Taking stupid to a whole new level: TLC’s entry for the “Worst piece written about vaccines”

I try not to be surprised by the level of stupid displayed by people working in the information industries — print, television, radio, etc. — which should give you some indication of what level of ignorance is required to make me spit out my coffee, which is what I did when I read a TLC “How Stuff Works” post titled “Why shouldn’t we vaccinate our children?

I started this post thinking I’d address every problem in the piece, but it quickly became clear that that was going to be too overwhelming. (Mary McCarthy’s evaluation of Lillian Hellman comes to mind: “Every word she writes is a lie, and that includes ‘and’ and ‘the.'”) Instead, I’ll limit myself to one of the piece’s six entries: “Vaccines May or May Not Have a Link to Autism.” What follows is the entirety of the content in that section, followed by the reality of the situation.

TLC: It’s important to point out that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that several intensive studies have found no causal link between vaccines and autism spectrum disorder.

Reality: It’s false to say that the CDC “states” that studies have shown no link; that’s the same tactic birthers use when they say, “President Obama claims that he was born in the United States.” It’s also wrong to say “several” studies have found no causal link. The correct way to, um, state this would be to say, “Hundreds of extensive studies involving millions of children have shown conclusively that there is no link between vaccines and autism.”

TLC: The attention paid to reports of an increased prevalence in autism and vaccines containing thimerosal, a preservative used in vaccines that contains mercury.

Reality: To start with, this sentence isn’t written in proper English — but I guess in addition to not feeling constrained by facts, TLC doesn’t feel constrained by writing in complete sentences. More importantly, as anyone with 0.29 seconds and the ability to use a search engine could tell you, thimerosal was removed from all standard pediatric vaccines, with the exception of some variations of the seasonal flu vaccine, in 2001. (The last children’s vaccines that used thimerosal as a preservative expired in January 2003.) Here’s a timeline detailing all of that, and much more.

TLC: Exposure to heavy metals such as mercury can lead to developmental disorders, and there is definitely mercury in thimerosal, which is found in common vaccines for diseases like rubella, mumps and typhoid.

Reality: This could be one of the dumbest sentences ever written about vaccines…which is really saying something, considering how much dreck is out there. The type of mercury that has been shown to lead to developmental disorders is methylmercury; the type of mercury that’s in thimerosal is ethylmercury. A good parallel of the difference between ethylmercury and methylmercury is that of ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, and methyl alcohol, or methanol: Two shots of the former give you a buzz; two shots of the latter are lethal. What’s more, there has never been thimerosal in the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine — not before 2001 and not since. There’s also not thimerosal in the typhoid vaccine — which, incidentally, isn’t recommended in the United States unless people are traveling to areas of the world where typhoid is endemic.

TLC: However, thimerosal contains low levels of mercury; whether exposure to those low levels of mercury is enough to produce developmental disorders is what’s at issue.

Reality: As indicated above, standard pediatric vaccines do not contain thimerosal. There’s also no “issue” as to whether exposure to the amount of thimerosal contained in vaccines produced before 2001 was “enough to produce developmental disorders.” In 2004, the Institute of Medicine reviewed over 200 scientific studies that examined thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism and concluded that the studies “consistently provided evidence of no association between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism.”

TLC: It’s a good idea to speak to your physician and conduct some of your own independent research about thimerosal.

Reality: It’s always a good idea to talk to your physician — provided he’s not a dissembling quack like Bob Sears. It’s also good to be informed. But as this stinking load illustrates, there’s a lot of bad — and dangerous — information to be found on the Internets.

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48 Responses to Taking stupid to a whole new level: TLC’s entry for the “Worst piece written about vaccines”

  1. Carol says:

    Great piece! But you have a tiny typo in the first sentence that I wanted to call your attention to. It happens to all of us, and we’re especially prone after reading infuriating reports like the one from TLC :)

    Thanks, Carol! It’s fixed…

  2. RobC says:

    Seth, I agree with the thrust of your post and share your concern about the fear campaign that’s been waged against vaccinations. I don’t agree, however, that TLC should have said, “Hundreds of extensive studies involving millions of children have shown conclusively that there is no link between vaccines and autism.” As your post makes inescapably clear, TLC doesn’t have the expertise or the intelligence to draw that kind of conclusion themselves. Putting the conclusion in the mouth of the CDC makes it far more credible than if it came from the muddled thinking of a TLC staffer. If you embolden TLC (and most other mass media as well) to deliver as gospel its take on scientific matters, you are truly opening Pandora’s box.

