The Vaccine Hypothesis: bad science

Posted: February 17th, 2009 under opinion, theories of causation.
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It’s understandable that parents of children with autism, like parents of children with any developmental problem, want to know what caused  it–and often want to know who’s to blame.    Unfortunately, in the case of autism and childhood immunizations, a combination of greed, bad logic, and outright lying by some unscrupulous  “investigators” has created a situation in which innocent parents have come to believe that evil vaccines caused their children’s autism.

It’s not true.   Yet, like many errors, it’s become ingrained in some peoples’ minds–largely because of three factors.  First, it gives parents someone to blame and gets them off the hook with relatives.   If it’s caused by vaccines, they don’t  have to consider the known causes, including genetics.  Second, it makes a huge profit for those who promote the vaccine hypothesis and offer goods and services to ameliorate the supposed damage done by the vaccine.  And third, there’s the profit motive: if autism were caused by vaccines, then suing vaccine manufacturers (and now, the government because it’s taken over the liability) could make a lot of money for lawyers and parents alike.

To understand why the vaccine hypothesis is wrong requires some history as well as good science.

History first.   Opposition to childhood immunizations has existed since the first immunization programs began.   Despite the clear population-wide benefits,  some governments refused  on eugenic grounds: Hitler, for instance, insisted that real Aryans wouldn’t die of diptheria–only lesser races would succumb–so Germany suffered a diptheria epidemic during WWII which did impair its military capability.  Rommel caught diptheria and was sent home from North Africa because he was so sick.

Similarly, some people argue that immunizations preserve the weak at the expense of the strong.   Others consider immunizations too dangerous, and point to the rare deaths associated with them.  They argue that if everyone else is immunized, they are protected by herd immunity and can avoid the risk of the immunization.   Still others have religious or philosophical objections, usually based on the concept of “fate” or “God’s will.”    In some parts of the world, political opposition to vaccines manufactured or invented elsewhere has resulted in lies about the vaccines (that they’re really anti-fertility drugs, for instance.)

Those who oppose immunizations have used a variety of arguments, as above, to blame “vaccines” for a variety of ailments via a variety of  physically impossible mechanisms.   The target vaccine has changed over time, but many of the same arguments are used.    When autism emerged from the shadows cast by Bettelheim (the “refrigerator mothers” hypothesis)  and people began looking for someone else to blame, those who opposed childhood immunizations took up the cause of autism.

Their first vaccine target was the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine; some parents had already refused to allow their children to have that in the usual DTP combination,  and though it was widely given in some countries, it was not in others.  That made it possible to determine fairly quickly that the autism rate was the same with and without the pertussis vaccine.

The next target of concern was the tetanus vaccine.   If you troll through old Usenet posts in one or more of the autism groups from the mid-90s, you’ll find peculiar (and physically impossible) hypotheses about that vaccine (one of the oldest and most reliable) that go like this.  Tetanus is caused by a bacteria in the genus Clostridia.   Botulism is caused by another bacteria in the genus Clostridia, C. botulinum.    Both bacteria produce toxins that cause a characteristic disease.   Botulism is caused by ingesting the bacteria in foods–the toxin can be absorbed through the gut.  Infants, but not adults, can get botulism from C. botulinum spores in honey.   So far so good.   But note that neither tetanus nor botulism looks anything like autism.   The people who came up with the “tetanus vaccine causes autism” idea proposed that an infant  getting a tetanus immunization might have “tetanus spores” end up in the brain (via a circuitous route that required transmission through the blood to the gut, where the spores would be absorbed through the gut back into the blood and thence to the brain where they would do neurological damage and produce autism.

What’s wrong with this?  Well,  there aren’t any “tetanus spores” in tetanus vaccine, to start with.   An infant or small child with tetanus does not look like a child with autism, and if they survive they still don’t look like a child with autism.   They look like a child who’s had tetanus, a known quantity.

