The Huffington Post is still at it
The Huffington Post is at it again. As Michael Corleone said in The Godfather, Part III, "Just when I think I'm out, they drag me back in again!"
Specifically, on Friday, Dr. Jay Gordon, the Post's resident anti-vaccination blogger who has posted articles claiming a link between autism and the thimerosal in vaccines , the one who has so far apparently ignored some of the comments made about a recent anti-vaccination post (see comments), was at it again on Friday. I rather suspect that this latest post may actually be a vague answer to some of the criticisms of his previous post, mine included (here, also, both of which include the links to the relevant posts by Dr. Gordon). In Friday's piece, Dr. Gordon in essence impugns the research of all investigators who accept funding from pharmaceutical companies solely on the basis that it may interfere with their objectivity. While conflicts of interest are certainly a legitimate concern when it comes to evaluating the validity of research sponsored by entities that can profit from the results of that research, Dr. Gordon is quite inconsistent in applying his standard. He in essence tells us we should "ignore the study" he discusses simply on the basis of its funding by Aventis-Pasteur. In direct contradiction to this standard, however, earlier he was quite happy to single out for praise studies by Dr Mark Geier and his son David Geier. He even lamented that the Institute of Medicine "ignored" these studies (not true, as the Geiers studies have been cited for "serious methodological flaws," and the IOM mentioned similar methodologic flaws in its executive summary). Yet, Dr. Gordon considers the Geiers' work "excellent," even though the Geiers have a far more glaring conflict of interest than any scientist I've yet seen Dr. Gordon mention.
Given this, I once again feel forced to respond to Dr. Gordon. I'm not going to respond to him each time he posts more of his dark insinuations, as I don't want his ramblings to control the agenda of my blogging, but today I happen feel like doing so one more time:
Dear Dr. Gordon:
I was very disappointed in your most recent post on vaccines, Dollars Influence Research because it reveals a glaring inconsistency in your position. You state that Dr. Pichicho's study showing the efficacy of a new pertussis vaccine should be ignored based solely on the "appearance of impropriety" due to its having been funded by a drug company. Your logic seems to imply that you should also ignore Mark and David Geier's studies claiming a link between thimerosal and autism (studies that you cited as "excellent" in another post). After all, Dr. Geier is what some have described as a "professional expert witness" in vaccine legal actions (he has participated in at least 100 such cases as a consultant or expert witness, although not always successfully), and finding such a link would likely improve his income potential immensely. His son David runs a consulting company that exists to provide medical and legal counseling to parents seeking to obtain compensation through the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program and through civil litigation. If that isn't an "appearance of impropriety" when it comes to their research, I don't know what is.
So why do say that you are going to "ignore" Dr. Pichichero's study on the pertussis vaccine and urge your readers to do the same, solely on the basis of the "appearance of impropriety" due to its funding source, when you cited the Geiers' research so approvingly? Why are the Geiers studies not "bordering on being worthless" to you because of the Geiers' clear conflict of interest while Dr. Pichichero's study is? Certainly you present no hard reasons to make such a distinction, nor do you explain why you consider drug company funding to be such a huge conflict of interest while apparently you don't consider making one's living off of lawsuits based on one side of this conflict to be a similar problem.
In actuality, you should look at the evidence in the study itself, how well the study was designed, how well it was executed, and whether the data analysis was appropriate. That's how you should judge this study or any study, not solely on the basis of an "appearance of impropriety." The funding issue can and should color your opinion of the study, as it does for most doctors (including myself) and probably lead you to a more critical evaluation of pharmaceutical company-funded studies, but to dismiss such studies out of hand as you have done is intellectually lazy. And, no, the funding issue alone in and of itself is not a good enough reason; there are many drug company-funded studies that are well-designed and well executed. You have to examine every study primarily on its merits, or lack thereof. Few studies are totally stellar or total crap; all have strengths and weaknesses.
I would take your critique of Dr. Pichichero's study far more seriously if you had actually bothered to tell your readers what, specifically, is wrong with the study to make its results "bordering on being worthless"? So tell us: What specific flaws in the study design do you see? What specific flaws in the execution of the study do you see? What specific flaws in the statistics and data analysis do you see? You conveniently neglect to describe any of these things. Instead, you blithely dismissed Dr. Pichichero's study as "bordering on being worthless" because of its funding source. It makes me wonder if you've bothered to read the study itself, or (as I suspect) you've just read news accounts of it.
I do note that you did make the following two disclaimers:
"Now, I actually believe that the vaccine studied probably works well and that the side effects may not be bad enough to cause a lot of harm.
"I believe that University of Rochester's Michael Pichichero, MD., the lead author of the study is an honest man."
To me, your disclaimers make your criticism of this study appear even more egregiously biased. After all, if you truly believe that the vaccine "probably works" well and that Dr. Pichichero is an "honest man," then don't you owe him (and your readers) a fair evaluation of his study, rather than an out-of-hand dismissal plus an insinuation that Dr. Pichichero and JAMA are biased because of financial support from pharmaceutical companies? (It's possible they are biased; but you haven't provided any evidence to demonstrate it.) If you think we should "ignore this study," don't you owe your readers specific explanations based on science as to why, rather than generalizations based on its funding source? If, as you say in a followup "clarification," you "did not mean to imply that there is something extraordinarily wrong with the manufacturer of the vaccine being studied paying for the study," then how do you justify rejecting this particular study out of hand based solely on such funding?
Inquiring minds want to know!
Skeptico has also commented on this.