    Ted Williams’s maxim is good advice for TLC and most of the popular media: If you don’t think too good, don’t think too much.

  3. Steve says:

    [quote]”In 2004, the Institute of Medicine reviewed over 200 scientific studies that examined thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism and concluded that the studies “consistently provided evidence of no association between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism.”[/quote]

    This is where science falls down. Not in that it’s bad science but in that the anti-vaccination lobby will say, “What about the other 200 studies that say it is does.” Now, is that statement actually true? I haven’t read the linked to article fully so I can’t say for sure. Because science is not always perfect and there are almost always exceptions to the rule, is where the “anti” groups get their facts. It’s not what was said (or written) but what they argue was left out. Just so you could support your side more than theirs.

    • Joe says:

      In 2002 the IOM ruled it was biologically plausible that vaccines was causing neurological damage in our American children.

      In 2004 the IOM was told by the CDC to pay very little attention, to the biological evidence. And to put all of their confidence, in the large population based studies that seth is touting that show no! evidence of a risk.

      The good Dr. McCormick of the vaccine commission, said Walt wants
      you to declare.

      ” well these things are pretty safe on a population basis”

      She later says to those at the IOM meeting what Walt wants Walt generally gets.

      She was speaking of Walter A Orenstein the Dir. the head of the vaccine commission.

      So, she actually ordered the IOM to rule no causation. And later,
      we were told by Byron Child Magazine they asked to see the contract between the CDC and the IOM. They were told, by CDC spokes person” Curtis Allen” that the contract would be only available in a heavily redacted blacked out format.

      So what are they hiding? The meeting minutes, were leaked out by someone who evidently does not like being told how he was supposed to vote on causation.

      The Powerful House Appropriations Committee, asked the NIH to
      evaluate the studies the CDC was using to declare that the vaccines
      do not cause Autism. The NIH, passed the charge to the NIEHS the environmental side of the NIH. In the report, the the lead person
      of the NIEHS said that all the large population based studies were en-
      effect useless. She then dropped a bombshell, concerning the very much touted Denmark studies. She said, they were worse when in comparison to the large populace studies. The head of the NEIHS
      knew that Denmark was fraud, two yr’s before the lead author of the very touted Denmark studies was Indicted. On 13 counts of wire fraud and 9 counts of money laundering here in the US in Atlanta GA the home of the CDC. Why that is not Breaking news in a free Nation
      should concern all Americans.

      The Committee asked the CDC Dir. to defend her studies, she did not in fact she did just the opposite. She said that the CDC concurs to the findings. She then drops her own Bomb shell, the CDC will not be using the very VSD Data base that almost all those studies that Seth is touting come from in her words it would be misleading.

      She drops one more damming revelation, ” but if you do give us more time we will do good quality studies” So, up to that point we are left to assume by her own words the head of the CDC that all those studies Seth is so proud of were of very bad quality. And, in that case the head of the NIEHS was right. For when the Dir of the CDC was given a chance for rebuttal she bowed out shamefully.

      Months later the three test cases were ruled on, by the special masters
      the judges words were. that the science was so overwhelming that we had no choice but to rule against the parents.

      Just what science would that be Special Master Hastings, the en-effect useless? or the worse than useless? done by a researcher that’s been Indicted on 13 counts of wire fraud & 9 counts of money laundering.

      Now lets drive this home with a statement by the Head of the NIEHS
      “that leaves the CDC with very little to say that vaccines and Autism
      are not connected in anyway. I do believe,that is CHECK MATE.

      The IOM later says, in their own minutes. This which is easily understood to be a way that they were justifying having to lie
      to the American people.

