Connecting the dots between cause and effect

When I was a child, my teachers used to give us connect-the-dot drawings. I used to happily connect the dots and take the resulting drawing home to my parents. My mom or dad would then post the drawing somewhere for everyone in the home to see. I was really proud of my work, even if it wasn’t real work. All I had to do was go from #1 to #2 and so on until the picture revealed itself to me.

It was something like this:

Not hard to do at all

I’ve often wondered how the mind of someone who believes in outlandish conspiracy theories works. Do they just put the dots together but in a different way?

For example, let’s take this post at the notorious anti-vaccine blog of the (non-existent) epidemic of autism. It starts like this:

“My daughter, Megan, regressed in her physical, mental and social health after vaccinations. Her life forever changed, I am committed to finding out both cause then cure to improve her quality of life, along with so many like her. As a result, I spend a good amount of time reading research and scientific papers to help clarify any connections. Those connections would include immune issues, autoimmunity, mercury and vaccines.”

I highlighted in bold the main gist of that opening statement. This mother, looking for someone or something to blame for her daughter’s atypical neurology, has taken it upon herself to do research. Here’s an article blog post about the author of that post. Here is her Facebook profile. I keep looking and looking and looking some more, and I can’t find anything to tell me about her scientific background.

By the way, she proposes that her daughter developed autism after (and thus because of?) the MMR vaccine:

“Her regression into autism at 18 months developed after her MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine.”

I mean, if she’s going to do scientific research and dive into scientific studies, then she must have a scientific background that allows her to explain what the studies and papers say to a lay audience, right? If anyone finds out what her background is, please feel free to mention it in the comments. But let’s go back to her blog post on that notorious anti-vaccine blog of the (non-existent) epidemic of autism.

In that post, she mentions that her daughter has an auto-immune disease. So, connecting the dots and using a scientific dissertation and subsequent published paper, she concludes that the mercury in the MMR vaccine caused an auto-immune disorder in her daughter, wich may have led to her daughter’s autism. Never mind that the MMR vaccine never had thimerosal to begin with.

Nevertheless, let’s look at the paper titled “Regulatory Roles for NKT Cell Ligands in Environmentally Induced Autoimmunity“. First, some terminology. “NKT” stands for “natural killer T-cell”. A “ligand” is a molecule that sends a signal, traps another molecule or element, or just plain does something. From an immunology point of view, ligands can make immune responses more vigorous, or even less, depending on the ligand.

The long and short of it is that these researchers gave mice an auto-immune condition by exposing them to inorganic mercury. (Mercury in thimerosal is organic, bound to carbon molecules and, thus, behaving differently.) On top of that, the mice were bred in such a way that exposure to inorganic mercury and even some bacteria would cause their immune systems to go haywire.

I’ve told you before that mice are not people.

How did these mice get an induced auto-immunity, exactly? Like so:

“Mercury-induced autoimmunity was induced according to a standard protocol by three s.c. injections of 30 μg of HgCl2 in 100 μl of sterile PBS at days 0, 2, and 4.”

They got 90 micrograms of inorganic mercury over the course of four days. How much organic mercury in an MMR vaccine? None. How much inorganic mercury in a can of tuna? None. How much organic mercury in a can of tuna? About 70 micrograms.

See what I’m getting at? Organic, inorganic? It’s like saying that salt — aka “Sodium Chloride” — is the same as chlorine gas. It’s not. It’s all in the chemistry. And that’s an important thing to note when you’re talking about these papers to a lay audience of anti-vaccinationists.

The paper continues to note that, yes, and as per their protocol, the mice developed an auto-immune disease. The researchers then went on to look at how the ligands behaved under these circumstances. But that’s not what matters to the blog post author. She hangs on the whole “mercury causes auto-immunity” and “my daughter has an auto-immune condition” and “she also has autism” to basically state that “mercury causes autism”. If this trope sounds familiar to you, it should. It should sound familiar because it’s the trope that a certain British doctor tried to use in hid fraudulent study to link the MMR vaccine to autism. Except that he was smart enough not to say that the MMR vaccine had mercury, which it never did.

She goes on to rant about the ligands, stating that they have been added to vaccines in order to increase the potency of vaccines. In short, it’s all evil. The ligands, the mercury, the non-existent mercury in MMR. Everything. It all causes auto-immune diseases, and, in their mind (the author and the people commenting on her blog post), autism is an auto-immune disorder.

To all this, she concludes:

“It appears that mercury, “abundance as a pollutant, and presence in dental amalgams, cosmetics, preservatives, fumigants, and vaccine preparations ” can cause immune and autoimmune disease via Toll Like Receptors (TLR) activation and then additionally, Man-made, Toll Like Receptors could also have their own influence on immune issues, and very possibly autoimmunity.”

It appears to me that this person, if presented with the brontosaurus connect-the-dot picture above, would come up with this:

If you see a dinosaur, you’re being fooled by the Man

I’m not surprised that this person displays little knowledge of understanding the paper she herself used as evidence. It happens a lot with anti-vaccine and anti-science people. They say that there is a conspiracy, that researchers are being paid by “Big Pharma”, and then they use that same research to try to prop-up their theories.

Someone in the comments section of that blog quoted this paper as clearly showing that vaccines caused all sorts of horrors. Here’s the “Results” section:

“Only in 1 analysis for tics was there some evidence of a higher risk with increasing doses (Cox’s HR: 1.50 per dose at 4 months; 95% confidence interval [CI]: 1.02-2.20). Statistically significant negative associations with increasing doses at 4 months were found for general developmental disorders (HR: 0.87; 95% CI: 0.81-0.93), unspecified developmental delay (HR: 0.80; 95% CI: 0.69-0.92), and attention-deficit disorder (HR: 0.79; 95% CI: 0.64-0.98). For the other disorders, there was no evidence of an association with thimerosal exposure.”

The commenter in question did not understand what “statistically significant negative associations” meant. It means that higher doses showed reduced risk. He or she thought that it meant “negative”outcomes, as in “bad”.

That’s the problem. You have non-scientists trying to make heads or tails out of scientific papers and studies, and they’re misinforming the public in the process.

Merry Christmas, by the way.

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4 thoughts on “Connecting the dots between cause and effect

  1. Another brilliant post Reuben. I often go to that "notorious anti-vaccine blog" to see the latest pseudoscience theories by their *journalists*.I've been posting on the Huffington Post at some persistent anti-science, anti-vaccine denizens who are upset about the AAP Statement in support of the WHO's decision to continue using multi-dose vials of vaccine that contain Thimerosal as a preservative:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/17/thimerosal-vaccines-aap-mercury_n_2316473.htmlI've also posted on the MedPage Today blog about the AAP Statement in support of the World Health Organization's decision for use of multi-dose vaccines containing Thimerosal:http://www.medpagetoday.com/comments.cfm?tbid=36480It's hard "work" to keep on top of these cranks Reuben, but a labor of love. Happy holidays.

  2. It is also a sad place be, always switching the chairs in the blame game, and never thinking about the actual child.Merry Christmas. In an hour we will have poffertjes (Dutch puffy round pancakes)

  3. Well, she can't. I put myself through the horror of reading other posts, and it's all the same. No matter how remote the "connection", she jumps on every little theory or paper or comment from her readers. It's sad, really. She wants someone or something to blame that much. Bad enough to misinform the public, at the very least.

  4. It sounds like she can't make up her mind what caused her daughter's autism:[begin dramatization]It was the MMR!No wait! It was the thimerosal!Yeah, that's the ticket. Why doesn't anyone believe everything I say?[End dramatization]

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