’I’m not a Scientist but …’; Dissection of an antivaxxer’s argument

By Guest Author 03/11/2010 7


By Michael Edmonds

When Darcy at Sciblogs mentioned that it was Vaccine Awareness Week and that some posts on vaccines would be helpful I wasn’t quite sure if I could contribute as my background is chemistry not immunology. However, given the amount of mis-information around about what goes into vaccines I thought perhaps I could start by looking at what actually goes into a vaccine such as Gardasil.

However in doing a little research on line I came across a web site that demonstrates some of the common errors that occur with anti-vaccine arguments:

Polysorbate 80 and Histidine, a marriage of disaster

Consequently I thought it might be more interesting to dissect the arguments of an anti vaxxer, to see what some of the common errors are.

As with many anti-vaxxers there is no doubt to the sincerity of the author, Cynthia A. Janek. It is just unfortunate to see such sincerity coupled with a complete lack of understanding of science.

Ms Janek focuses her concerns on two ingredients of the Gardasil vaccine, polysorbate 80 and L-histidine stating:

’I have been researching Polysorbate 80 for some time now because I had a gut feeling that there is something to this chemical. I have been doing the same for Histidine because Gardasil is the first vaccine that is using this chemical. I knew that the addition of Histidine had something to do with what we are seeing with Gardasil.’

Notice the emotive terminology and the assumptions made, ’I knew, that histidine was the problem’ and ’I had a gut feeling’.

Science is about gathering information first and then trying to make sense of it. It does not work by starting with your conclusion and then hunting out only the pieces of evidence which appear to support your position.

She then goes on to discuss how polysorbates are surfactants and are used for a wide variety of purposes including ’personal items and cosmetics’. Large sections of information from a commercial site are pasted in to describe polysorbate uses. Into this is added a hint of conspiracy when it is noted that ’but I would think that they would mention vaccines or pharmaceutical uses as well. But that is neither here nor there’

If it is neither here nor there, then why mention it at all, if not to emotively hint at conspiracy? Of course most commercial sites will not mention all of the uses of their products, particularly for applications, such as vaccines, which probably make up a very small part of their market.

In this section there is also the implication that if something has a multitude of uses, then there must be something wrong with including it in a vaccine. Well, vaccines also contain kochsalz: a compound used as a cleaning agent, blood pressure treatment, as a starting material for pesticides, and in some nuclear reactors. Of course, translated into English many of us also sprinkle sodium chloride on our food.

Just because a compound has a multitude of industrial uses does not mean it is harmful to the body, especially when we are talking about minute doses.

Ms Janek, then moves onto histidine, beginning with the statement:

’I was looking for a good explanation of Histidine. Most of the websites that I found were too technical and hard to understand. The above website has an easy to understand definition and that is the only reason that I am using it.’

Not exactly confidence inspiring, but an A+ for (mis-guided) enthusiasm.

This is then followed by a series of cut and pastes from scientific literature in an attempt to show the dangers of histidine. However, she completely misinterprets the research. For example Ms Janek quotes:

’Without adequate histamine production healthy digestion can become impaired. Without adequate L-histidine stores, the body cannot maintain adequate histamine levels.’

In addition to implying a simplistic relationship between histidine and histamine, Ms Janek seems to miss the point that it is LOW levels of histidine that can result in impaired digestion. If anything vaccines should result in an (very slight and temporary) INCREASE in histidine levels so how this could produce the digestive problems supposedly associated with reactions to the Gardasil vaccine is unclear. The same mistake is repeated when it is stated that:

’Another finding in the girls is that when a hair sample is tested they are finding high levels of metals present. Less well known is that L-histidine is required by the body to regulate and utilize essential trace minerals… Some of the girl’s symptoms are typical of metal poisoning such as: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, headache, sweating…’

The website referenced to this section of text leads to an alternative health websites ’information’ on mercury toxicity which seems a bit strange as Gardasil does not contain mercury. There is also no clear reference to what sort of study this information is based on and who the girls involved were.

A further cut and paste describes LOW levels of histidine being associated with rheumatoid arthritis. At no stage is there any explanation on how the ADDITION of histidine via vaccination could result in a LOWERING of histidine levels in the body.

This confusion continues with the statement that:

Now we have just added more histidine into their systems therefore overloading and creating a dangerous situation. The immune system now has to deal with the dangerous levels of histidine along with the virus like particles and aluminum. Now we have a programmed immune response to the histidine and the immune system is going to attack it.

Does Ms Janek think the problem is due to an overload or a deficiency of histidine? I have no idea.

The cut and pastes after this come from some fairly complex scientific papers, with Ms Janek putting sections she thinks support her argument in bold. I assume the rest of the information is just there to impress the reader. Then comes the statement:

I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not a research scientist. I just present the facts as I find them and you are to make your own determination.