      “we got a dragon by the tail here states a committee member,at the bottom of the line what we know and I agree the more negative the report. the less likely people will be to use Vaccination or immunization. so we are caught in a trap,how we work our way out of the trap is the charge”

      Question, how are you caught in a trap? if you find with good science that Vaccines do not cause Autism?

      The IOM, committed intellectual suicide. When put into the valley of decision, to lie to the public or to tell the truth. They chose to do the will of their masters, and lie to save the vaccine program.

      What about the children suffering with Vaccine damage? they were not even on the radar of those at the IOM except one who still had a conscience. And he alone leaked the minutes.

      The IOM meeting minutes, were leaked out by someone who did
      not like being told to lie to the people about damaging a generation
      of American children.

      • Holden Wilder says:

        I remember that episode of The X-Files! You know, the one where something-something givernment conspiracy something-something aliens controlling us with vaccines something-something.

        Not one of their better stories. Just way too easy to pick holes in it.

      • Science Mom says:

        Joe, I think your tin foil beanie is too tight.

    • Momofthree says:

      Well, since no study has found a link that would be a lie. The anti-vaxers are like most quack believers. They do not know how to evaluate scientific articles so they depend on others who are almost always intentionally dishonest because they have something to gain from it. I do not know how many articles I have read that quotes the same study from a couple of years ago about how accurate the guesses of which flu strain will be going around and which vaccines to make are. Although in all the articles they skip over that part and act like it is about how efficient the flu vaccine is. It does go into the efficiency of the vaccine in years of good guesses compared to years of bad guesses and which age groups are the most protected, but the articles don’t present it that way.

  4. Russ says:

    “The nearest star to the Earth (the Sun excluded) is over 40,000 miles away.” Discovery Science.

    Well, while that’s true, Discovery, you still flunked. I’ll give you four and a half years to figure out why.

    “Mars, despite being closer to the Sun than the Earth, is much, much colder. To find out why…” Discovery Channel.

    Uh… no thanks. I’d prefer to wonder about something else entirely. Like the utter worthlessness of bothering to complain.

    • Ken B says:

      “Mars, despite being closer to the Sun than the Earth, is much, much colder. To find out why…” Discovery Channel.

      There are plenty of times when Mars is closer to the Sun than [it is to] the Earth. Another “while technically true (depending how you interpret the bad grammar), it’s not very meaningful” item.

      I’m curious where you got the quotes, however. I usually like (most of the shows on) Discovery Channel.

      • Russ says:

        The former came from a show broadcast pre-2005. The latter from a syndicated report/ad for a (then) upcoming show. I found it repeated on their website (dated around the same time). At the time, I had discussions with Discovery “people” over email and since those emails are not in my gmail archive I can gauge the date at “pre-2005″.

        But yes, it’s poor not to cite good sources for ones quotes – were this to be an academic “study” or similar, I’d have never stepped in. Since it isn’t, you’ll have to bless me and my memory with your trust. :)

        On the wider topic of “science in the media” there is certainly a mixture of so-called “dumbing down”, willful misrepresentation and a distinct lack of care. As to a cure, we’d need to find the cause. Some say it’s “deadlines”. Some say “it’s only entertainment, so who cares”. Either way, it’s a sad state of affairs when a reporter working in any field (of the media) cannot get their “facts” checked and their story “straight”.

        And let’s be clear: while in my view Discovery are by far the worst culprits, they are not alone. The BBC’s “Horizon” show (once a shining pillar of science documentary programmes, in my view) has taken backward steps in more recent years. I see much speculative talk from the scientists quoted, rarely challenged and (the thing that gets me every time) that same speculation becomes a rock-solid foundation for further speculation. Speculation built on speculation? All of which would be fine were it presented as such – pure speculation. Yet, increasingly, it’s presented as “science”, “fact” and “the state of the art”. (I am reminded at this point of one particular Horizon episode show where a (purportedly) leading medical science researcher was showing to the camera, a patient packed in ice prior to and in preparation for some kind of procedure. He talked about trying to “transfer the cold” from the ice into the patient. In my day, high-school physics was enough to tell you this was utter nonsense and even poorer science. Heat “flows” from hot toward cold (First Law Thermodynamics) not (NEVER) the other way around. For me, everything that followed, pretty much anything he said that rested on this (faulty) premise as he presented it, was (to plagiarize Monty Python) a castle built on a swamp.)

