The Curious Reports of Vaccines and Autism on CBS

This week my summer school class on Psychology and Literature read Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. On Thursday morning the students had a quiz in which they had to “diagnose” Christopher, the novel’s main character, with autism or Asperger Syndrome, based on the DSM criteria. We also talked about the book in terms of development (looking at Erik Erikson‘s stages) and also in regard to theories of social psychology, such as moral exclusion and dehumanization; its concrete, visual language; its plot that’s set into motion when Christopher finds Wellington, a neighbor’s black dog, impaled with a gardening stake and determines to find out whodunnit and so starts (as he says) “detecting.”

In his detecting, Christopher makes careful observations of possible “suspects” and (precisely what his father admonishes him not to do) asks too many questions—–kind of what I feel I do all day to figure out Charlie’s mostly wordless (but rich) communication. Detecting also is the general modus operandi of anyone interested in figuring out what causes and how to “treat” autism; autism’s said to be a mystery (and so represented by the puzzle piece). Yesterday I took a bit of an X-Files “the truth is out there” angle on this; today—well, I’ll start by quoting the end of a July 25th post by Sharyl Attkisson.

As the former head of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Bernadine Healy has said: perhaps some answers to the autism/ADD mystery are waiting, but you have to go looking to find them.

Attkisson’s piece is entitled the Debate over Vaccines and Autism/ADD and is about the case of Hannah Poling, the Georgia girl whose “pre-existing mitochondrial disorder…. was ‘aggravated’ by her shots,” as was conceded in March by the government in the Court of Federal Claims. According to Attkisson, after the decision in Hannah Poling’s case was announced, “those who reject any possible link between vaccines and autism/ADD went on the offensive. As an example, she cites Dr. Steven Novella’s recent blog post on this “false controversy,” and the response by Hannah’s father, Dr. Jon Poling: “‘Regarding your entry on Hannah’s case, your blog entry unfortunately propagates several of the mistakes from the media.’” Why in the world, Attkisson’s post implies, would a scientist—a medical doctor—not want to investigate this “mystery”—be afraid of something?

Dr. Poling, and other staunch advocates of a link between vaccines and autism are not afraid, it is suggested, and Attkisson’s post was followed up later on that day (July 25th) with an investigate CBS News report, How Independent Are Vaccine Defenders?, in which a number of “conflicts of interest” were detected out between scientists, vaccine researchers (like Dr. Paul Offit, frequent target of anti-pro-vaccine safety supporters) and health organizations (the American Academy of Pediatrics, Every Child By Two) and (get ready to gasp), drug companies:

But CBS News has found these three have something more in common – strong financial ties to the industry whose products they promote and defend.

The vaccine industry gives millions to the Academy of Pediatrics for conferences, grants, medical education classes and even helped build their headquarters. The totals are kept secret, but public documents reveal bits and pieces.

A $342,000 payment from Wyeth, maker of the pneumococcal vaccine – which makes $2 billion a year in sales.

A $433,000 contribution from Merck, the same year the academy endorsed Merck’s HPV vaccine – which made $1.5 billion a year in sales.

Another top donor: Sanofi Aventis, maker of 17 vaccines and a new five-in-one combo shot just added to the childhood vaccine schedule last month.

As has been pointed out, the big story that CBS News is unearthing here is that (says Autism News Beat): evidence that people are paid for work.

(Certainly good news to me, in the midst of what’s been very much a working summer.)

The mystery is nothing mysterious, but an ordinary common place. (Left Brain/Right Brain and Orac, and I Speak of Dreams, and Orac again, have more to say on other “conflicts of interests.”) In other words, the vaccine part of this blog post should end here and I should be getting back to what my students had to say about The Curious Incident, what I said last Monday in a lecture I gave on “Myth, Ancient and Modern, and Autism.”

But no. The plot thickens:

Concerned about the misinformation cast by Attkisson’s report, Voices for Vaccines, which is “administratively housed within the Task Force for Child Survival and Development, an Atlanta-based 501(c)(3) organization” and which was “formed to speak for those who value the vital protection provided by vaccines and want accurate communication of their safety profile,” sent a letter to the senior producer at CBS News responsible for the aforementioned report. You can read the letter here. Mike Stanton at Action for Autism writes that this letter was published on the Age of Autism website on July 31st after “someone at CBS leaked a fax from Voices for Vaccines”; Age of Autism then published the letter under the misleading byline “Vaccine Industry Group Calls on Couric and Attkisson for CBS Retraction.”

