Skeptical Fails and Wins This Week

Hello Skeptifans. Here are the Fails and Wins this week.

Which is more dangerous, the phone or the sunshine?

Where’s the Panic Button on This Phone?
Michael sent in this story. This excellent article covers the facts about cellphones and cancer, as well as reasons why we get so hysterical about the issue. It thoroughly covers the studies out there and the problems with them, as well as explains what it means and doesn’t mean for cell phones to be on the WHO’s “possibly causes cancer” list. It’s a great article to forward to your friends if they are freaking out about there phones. I also recommend this excellent episode of Skeptically Speaking which covers the topic.

Getting Past Vaccine “Skepticism”
Jodie sent in this link. This article covers the issue of why people are afraid of vaccines, and why they shouldn’t be. It’s found on the blog for CBC Radio’s medical show, White Coat, Black Art. It’s a bit weird to see the term “skeptic” used in this context, but it’s fair. While the anti-vax movement is led by people who ignore the evidence, they have created skeptics who have doubts about vaccines because of what they have heard in the media. These are the people who we can hopefully affect by spreading the real, life-saving truth about vaccination.

The big cancer risk is the sun, not the cellphone
Lorne sent in this story from The Globe and Mail. While the aforementioned cellphone hystieria rages, along with fears of wi-fi and other technology, there are plenty of things that we KNOW cause cancer and the sun is a big one. It’s a giant glowing ball that is streaming dangerous radiation at us. Yet, people still flock to the beach and to tanning booths. Check out this article, understand where you are in the risk categories, and always wearyour sunscreen.

That’s the Fails and Wins this week, folks! See you next week, and don’t forget to send me your links to links [at] skepticnorth [dot] com.

33 Responses to “Skeptical Fails and Wins This Week”

  1. Blondin says:

    If you use your cell phone at the beach…

    can you hear the ocean? ;-)

  2. Mike says:

    Here’s the conclusion from the actual Wakefield paper, which no-one ever reads cause they already think they know what it says:

    “We have identified a chronic enterocolitis in children that may be related to neuropsychiatric dysfunction. In most cases, onset of symptoms was after measles, mumps, and rubella immunization. Further investigations are needed to examine this syndrome and its possible relation to this vaccine.”

    Here’s a quote from the CBC article being pimped here:

    “You may remember hearing about Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who made a fraudulent claim that MMR vaccine led to cases of autism.”

    Actually, yes I do remember hearing about how Dr. Wakefield claimed the MMR causes autism. Not because his paper actually ever said that, but because the ‘the more vaccines, the better’ crowd (who claim that their only interest is in promoting ‘truth’) loves to take his paper (which studied only 12 children), and then point to its retraction by the lancet (who were very irresponsible in publishing it in the first place, when even their own reviewers noted flaws in the paper) as some sort of ‘evidence’ that is supposed to settle the vaccine debate.

    If there is such overwhelming evidence, then why does the pro-vaccine crowd (in this case, the author of the CBC article) constantly rely on calling Andrew Wakefield a liar as their first line of attack? You can’t read a single article promoting vaccines without someone making the “Andrew Wakefield said vaccines cause autism. Andrew Wakefield is a fraud. Therefore, vaccines are safe” argument.

    • Erik Davis says:

      Mike, you’re completely misrepresenting the argument. The vaccines in the current schedule are overwhelmingly safe because ongoing trials and real world experience have shown them to be so. Not perfectly safe mind you, but immeasurably safer than a world without them. If Wakefield had never existed, that would still be true, and neither that article, nor anyone on this site, has ever suggested otherwise.

      The CBC article, and the underlying paper, are trying to address the reputation damage done by Wakefield and the individuals and organizations that have promoted his work and continue to lionize him. Vaccination rates are dropping and infection rates are rising because people think there’s a risk that’s not there.