        Oh, and while I’m ranting, the next TV show that offers up electrical “volts” or “voltage” as flowing-going-tranferring-driving-running through a wire is gonna get my venom, dammit.

        So, who’s to blame? Media? Scientists? I don’t profess to *know* the answer. However, I think education (i.e. “the schools” and the education systems) need to hold their hands up. Perhaps Critical Thinking needs to be taught (and tested) as rigorously as English and Math from an early age? Certainly well before science is raised as a topic.


  5. Pingback: More media stupidity: Chicago Sun-Times runs propaganda piece for Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine conference | The Panic Virus

  6. Rufus says:

    I still have trouble believing how far the Discovery Channel has fallen. What an irresponsible pile of moldering feces. But I guess that’s to be expected when the side bar contains an ad for a show called Long Island Medium and the bottom bar one for a show called “Little Couple”. But maybe that one’s not the exploitative piece of dreck I think it is and actually sympathetically shows what life is like for people who are different….I’m not optimistic.

    • Jill says:

      Rufus….before you fo trashing the Little Couple and Long Island Medium maybe you should watch them the first one shows people with major disabilities living life to it’s fullest…and contributing to the welfare of society. the scond is just funny

      • Rufus says:

        No thanks, I won’t watch anything these people produce after reading that article. I allowed that maybe Little Couple had the potential to be better than I imagine it to be, but Long Island Medium? You might find it funny, but unless it constantly shows psychics for the frauds they are, then it can be encouraging people to believe in hucksters who want nothing but to steal their money.

  7. Ken Reibel says:

    “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” was on TLC. Nuff said.

  8. Chris Hix says:

    that’s what I thought too before I decided to give my son the h1n1 vaccine with thimerosal in Jan. 2010, he’s never been the same since, it’s the worst mistake I ever made IN MY LIFE. You don’t know what it’s like to have that kind of regret EVERY single day over something so UNNECESSARY. There is NO WAY & make no mistake they are fully aware, it’s all about MONEY, they stand to lose BILLIONS doing things RIGHT, giving ANYkind of mercury to a developing brain is ever okay. Autism continues to rise despite thimerosal’s removal? It’s IN THE FLU SHOTS. My son didn’t say more than 10 words until 3 1/2 years old, there was nothing, nothing unusual about him before that shot with thimerosal, so you can say whatever you want out of ignorance about thimerosal, unfortunately I think I learned the hard way. One simply only needs to read the precautions of Thimerosal, read the extensive studies [done by California, done with baby monkeys] what do you think? they’re imagining it? coincidence? try facts. Try Science. You are talking about one side only. G with what common sense tells you, thimerosal is poison, kills brain cells, it’s one of the most toxic things there is and it’s put into children. Take it out of the flu shots [& wait the years & years it takes to do that & clear the shelves] then say there’s o connection, until then that is a lie. It is a LIE, it’s NOT safe.

    • Marty says:

      I beg to differ. By your argument, my high IQ could be as much a result of thimerosal as my autism is. Also, there are plenty of children that may not start speaking until 4 years old that have no unusual conditions to speak of whatsoever. It just happens.

      But just because Event A corresponds with Event B, doesn’t mean that Event A was caused by B. In fact, you may not have even noticed Event C, or D, or any of the many other letters of the alphabet.

      You say, in the same sentence, “Try science. You are talking about one side only.” But this is a contradiction, because if you want to try science, then there is only one side: science.

      Your son is not a victim of vaccines. Nor is he a victim of autism. You will learn this as you experience how his mind works, and in time you’ll stop having any regrets at all, because you’ll take him as he is, not what you wanted him to be. And you also need to remember that autism is not a death sentence, not like a vaccine preventable disease could become. And if you think that autism is some kind of mind control by the government, think again. I am as free-thinking as the next man, if not more so, for as you will learn if your son really is autistic, autism is not mentally incapacitating, but can in fact be mentally liberating.

