Why I'm not listening about vaccines

I don’t claim to know the truth about vaccines. I am not a scientist, or a doctor, or a researcher of any kind. So far the available numbers overwhelmingly indicate that they do a lot of good. Would we be better off if we brought back polio? Do I even need to write it out? No.

Yet it keeps on coming up, even among people I’d otherwise thought of as intelligent. I’m getting tired of following up on these conversations, because the conversations themselves are simply tiresome. There’s never new information presented, and anyone who does not immediately accept the claims is dismissed as a stooge or a shill for whatever conspiracy there may be.

Because the people saying these things are friends and relatives and other people I respect, and more importantly because I care about learning what is and isn’t true, in the past I have listened, and followed links, and investigated research.

No more. Because I’ve done it too many times, and this is how it’s gone every time so far:

  1. Go to link of anti-vaccine site and collect the list of references (usually peppered through the text and not listed in a bibliography.)
  2. Follow those links, and the links on those pages, until I find the research that has been indirectly cited. This is a huge timesuck. Most often they are blogs linking to blogs linking to blogs linking to blogs linking to original research. Sometimes there is never a link but one can find a name associated with an original study.
  3. a. Examine the research and determine what, if any patterns can be discerned.
  4. b. Search for rebuttals.

Each time, one or more of the following has been true:

  1. The claims made in the blogs were not supported by the research the blogs cited because the author of the blog did not understand statistics or basic math.
  2. The claims made in the blogs were not supported by the research because the author of the blog failed to understand (or lied about) the means of collecting information.
  3. The claims made in the blogs were a distortion of the characterization made by a cited expert, eg «there are rare risk factors that people ought to be aware of» somehow becomes «researcher who invented vaccine says it should be banned».1
  4. The original research cited simply did not exist.
  5. Subsequent investigation showed that the researchers fraudulently falsified their results.

Hilarious example: not too long ago someone whose opinion I used to respect told me about how Gardasil is «killing our daughters». He helpfully provided research and analysis of the research. At first glance it almost supported the claims. The math wasn’t quite right but if you extrapolated the deaths from the study to the population being vaccinated the numbers were quite disturbing. The analysis claimed 40,000 deaths2, 140,000 adverse reactions, and cited a study comparing a claimed 1 in 912 fatality rate among persons taking Gardasil with a 1 in 40,000 cervical cancer death rate.

The cited research results3 show 40 deaths out of 29,323 study participants. That’s actually 1 out of every 733. Much more than 1 in 912! Either way, With 170 million doses4 having been administered5 that’s tens of thousands of people.6

However, this fails in a significant and obvious way: it counted all the deaths in the study, both of the people who were given the vaccine and those who were part of the control group and not given the vaccine.

«Well, OK,» concedes the friend. «So it’s only 21 of those 29 thousand. That’s one in about 1400.7 Isn’t that enough to make you angry, mister statistics?»

No. Well, yes, it is enough to make me angry, but no, just comparing the ones that died from one part of the study with the total of participants doesn’t tell us anything. You have to take a look at how many people who weren’t given the vaccine died, and use that as a baseline to see how many more people died from the group that took the vaccine. But, sure, look at the deaths per participant from one group, subtract the deaths per participant from the other group and still there was a higher death rate among the participants who had the vaccine.

So what that study shows is that 21 of 15,706 people given the vaccine died, and that 19 of the 13,617 who weren’t given the vaccine at all died. That’s 1 in 748 who were vaccinated and 1 in 717 of those who weren’t.

Now, finally, the antivaccinationist begins to think (semi)critically, because the very numbers he was using to support his argument are now showing that getting the vaccine prevents death. In desparation he points out that maybe some of those deaths didn’t have anything to do with the vaccine. This is a very important piece of the puzzle: only 13 of the 21 who received the vaccine died of medical causes. 6 of the 19 in the control group died of medical causes. 62% versus 32%! That’s a huge difference!

Close. What we want to do is not determine how many of the deaths were medically-related, but how many medically-related deaths there were in each group. The math is still pretty easy: 13 out of 15,706 (1 in 1208 or 0.08277%) and 6 out of 13,617 (1 in 2270 or 0.04406). That leaves us with a difference of 0.03871%, suggesting that an extra 1 out of 2583 people will die due to this vaccination.