      • Mike says:

        Here’s another quote from Wakefield’s paper:

        “We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described”

        So is Wakefield the reason people distrust the pro-vaccine lobby or is it because every article promoting the notion that ‘you’re crazy to think your child may be brain damaged from a vaccine’ starts off with a big fat lie about what Wakefield’s paper actually said?

        The fact that the retraction of his paper 10 years after the fact was such a big deal to the mainstream media and the various pro-science camps shows how little they actually understand about the paper itself and what it was saying.

        If people felt like they were being told the truth, they wouldn’t be so untrusting.

  3. Mike, although the paper did not claim a causal link, it did claim a correlation. It was later shown that this correlation was found by doing really bad science. In the paper he made up a new condition linking gastrointestinal problems with autism, and citing that the MMR vaccine was a potential environmental trigger for it. After the paper came out he went on a press tour warning people against using the MMR because he felt it was not safe. All of this was done because he wanted to promote his measles vaccine which was different than the MMR.

    Although the paper states that they had not proved the link, it also stated strongly that there was a suspected link and more research should be done. That correlation proved to be based on fraudulent date, that Wakefeild manipulated to his own ends.

    I do think the press is accountable for buying in to his BS press tour, but I’m not sure why you think he should be off the hook for starting this hysteria.

  4. Mike says:

    Hi Melany,

    I’ll repeat the quote from the CBC article you’re pimping:

    “You may remember hearing about Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who made a fraudulent claim that MMR vaccine led to cases of autism.”

    Do you think that’s an accurate statement? Is there anything from Wakefield’s paper that you would like to quote to back up the statement above?

    I’m not saying Wakefield should be off the hook. I’m saying that the bigger reason for the hysteria is the Lancet who gave this paper legs by publishing it, and the mainstream media for turning Wakefield’s paper into ‘MMR causes autism’, which is quite a stretch if you actually read the paper. Not only that, but nobody ever seems to mention the fact that the paper only studied 12 children, meaning that whatever the paper may have said or not said or may have implied or not implied, it should be taken with a grain of salt.

    When I read an article like the one being promoted here, it only serves to convince me that the article’s author hasn’t done his/her homework.

  5. Mike, as I said, after his paper came out he went on a press tour and claimed just that. I agree, the media is culpable, but if you are trying to say Wakefield never actually claimed MMR causes autism, I would say you are uninformed.

  6. Mike says:

    Hi Melany,

    I don’t have access to transcripts of everything he may or may not have said while on a book tour. What I’m saying is that his paper never made that claim. And any credible journalist who wishes to use his name as part of an effort to promote vaccines should be making that distinction. Promoting misinformation should not be tolerated by people on either side of the debate.

  7. Nancy says:

    Does the rising disease rate trigger a positive outlook on vaccines and a low disease rate permit fear of the vaccine to flourish? Seems to me if I had young children now, I would be more inclined to vaccinate as the disease is not a remote scary thing, it’s more real, but the chance of a bad reaction is relatively miniscule even if one buys into some of the worst scenarios.

    It’s so hard to choose between fears, sometimes!

    As for misinformation – it’s so rampant in areas related to health and the environment, it makes the truth almost impossible to unearth.

    I think there is a very interesting relationship between fear and misinformation. Perhaps passion drives people to misquote, or choose information selectively, because they feel they need to convince to protect others. Maybe they even do it unconsciously ?

  8. gmcevoy says:

    wakefield was found to:

    1: received payment of $750,000 to find evidence of a link

    2: falsified the data he collected (according to the parents of most of the 12 kids)

    3: had a replacement for MMR of his own awaiting in the wings

    4: falsely claims his research has been replicated “the world over”

    5: has a book out with the following preface by (ick) Jenny McCarthy, well known antivacc loon:

    “Unfortunately, it appears that a product intended for good, vaccines, also has a dark side, which is the ability to do harm in certain children. This ability to do harm has unfortunately increased quite a bit in the last few decades because children today receive so many more shots than when—than when most parents were kids.”