      Don’t get sucked in to the tin-foil-hat conspiracy theories. Go and take a chemistry class or something, learn about how it all works before you decide you know everything about it. The fact is, every time I hear someone complain about the toxicity of ethylmercury, I wonder if they’ve ever thought to check the toxicity of water, as well. Anything can be toxic, in high enough doses. Methylmercury is certainly much more harmful, but ethylmercury has a halflife of about 14 days. It is removed from the body very quickly.

      And before you tell me that it doesn’t matter, it’s still mercury…

      Salt is made of sodium. Sodium chloride, to be exact, both elements can be very harmful to the human body, particularly sodium, which explodes on contact with water. However, when sodium is found in molecular form as salt, it can be harmlessly ingested. Elements take on completely different properties when they are mixed with other elements, and thimerosal is no different.

    • Ken B says:

      Speaking as a parent of a mildly autistic son, let me just say 5 words to you: “post hoc ergo propter hoc”.

    • Momofthree says:

      considering only a small amount of healthy children get a flu shot at all and you can get plenty without thimerosal your argument holds no weight with me. Also, if ethylmercury caused all these developmental problems, then why when developing children get a toxic dose of it do they get renal complications instead of any developmental problems? maybe because it can only cross the blood-brain barrier when it is still in its ethyl form and in its ethyl form it does not accumulate. Only when it is converted to inorganic mercury, but inorganic mercury is poorly absorbed by mammals so it can only accumulate on the way out, in the kidneys. I am really sorry about your son, but your story is less convincing then my SIL’s and I was there and knew no vaccine caused my nieces autism and her mother’s story was not accurate.

  9. Bethany says:

    Check this one out.

    I can’t believe they can print this drivel.

  10. Catherina says:

    Thank you for calling this Dreck dreck, Seth. The cowards at TLC have obviously decided to hide all comments that had come in by this morning (and which were all negative, bar an apologetic one liner).

  11. Darwy says:

    What an absolutely pathetic attempt at science reporting. TLC should be absolutely ashamed that they published that pile of BS.

  12. Rufus says:

    I noticed that yesterday there were a number of comments on the TLC article, all calling it out for its falsehoods. The comments section appears to be gone today.

  13. Pingback: Concerned Parents Call Out Irresponsible Media « Shot of Prevention

  14. Ken B says:

    What do you tell someone who insists that Thermiosol is still in pediatric vaccines?

  15. Ken B says:

    Is the TLC show “How Stuff Works” the same people who run “www.howstuffworks.com”? A quick search of that site came up with this:


    Vaccine Myths

    MYTH: Vaccines cause autism.

    TRUTH: “Study after study has shown that there is no link between vaccines and autism,” says Angie Matthiessen with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

  16. Catherina says:

    They have changed the story to a half arsed, still mostly wrong, both sides of the debate version – still no comments allowed

  17. Pingback: TLC disappears comments, edits its turd of an anti-vaccine piece. It still stinks. | The Panic Virus

  18. KG says:

    I have a five-year old on the spectrum. I don’t waste much time wondering why, as my wife and I focus our efforts on helping him reach his potential. Do vaccines cause Autism? I don’t know for certain and don’t get caught up much in the debate. But I do know-and this is very difficult for anybody to debate-if it happens to be true that vaccines in any way contribute to neurological disorders and it got out that there is a cover up, the economic ramifications on our economy would be staggering. So for those of you who are so quick to be dismissive of what the “science” says and like to poke fun at people who don’t believe it, think about the likely hundreds of billions (if not more) that are at stake, and what lengths the government and drug companies might collectively go to keep it under wraps.

    • Marty says:

      I’ve been saying this exact same thing for years. Trust me, they ignore it. They can’t see past anything that doesn’t support their own case – that is, if it doesn’t validate what they believe, then it’s ignored.

      • “if it isn’t validated by the evidence, then it’s ignored.”

        There, fixed it for you.

