Context and corrections in writing about autism and vaccines: A case study in misleading your readers

I’ve already been effusive in my praise of Amy Harmon’s front-page New York Times masterpiece, “Navigating Love and Autism,” which ran on Monday. Today, as The New York Observer’s Kat Stoeffel pointed out, the Times ran a correction to that piece:

An article on Monday about Jack Robison and Kirsten Lindsmith, two college students with Asperger syndrome who are navigating the perils of an intimate relationship, misidentified the character from the animated children’s TV show “My Little Pony” that Ms. Lindsmith said she visualized to cheer herself up. It is Twilight Sparkle, the nerdy intellectual, not Fluttershy, the kind animal lover.

To which I say: Hooray for the the Times! I’m pretty outspoken about the importance I place on correcting the record; more than once, I’ve been accused of being self-consciously prissy with the corrections sections I place online (and in my books). That I make a point of vocally and prominently correcting my own mistakes has also been used as a cudgel to prove I’m reckless with the facts. I obviously disagree; I think one way a journalist (or a journalistic institution) can show its dedication to getting things right is by promptly and publicly admitting when they get things wrong.

The problem with corrections is that oftentimes, the most glaring mistruths are those that arise out of deliberate obfuscations. Take, for example, a blog post that ran on a prominent anti-vaccine website earlier today. It began:

On December 14, 2011, Marketwatch.com (a site connected to the Wall Street Journal) ran the story, Physicians Oppose Mandatory Flu Vaccine for Health Workers.  It was a press release from the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and this is what it said…

The author goes on to write that she was “stunned to see a story connected to the Wall Street Journal in opposition to the medical community’s constant promotion of the flu vaccine. … [I]t was hard to believe any medical organization would take the bold step of disagreeing with the health officials, Wal-Marts, and doctors telling us to get that annual flu shot.  Instead, a group of doctors was publicly challenging the safety and efficacy of a vaccine.”

Here, the misinformation begins with the first sentence: Marketwatch did not, in fact, run “a story”; as the piece acknowledges, this was a for-pay press release that appeared on a global newswire. There is no reason to be “stunned to see a story connected to the Wall Street Journal” because there was no story connected to the Journal (or, as far as I can tell, any other mainstream news organization anywhere in the country). (If the New York Times-owned The Tuscaloosa News ran a letter that read, “The Panic Virus is the best book ever written in any language, ever,” I still wouldn’t be justified in claiming that “a story connected to The New York Times said that The Panic Virus was the best book in the world.”)

But that blurring of reality is nothing compared to the lack of context given about the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, an organization that, as it happens, I know a little about. Over the years the AAPS has had occasional success at convincing credulous (or disingenuous) reporters to treat it as a mainstream medical organization; there is, after all, there is only one letter of difference between AAPS and AAP (the American Academy of Pediatrics), and the group’s publication, Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, sounds like it deserves a place alongside the Journal of the American Medical Association. But the AAPS is a far cry from the AAP, and JAPS has about as much in common with JAMA as my comic books do to the Bible. Over the years, JAPS has been a repository for some of the most outlandish anti-vaccine tracts ever published, including ones by Andrew Wakefield and Mark and David Geier, the disgraced father-and-son team that made money by telling parents they could “cure” autistic children using high doses of a drug used to chemically castrating sex offenders.

As for the AAPS: It is an extreme-right wing group that openly derides “evidence based medicine” and has accused the AMA of emulating Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. Here’s a brief section I wrote about the AAPS in The Panic Virus:

Over the years its leadership has overlapped with that of the ultraconservative John Birch Society. It has compared electronic medical records to the files kept by the German secret police, linked abortion to breast cancer, and claimed that illegal immigration leads to leprosy. For years, AAPS officials worked with Philip Morris on a junk science campaign attacking indoor smoking bans; as recently as the fall of 2009, it claimed cigarette taxes actually led to a “deterioration in public health.”

And those are actually some of the group’s more moderate stances. One month before the 2008 presidential election, it published an article on its Web site* speculating that Barack Obama might be “deliberately using the techniques of neurolinguistic programming (NLP), a covert form of hypnosis.” (The repetition of numbers in his speeches was one of Obama’s “techniques of trance induction”; another was hand gestures that functioned as “hypnotic anchors.”) These tactics were most effective when employed on the weak-willed, non-Christian members of the cultural elite: “Obama is clearly having a powerful effect on people, especially young people and highly educated people—both considered to be especially susceptible to hypnosis. It is also interesting that many Jews are supporting a candidate who is endorsed by Hamas, Farakhan, Khalidi, and Iran.”

