Bad Science



Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.

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30 Responses

  1. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I’ve come around to @russell-saunders ‘ way of thinking about this. We should not force people to vaccinate their children, but we should presume that they do want this. But if they opt out, they should be given a comprehensive lecture and a suggestion that they find a pediatrician willing to treat the diseases in question, be required to sign a form indicating that they have been counseled that they leave their children in particular and children in general more vulnerable to otherwise-preventable but very serious to in some cases fatal diseases, and advice that their insistence that their children not be vaccinated may be used against them later as evidence that they have made decisions contrary to their childrens’ best interest.Report

    • Avatar Jon Golder in reply to Burt Likko says:

      The only Problem with this argument is that it still leaves the rest of us vulnerable to the effects of unnecessarily high numbers of unvaccinated people. Where this matters most is in the case of those too young to be protected (infants) and those who legitimately cannot use certain vaccines due to allergies or the like. These individuals will be subject to the decreased resistance of the ‘herd’ and to increased likelihood of coming into contact with infected individuals.

      I’d be just fine with people not vaccinating, if it only affected themselves, but when parents make these decisions for their children, and then pass on the costs even more widely, there is a real problem.Report

    • I am working on a lengthier article on this very subject at this very moment in time.

      I’ll let you know if/when it gets published.Report

      • Avatar Rod in reply to Russell Saunders says:

        Given your recent announcement I’ll be astounded and awestruck to see much beyond your Stupid Tuesday posts for awhile. Pleased, but bewildered.Report

      • I submitted my piece about mandatory vaccination over at the outlet where the idea was pitched to me. We’ll see if the editor there likes it.

        And I’m trying to get at least one thing per week to Daily Beast. One of the things that was negotiated as we considered the recently-announced expansion of our family is that I would have time set aside to write, and the Better Half has been true to his word.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Would you say that they should be denied access to public schools, parks (this one would be hard to enforce), and libraries unless documentation of vaccination could be proved?Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to NewDealer says:

        This is one of those times when I kinda hope that our litigious society solves this problem for us.

        Why nobody has sued the living daylights out of someone for exposing their child to measles is beyond me.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to NewDealer says:

        @patrick in the law there is a concept of “causation.” My failure to meet a legal duty must somehow cause the damage you suffered. If we legislatively impose a legal duty to vaccinate a child (a duty that does not currently exist), you must still prove that my failure to vaccinate my child is what caused your child to get the mumps. Seems to me that could be a pretty tall order.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to NewDealer says:


        Technically, it’s do-able. Given a small population of infected, a Zero can be found. Logistically & legally it’s much trickier, as you would need to be able to take infection DNA profiles from the Zero & enough of the population to work up a profile of the infection progression. Basically we would need a legal obligation on the part of the un-vaccinated to submit to a swab/blood sample every time there was an infection in the relevant population.

        So a law that says the public health agency can come around to your house and test your kid anytime there is a local case of whatever your kid in not vaccinated against.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to NewDealer says:

        And at this point, we’re imposing duties that are (debatably, I realize) even more restrictive of freedom and privacy than having to submit to a mandatory vaccination.

        What made me move away from advocating mandatory vaccination is that it is an imposition on freedom. And parents do have a right, a Constitutional right, to control the raising and upbringing of their children. See Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 43 S.Ct. 625, 67 L.Ed. 1042 (1923), and Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 45 S.Ct. 571, 69 L.Ed. 1070 (1925). In my opinion, these rights have been interpreted by courts so narrowly as to be next to meaningless, and that’s on balance a bad thing.

        Moreover, since we can’t be sure that any particular baby will or will not later develop a preventable disease, we can’t say that the state has a compelling interest in abridging that freedom, so much as I dislike the result, we just can’t have a law. Your point that if we impose additional burdens on the exercise of this freedom will let us gather more information, while perhaps helpful, again doesn’t seem to advance a compelling interest (even protecting health, safety, and life) since once the disease is out, figuring out where it came from doesn’t appear calculated to affect treatment or further prevention in any meaningful way.

        Parents unquestionably have the right to make medical decisions for their children and that includes opting out of treatments their doctors recommend. So we have no choice but to respect the rights of parents to control the way their children are raised — even if they use their rights in ways that personally, I strongly disapprove of. Because that’s what it means to take rights seriously.Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to NewDealer says:

        you must still prove that my failure to vaccinate my child is what caused your child to get the mumps. Seems to me that could be a pretty tall order.

        Your daughter got the mumps. You’ve told everyone all about the evils of vaccination for years.

        “My son got the mumps. Nobody else has the mumps. I contend that it’s reasonable that your daughter gave my son the mumps, as they’re in the same class. I’ve had a swab done, and a DNA analysis performed on my son’s mumps, and you’ve refused to test your daughter to show that her mumps didn’t infect my son.”

