A Foregone Conclusion
Historians have tried for years to disabuse us of the Warfare Thesis mythology. But their efforts have largely been in vain. The Warfare Thesis myth has always served as a powerful context for evolutionary theory and, false or not, evolutionists show no signs of forfeiting this powerful narrative.
Similarly, statisticians have tried for years to bring discipline to their field which too often uses statistics to “discover” a desired conclusion. One journal, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, recently even went so far as to ban altogether null hypothesis significance testing. But biostatisticians at Johns Hopkins rightly point out that ridding science of shoddy statistics will require scrutiny of every step, not merely the last one.
I point out the Warfare Thesis and statistical inference not as disparate examples of scholarship gone wrong, but rather as two very related problems. You might say statistical inference is one of the Warfare Thesis’ preferred tools, and this new vaccine study is a good example.
The study’s most significant finding was that the MMR vaccine is associated with reduced autism risk. The authors were right to seek some sort of confounding variables to explain this unlikely result. But this result, even if explained away, hints at the underlying challenges and problems in such a research study.
One problem is that the we are dealing with people. Different parents have different levels of concern. And diagnoses may be influenced by various factors. Second, autism spectrum disorders include a variety of symptoms and conditions. Statistical comparisons may be complicated by such factors.
Nonetheless, the authors concluded that “receipt of the MMR vaccine was not associated with increased risk of ASD.” While that is technically true, the opposite is also true. That is, receipt of the MMR vaccine was not associated with an absence of increased risk either. In other words, the uncertainty of their results is such that they are consistent with both no increased risk, or some increased risk. Either could be true, within reasonable levels of statistical confidence.
What the results do show is that the MMR vaccine is not associated with a dramatic increased risk of ASD. Receipt of the vaccine was not likely associated with a doubling of the risk, for example. But again, those results are subject to the caveats discussed above (which may be overriding factors).
The bottom line is that the study’s conclusions are false and irresponsible. And they led to yet more false and irresponsible proclamations in the media, with commentators such as Sanjay Gupta making demeaning comments about parents struggling with this difficult decision.
One might ask how papers such as this survive peer review? The answer is that the paper said exactly what the peer reviewers were looking for. You see, like all literature, the scientific literature comes in a genre, and today that genre is the Warfare Thesis. This is made clear at the very beginning of the paper, long before the data are considered:
Two doses of measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine are currently recommended for children in the United States: the first at age 12 to 15 months and the second at age 4 to 6 years. Although a substantial body of research over the last 15 years has found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism spectrum disorders (ASD), parents and others continue to associate the vaccine with ASD. Parents cite vaccinations, especially MMR, as a cause of ASD and have deferred or refused vaccinations for their children as a result. Lower vaccination levels threaten public health by reducing both individual and herd immunity and have been associated with several recent outbreaks of measles, with most cases occurring among unvaccinated individuals.
There you have it. Science has revealed the truth yet resistance to the undeniable facts continues, posing threats to us all. There was no question where the paper was headed—the results were a foregone conclusion. There is no way the researchers were going to discover anything wrong with vaccines. Those were the ground rules that readers must understand.
And once the beachhead is established the media’s heavy artillery can be brought to bear, proclaiming how the science had once again debunked the recurrent myths of the ignorant, as commentators such as CNN’s Jake Tapper shake their head in disgust.
These new truths then, in turn, lead to laws such as the California law mandating vaccines for all public school students which Governor Jerry Brown signed into law today. The law forces parents to violate their conscience or lose their tax monies to a public school system they are not allowed to use. Brown is a good leader but this new law is unfair and a mistake.
Does any of this mean that vaccines are not a great public health success, or that they should be avoided at all costs? No, of course not. Vaccines hold great promise and have conferred great health benefits. But the choice of whether or not to vaccinate is not simply a scientific question.
The problem is not that this is a difficult decision for some. That’s life. The problem is that evolution’s Warfare Thesis has resulted in both faulty science and an environment of discrimination against and vilification of parents struggling with legitimate decisions.
h/t; Little John