Once the vaccine hypothesis had been disproven for tetanus, diptheria, pertussis, and polio,  the same “investigators” moved on to other vaccines with the same basic arguments and attitudes.   Rubella was an attractive target, as were measles and mumps: viral (not bacterial) diseases that did sometimes cause an encephalitis (brain inflammation) with permanent neurological deficits.   The deficits were not the same as in autism, but facts never bothered these scare-mongers.  Moreover, the use of a mercury compound in the combined MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine  gave them another scare-point, as mercury compounds (both organic and inorganic) are known neurological toxins…in sufficient amounts.

Once more, though, the facts don’t fit the hypothesis.  Infants and children have suffered both inorganic and organic mercury poisoning…and the symptoms do not look like autism.   These conditions are well-known to the medical community and well-characterized for all ages from infancy on up.  The argument that very, very, very mild mercury poisoning (the amount injected in an immunization)  might cause a totally different neurological condition simply does not stand up.

Why did anyone (even parents with no background in medicine) ever believe any of this nonsense?   Because for most people, anything that happens before an event is considered a possible cause of that event, especially if it is someone else’s acts.   So the fact that the bulk of childhood immunizations are given between age 2 months and age 3, and that children with autism begin to show developmental delays in this same period,  suggested a connection between those.   Coupled with the belief that the incidence of autism increased at the same time that certain vaccines came into use,  the case for the autism/vaccine hypothesis seemed made.

But once more the facts don’t support the hypothesis.  Where the research has been done, the increase in diagnosis of autism cases was balanced by a decrease in diagnosis of mental retardation.   In other words,  children who used to be called “retarded” (not something for which vaccines were ever blamed) were now being diagnosed as autistic.   Even 25 years ago, autism was a diagnosis so weighted with horror that doctors avoided it if they could use another label…now it carries much less social stigma.   So the increase in cases does not mean an actual increase in the incidence–but in the recognition that a child who appears deaf or mute, or who has profound developmental delays or who doesn’t interact well with others, might well be autistic– not deaf, not retarded, not “emotionally disturbed.”

Time after time, real scientific investigation has shown no evidence at all that vaccines cause autism, but the proponents of the vaccine hypothesis continue to recruit more and more frightened parents to the cause.  I have been following this in the medical journals (both British and US) for thirty years…reading the research papers, the review articles, all of which conclude that this hypothesis has no basis in fact.  Real research in the causes of autism point clearly to events in utero, before birth, as the cause of most autism.    Last week’s court case which dismissed vaccines as the cause of autism (and thus removed the ground for granting damages)  is just one in a string of reverses for the vaccine hypothesis.

It is tragic that so much time and money and effort has gone into attacking vaccines instead of providing the support and therapy that autistic children and their families need…that unscrupulous “investigators” have used parental fear and concern to bolster their own egos and pocketbooks.    Thirty years ago, I was willing to believe that these “investigators” were honest, that they  really were trying to find the real cause of autism–but after all that’s happened, after reading their “research” and that of others, and after noticing that they shifted their ground from vaccine to vaccine with the same specious ideas, that they refused to accept valid research results, that they continued to urge parents to raise money for their foundations, continued to provide “information” that ran counter to the facts, I no longer believe that.  I believe they are charlatans, quacks, snake-oil sellers who simply want to make a living off the misery of others.


  • Comment by AnnMCN — February 17, 2009 @ 5:30 pm


    It is heart-breaking, and if you argue with the true believers, you get the “You just don’t understand” response, which has nothing to do with the facts.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — February 17, 2009 @ 6:53 pm


    The state of education is another hair-puller…most people never learn the simplest rules of logic, let alone any real biology. Ever read Sayers’ _The Lost Tools of Learning_?

  • Comment by AnnMCN — February 19, 2009 @ 6:33 am


    Oh, gosh, no, I hadn’t but I just found it online. Have read the first part and it is so apt! She wrote that over 60 years ago, which certainly halts the “this generation” labeling. Must go to work, will finish this evening.

  • Comment by AnnMCN — February 19, 2009 @ 8:14 pm


    I am stunned. She absolutely nails my problem with the vagueness of education, and has information to back up her ideas. I have never read it before and yet, it is so familiar.

    You have to know how to learn. teaching to the test is the mental form of foot-binding.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — February 19, 2009 @ 10:20 pm


    The sad thing is that some parents (too many!) do not want their children to learn “critical thinking skills” (however defined) because they suspect the children will then be able to reason past the parents’ biases. They *want* their kids to learn exactly what they’re told and nothing else. They themselves don’t know how to reason logically, and are afraid of those who can.