    McCarthy also writes that Andrew Wakefield—quote—“listened to parents who reported two things: Their children with autism were suffering from severe bowel pain, and the children regressed into autism after vaccination. He listened. He studied. And they published what he learned.”

    ya, he’s a guileless victim alright

  9. Mike says:


    Re-read my comments and you’ll see that I’m not defending Andrew Wakefield. My comment was about responsible journalism. You seem to have missed the point.

    As for your quotes:

    1) If there wasn’t a dark side to vaccination, there would be no need for the VICP.

    2) As for what parents say, there are plenty of parents whose autistic children also suffer from severe bowel dysfunction and who claim that their children regressed into autism after a round of vaccines.

    If you’re looking to take this thread waaaay off topic and turn it into an attack on Jenny McCarthy, go ahead (although I’m not interested in defending her any more than I’m interested in defending Andrew Wakefield).

    • Erik Davis says:

      Not “dark side” Mike. “Known risk”. Extremely small known risk that is vastly outweighed by the millions saved from illness and death caused by the actual disease.

      • Mike says:

        Yes, I realize that’s the consensus among ‘the leading scientists’ based on the evidence they’ve been presented. And whether ‘the leading scientists’ have ever been wrong about anything, or more specifically, whether they’re wrong in this particular case is a whole other tangent.

        If, like Melany, you think that people distrust ‘the leading scientists’ on this issue because of what Andrew Wakefield allegedly said during a book tour, then I can see why you would think it’s reasonable for the CBC article to start off with the standard Andrew Wakefield blast.

        My view is that people who have heard of Andrew Wakefield have heard of him because of what the lancet published, not because of what he said to someone while signing a book for them. And in that case, the author of the CBC article is being irresponsible by using his name as part of his/her argument, without making any effort to clear up the confusion that exists about what his paper actually said, and how irrelevant it is considering it only looked at 12 children.

  10. Art Tricque says:

    “My comment was about responsible journalism. You seem to have missed the point.”
    No Mike, you seem to have missed Melany’s and gmcevoy points: to harp on the semantics of Wakefield’s journal article in the name of the integrity of journalism is misguided misdirection. The exact text in the CBC blog posting is “Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who made a fraudulent claim that MMR vaccine led to cases of autism.” That is precisely what Wakefield did, thus the CBC posting is accurate.

    • Mike says:

      You think I’m harping on semantics?

      From Wakefield’s journal article:

      “We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described”

      From the CBC posting:

      “Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who made a fraudulent claim that MMR vaccine led to cases of autism.”

      • John Greg says:

        Mike, your argument appears to be predicated on your claim that the CBC misrepresented Wakefield’s claims as published in his paper. But, to requote your own quote, it does not say anywhere in that statement that Wakefield’s fraudulent claim was in his paper.

        The quote you have posted several times:”

        “You may remember hearing about Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who made a fraudulent claim that MMR vaccine led to cases of autism.”

        What the quote would have to have said to support your rather nit-pickety claim:

        “You may remember hearing about Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor [whose published paper] made a fraudulent claim that MMR vaccine led to cases of autism.”

        Or, something to that effect.

        You ask:

        “Do you think that’s an accurate statement?”

        Yes, it is indeed an accurate statement.

        “Is there anything from Wakefield’s paper that you would like to quote to back up the statement above?”

        The “statement above” does not in anyway refer to Wakefieled’s paper and hence needs no such backup.

  11. Dianne Sousa says:


    Let me outline your arguments here in an effort to show how weak your position is:

    1. You critique the CBC article because it said that Wakefield claimed that MMR causes autism. You say this is misinformation because he doesn’t make this claim in the original Lancet article.

    2. It’s pointed out to you that he has in fact made this claim elsewhere and had falsified data that created the correlation out of thin air. You dodge this point by claiming that your problem is that the CBC statement represents iresponsible journalism.