In other words, a letter meant for the senior produce at CBS News was “leaked” and then somehow ended up appearing on a website that believes that there is a link between vaccines and autism, and that, from time to time, posts correspondence, documents, et alia, from those who it sees as promoting views contrary to its own, and with robust declaration of the Freedom of Information Act.

Figuring out the cause of autism is indeed like trying to solve a “murder-mystery,” which is just the task Christopher in The Curious Incident assigns himself. Who, he wants to know, killed the dog Wellington?

(Sort of like the question, what or who made my child become autistic?.)

Christopher figures out “whodunnit,” though not in the way he (a fan of Sherlock Holmes stories) had thought. And perhaps, too, those who see the story of autism as a great “who dun, what dun, made my child autistic” will have that mystery solved for them by other means than they think.

Because isn’t that the satisfying thing about mysteries: They get solved, though not in the way you had been thinking they would.

Share This Post:
    • Shawn3k

      I really enjoyed that book…I’m curious as to what your students think of it!

    • daedalus2u

      There is zero excuse for a news organization like CBS to leak correspondence to it regarding news reports that it has produced. No reputable news organization would do that. No editor with an ounce of integrity would allow that.

      This disclosure happens to be in violation of the CBS privacy policy.

      Talk about conflict of interest. Clearly CBS has such a conflict of interest that they are unable to even pretend they have a semblance of impartiality or integrity. Giving out the letter with full contact information so the sender can be subject to crank calls, crank faxes and spammed to oblivion by the Mercury Malacia? Or perhaps worse?

      It is pretty clear. CBS has become a disreputable propaganda front for anti-vaccine activists. CBS has crossed the line with this and now has zero credibility. CBS doesn’t want to show “both sides” of the debate. By their actions they are actively discouraging debate, actively discouraging anyone from attempting to respond to their propaganda.

    • isles

      I don’t think CBS as an organization intended to become a mouthpiece for the rabid anti-vaxers, but I do think they probably now realize that’s what’s happened. The test will be to see how they respond.

    • Pingback: VFV Blog » Blog Archive » Catching up…()

    • Club 166

      I don’t have any problem with getting drug companies to pony up unrestricted money for conferences and educational purposes.

      But if drug companies indeed contributed to the building of AAP headquarters, than I think that’s wrong.

      My school has instituted a policy where we cannot accept anything from a drug rep. This extends down to post it notes and pens. In some ways it’s kind of silly, but it does close the door on any conflict of interest statements.


    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      @daedalus2u, I think we’ve gone far beyond debate and into diatribe and distortion.

      @Club166, my dad worked in a hospital and had a lot of stories of being told “we can give you this if you’ll use this”; don’t worry, he said no.

      @isles, am, well, curious, to see how CBS responds, and Attkisson.

    • AutismNewsBeat

      Fantastic book. My son’s name is Christopher.

    • Sullivan

      I have a post in the works right now at LeftBrainRightBrain, but the bottom line is–CBS has shown that Dr. Offit’s financial conflicts of interest involving his vaccine are over.

      1) He has an endowed chair, partially funded by Merck (CBS got the partially part wrong). As I am sure Kristina knows, that means that (a) the institutions have the endowment, not Dr. Offit and (b) how the money is spent from here on is the decision of the endowed Chair–presently Dr. Offit. Merck has no influence on how the endowment is spent.

      2) The future royalties from Dr. Offit’s (and team’s) patent are sold. That means that whatever Dr. Offit does from now on will not affect his financial gain from the patent.

      So, if/when he goes on a book tour for “Autism’s False Prophets”, he will not have financial COI’s from his vaccine.

      No spin, just the facts, analyzed.

      Too bad CBS news didn’t actually think this through.

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      Offit’s new book is (per Amazon) to be published Sept 5—-I think these so-called reports of COIs are just a warm-up to the fireworks we may be seeing then.