That puts the AAPS in a slightly different light, doesn’t it?

* EDIT, 3:16pm: Astute reader David Taylor notes that the original link for the “Barack Obama is hypnotizing Jews and intellectuals” article was changed — and, in fact, the AAPS has scrubbed that article from its site, replacing it with a 2010 post titled “Is ObamaCare constitutional?” Thanks to the wayback machine, however, the original piece can be seen by clicking on the link above.

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36 Responses to Context and corrections in writing about autism and vaccines: A case study in misleading your readers

  1. bensmyson says:

    Thank you for the link to the Age of Autism’s website. While I didn’t share your paranoia about anti-vaxers out to distort and deceive you, I did find the article informative.

    One important part of the article had to do with financial ties vaccine manufacturers have with organizations such as the AAP. Heck, we saw that when Europe got a little upset about the last pandemic scare that never amounted to much more than a sneeze in the annals of collective flu seasons. But there was a link to a CBS story about that, assuming CBS isn’t in some cabal to discredit you as well, and even though the story is a couple of years old it does shed some very important light on how the AAP et al are well fed and rewarded by drug companies. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/07/25/cbsnews_investigates/main4296175.shtml

    Thanks again for leading me to the Age of Autism’s website.

  2. Chris says:

    Mr. Mnookin:

    Over the years, JAPS has been a repository for some of the most outlandish anti-vaccine tracts ever published,

    Actually they use the initials “JPandS.” Well, it is kind of obvious.

    The Age of Autism website is full of many journalistic gaffs. It is a great source of blog fodder for one and its editor is a major reason.

  3. David Taylor says:

    Seth:

    The YouTube video shows a page from Oct. 25, 2008 for the AAPS web site. But the link embedded here (“One month before the 2008 presidential election, it published an article on its Web site) goes to http://www.socioecohistory.wordpress.com. I searched on the AAPS web site and did not find the Obama as hypnotist article shown in the YouTube video.

    I’m trying to confirm the passage in blue type beginning with “Is Barack Obama a brilliant orator, captivating millions through his eloquence?” can be traced something published on the AAPS web site.

    Do you have a direct link to “Is Barack Obama a brilliant orator, captivating millions through his eloquence . . . ” on AAPS web site? Has the article been scrubbed? Will try the WayBack machine.

    Thanks!

  4. Pingback: Have I mentioned lately that there's no evidence of connections between vaccines… « « eoghann.com eoghann.com

  5. David Gorski says:

    The AAPS and JPANDS are truly fonts of crazy. The AAPS has published multiple papers claiming that shaken baby syndrome is a misdiagnosis for vaccine injury, promoting HIV/AIDS denialism, pushing a nonexistent link between abortion and breast cancer, castigating evidence-based medicine as “authority-based medicine” that limits physician autonomy, stating that there should be no government regulation of physician practice, calling Medicare unconstitutional, attacking state medical boards who try to rein in “brave maverick doctors,” and in general viewing physicians as Ayn Rand-style supermen and superwomen who are too great and too good at helping their patients ever to be constrained by little things like evidence-based medicine, state medical boards, and the like. Meanwhile, the AAPS thinks nothing of publishing articles claiming that anthropogenic global warming is not happening, even though JPANDS is ostensibly a medical journal.

    I’ve been following them for years. The post below (from 2008) is an updated version of a post I first wrote in 2006. Based on this, maybe it’s high time I did another update in 2012. The NLP stuff about Barack Obama is hilarious, and I’m sure I could find more if I just dug a bit:

    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/the-journal-of-american-physicians-and-surgeons-ideology-trumps-science-based-medicine/

  6. Chris says:

    Congratulations. From Vincent, Alan, and Rich review ten compelling virology stories of 2011:
    3. The Panic Virus (TWiV 117)

  7. Jemima says:

    People who whore for pharma deserve a nice needle in their eyeball.

    Children are DYING because of the vaccine makers corruption.

    I hope the Nazi vaccinators live to take their own medicine….

    • Chris says:

      Oh, do share the evidence that children are dying from vaccines. Please post the title, journal and date of the PubMed indexed studies showing that:

      1. A substantial number of children have died in the USA due to vaccines.

      2. That vaccines cause more deaths in children than the diseases. For example, measles causes death up to one case in a thousand (it was one in five hundred during the 1989-1991 American outbreak when over 120 died from measles). So you need to show us that the MMR vaccine causes more deaths than one out of a thousand doses.

