Thursday, July 01, 2004

I haven't posted a column for a while because my publishing schedule got messed up. My column that should have run on June 20 somehow didn't get to the editor's email, so it ran on June 25 instead--but I was out of town, so it's just being posted today.

If the column seems a bit tepid, remember that two weeks ago was a slow week. I didn't want to write about Rumsfeld admitting to violating international law two weeks in a row--another day, another legal outrage. Ho hum. Hey--if the Bush administration can say the Constitution gives it the authority to override treaties and statutes, can't San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome say the same thing and keep issuing those same-sex marriage licenses? Or can only Republican executives self-interpret the Constitution--at least until the Supreme Court has had enough?

Now for the column. I don't agree with the headline; I didn't assert that there was a connection between vaccines and autism, but I gave the claim a hearing, and I suppose you have to take responsibility for that. Kind of like what Rush Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal editorial page aren't doing about giving a respectful hearing to claims that Vincent Foster was murdered.

Newspaper version here.

East Valley Tribune, June 25, 2004

You could convince most Democrats to name more stuff after Ronald Reagan -- anything named after Reagan then couldn’t be named after George W. Bush -- but the best liberal tribute to Reagan is fact-checking yourself, after the fact. After all, as Reagan once said, “Facts are stupid things.”

Of course, Reagan was mangling a quote from John Adams’s legal papers from his defense of the soldiers in the Boston Massacre trial in 1770: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

I prefer the original version to the “cover.”

So in honor of President Adams (also the superior original version), I need to admit my mistake and retract part of a column from November 2002. I ranted about three unrelated provisions slipped at the last minute into the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security, without debate and without any apparent connection to homeland security: a major appropriation to Texas A&M University; a repeal of a ban, adopted with great fanfare a couple months earlier, on government contracts with companies that relocate overseas to avoid paying U.S. taxes; and a provision giving immunity to pharmaceutical companies in potential lawsuits over childhood vaccine preservatives.

I got that last one wrong, in two ways. First, I never thought that Congress would revisit the immunity issue; the GOP majority would just ride out the criticism for a favored industry. But Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, stuck to her guns, and the provision got repealed. We’ll leave it to historians to determine how much ill-informed outcry like mine was needed to force Congress to follow through on the promise to reverse the provision.

Second, subsequent developments have proven invalid the scientific theory underlying my outrage, that “preservatives used in childhood vaccines -- but not tested on kids beforehand -- may have helped caused diseases and behavioral problems like autism.” In April, the medical journal The Lancet withdrew its 1998 article that claimed to show a link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. Other studies, such as a 2001 Institute of Medicine report, found no connection, and other researchers had criticized the 1998 study’s methodology and data, but now the principal evidence suggesting a link has been discredited.

The Lancet editors learned that the British researchers who conducted the study were funded by a legal-aid service looking into whether families could sue the vaccine manufacturers. The journal’s editor called the undisclosed funding a “fatal conflict of interest,” and said the article should not have been published.

Yes, I only wrote “may cause,” and I still don’t think such unrelated provisions belonged in the Homeland Security bill -- what, you don’t recall the impassioned debate about vaccine-liability issues during the 2002 campaign? -- but proponents of the vaccine-autism link now have lost the principal support for that theory.

Proponents still have what we could call “negative support,” as anyone can find problems with any contrary study, and researchers still may be investigating links to neurological impairments other than autism. It’s also always harder to prove a negative, especially to people who really, really want to believe.

But ultimately, science can’t fall to the level of so-called “intelligent design” theory, whose proponents have nothing positive to assert but instead base their arguments entirely on nit-picking of evolution, or of Iraq war supporters, who also are convinced that we can justify war because “the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.”

For parents reading this far, the moral is: forget the politics, the essential scientific debate is over. Please, please get your kids vaccinated.

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