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I’m not really a legal scholar,
but I play one on television

January 27th, 2009 · 17 Comments · Easy marks, Miseducation

The prestigious Michigan Law Review just fell victim to the celebritization of science, publishing a “legal and medical” analysis by Jenny McCarthy’s pediatrician, Dr. Jay Gordon, on the ‘liability for exercising personal belief exemptions from vaccination.”

Gordon has no credible expertise in immunology, epidemiology, biochemistry, or any other area that qualifies him to speak with authority on vaccines and the law. He is a star-struck pediatrician from Los Angeles who poses as McCarthy’s science adviser and mentor. His notoriety comes from talk shows and being photographed with Jim Carey at Hollywood fundraising parties, and not from any serious scholarship or study.

His law review article is rife with half-truths and misinformation. Most curious was this statement:

When children or babies who have been in contact with other children (or adults) contract most illnesses, there is no feasible way to know from whom they got the disease.

This is demonstrably false. Last year’s outbreak of measles in San Diego was directly traced to an unimmunized seven-year-old who contracted the disease while on vacation with his family in Switzerland. After returning home, the child infected four other children in a doctor’s waiting room. One of those children, an 11-month-old too young for the measles vaccines, later boarded a plane for Hawaii, where he exposed 250 passengers to the disease. According to Gordon, these facts are unknowable.

Additionally, Gordon is apparently unaware that in viral illnesses, hypervariable regions in the genome can be used to “fingerprint” the organism and trace the path of the infection. It is very practical, and done all the time in tracing outbreaks.

Gordon’s muddled thinking is on further display when he tells us:

There are also situations—medical and personal—which justify waiving all or some childhood vaccines, but these are not good reasons to abandon vaccines altogether.

That’s a false choice. One must not abandon vaccines altogether in order to jeopardize public health – simply discouraging ten percent or more of parents from immunizing their children will do. For decades, the nation’s vaccine program has depended on the public’s confidence and trust in public health officials. But that confidence is undermined by uninformed and biased spokespersons such as Dr. Gordon, who use their positions for personal gain and ego gratification. Vaccines are far safer than the diseases they protect against, a point Gordon ignores throughout his piece.

Gordon says parents who don’t vaccinate are being vilified, and he cites press accounts of last year’s measles outbreak where most cases were traced to children whose parents chose not to vaccinate. But the public’s fear of vaccines can also be traced to the unfounded vilification of vaccines by Gordon and others who continually misrepresent the science, and even lie about vaccine ingredients. For example, Gordon has claimed that vaccines contain anti-freeze and ether, which they do not. He has since recanted, but we must ask ourselves why a self-described spokesperson for the “Green Vaccines” movement would make such a reckless statement in the first place. Gordon has also warned parents of the dangers of formaldehyde, which is present in vaccines. Here our Pediatrician to the Stars shows his ignorance of the biochemistry he surely studied in medical college – formaldehyde is a natural by-product of single-carbon metabolism, and a 12-pound infant makes far more formaldehyde every day than is present in any five childhood vaccines combined.

It’s been 500 years since the Swiss physician Paracelsus coined the phrase “dose makes the poison.” When Gordon and his fellow travelers in America’s anti-vaccine movement forget that lesson, they discourage more and more parents from protecting their children against the same diseases that stalked our 16th century ancestors. Gordon talks about parents’ right to choose, but those choices must be made in the light of knowledge and truth. Gordon’s dark suspicions, both baseless and self-aggrandizing, contribute nothing to the important decisions that parents are asked to make.

The legal theories behind compulsory vaccination statutes are worthy subjects for a law review, and I commend the Michigan Law Review for tackling this subject. But the cause of scholarship is best served by informed comment and knowledgeable experts in relevant fields. It’s bad enough that the line between news and entertainment has all but disappeared. Let’s not make the same mistake with the law.

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17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 isles // Jan 27, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    Hear, hear!

    When the best the Michigan Law Review could do to rustle up an opposing “expert” was to come up with Jay Gordon, it should have been a clue to them that there really is no reasonable counterargument to the proposition that children should be vaccinated.

  • 2 Prometheus // Jan 27, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Is it just me or does Jay Gordon always say at least one thing that is absolutely not true when he talks to the press?

    I’m in agreement with Isles – if the “best” representative the anti-vaccinationists have is “Dr. Jay” Gordon, they’ve already lost the argument.

    Prometheus

  • 3 Kathleen Seidel // Jan 27, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Thank you. You make your points so elegantly and succinctly.

    Obviously, Gordon’s piece was solicited by an editor — perhaps a student who hasn’t yet been taught how to properly vet someone claiming “expertise.”