      3. Do not bring up VAERS unless you can tell us what statement you must read and understand before clicking on the button to enter the database at its official US Dept. of Health and Human Services website (it has hhs.gov in the web address).

      And I think you need to read this (emphasis added):

      For example, there is a tradition in many newsgroups and other Internet discussion forums that once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever debate was in progress.[8] This principle is itself frequently referred to as Godwin’s law.

      Next time you try to make your point, please be original and actually have verifiable facts on hand. Do remember that there are rules on what constitutes real scientific evidence. You really don’t want us to bring out Scopie’s Law.

      • Bensmyson says:

        Chris, why waste R&D on developing a vaccine to prevent HIV/AIDS when you can simply kill/exterminate all those already infected thus the elimination of any possible human transmission. The benefits outweigh the cost right? How many deaths are too many, how many are acceptable? What if your child had AIDS? You want me to make that decision for you? Didn’t think so.

        • Chris says:

          Why are you changing the subject? There is no vaccine for HIV/AIDS, but there has been a safe effective vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella for over forty years. Are you taking over for Jemina? If so, then you answer my question:
          Now exactly how much more dangerous is MMR compared to measles, mumps and rubella?

          Just post the title, journal, and dates of the PubMed indexed papers (not from anyone whose ability to practice medicine legally has been revoked) with real scientific evidence. Do not change the subject to another vaccine or disease.

          And yes, doing a quick google on Age of Autism for “bensmyson” shows that you are regular there. Why did you thank Mr. Mnookin for leading you to a website that you always go to?

          • bensmyson says:

            Chris, I paid people to do my chemistry and biology work in school, I never wrote a paper or took an important exam so looking up and reading reports written by the kids of people I paid to do my work. I don’t know the measles from rubella, shingles from shineola. But all I need look no further than my own house. I need look no further than the FDA recalls. I need look no further than the billions of dollars in settlements in Vaccine Court. I need look no further than their own product insert listing the possible adverse reactions. I need look no further than news articles such as this http://www.buenosairesherald.com/article/88922/gsk-lab-fined-over-vaccine-tests-that-killed-14–babies

          • Chris says:

            And so you are willing to ignore the deaths and disabilities from measles, rubella and mumps because it requires you to actually expand your education?

            The total number of cases compensated for the MMR vaccine in the last 23 years total 322. Which is less than the number of deaths per year from measles before the first measles vaccine.

            So you really want measles to return?

            Also, read the news report. The children who died were on the placebo.

          • bensmyson says:

            I read the US news reports, I mean the press release. I also read that the Argentina court found them guilty, of what, a placebo? Do you really want to go into all the illegal and outrageously unethical clinical trials done on foreign soil by these drug companies? 14 babies are dead because of a study conducted illegally by a major American pharmaceutical company.

            And again, HOW MANY deaths are acceptable collateral damage on the war on the measles? How many kids would you be willing to kill to protect 10,000,00 kids from the disease? One? How about your son or daughter, or granddaughter? How about they don’t even die, they just lose a couple of steps in their development, have their life expectancy drop 8-12 years. Maybe then you can talk once your child’s health and future is sacrificed for the betterment of the herd.

            And Chris, my education was a good one, I went to Duke. I was a jock, I have had 14 concussions, I have a bit of a problem with short term memory. Science was/is a problem for me because of the unfamiliar words…. and it’s gotten worse as I’ve gotten older so you read them, and let me know what they say. I’ll give you a dollar.

          • Chris says:

            I shall stop discussing anything with you while you ignore my question on relative safety of the MMR versus measles, do not post actual evidence and then go off on other unrelated tangents.

            Discussion with you is not productive, something that was hinted at when you implied with your first comment on this thread implying you had not known about the AoA website, even though you are regular there. That is a form of a lie.

            So you will be ignored until you can cite actual scientific evidence to show that the MMR vaccine causes more harm than measles, mumps and rubella.

          • bensmyson says:

            Chris- the point is that vaccines have killed children, the question is how many children are you willing to sacrifice to the betterment of the herd? Just state a number.

            Do vaccines save lives? Yes, so does clean drinking water, available proper healthcare and food. The statistically infinitesimal number of deaths due solely because of the measles is hardly something I’d be willing to sacrifice my son over, how about you?

            And for those of you who are afraid some unvaccinated kid might spread measles to your kid, vaccines are not a guarantee of immunity.