    • Pingback: The Humpty Dumpty Challenge()

    • Craig Willoughby

      Where in her report was there anything that was untruthful? She pointed out the money, and Pauly prOffit and the other 2 pHARMa fronted churches of Vaccinitology had ample opportunity to both clarify Sharyl’s statements or give their side of the story. They refused. And how is that Sharyl Attkinson’s fault? How is that shoddy reporting? She didn’t even go into detail on how the High Priest of the Church of the Immaculate Vaccination, Pauly prOffit, was reprimanded by Congress for whoring out his Rotateq virus.

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      Would it be Vaccinology, perhaps? Another look at CBS’ coverage here—-it might be said that what she’s presenting on has been known for awhile and it’s not exactly news.

    • Phil Schwarz

      Craig, it’s bad reporting because it’s an attempt to sensationalize a set of facts that are essentially “dog bites man”. The compensation Offit has gotten is entirely within reason, above board, and well-documented. You can’t say the same for Wakefield, the Geiers, and others whose covered-up payments and sham IRBs truly do violate reasonable ethical standards. Where was Sharyl Atkisson to report those ethical violations? Hint: nowhere. Instead, we saw a SLAPP subpoena against one of the bloggers who has meticulously documented the wrongs these people are engaging in.

      Calling Paul Offit’s ethics into question is only going to backfire bigtime on CBS — and on all of you folks who encourage it. The truth will out, and it isn’t going to favor your arguments.

    • isles

      No specific wrongdoing was alleged, and indeed, there was no wrongdoing to report, a reality omitted from the Canon of the Antivaxer. Instead, Sharyl Attkisson just made ominous, portentous-sounding noises and pretended they added up to news. The likes of Craig Willoughby lapped it up.

      Is it a coincidence that piss-poor reporting is called yellow journalism?

    • Phil Schwarz

      Yup. As inadvisable to eat up as yellow snow!

    • Craig Willoughby

      Again, the vaccinophiles and Pauly prOffit had a chance to defend themselves (as if there is a defense for the likes of them), but they refused. And how is that Ms. Attkinson’s fault?

    • Pingback: Last Week’s Top Posts()

    • Pingback: Babies and the Fear That Something’s “Wrong”()

    • Sullivan


      I would call it sins of omission. By leaving out actual discussion, Ms. Attkisson left a false impression.

      Dr. Offit has the opportunity to defend himself–with better journalists. Sharyl Attkisson’s interview of Dr. Healy demonstrated clearly to me that isn’t approaching this as an “investigation”, but rather as an opportunity to get the views she wants aired.

      Dr. Healy made an amazing statement that there is an “expressed concern” that the scientific community shouldn’t look for susceptible groups because of what might happen should they find them.

      That question demanded followup. A good journalist would have asked for Dr. Healy to back that up. Ms. Attkisson didn’t.

      I can understand why Dr. Offit has chosen to work with other journalists on this story.

      I expect that Dr. Offit will be in a good position to defend himself a lot in the next couple of months.

      I expect that he will do well.

    • Regan

      Dr. Paul Offit responds
      August 4th, 2008, 1:00 am

      The comments are at least as interesting as the blogpost/article.

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      I wondered why he chose to respond to that blog on the OC Register? Was glad that Epi Wonk, an epidemiologist, joined the fray I mean comment thread—– It’s quite a build-up to when Dr. Offit’s new book appears on September 5th!

      JB Handley offered his usual “critique” today.

    • Regan

      I think there was a factual misstatement that Sam Miller (blogger) promised to follow up on with Dr. Offit; perhaps that’s the reason for response to that blog. From the comments it’s evident that there were additional misunderstandings based on the prefix “Rota-”, which Epi Wonk has responded to.

      As for the various statements of what people say they would like to do to Dr. Offit–it’s scary to see that much hatred focussed towards an individual…or is that the politics of outrage in the echo-chamber?

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      I like to think it’s all the hot air of rhetoric, but the viciousness of what’s said makes me wonder.

    • Regan

      I was looking for something else, but in the search found this old blog post from 2005 on

      Maybe it’s me, but doesn’t the scenario described by Kathleen Seidel 3 years ago seem to be the one unfolding today?