  • Comment by AnnMCN — February 20, 2009 @ 5:43 am


    I started school in Alabama in the late 1950’s, and there were more than 40 students in all my classes, of all levels, but I still had a good education, mostly because my parents taught me how to read, and had no concept of age-appropriate, or something being “too hard.” Children are crippled when limited only to what they could create on their own.

    Frankly, I think many teachers are afraid of thinking students, and that’s from my experience as a student, as a parent, and as a certified special ed teacher.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — February 20, 2009 @ 8:19 am


    I started school in the early ’50s in south Texas–also large class sizes. I came in knowing how to read and reading several grade levels above mine–and, like you, had a mother who figured if I could read it, I should have the chance. She argued with the local librarian and got me a regular library card. However, there were areas in which I didn’t self-educate, and I didn’t even know about the formal rules of logic until much, much later.

    I agree that many teachers are afraid of students who can really think–certainly some of mine were, and the dislike of “smart” students was overt and vicious in some cases. These teachers would insult us and tell us flat out they didn’t like kids who were “too smart” and they were going to show us we weren’t as smart as we thought.

  • Comment by Estee Klar — February 20, 2009 @ 9:32 am


    Great post, Elizabeth.

    I’m still puzzled why you wrote for a cure at the end of your fabulous book, though, even after I’d read your explanation.

    Your book was so terrific and but I didn’t like the ending.

  • Comment by sari — February 20, 2009 @ 10:07 am


    A principal once told me, “You don’t have to be TAG to teach TAG.”

    Do you think that Sayer’s argument can be applied on a mass scale or that it is limited to the brightest?

  • Comment by Alis — February 20, 2009 @ 1:37 pm


    Thanks for this post. I actually know people who did not vaccinate their children, and there was no arguing with them. Indeed often their arguments included the suggestion that you were being reckless with your children’s health for vaccinating them.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — February 20, 2009 @ 6:10 pm


    I definitely think Sayers’ approach will work with children across a range of abilities–and that opinion is based on my experience tutoring kids of widely varying abilities and personalities. I would combine it (as she could not, because the techniques had not yet been defined) with positive reinforcement and a variety of sensory modalities, but in fact most kids can learn to think clearly (if not quickly, or to the same depth.)

  • Comment by Elizabeth — February 20, 2009 @ 6:18 pm


    I suspect your puzzlement is because you don”t comprehend the force a character brings to the story…writers soon discover that their characters are “real” in the way they insist on being who they are. Characters are not like figurines you can move around on a game board: in the course of a story they acquire their own momentum and they are not easily deflected from what they choose to do–in fact, some of them can’t be budged a centimeter. If I falsify the character to suit someone else (even me) the character goes flat and flabby, like bread dropped in water. Lou chose the end of the story. Some people like it; some people don’t.

    The determination of characters to be who they are is hard to explain, and I’m sure it’s hard for readers to believe–but it does exist.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — February 20, 2009 @ 6:38 pm


  • Comment by Kathleen Seidel — February 21, 2009 @ 7:51 am


    Great post, Elizabeth. Thanks especially for pointing out that there’s money to be made in the dissemination of inaccurate information about autism causation. The lawyers who specialize in assembly-line VICP filings (“Kid got autism? Kid got vaxed? File yer short-form petition here!”) don’t even have to prevail to rake in $200/hour and more in fees, which are paid out of the VICP kitty.

    One correction: the DPT vaccine contained thimerosal as a preservative, not MMR. MMR is a live-virus vaccine that has never contained thimerosal. The MMR hypothesis posits that the vaccine causes a unique form of GI dysfunction and subsequent brain inflammation. The DPT hypothesis posits that the thimerosal in the vaccine causes neurological damage. The MMR scare came first, thanks to U.K. solicitor Richard Barr and his scientist-for-hire Andrew Wakefield, then traveled across the pond. The DPT scare then blossomed in the U.S.. It’s therefore fitting that the MMR hypothesis was the first to be put under the microscope in the Omnibus Autism Proceeding. I doubt that the rulings in the three thimerosal-only test cases will be any less damning than the ones issued last week.