Again extrapolate to the 57 million people who have been given this vaccine, and now we’re talking about an estimate of 22,000 people dead. My friend rightfully pointed out that 22,000 sets of grieving parents is too many—it doesn’t have to be 40,000 for us to be alarmed.

This is where two very important ideas come into play: statistical significance, and the non-synonymous nature of causation and correlation. The medical deaths were almost all from different causes: one case of pulmonary embolus/deep vein thrombosis8 two cases of sepsis, one case of pancreatic cancer, one case of arrhythmia, one case of pulmonary tuberculosis, one case of hyperthyroidism, one case of post-operative pulmonary embolism and acute renal failure, one case of traumatic brain injury/cardiac arrest, one case of systemic lupus erythematosus, one case of cerebrovascular accident,9 one case of breast cancer, and one case of nasopharyngeal cancer.

It seems absurd to suggest that Gardasil could cause a post-operative pulmonary embolism or a traumatic brain injury10. Accounting for that brings us under 15,000 deaths but more importantly illustrates that simply because something happens later than an earlier event it doesn’t mean that it was caused by the earlier event.

There is a certain amount of variability inherent in people’s lives; there will be differences between any groups even if you do your best to make each group match each other for risk factors and so on.

Nevertheless, just to arrive at some conclusions I’ll ignore statistical significance, if only to illustrate why ignoring statistical significance is dangerous.

When investigating the citations for the published claim that Gardisil is «killing our daughters» I found that the research data used to base that claim supports the following conclusions:

Subjects given the vaccine were 8.4% more likely (5/15,706 vs 4/13,617) to die in automobile accidents than subjects not given the vaccine.

Subjects given the vaccine were 346% less likely (1/15,706 vs 3/13,617) to die of gunshot wounds than subjects not given the vaccine.

So you should always weigh the risks. Gardasil causes diseases and car accidents, but you have to figure out whether it’s worth more than tripling your odds of dying of a gunshot wound.

Then the person whose opinion I once respected said, «I’m not giving that poison to my kid, and the government can’t make me do it.»

I’ve been through this process a half-dozen times. Each time, the research to follow up the claims made by someone pasting a URL into Facebook has taken four to six hours, and has proven if nothing else that the person posting didn’t bother to check any of the citations in the article they posted before insisting that the rest of us were sheeple for buying the lies.

Well, I’m sorry, but here’s the truth: if you believe everything you read on the Internet you are an idiot. If you never bother to check the facts on pages you repost to social media and insist are «the truth», you are a credulous idiot. And if you call others «blind» for not believing the stuff you didn’t bother to research in the first place, you’re an asshole.

That’s why I’m not listening any more.

If you have a study or actual data of some kind to cite, do it. If all you have is a link so some crackpot’s blog, well here you go. All you got was a link to this crackpot’s blog.

  1. Specifically the case of Dr Diane Harper comes to mind. Dr Harper is claimed to have broken down from guilt and admitted that Gardasil is a dangerous poison. Her actual comments don’t support that assertion. At all. ↩︎

  2. I don’t have the notes from going through this process back then, but http://www.thecommonsenseshow.com/2013/09/17/the-murdering-of-our-daughters/ is typical of the articles I was looking at then and any numbers here are taken from that article and research arrived at by following links from that article. ↩︎

  3. http://www.merck.com/product/usa/pi_circulars/g/gardasil/gardasil_pi.pdf ↩︎

  4. as of April 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/01/health/an-expansion-in-use-of-cancer-vaccine.html ↩︎

  5. Also note that the treatment regime is three doses. So lets call it 57 million, even though the same people will receive multiple rounds of vaccination in their lifetimes. ↩︎

  6. 1 out of 733 of 57 million people is 77 thousand; 1 out of 912 is 62 thousand people. ↩︎

  7. About 40,500 people dead according to this. ↩︎

  8. There was one of those in the control group, too. ↩︎

  9. That’s a stroke, for those of us who speak English. ↩︎

  10. Although I’m beginning to think that there may be a causal relationship between traumatic brain injury and arguing about vaccines. ↩︎