        • Marty says:

          Not really, putting words in my mouth won’t fix issues with subjective validation. I’m talking about anti-vaccination lobbyists, btw. So no, you weren’t fixing anything. If the evidence doesn’t support anti-vaccine logic, then they ignore it.

  19. Pingback: Seth Mnookin on Chicago Sun-Times-Jenny McCarthy "propaganda piece" | Reporting on Health

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  21. RL says:

    Looks like they’ve updated the article. I don’t see anything wrong with it in its current form.

    Also, if you refer to it as “the Internets,” I have a hard time taking you seriously.

  22. Pingback: TLC’s vaccine misinformation piece vanishes into the ether. Do they owe readers an explanation? (Also: Chicago Sun-Times endorsement of anti-vaccine conference remains online.) | The Panic Virus

  23. Chris Hix says:

    I do take him as he is, Marty, absolutely. And I hope you’re right. I am not anti-vacciconspiracy theorist. Had I educated myself of Thimerosal, both sides, not just what the govt. or the medical world, who are oblgated to push drugs, have to say, but scientists who’ve independently done studies. The risk with thimerosal, ethelmercury, is not any safer than methylmercury. The symptoms are related. I’ve watched my child. I know my child. Not everyone reacts the same to thimerosal. Vaccines are good, anykind of mercury injected into a developing brain is never, ever okay. It’s a matter of space & money[thimerosal in flu shots] and it is doing harm. People can shelter themselves from that reality all they want, that 1 shot can really do some very serious damage, the fact is it can. The human body isn’t designed for that kind of insult at such a delicate age. I thought it was conspiracy nonsense too & I was wrong & ignorant. All I can do is look forward, but giving my son that shot with thimerosal is the greatest regret of my life, you don’t know as a mother how that feels. Would you inject your baby with mercury? I would do anything to go back. My son had no issues whatsoever, was completely normal, until after that shot at 22 mo. old, he’s been in therapy since 26 mo. The educated thing to do is never allow your child to be injected with thimerosal. If you know the slightest chemistry facts on the poison thimerosal & have a shred of common sense, you won’t. Don’t listen to biased accounts of how safe it is.

    • Marty says:

      I don’t, just as I don’t listen to biased accounts of how unsafe it is, either. I’m not sure of the particulars with your son’s condition, coincidence is not the same thing as causation. Of the millions of children getting vaccines at that age of the world, there would be much more obvious indications that they were causing issues. However, conditions commonly attached to vaccines, but not proven, occur in the same rates amongst unvaccinated children.

      There is one famous story of a child who had a massive febrile seizure moments before she was due to have a shot. If the shot had been delivered a few seconds sooner, it’s likely the parents would have made a connection, but unlikely it would have been caused by the vaccine.

      It is a documented story, but I can’t find it at the moment. I remember seeing it in a few places, most memorably on Dr Paul Offit’s website. Even if there is no evidence of this having happened, the fact is that it does, and if you don’t believe me, then you’ll understand why anecdotal evidence can be dismissed.

      Thimerosal is not mercury, it has mercury in it, in a chemical composition that changes its effects, and its halflife. Just like common table salt, which is sodium chloride, doesn’t explode when the sodium in it comes into contact with the water in our bodies, likewise the mercury in thimerosal has different properties in it’s molecular state.

      Ethylmercury, in many studies, has been shown to leave the body via fecal waste in a very short period of time, unlike methylmercury, which can be much more harmful. Just like how sodium chloride is safe for digestion, but sodium hydroxide causes severe chemical burns. It is very basic chemistry.

      And I do understand difficulties with those rubber mat keyboards, they are absolutely diabolical.

    • Momofthree says:

      I have a daughter that was born in 1989. So, most likely all the vaccines she received contained thiomerosal and knowing what I know now I would give her every one of those vaccines again. Oh, and I am a scientist and vaccinating is the educated thing to do.

  24. Chris Hix says:

    [excuse typos, I’ve got a rubber keyboard & you’ve really got to hit them hard or the letters won’t show up..]

  25. Pingback: Interesting reads: May 12th – May 18th, 2012 « Mr Epidemiology

  26. Ken Reibel says:

    Time Magazine gives a shout out to Seth.

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