    My heart goes out to all the children who have been subjected to risky and dubiously effective pharmaceutical treatments based on the vaccine causation hypothesis.

  • Comment by Chris — February 21, 2009 @ 1:17 pm


    Estee Klar wrote “I’m still puzzled why you wrote for a cure at the end of your fabulous book, though, even after I’d read your explanation.

    Your book was so terrific and but I didn’t like the ending.”

    I interpreted that the ending shows is what is LOST with the the cure. It was sad and poignant, because there is sharp contrast between the main character at the beginning of the book and the end. Yes, he achieved his goal of going to space, but he lost his love life, friends and the ways of thinking that made him special.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — February 21, 2009 @ 4:01 pm


    Any change involves loss as well as gain (if there is gain.) Individuals choose what they think is the best outcome for them (if they’re allowed to choose) but they may not be fully aware of all the possibilities (in fact, most of us aren’t, much of the time.) None of us can expand the number of hours in a day–we can’t do everything, and our choices then limit future choices on the one hand and open up opportunities on the other.

    Lou gained some things he wanted and lost things that had been important to him, but now were less so. I don’t think his love life is ended forever–it just won’t be Marjorie. I liked the original Lou a lot…the “new” Lou was around so briefly that I don’t know him as well. But he has many of the same character traits I liked in the original Lou.

    One of the things I wanted to show was how delicately balanced the calculus of opportunity and loss is…and how different people can look at the same situation and make different choices, based on their own values/priorities.

  • Comment by Marjan T. — March 12, 2010 @ 12:44 pm


    English is a foreign language to me so this is ‘best effort’ writing, not something I think is written well.
    I encountered data on different places about correlation between celiac disease and autism: a rather large number of autistic children were reported to also have celiac or similar gastric related symptoms. Specific carbohydrate diet (SCD onward in this post) was reported to ameliorate celiac etc. symptoms in a lot of such cases, and I also saw reports of reduction of autistic symptoms in some cases. It might be placebo, it might be people saw what they wished to see. But if celiac (and similar diseases) is part of ‘vicious cycle’ (described by Elaine Gottschall,, wrong kind of wild and out of control gastric micro-flora generating toxins could also generate some that could be psycho toxic – or could interfere with data acquisition-transmission… processes you described, and so be related to autistic symptoms.
    I only encountered lone case data, and no report of any systematic research. So partial causality might be possible, but probability is unknown to me.
    Another set of information I encountered some decades ago was about Russian research somewhere in the middle of previous century, of long (up to 40 days) diet of eating nothing. Info I read was a booklet translated from Russian by Military Hospital in Belgrade (ex Yu), so if they translated it they probably got interested and didn’t find it wrong at first glance.
    There were descriptions of phases, dangers in several of phases (some could be fatal, or cause permanent damage), but there were also data about several psychiatric conditions that used to keep people hospitalized for decades, and got cured by that therapy.
    In several cases symptoms didn’t reappear, in some reappeared but repeated diet cured symptoms again.
    I tried to find info on Internet about either original or translated info but failed, so I can’t give reference.
    When I read about toxic waste of out of control gastric micro-flora that SCD could help control, I recalled that that Russian ‘total’ diet could also ‘control’ wild gastric micro-flora, and if some of that toxins could be psycho-toxic, that could be an explanation of the psychiatric related effects of the ‘eating-nothing’ diet.
    SCD or other diets with similar effect of ‘breaking the vicious cycle could achieve that with less risk than total ‘eating-nothing’ ‘diet’ I got info about, and same mechanism could be in effect where people reported reduction of autistic symptoms. It might be worth to research if some of types of autistic symptoms could be related to such phenomena, and if so, if (and when) a diet like SCD could be beneficial, and if not, to let the affected people know it could be waste of effort.
    Regards, Marjan

  • Comment by Elizabeth — March 17, 2010 @ 7:59 am


    Your comment arrived the same week I had a book launch (see post in and have been working on that blog, not this one. Sorry to be slow getting your comment out of moderation. I don’t have time to answer it right now, but some of the research you suggest has been done.