    I, like everyone here, don’t want to play down the media’s role in spreading vaccine fear. However, given how the “vaccines causes autism” meme took off and the devastating results, it seems to me that Wakefield should have gone out of his way to tell people directly that there was no evidence for such a link. He didn’t do this and in fact has made this positive claim elsewhere and allows this claim to be attatched to his name by people he associates with.

    When you consider the fact that he knowingly falsified data, it is utterly irrelevant that he didn’t make this direct claim in the study. It’s laughable that you would value a minor clarification in a news story to protect someone who lied.

  12. Mike says:

    There are plenty of doctors who ‘spread vaccine fear’. The only reason the general public knows Andrew Wakefield’s name is because of the article that the Lancet published. If the goal of the CBC article is to clear up the confusion surrounding vaccine safety, making the ‘Andrew Wakefield is a fraud, therefore you have nothing to worry about’ argument is not the way to go.

  13. Composer99 says:


    Wakefield is lionized in autism-vax/anti-vax circles. His study, despite having been falsified and even found to be fraudulent, is still held up by anti-vax activists as some sort of proof of their claims. The findings of fraud are waved off as a conspiracy among entrenched interests.

    Don’t believe me? Check out Orac’s blog at Respectful Insolence or even go directly to anti-vax sources like Age of Autism or MDC (Mothering magazine’s online community).

    So there may be “plenty of anti-vax doctors” {citation needed, btw}, but not even the other big names (such as Bob Sears or Jay Gordon) have the same cachet as Wakefield.

    Based on my own reading of the CBC article, claiming it suggests ‘Wakefield was found to be a fraud, therefore you have nothing to worry about’ strikes me as a misinterpretation of the article. The article itself is an extension of a radio programme which, I dare say, one would need to listen to to develop a better picture of what, exactly, the CBC claimed.

  14. Mike says:

    Composer: If what you say is true, and his paper is being held up by anti-vaxxers as proof of their claims, all the more reason for the press to be educating people on what his paper actually said and how it only ever discussed 12 children.

    Pro-vaxxers using the paper’s retraction as some sort of proof that there is no reason to question the safety of vaccines is just as irresponsible as anti-vaxxers using the paper’s existance as some sort of proof that there is a reason to question the safety of vaccines.

    • John Greg says:

      Man, you’ve really got a bee in your bonnet about this don’t you? Even though you have misframed the whole thing. And you keep inventing stuff.

      People don’t use “the paper’s retraction as some sort of proof that there is no reason to question the safety of vaccines”; they use the paper’s retraction, and many, many other things, as one of many proofs that Wakefield is a fraud.

      • Mike says:

        Hi John,

        People do use the paper’s retraction as some sort of proof there is no reason to question the safety of vaccines. Uninformed laymen as well as uninformed doctors. Generally, saying to these people “Actually, the paper never claimed to have proved anything, and it only looked at 12 children” is enough to get them to go “really?”, and drop the subject. I’ve had that exact conversation with 2 different doctors.

        If the general public was aware that his paper never claimed to have proved anything and that it only studied 12 children, there would be no need for everyone to be tripping all over themselves trying to show what a fraud he is.

  15. I can understand the fear of vaccines. When my son had his 2-month shots, he was sore and fussy for at least a day afterwards and the injection sites became inflamed. When he had his 4-month shots, he developed a fever the next morning that lasted most of the day. In both cases, he screamed bloody murder while the shots were being given.

    Vaccines are scary. If you love your child, as I suspect that most of the anti-vax parents do, it’s painful to watch them be vaccinated. So when something goes wrong, it’s so easy to point to that time when things felt “not right” at a gut/emotional level.

    The problem is that vaccines are just like veggies. Most kids hate them, many kids cry over them, there are tantrums and bad feelings all around. But as parents, if we really care about what’s best for our kids in the long term, it’s our responsibility to just bite our tongues and get it over with.