    Gordon already has his title — Antivaccinationist Pediatrician to the Stars. Now, it’s time to create a new category for the Ashley® awards — Most Naive Performance by a Law Review Editor.

  • 4 FreeSpeaker // Jan 27, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Please allow me to take a different perspective on all of this.

    I think it is absolutely wonderful that this law review editor chose Dr. Gordon, since the alternatives are much worse. Imagine if the JB’s (Best or Handley), the Junta at AoA, et al of the world were given such a platform.

  • 5 Jay Gordon, MD, FAAP // Jan 28, 2009 at 9:23 am

    Thank you, FreeSpeaker . . . I think.

    Just yesterday, I was telling my staff and some assembled movie stars that we have to start ordering more evaluations of hypervariable regions in the genome to “fingerprint” organisms and trace the path of infections this winter.

    In the real world, kids get sick and parents and doctors can’t trace infections. This includes most cases of chicken pox and maybe even measles.

    Parents have the right to make informed health care decisions for their children.

    Prometheus, I make mistakes. I am certain that when a medical procedure, prescription or vaccine has side effects we need to devote time to explaining those side effects.

    Jay Gordon

  • 6 _Arthur // Jan 28, 2009 at 10:43 am

    In a recent episode of the “Private Practice” TV show, a mother comes back from a trip to Switzerland with her 3 children, only her oldest is vaccinated, and autistic.
    One of the kids turns out to have contracted measles, which turns the office upside-down, since all the people in the witing room have to be temporarily quarantined until their vaccine status can be determined.
    The kid has to be hospitalized. The mother adamantly refuses that her other kid be vaccinated (she doesn’t want to “lose him” to autism too).
    The sick kid dies. The pediatrician vaccinates the other kid against his mother’s will, incurring the risk of lawsuits. Slick drama, with romance in the air.

  • 7 Prometheus // Jan 28, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Dr. Jay says:


    Just yesterday, I was telling my staff and some assembled movie stars that we have to start ordering more evaluations of hypervariable regions in the genome to “fingerprint” organisms and trace the path of infections this winter.

    Strange that Dr. Jay doesn’t know that this is exactly what the CDC does with influenza virus every year. It’s also what they do with outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses, in order to find out where they came from.

    He might want to warn his celebrity clientele that they could find themselves getting a new type of noteriety if they (or their children) become part of an outbreak.


    Prometheus, I make mistakes. I am certain that when a medical procedure, prescription or vaccine has side effects we need to devote time to explaining those side effects.

    We all make mistakes, Dr. Jay. It’s just that we should all be trying to not keep making the same mistakes, like assuming that we can be an “expert” in a field based on experience in a different field.

    As for “explaining side effects” – I wonder how much time Dr. Jay spends telling the parents of his patients the “side effects” of not vaccinating. It’s all well and good to explain side effects, but that only works if you understand what the side effects are.

    Prometheus

  • 8 Prometheus // Jan 28, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    I missed one:


    In the real world, kids get sick and parents and doctors can’t trace infections.

    Dr. Jay, the fact is that – “in the real world” – doctors don’t (not can’t) trace the source of the infections. It is actually a relatively easy matter to trace an infection, especially a viral infection.

    It just isn’t worth the effort for most common infectious diseases. What would be the point of knowing who gave you a rhinovirus, for instance, since it is a relatively mild, self-limited illness with no vaccine.


    This includes most cases of chicken pox and maybe even measles.

    Wrong. Again, we don’t currently track down the source of chicken pox because it is still fairly prevalent “in the wild” – but that doesn’t mean that we can’t.

    And we can and do track measles outbreaks using the hypervariable regions of their genome. Fifteen seconds looking on PubMed could have told you that.

    Dr. Jay seems to think that he is vastly smarter than the rest of us. That’s the only rational explanation I can come up with to explain his arrogant forays into fields where he has only the slightest familiarity.

    If he were simply say, “I don’t know enough about genetic fingerprinting of viruses and other microorganisms to give an intelligent opinion.”, that would raise my opinion of him immensely.

    As it is, his arrogantly paraded ignorance of my field makes me wonder if he is competent in his.

    Prometheus

  • 9 John Reichel // Jan 29, 2009 at 10:51 am

    Very well put, Ken. And the comments really bring out the flaws in the anti-vaccine arguments. I’m impressed that “Dr. Jay” actually reads and comments on the comments despite the opposition to his views; this must be due to the more genteel level of discourse I see on your blog compared to some others.