  • Comment by MDavey — March 19, 2010 @ 5:22 pm


    What would really be great is if more medical research showing the connection or lack thereof between vaccines and autism was done by objective, independent entities with no hint of even a possible conflict of interest. Can anyone really blame so many people for not implicitly trusting medical science when much of the research if not most of it is funded by the very pharmaceutical companies which profit from the drugs and treatments studied?

    And secondly, it would also help to increase the general public understanding of basic science, scientific thinking, and the nature of the scientific community. Public science education has been abysmal, and the resulting great “holes” in public science knowledge are filled instead with religious dogma, fear-based fantasy, urban legends, and folk tales.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — March 23, 2010 @ 7:44 am


    Medical research has been done by other than the pharmaceutical companies showing that there is no connection between vaccines and autism…but people who are committed to the vaccine hypothesis can always find some reason not to believe the results. Anti-vaccine sentiment has been around long before a connection to autism was suggested, for just about every vaccine that was ever used. The vaccine connection for autism was first proposed for vaccines that didn’t contain mercury at all, on grounds laughable to anyone with a knowledge of both autism and the putative mechanism (let alone the epidemiology of autism, which has never suggested a connection.) It’s belief, not fact-based knowledge, so it’s not amenable to change by adding facts–they’ll find a way to discredit the facts, just like the climate-change deniers.

    This is why your second point is, alas, faulty: because science education has been so bad, presenting good science does not convince people that it is good science–they lack the knowledge base to tell good science from lousy science…and actually prefer lousy science, because it’s easily discredited when they don’t like the answers.

    A.E. Housman wrote “To think that two and two are four/ and neither five nor three/the heart of man has long been sore/ and long is like to be.” People want their familiar, comfortable beliefs unchallenged by facts, especially facts that they find inconvenient (would make them change their behavior) or unpleasant. It’s unpleasant to think that one’s own family might have contributed genes that resulted in one’s child being autistic…for many people, that possibility lays guilt on one side or the other (or both) so it’s much more comfortable to find an outside cause.

  • Comment by Marjan T. — March 27, 2010 @ 3:40 am


    Elisabeth mentioned that other but pharmaceutical industries do research in that field. But…
    Some of the foundations of science, as I understand it, are repeatability of research, analysis and so on. Currently there are several old and some newer obstacles to that.
    Sine of the old ones:
    – hard to get financing for out of fashion parts of science (financing of anything is if not only, then at least by far profit oriented, and that (the short sighted variety) is not necessary always good)
    – controversial research can kill a scientific career, so there is much auto-censure when people chose research subjects. Also a lot of things got negated (or at least get reported as negated) by famous scientists without being rechecked – and that is not science, but gets reported as science.
    New ones:
    – It may be hard to repeat (and so verify or disprove) a research and its’ results where so much of it is classified confidential by either defense organizations, intellectual property rights, non disclosure agreements or even topics of license agreements (mostly, but not only in software).
    – Laws on protection of individual data or data about an indivirual also make a lot of research difficult. It is hard to ban misuse of individual data because it is hard to adequately define it, so the use of individual data gets baned or at least awkward to acquire, which makes repeating research (to confirm or disprove) much more difficult too.
    I see that a significant handicap to current science, but I don’t have a proposition of a solution (yet;).
    You might think this is something theoretical only – and I shall give an example it is not always so.
    My dentist uses a laptop PC to receive Roentgen pictures of teeth to be treated by e-mail. Being thus exposed to malware, she has to have up-to-date antimalware solution and (at least reasonably) patched operating system. She is a top dentist and staying current with that doesn’t let her time to deal with computer, so procedures had to be reasonable fail-safe and automatic.
    So I checked and configured automatic updates of windows. That procedure once restarted the laptop while a patient was on chair and the picture of his tooth on the screen.
    I asked Microsoft representative what to do. I got an answer to get my dentist read the license agreement, which – at that time at least – was interpreded as that MS Windows XP is not to be used whereever health or life could depend on it.
    Of course, health and life of many people also depend on health insurance companies, so in same way those companies shouldn’t use MS products with that kind of licence agreement, if that proposed interpretation was correct.
    There are some other aspects, but this is long enough.

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