Does Ms Janek realise how disingenuous it is to spend several pages making an argument and then claim she is not an expert and is just presenting the ’facts’ for the reader to decide? I suspect not.

The paper continues with selective sections from fairly specific research papers. This is another common mistake of those who do not understand how science works — taking the findings of very specific studies and extrapolating them to imply a wider meaning of the results.

The paper comes to a close with a mix of contempt for the medical establishment and emotive pleading:

’How long is it going to take the FDA and the CDC and all the other organizations around the world to see what is happening here? We already have 9,749 reported adverse events…’

’Why did I have to be the one? Why were not these chemicals studied in a setting to see what they would do in a vaccine environment? WHY, WHY, WHY!!!!!!!!!’

’Oh, my dear God. I am sorry but I have to end this article here because I am next to tears and cannot go any further.’

One cannot help but empathise with Ms Janek, as this issue is obviously close to her heart. However, such arguments if left unchallenged only introduce confusion and mistrust into public debate. Such arguments not only need to be challenged but the type of errors involved need to be explained in an attempt to educate the public not only about vaccines but how REAL science works.

Understanding science is analogous to studying a foreign language. You cannot become fluent in a language by looking up the translations for each word you want to use and then sticking them together randomly. Science does not involve bringing together a random mix of ’facts’ that suit your argument.  To truly understand science, one must understand the scientific method, have the ability to weigh up different pieces of evidence in an informed manner, and accept that your pet theories must be discarded if the evidence proves them wrong.

Michael Edmonds is an educator, researcher and manager at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. He has strong interests in the communication and promotion of science.


7 Responses to “’I’m not a Scientist but …’; Dissection of an antivaxxer’s argument”

  • I could add a lot to this, as I guess most people can, so let me not bore everyone and add just one point:

    “We already have 9,749 reported adverse events…”

    Reported events are not confirmed events, only reports that might be events worth noting. Also needed is what each of the “adverse events” are. Anything can be filed as an event to the VAERS database. To test/prove/illustrate the point, one wit — James Laidler, an MD no less — filed a claim that he was turned into The Incredible Hulk! The point is the reports need to be filtered to eliminate irrelevant claims, duplicate claims of the same event, etc.

    To wit (erm, no double-meanings to my previous use of this word…):

    “The chief problem with the VAERS data is that reports can be entered by anyone and are not routinely verified. To demonstrate this, a few years ago I entered a report that an influenza vaccine had turned me into The Hulk. The report was accepted and entered into the database.

    Because the reported adverse event was so… unusual, a representative of VAERS contacted me. After a discussion of the VAERS database and its limitations, they asked for my permission to delete the record, which I granted. If I had not agreed, the record would be there still, showing that any claim can become part of the database, no matter how outrageous or improbable.

    Since at least 1998 (and possibly earlier), a number of autism advocacy groups have, with all the best intentions, encouraged people to report their autistic children—or autistic children of relatives and friends—to VAERS as injuries from thimerosal-containing vaccines. This has irrevocably tainted the VAERS database with duplicate and spurious reports.”

    Source: http://neurodiversity.com/weblog/article/14/chelation-autism

  • Yes, Grant, there is a lot that you and others could add to my dissection of the anti-vaxxer argument. Feel free.
    I think it is interesting to identify the common errors and misconceptions in their arguments, as a first step to trying to correct them. The annoying thing is that so many of these people have the best intentions (albeit often tainted with conspiracy theories). If they would just take the time to learn some science then they could be using all those good intentions to support vaccine use!
    Your points about the VAERS database are certainly worth remembering as this is a common reference for ant-vaxxers.

  • Good stuff here Michael, this is about as confused as any anti-vax argument I’ve ever seen.

    While we are on the topic of VAERS, a couple of other points that are probably obvious to some. First is that the absolute number of adverse event reports is a good first start but it must also be used in conjunction with the total number of doses of vaccine given before any even remote estimate of risk can be calculated.

    Second is that this information must also be put into context for the society as a whole. In other words do the events occur in conjunction with the vaccine does at a rate higher than the general population. If not then the vaccine does not represent an increased risk factor.

    At the risk of appearing attention seeking I’ve posted previously both on this issue and the ingredients of the Gardasil vaccine.

  • Polysorbate is used in many industrial processes, true. You neglect to say that our most common exposure to it in first world countries is as a surfactant in ice cream, with even higher amounts found in low calorie ice cream.

    Eating a dessert with low calorie ice cream doses a person with many thousands of times the amount of polysorbate they would receive from a Gardasil injection!

  • Now that is a Very Useful piece of information 🙂

    But wait… you’ve forgotten! That’s a ‘normal’ route into the body – it’s a zillion times worse for you if injected!!!!
    /ducks & runs away 🙂