’t been bookmarked or saved, just lodged in memory as to basic details. The medical consensus view is that the MMR vaccine does not cause autism, and unless I’ve done the relevant work I generally accept the consensus view of the experts in the field. I have however read personal reports of people where their apparently-normal kid became autistic within months of the MMR injection, so there may be some fire under that smoke. However, THH notes that autism wouldn’t be looked for at the age before the vaccination and so that personal experience may have happened by chance, and the autism was actually unrelated to the injection, and of course this is a good point. The data really isn’t adequate to determine a causal relationship, and I think we don’t know why kids become autistic anyway. If we did, then maybe such a relationship could be established and we’d know one way or the other. Possibly that mitochondrial disease is such a reason (lack of energy production at a particular stage of brain development) but that would need research.

            The problem of whether a journalist is telling the truth or not, and whether any journalist should be suppressed, has become far more complex these days where anyone can effectively be a journalist and put their views and news on the net. It’s obvious that some people are having difficulty in publishing these days. Google, YouTube, Twitter, and others “defund” people they don’t like or shadow-ban them to stop others seeing what they are saying. Some of those people may be telling the truth about what they are seeing, others may be generating fake news, and we don’t know because we aren’t there to see the same things and because their voices are stilled anyway.

            Consensus views can be created pretty easily. Repeat a lie often enough and people regard it as the truth. This has happened throughout history (so unlikely to have ceased), but with the net it’s a lot faster. China seems to have a lot more censorship than the West, according to what I’ve heard, but of course I can’t be certain that those reports are true because I haven’t been there and talked to people on the ground. “Scientific consensus” can be quite easily generated, too. If you ask most people, you’ll see a consensus that the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is under threat and will die from climate change. Peter Ridd of James Cook University actually looked at it, though, and found that it was actually doing fine and that the reports of its demise were premature. He was sacked, and the legal proceedings are still in process though he did win the first round. If the coral was indeed as sensitive to temperature as implied, then considering the changes over the last 1000 years it wouldn’t be there today. There may be other reasons that some areas are having a hard time today, for example the poisonous effect of the sun-screen lotion used by all the visitors who dive down to see the GBR for themselves.

            With journalists (or bloggers) we need to decide on whether they are (a) telling the truth as they see it and (b) whether they are correct in what they say. Also of course the problem that they may not have seen all the data or all of the event, and that something else may have happened that they didn’t see, or that they have misinterpreted what they actually saw. Standard problem with eyewitnesses is that they normally disagree on what they saw when it comes to details.

            I found a lot in your comment that I strongly agree with and nothing I disagree with. I don’t have the answers to your questions, though. The perceived scientific consensus may be wrong in other areas than medicine, with one example being LENR. It takes a lot to shift a consensus once formed. In general, people don’t like to change “what they know is right” until the evidence is overwhelming that it isn’t right, and I think the vaccination/autism link will only be proved or disproved once there’s more data as to the causes of autism.

            1. I had in mind Sharyl_Attkisson, who is hardly a blogger, and then Gary Taubes (of Bad Science fame, as far as cold fusion is concerned). Taubes offended scientific orthodoxy by questioning what did, in fact, become widespread consensus on diet and heart disease and health, and he has been heavily attacked. Taubes is also a serious journalist, like Attkisson. Both of them have been misrepresented by enemies.

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