As a scientist who spends a lot of her time engaging with public policy and the media, the anti-vaccination (anti-vax for short) is one of the few things that manages to exasperate me on a semi-daily basis. The main reason I have not covered much of its proceedings on this blog is simply because I am currently working as a cancer scientist and I believe that people who are currently researchers in immunology, virology, epidemiology and public health are most likely the best advocates for safe vaccinations in children all over the world. However, something truly exceptional happened last week that needed to be covered – for a matter of public record if not as a teachable moment of why non-scientists who engage in scientific policy need to do their homework before showing up to the dance.
This truly wondrous event started in a seemingly mundane and very non-extraordinary way: a group of scientists from the University of Washington published yet another study indicating that there is no correlation between vaccination and developmental deficits. There are countless primary research articles and meta-studies already pointing in this direction, which would make this particular study unremarkable in the least.
What makes it noteworthy is, however, that it was entirely funded by SafeMinds, a group that spends a lot of time and money lobbying against vaccination (I am not including their link to this article in the remote eventuality that any of my readers clicking on it makes them any money). The key refrain from any anti-vax group is that all of the countless studies that show vaccine safety in every possible model and demographic are, in fact, lies peddled by corrupt scientists who are secretly on the payroll of pharmaceutical companies. Of course, that’s ridiculous. In the immortal words of John Stewart, if scientists could be bought, Pharma companies would have already made it rain in nerd-town. Nonetheless, there are thousands of people in this country who genuinely believe that scientists and doctors in hospitals and universities are making a fortune falsifying data that shows that vaccines are safe.
It therefore made some sort of sense that SafeMinds funded a pilot study to look into vaccine safety. If the study was funded by SafeMinds, they imagined, it was by definition not funded by Big Pharma and therefore could be trusted. What’s more, they picked a lead researchers who had in the past already speculated that there might be a link between vaccines and autism. This was to address a second criticism frequently brought to vaccine-safety studies, which is concerned with the fact that researchers who have spent their whole lives trying to show that vaccines work might be too embarrassed to admit they were wrong. The pilot study showed what was a potential correlation between behavioral problems and vaccinations. The scientists, however, warned that it was meaningless because of the very small size of the study (which was not their fault, since they could only run a pilot study after all). Nonetheless, SafeMinds did not listen. like anyone who doesn’t understand science, they failed to understand the difference between a potential trend and a statistically significant correlation. They therefore chose to raise the further funds necessary to carry out the ful study, with a much larger sample size.
If you are not a scientist and are also confused about why sample size matters, here’s a quick way to get your head around it. Let’s say that you want to find out how tall the average American man is. If you get five random people off of the street and two of them just happen to be Shaq O-Neille and LeBron James, your average is going to be much much higher than what it should be because those two people skew your idea of the average man. However, if you call five thousands more people into the room and take them into consideration, your average is bound to go down and become a better representation of what the average male actually looks like. That’s because the more people there are in the room, the less each individual person matters. Same goes for studies of this type – if one primate has behavioral problems in a group of five, that is a big deal. If one primate has the same problems in a group of a hundred, they make less of an impact.
Long story short – the full study showed no correlation between behavioral problems and autism. And here’s the real kicker – SafeMinds will not accept this result. A result obtained by people they paid and selected. Of course they don’t have to – they are not scientists. They don’t have to care or understand empirical data. One would hope, however, that all hose well-meaning people who gave their hard-earned money to SafeMinds to show them an unbiased study on vaccination safety would finally come to their sense and see them for who they are: not scientists. Who ought to not be discussing science if they are not going to be playing by the rules.