  16. Mike says:

    When the US Government sets up a Veggie Injury Compensation Program and starts paying damages to thousands of families due to the neurological damage suffered by their child that the courts conclude was a direct result of eating veggies, then your veggies to vaccines analogy might seem a little less ridiculous.

    • Some kids have food allergies. I know a kid who could very well die if he eats shellfish. The only difference being that we categorize food and medicine differently.

      It’s easy to sit around and point to the few cases where kids haven’t tolerated vaccines and to decry the whole practice, but that’s only because we aren’t exposed to the devastation of disease any more. I grew up in a country that didn’t vaccinate for measles and I can well remember the absolute terror our parents had of the disease. We all knew people who’d caught it and had to be hospitalized because of complications.

      The vast majority of people can eat food without having to fear for their lives. To ban all eating because some people have allergies would be far worse for humanity than taking the chance that your child might possibly have an allergy to something you’ve just put on her plate.

  17. Mike says:

    Yes, if you choose to drastically oversimplify the vaccine issue and treat it as an ‘all or nothing’ scenario, then it would be worse to abandon all vaccination completely. If you see a comment anywhere on this blog where I or anyone else is advocating the elimination of vaccines as a whole, let me know. Otherwise, I’m not sure where you’re getting the idea that anyone is ‘decrying the whole practice’.

    Let’s take that kid you know who could die from eating shellfish. Presumably, this deathly allergy was discovered when the child first ate shellfish and something happened to him. The child had a reaction. His doctor understood the reaction, and deduced that it was a shellfish allergy. Responsible parenting would then indicate that under no circumstances should this child be given any more shellfish. And presumably, with any future siblings of this child, the parents would want to be very very careful about exposing them as well. It would be ridiculous for this child’s parents to try advocating that shellfish should be banned everywhere. Surely the shellfish manufacturer in question would point to how well-tested their products are and how safe they are.

    Now imagine that this child’s doctor didn’t understand the allergic reaction to shellfish. Imagine that this doctor claimed the reaction that ‘seemed’ to occur after eating shellfish was just a coincidence. Imagine that the parents trusted their doctor and continued to feed their child shellfish and the next time, the child had a reaction that permanently disabled him, or worse. Then imagine if the government paid off this child’s family for what happened to him, while at the same time publicly claiming that there is no reason for anyone to believe they should be afraid to feed their child shellfish. (Perhaps the parents would want to go after the shellfish manufacturer directly, but of course they couldn’t because the gov’t had already struck a deal with the shellfish manufacturer making sure that the manufacturer would be immune from any such lawsuits).

    Granted, there’s a huge difference between shellfish and vaccines. Nobody is referring to shellfish as ‘life saving technology’ or claiming that shellfish saves millions of lives every year. But what you can compare about the two is that pretty much everyone will readily acknowledge that shellfish (or peanuts) can be devastating to some children. Parents are told to be very careful about the first time they give their child peanuts, and to monitor their reaction closely. Contrast that with vaccines, which are deemed to be ‘safe for everyone’, ‘there’s no such thing as too many’, any neurological damage stemming from a vaccine is deemed to be a coincidence or a figment of the parent’s imagination, etc, etc.

  18. Composer99 says:


    Yes, if you choose to drastically oversimplify the vaccine issue and treat it as an ‘all or nothing’ scenario, then it would be worse to abandon all vaccination completely.

    {citation needed}

    Nobody is referring to shellfish as ‘life saving technology’ or claiming that shellfish saves millions of lives every year.

    Except that vaccines are a life-saving technology. Do you have evidence to suggest otherwise?

    Contrast that with vaccines, which are deemed to be ‘safe for everyone’, ‘there’s no such thing as too many’, any neurological damage stemming from a vaccine is deemed to be a coincidence or a figment of the parent’s imagination, etc, etc.

    {citations needed}

    Do you have evidence that Canada’s Public Health Agency or the CDC state that vaccines make such claims?

    Do you have evidence that prominent pro-vaccine activists make such claims?

    This last post of yours strikes me as very telling in its misrepresentation of the positions of principal authorities on vaccines.