            And as for the AoA comment, I was unaware of the article that Mnookin linked to about article had to do with financial ties vaccine manufacturers have with organizations such as the AAP and the subsequent CBS News story http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/07/25/cbsnews_investigates/main4296175.shtml I was thanking Dr. Mnookin for leading me to it. Yes I do frequent AoA’s website, as I do here and Sully’s place and even Kim’s site. I’ve even frequented great and powerful Orac’s site. I get around.

          • Chris says:

            Apparently truth is difficult for the persons who go by “bensmyson”:Rob – it’s not about “twisting the facts.” It’s about completely lying through his teeth.

            It is an interesting read. I vaguely remember it, but I was dealing with someone else in that thread. I have been reminded that the parents of Ben do not engage in honest dialog.

          • bensmyson says:

            That’s so awesome you keep a file on my comments. I thought no one cared. Anywho so I went to that link you posted and saw the following:

            “@ Kristin – you said, “What ’caused’ my son’s autism is completely irrelevant to the job at hand; helping him accomplish all that he can, improving his skills, and helping him find a place in the world.”

            Suppose you find your daughter laying unconscious in the driveway, head bleeding, a broken 2×4 laying next to her. You rush her to the hospital ER, she is still unresponsive, what question do you think the doctors will want to ask right off the bat? “What happened?” It is extremely relevant. ”

            It’s nice but I find it unrelated to any of my comments here.

            So what is the truth Chris, how many kids would you kill or allowed to be killed in order to protect herd immunity? If someone were to tell you that if you sacrificed your child, 10,000 other children would have a 80-90% chance to survive infection from a particular disease would you give up your child? What’s the lowest number of children your child’s sacrifice would help have a chance at not contracting a disease and dying from it, 5,000? 1,000? How about 10, let’s say ten kids will have a 80-90% chance of being immune from a particularly deadly disease of your child is sacrificed?

            Would it be fair to assume that if the government made that decision for you, took your child, that you might be pretty upset?

            This is the truth, not much else matters does it? The truth is you can not face this question, how many lives sacrificed for the betterment of the herd? What is acceptable collateral damage? Developmental delays? Asthma? Encephalitis? Paralysis? Strokes? Seizures? Death? The truth is this Chris, unless we are talking about your child you have no say.

            The odds of some severe injury happening to a child due to a vaccine is about the same as him being struck by lightening. So unless it is your child standing in the middle of that field during a thunderstorm you really don’t to tell that child to stay put. You can do it if it’s your child and you think the odds of benefit outweigh the risk, go right ahead.

        • Chris says:

          Actually, I should ask you how many deaths from measles you find acceptable. There have been several in Europe recently (thanks Wakefield!), a few years ago when Japan made measles vaccination voluntary there were 80 deaths (Measles vaccine coverage and factors related to uncompleted vaccination among 18-month-old and 36-month-old children in Kyoto, Japan
          ), I already mentioned the over 120 in the USA about twenty years ago, and globally there are still over 160000 measles deaths per year.

          So why do you think that is okay? And that does not even take into account the many more who are permanently neurologcially damaged. How exactly is a vaccine that has been used since 1971 more dangerous than measles?

          • bensmyson says:

            How many children die of famine, poverty, how many die from neglect, war, car crashes, adverse reactions to Tylenol, malpractice, vaccines? How many die from lack of affordable/available healthcare, how many die from overpopulation, gendercide, allergies, asthma, lack of access to clean drinking water, exposure to raw sewage? Why stop at measles, why not look at how many children die every year from the hands of their own parents, child predators, handguns, bombs falling from the sky, sanctions? Kids die for all kinds of reasons, it’s all sad.

            There are two billion children in the world, half live in poverty. 100,000 deaths from the measles is not the biggest threat facing these children, statistically speaking measles are safe.

            Hunger and poor nutrition, directly or as an underlying cause for the fatal diseases listed above, causes 36 million deaths per year accounting for more than 1 death each second on average.

            Statistically, a child under five dies every 5 seconds on average as a direct or indirect result of poor nutrition. This is 6 million children per year, more than half of all child deaths. If you are so concerned about the health of these children why not feed the world?

          • Chris says:

            Interesting tactic, changing the subject.

            The weird part of you kvetching about poverty, etc is that measles is going down in many of those countries (like in Africa and India), but returning to rich countries like France, UK, Japan, Switzerland and the USA.

            Now why is that?

        • Andrew says:

          At last we know what the antivaccine approach to dealing with disease is – summary execution of the ill. Thank you for clarifying that; I suggest that you include this information in all your propaganda.

          • bensmyson says:

            Anitvaccine? My son received his vaccines.

