Saturday, 20 March 2010

Delusional disorder: Part I

So far, this year has been very good to those that support rationality and critical thinking. The anti-science crowd has suffered several setbacks in the past months. Mister vaccines-cause-autism, Andrew Wakefield, was exposed by the British General Medical Council (GMC) as "dishonest," "misleading" and "irresponsible," which resulted in the Lancet retracting his 1998 article which sparked more than a decade of fears for vaccination. Then, according to JURIST:
Three special masters sitting in the US Federal Court of Claims [official website] Friday rejected [opinions, PDF] three compensation actions brought in a coordinated omnibus proceeding [backgrounder, PDF; HRSA backgrounder] by families of autistic children who had argued that their children's autism was induced by vaccines containing mercury-laden thimerosol. The families had sought compensation under the no-fault National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program [HRSA backgrounder]. Special Master Patricia Campbell-Smith wrote that her petitioners had not "presented a scientifically sound theory", citing evidence that it was "biologically implausible." In February special masters in the same court rejected arguments [JURIST report] made in three other test cases against the US Department of Health and Human Services by families alleging that their children's autism was caused by a combination of common childhood vaccines.
Responding to the case Steven Novella observes:
This was a huge blow to the anti-vaccine crowd, and an excellent victory for science and reason. It was the equivalent of the Kitzmiller vs Dover trial for Intelligent Design.
His conclusion is:
This most recent decision by the Autism Omnibus is a slam dunk – after an exhaustive review of the evidence, allowing both sides to present their best case, the three masters are unanimous in their strong opinion that there is no evidence linking thimerosal to autism. They trashed every claim and argument brought forward by the petitioners – the logic and evidence simply does not support their case.
Normally, the fact that a major medical journal retracts the study that launched the infectious-disease-promoting-movement, combined with study after study refuting a reality denying view resulting in a verdict which emphasises the unscientific nature of the claims, one would think his supporters would re-evaluate their view and conclude it might not be compatible with reality. Not the anti-science crowd. Reminiscent of Hydra they are impossible to defeat. The loss of Wakefield inevitably results in a flood of ad hominems and attempts to discredit a real scientific study, through misrepresentations of how science works.

They focus on studies disproving a link between vaccines and autism. One of its authors, Paul Thorsen, allegedly committed a crime. The alternate reality inhabitants are oblivious to the inherent irony invoking his possible character flaw as evidence to invalidate scientific studies he participated in while ignoring the possible fraud by their Lord and Master. What they missed, according to Orac, regarding the irrelevancy of what a scientist does in his private life, is relevant how?:
Was there an allegation that somehow this alleged financial fraud had anything whatsoever to do with the design or excecution of Danish studies that failed to find a link between either MMR or thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism? Is there any evidence anywhere that Poul Thorsen committed scientific misconduct on the order of what Andrew Wakefield did? Seriously. I don't see anything in any of the number of vicious attacks on Poul Thorsen (who may or may not be a criminal), the SSI (which doesn't deserve them), or Aarhus University in Denmark (which also doesn't deserve them). It's a pure smear against these latter two institutions, guilt by association.
In other words, it's very typical of the anti-vaccine movement. The bottom line is that this is not a scientific scandal. It is a financial scandal that happens to involve a scientist.
In short:
  1. He is not the main author,
  2. Taking out one study does not negate the multitude of other studies showing the same thing: autism is not caused by vaccination,
But then again, when your belief is the sole arbiter of your worldview you are not interested in testing that premise. Rational people have an opinion based on the facts, while the anti-science crowd feels that the facts have to be adjusted to support their opinion.

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