I was in my car yesterday listening to C-SPAN (yes, I do that sometimes), when to my stunned surprise I heard Congressman Dan Burton launch into a diatribe on how mercury in vaccines causes autism. No, this was not a replay of a recording from a decade ago. The hearing was held just a few days ago by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
That doesn’t stop this kind of thing from our elected officials:
Burton* himself was the worst offender, offering anecdotes and bad science with an air of authority. He stated bluntly:
“I’m convinced that the mercury in vaccinations is a contributing factor to neurological diseases such as autism.”
I don’t know where to start here. Should I begin with the fact that it doesn’t really matter what an elected official “believes” when it comes to vaccine science? At least, not where there are many, many, many studies already disputing what the Congressman is convinced of? But even if that were the case, THIMEROSOL HAS NOT BEEN IN THE INFANT IMMUNIZATION VACCINES SINCE 2003. Sorry for the all-caps, but I’m actually screaming that.
So if there’s been no mercury in the vaccines for almost a decade, how is the mercury in the vaccines still causing autism?
Ironically, that wasn’t the part that made me the angriest. This was:
Congressman Bill Posey from Florida was just as bad as Burton, demanding a study of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children, a standard talking point of the anti-vax movement. (Congressman Posey: do you even realize that your question is almost identical to what Jenny McCarthy asked five years ago, on the Larry King Live show?) Here’s his question to the CDC’s Boyle:
“I wonder if the CDC has conducted or facilitated a study comparing vaccinated children with unvaccinated children yet – have you done that?”
This is a sinister question. Of course, no such study has been done. No such study will ever be done. The anti-vaccine crowd knows this, and it’s why they ask the question.
I’ve said many times on this blog that the only way to test causality is through a randomized controlled trial. It’s the only way to know conclusively whether something causes something else to happen. But sometimes, it’s completely unethical to do a randomized controlled trial. Unethical people take advantage of that.
Do we know for sure that smoking causes cancer? The tobacco industry claimed that we didn’t for years because there was no randomized controlled trial of smoking and cancer. But of course, we’re so close to sure that smoking is terrible for you that it would be unethical for us to take a group of healthy people, randomize them to smoke or not, and then see which get cancer. That would be monstrous. But for many years, some could claim it was “unproven” that cigarettes cause cancer.
In a classic piece in the BMJ, a paper claimed that no evidence existed proving that parachutes prevented injury when jumping of planes because there had been no RCTs. This paper was mocking the idea that we had to have an RCT to believe something to be true. Sometimes, you just can’t do one.
In this case, the overwhelming benefit of vaccines is so large that it would be unethical of us to withhold them from many children just to prove a point to those who ask the question. Especially when it’s clear that those people aren’t swayed by scientific research anyway. They are – at this point – just taking advantage of the fact that the ethics of most scientists prevents them from doing the study they claim to want. They’re parroting the tactics of the tobacco industry.
There will never be an RCT to determine the benefits or harms of smoking. Or breastfeeding. Or obesity. Or parachutes. For some things, we have to rely on the best evidence we can muster short of that type of trial. Ignoring that evidence, and asking for more when you know it will never come isn’t scientific. It’s devious.
*For the record, Rep. Burton is the Congressman from my district. Well, for another month or so anyway.
[Cross-posted at The Incidental Economist]