Field of Science

Anti-vaccine pseudoscientist Jay Gordon

After the vaccine court decision (discussed in my last post), there have been predictable reactions from many anti-vaccine activists, some claiming that “more study is needed,” others claiming bias, and of course conspiracy theories. One of the most prominent anti-vaccinationists is Jay Gordon, who is Jenny McCarthy’s kid’s doctor, and who has enjoyed a huge amount of publicity by going on TV repeatedly as the vaccine “skeptic”. He employs a variety of logical fallacies to argue, again and again, that vaccines cause autism. What is also remarkable about this guy is that he protests, over and over, that he is not anti-vaccine.

Come on.

Gordon’s latest act is an article in the Huffington Post, which has been a haven for anti-vaccine nonsense, titled “The Vaccine Court was Wrong.” In this ridiculous article, he trots out the usual arguments. First, he says “they should have insisted on further studies to assist in the decision-making process.” Huh? The courts don’t decide what scientific studies should be done. They review the evidence presented to them. The plaintiffs chose 3 cases from among thousands – the best cases they could find, presumably – and presented their evidence. They failed up and down the line to show that vaccines have any link whatsoever to autism. They also failed to show that thimerosal (the preservative that used to be present in some childhood vaccines) has any link to autism. Furthermore, they failed to show any plausible mechanism for how vaccines might cause autism.

Multiple large epidemiological studies have failed to show any link. But Dr. Jay still insists we need “further studies.”

Next, let’s deal with the question of Jay Gordon’s incompetence as a scientist. In a second recent post (last week) by Gordon, he claimed bluntly:
“Let me state very simply, vaccines can cause autism.”
Gordon provides no evidence for this statement – he just declares it to be true. One of the responses on the HuffPost site got him riled up: a commenter said:
“Dr. Jay is not a scientist…. I see no peer-reviewed publications in his biography, no additional training in biomedical research, and no specific expertise in vaccine science. He has no more credibility in telling you that vaccines are unsafe than I, a computer programmer, do.”
This really got Gordon upset. Here’s his reply:
“Actually, I am a scientist. After high school, I continued my education and trained for twelve years in medical science. Subsequent to that, I have observed thousands of children and families and kept records about their health. That, [blogger id], is science.”
Hang on while I get back on my chair. The inanity of that statement floored me for a minute. Let’s see: if I take courses in anatomy, physiology, etc., can I claim to be a doctor? What about that, Dr. Jay? The problem is, taking medical school courses doesn’t make you a scientist – it exposes you to science, true, but in your case you didn’t seem to learn the methods of science, just the facts (presumably).

But even more misguided is Gordon’s claim that his observations (however numerous) trump controlled epidemiological studies. Scientists know all too well how much bias can affect observations: that’s why we do controlled, blinded studies. Gordon seems to think that his experience overrides any number of scientific studies. This is the antithesis of science. If Gordon understood science (he doesn’t), then he would know that subjective experience and beliefs don’t form a valid basis for conclusions. You can use observations to form hypotheses, but then you must test them. In the case of the autism-vaccine hypothesis, it has been tested, repeatedly, and has failed. Real scientists have accepted these results and moved ahead to try to determine the true causes of autism, instead of clinging to failed hypotheses.

Here I have to give a big shout-out to Orac over at Respectful Insolence for his latest post in which he picks apart Gordon’s arguments decisively, and provides a lesson on why Gordon is not only not a scientist, but is one of the most damaging anti-vaccinationists circulating today.

Finally, Gordon also wrote this week that “private industry is once again duping the FDA, doctors and the public. “ There it is – the conspiracy theory. Not that he has any evidence of this – he doesn’t. In fact, most of the large studies showing no link between vaccines and autism (the ones I’ve read) were publicly funded, and run by scientists who had no financial interest in the outcome. In contrast, Dr. Jay is doing very well financially selling his DVD and books where he warns parents about the dangers of vaccines. In fact, his website is a shameless collection of self-promotional materials (I refuse to post a link here) and advertisements asking you to buy his “must-see DVD” (I’m not making that up) and book. So who’s really making money on this pseudoscience?

One final shout-out to Steven Novella for his clear explanation of some of the sloppy thinking and logical fallacies behind Gordon’s arguments. If only people would read Orac and Novella instead of Gordon!

2 comments:

  1. The court asked whether there's proof that vaccine are harmful.

    It didn't rule on the question on whether there's proof that vaccines are unharmful.

    Saying that it ruled on the second question when it ruled on the first is pseudoscience.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anon: a basic principle of science is that it's impossible to prove a negative. Therefore, asking for proof that something is "unharmful" is asking for the impossible. No one - certainly not me - stated that the court ruled on that question.

    ReplyDelete

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