    • Composer99 says:

      HTML fail, I guess blockquote tags don’t work on Skeptic North.

    • Mike says:

      I’d much rather discuss the shellfish analogy with MrPopularSentiment than go down the ‘you can’t say the sky is blue without providing references’ path with you.

      Here’s 1 citation regarding ‘There’s no such thing as too many’: Paul Offit and his claim that a baby could handle 100,000 vaccines at once. Why don’t you provide me with a citation where Health Canada or the CDC or any other pro-vaccine group is actually trying to define how many are too many. Good luck with that one.

  19. Composer99 says:


    You need more than just ‘Paul Offit said X’. You need either a reference or a link.

    Here’s a link to the study you are referring to.

    If it is indeed the case that an infant could handle the antigens of up to 10,000 vaccines at once, what of it? Suffice to say, without a cite to peer-reviewed literature contradicting Offit et al I see no reason to disbelieve the paper on your word alone.

    Do you think it likely that we would ever approach this kind of immunization activity? I certainly don’t. In particular, polio will likely be eradicated within a decade or two, meaning we will no longer be required to vaccinate for it at all. Theoretically, measles & varicella could also be eradicated, eliminating the requirement to vaccinate against them as well.

  20. Mike says:

    So you chime in and ask me to prove that pro-vaccine activists make the claim that ‘there’s no such thing as too many’, and then when I do just that, your response is ‘so what?’. Enjoy having the last word, as I will not waste any more time responding to you. I would gladly respond to MrPopularSentiment however, if he had any comments about my response to his shellfish analogy.

  21. Composer99 says:


    First of all, you simply did not prove anything. You asserted that Paul Offit claimed babies could handle 100,000 vaccines at once and provided no support for your assertion. I had to go find the study myself (and it turned out your claim was off by an order of magnitude).

    Secondly, you are asking people to take the nebulous concerns and (what I perceive to be) passive-aggressive insinuations of an effectively anonymous commenter* on the Internet over the carefully-calculated and plainly-stated assessments of people who actually research vaccines & vaccine safety for a living.

    Thirdly, Dr Offit et atl are not suggesting that the vaccine schedule be expanded to 10,000 vaccines – they are showing that infants can withstand the antigenic ‘load’ of up to 10,000 vaccines (while noting that this is a conservative estimate as many vaccines have as little as 1 antigen per dose). The point of their study is to demonstrate that the current vaccine schedule does not pose any difficulties for children with regards to antigen exposure, a specific point which had been raised by anti-vaccine activists. This is on account of the enormous number of antigens they are exposed to regularly (see, for example, the Offit et al study linked to previously, or here). While the other components of vaccines do not pose the risks anti-vaccine activists claim (see here, for example) given the current vaccine schedule, I do not think it is unreasonable that they would pose a health problem if increased 300-fold (about the order of increase that 10,000 vaccines would be compared to the current schedules in the US & Canada). Hence why Offit et al restrict themselves to discussing antigens: specific claim (‘antigenic load overwhelms infant immune system’), specific response (it turns out it doesn’t).

    It’s certainly possible that Drs Offit and Crislip (whom I have just linked to) will be wrong in their assessments of the safety profile of modern vaccines. However, what will prove them wrong is more and better research & evidence, rather than rubbish studies such as the one by Wakefield that is the primary topic of the CBC blog post & radio broadcast to which you took issue.

    * Insofar as anyone writing any commentary on the Internet is anonymous unless they are well-known personalities to begin with.

  22. Composer99 says:

    Comment still in moderation (I assume because of too many links).


  • Melany Hamill

    Melany proudly uses the titles of both geek and nerd. As a science-enthusiast and fan of debate, Melany likes to get her facts straight. She graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in Chemical Engineering. Since then her career path has meandered to its current spot as a project manager at a video game studio. Melany lives near beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. She is not seeking treatment for her caffeine addiction.