            The question is what is the number of deaths caused by an adverse reaction to a vaccine that is acceptable collateral damage? How many children are you willing to kill or injure by promoting unsafe vaccines just so your child doesn’t miss a few days of school, so you don’t miss a few days of work?

            My child is no less important than yours.

      • Jemima says:

        Chris-”3. Do not bring up VAERS unless you can tell us what statement you must read and understand before clicking on the button to enter the database at its official US Dept. of Health and Human Services website (it has hhs.gov in the web address).”

        WHY does VAERS exist? Because pharma lobbied for immunity to all the harm their products have and DO cause.

        • Chris says:

          Actually it exists because of the efforts of Barbara Loe Fisher. She wanted some kind of way to report those vaccine injuries.

          But! Anyone who has done real science and statistics knows that you cannot look at the anecdotes with a blind eye, you must investigate. So go and find out what you “must read and understand” before using VAERS. Tell us why http://vaers.hhs.gov/data/index has these words: “Please read the following statement on the limits of VAERS data. You MUST click on the box below to access the VAERS database.”

    • Thomas says:

      Thank you for admitting that the only way you’d ever win an argument is by violence.

  8. Marcela says:

    Panic virus is a joke, the real panic is theMedical mafia horrified that their billion dollar vaccine monopoly is questioned by so called ” powerful” autism parents. Then saying that the media is on the parents side is laughable as the majority of their funding is from the drug/vaccine manufacturers and there is a conspiracy of silence about conflicts of interest by big pharma. God by Dr. Wakefield. He will get justice tjhough not in this lifetime. Seth, learn the true definition of herd immunity. Your son has raging colic? Sounds like encephalitis. But keep playing RussianRoulette.

    • Marcela says:

      God bless Dr. Wakefield. He will get justice though not in this lifetime. Seth, learn the true definition of herd immunity. Your son has raging colic? Sounds like encephalis. But keeping playing Russian Roulette.

      • Andrew says:

        “How many children are you willing to kill or injure by promoting unsafe vaccines just so your child doesn’t miss a few days of school, so you don’t miss a few days of work? ”

        Which vaccines do you think are unsafe and which safe?

        There’s also a thing called “death” that can happen when children get diseases. Why did you mention preventing days off from school instead of mentioning preventing death?

        • bensmyson says:

          Death can indeed happen, it can happen from unattended encephalitis, which by the way, is what ProQuad was causing children and the reason for the AICP and FDA for removing it from the recommended list and to give it a black box label. Ask yourself why it was removed from the market for two years.

          The MMR has also been known to cause measles. Oral polio vaccines causes polio in a few, it also will cause the virus to spread if they come into contact with the child’s poop. The live virus flu vaccines can cause a shedding of the virus to those with compromised immune systems, such as your grandmother in a nursing home. She gets pneumonia and dies from your kiss hello.

          Statistically speaking the measles are safe, I had the measles as did most of my friends. Flu like symptoms for a few days. I wonder what would have happened if these deadly viruses were allowed to develop a natural immunity.

          From the years of 1998 – 2007, the risk of any unimmunized child dying from ACUTE measles was as follows:
          immunodeficient children = one per 14,182 cases of measles
          healthy normal children = 0 out of 28,364.

          Deaths had declined by 99.4% before vaccination, from 1901/2 to 1968 (England & Wales)

        • Chris says:

          bensmyson:

          The MMR has also been known to cause measles.

          [citation needed]

          And still waiting for the title, journal and dates of the studies that show the MMR is more dangerous than measles.

          Oral polio vaccines causes polio in a few, it also will cause the virus to spread if they come into contact with the child’s poop.

          In about one in a million cases, which was high enough for the USA to switch to the IPV.

          Statistically speaking the measles are safe, I had the measles as did most of my friends.

          Except for those eighty in Japan, and the over 120 Americans about twenty years ago.

          Death is not the only outcome, I see you totally ignored the point that many more become permanently disabled than die. From The Clinical Significance of Measles: A Review:

          Postinfectious encephalomyelitis (PIE) occurs in 13 per 1000 infected persons, usually 3–10 days after onset of rash [39, 131]. ….. As many as 25% of people with PIE due to measles die, and ∼33% of survivors have lifelong neurological sequelae, including severe retardation, motor impairment, blindness, and sometimes hemiparesis [39, 131].

          Now, again, where is that PubMed indexed study that shows the MMR vaccine is more dangerous than measles? One that shows the vaccine causes encephalitis in thirteen out of a thousand doses, and that of those a quarter die and a third are permanently disabled.

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