        I haven’t served on enough personal injury juries to know how well that would fly, as an argument (or even if you could make it without an objection), but that sounds like the sort of argument that might get some traction among a jury.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to NewDealer says:

        What made me move away from advocating mandatory vaccination is that it is an imposition on freedom. And parents do have a right, a Constitutional right, to control the raising and upbringing of their children. … In my opinion, these rights have been interpreted by courts so narrowly as to be next to meaningless, and that’s on balance a bad thing.

        This is the real issue. As reasonable as it seems to say parents should have to vaccinate their kids, when parental rights are “interpreted…so narrowly as to be next to meaningless,” then the line that keeps us from demanding lots of unreasonable things has been wiped away. I know a guy who wants to prosecute parents who raise their kids in church for child abuse, for teaching them to believe in a fairy-tale, non-scientific world. If we can demonstrate harm to the kids, why not?Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to NewDealer says:


        That’s more or less where I come from on the pyramid scheme thread, point of fact.

        Given the current rate of under-vaccination, it doesn’t currently fall into a “big enough problem to require that solution” territory.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to NewDealer says:

        @patrick the res ipsa loquitor argument is indeed powerful in certain factual situations. With the embellishments you add, this one too. Without them? Well, we’d have to see.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to NewDealer says:

        I agree with @burt-likko and @jm3z-aitch . While I agree wholeheartedly with @patrick that not vaccinating children is wrong-wrong-wrong, I struggle with coming up with an appropriate way to require it.

        I understand vaccination is somewhat unique in A) the harm it can cause others and B) the more direct lines we can draw between the behavior and the associated risk*. I’m just not sure it is unique enough.

        * What I mean by this is that raising a child in a home filled with hate (e.g., one that actively promotes Neo-Nazism) probably increases the likelihood in the aggregate that the child will do harm to others, some will rebel against the teachings or be largely immune to them. It is a much less direct, one-to-one action-to-risk relationship.Report

  2. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Understandably, medical science is one field where there is a lot of incomplete knowledge.

    But I am still amazed at how aggressively presumably intelligent people push back against the areas where things are well studied. I remember reading about how Eugene, OR at one time (maybe it currently does) had a large population of very well educated people who refused to vaccinate for one or more of the reasons you link to.Report

    • @mad-rocket-scientist

      I’m not so amazed. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I’m sometimes prone to a knee-jerk sympathy for a lot of these groups (anti-vaxxer, anti-anthropogenic-global-warming, young earth creationism). On some level I actually “get” them, even to the point of getting defensive when I hear perfectly reasonable and fact-based criticism of those positions.

      Frankly, I’m not sure I understand my own sympathy. I accept the pro-vaxxer, pro-AGW, and pro-evolution+maybe-some-first-cause-but-it’s-a-hard-thing-to-prove-or-know positions. I also realize that some of the positions toward which I have this knee-jerk sympathy, such as anti-vaxxism, can wreck real harm.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      That’s Eugene alright. I’m never going to Eugene, due to the preponderance of death threats.Report

  3. Avatar kenB says:

    On a related note, did everyone see this Twitter exchange?Report

  4. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    A whole series on bad science is going to be super space awesome. Now that you’ve started, I can’t believe you haven’t done this until now.

    Very excited for this.Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      They’re surprisingly easy to get into, and then you get into a weird space, and then you start to lose patience, and then you wind up sounding like Orac every day, and you wind up hating people for being uneducated, which is psychically trying to say the least.

      The trick is to take a break when you’re still just in the weird space.

      Kinda like binge-reading Travis McGee novels. You can really get into them and then all of a sudden you’re feeling suicidal.Report

  5. Avatar Adam says:

    Really well written rebuttal with good research 😉

    You guys all know about Ben Goldacre and Bad Science, right?


  6. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I should very much enjoy more posts like this, @patrick . Just sayin’.Report

  7. Avatar Wardsmitty says:

    Hello from Taiwan,

    Haven’t been here for awhile. Like this topic, thought I’d posit this rough and tumble as an example of the “proper” way to do science versus the Borg groupthink exhibited by the climate crowd. There should be diversity of opinion not 94% alignment of “models” 100% of which were wrong in the identical wrong direction compared to reality. But what do I know, I’m only here presenting at a scientific conference (plus some sight seeing).Report

  8. Avatar zic says:

    Wanted to add this link to the actual science:

    An analysis of 100 million U.S. medical records reveals that autism and intellectual disability (ID) rates are correlated at the county level with incidence of genital malformations in newborn males, an indicator of possible congenital exposure to harmful environmental factors such as pesticides.
    Autism rates—after adjustment for gender, ethnic, socioeconomic and geopolitical factors—jump by 283 percent for every one-percent increase in frequency of malformations in a county. Intellectual disability rates increase 94 percent. Slight increases in autism and ID rates are also seen in wealthier and more urban counties.