  • 10 Science-Based Medicine » Since when did an apologist for the antivaccination movement, Dr. Jay Gordon, become an “expert” in vaccine law? // Feb 2, 2009 at 1:00 am

    […] time, the embarrassment comes in the form of an article in the Michigan Law Review by a person who has previously been a subject of posts by both Dr. Novella and me. I’m […]

  • 11 Jay Gordon, MD, FAAP // Feb 6, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    I don’t know enough about genetic fingerprinting of viruses and other microorganisms to give an intelligent opinion.

    To repeat what I have said before, I have watched children receive and not receive vaccines for 30 years. Vaccines are not “the devil” not without value to many people, but they are also not free of side effects.

    Jay30

  • 12 Chris // Feb 6, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    Dr. G, you really ought to do a better job of keeping up with the science. Read some journals, and remember that the plural of anecdote is not data.

  • 13 Chris // Feb 6, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    (oh, by the way, I, a mere mom, knew that types of viruses were tracked just by reading the reports on http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/index.html … they mention it, often… you might want to add those to your reading list)

  • 14 autblog // Feb 7, 2009 at 12:06 am

    Dr. Jay, nobody denies there are side effects. The issues have to do with the severity of those side effects, and the frequencies. The public needs to understand that the relative risks from vaccines are not nearly as great as the “green vaccine” movement would have us believe. And the alleged association between vaccines and autism is not only unproven, but lacks a plausible mechanism. Wouldn’t you agree that it is the height of irresponsibility to misrepresent the science, and to deliberately incite parental fears about vaccines, in the absence of good evidence? Why, for instance, does Jenny McCarthy still insist that vaccines contain anti-freeze and ether? Why do your friends at Generation Rescue still say the Amish are both unvaccinated and autism free?

    Would it kill you to use your notoriety and access to entertainment media to set the record straight?

  • 15 Do'C // Feb 7, 2009 at 12:34 am

    Dr. Jay seems to think that he is vastly smarter than the rest of us. That’s the only rational explanation I can come up with to explain his arrogant forays into fields where he has only the slightest familiarity.

    With all due respect Prometheus, I’m not so sure. I think an alternative explanation might be that he believes he can convince some people that he is (knowing that he probably isn’t).

    “…I am one voice in the debate. I might not be as small a voice as I thought but I’m certainly not powerful enough to change national policy nor change Paul Offit’s mind. I might be able to change Amanda Peet’s somewhat more pliable mind . . .”

    http://www.autismstreet.org/weblog/?p=191#comment-17739

    Dr. Gordon may very well embrace anti-realistic views like “perception is reality”.

  • 16 Anonymous // Feb 7, 2009 at 11:59 am

    “Dr. Jay” (why is it that these antivaxer types feel the need to “get down to the patient’s level” by using their first names? It’s creepy and insulting) wrote:

    “Parents have the right to make informed health care decisions for their children.”

    Yeah. Informed by facts, not what some yahoo clinician thinks he knows. Are you smarter than the entire Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices put together? Or just more insightful? Maybe some of Jenny McCarthy’s indigo aura rubbed off on you, is that what it is?

  • 17 Prometheus // Feb 9, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    “Dr. Jay” admits:

    I don’t know enough about genetic fingerprinting of viruses and other microorganisms to give an intelligent opinion.

    Yet, he did give an opinion – apparently an unintelligent opinion. Maybe it’s a “guy thing” – maybe he’s just so confident in his own “experience” that he doesn’t let a little thing like not knowing a damn thing about the subject keep him from saying that such a thing is “not possible”.

    This is symptomatic of the larger problems with “Dr. Jay” and others of his ilk – they not only don’t know enough about the topic, they don’t know what they don’t know. They are utterly ignorant of the extent of their ignorance.

    And this is the man who wants parents to ignore the science and go with his “experience”? What hubris! What absolute barn-yard strutting arrogance!

    “Dr. Jay” goes on to say:

    To repeat what I have said before, I have watched children receive and not receive vaccines for 30 years. Vaccines are not “the devil” not without value to many people, but they are also not free of side effects.

    Here he goes with the “experience” again! Dr. Jay, clinicians in the early 19th century were equally convinced that malaria was caused by “miasma” and “childbed fever” (uterine strep infection) was definitely not caused by their dirty hands. They also thought that bleeding was the best treatment for both illnesses.

    Now we have before us a clinician who is physically in the 21st century but is certain – based on his “experience” of 30 years – that vaccines cause autism. This in the face of data which find no such connection.

    Like his 19th century counterparts, “Dr. Jay” is not swayed by the data because it goes against his memory of 30 years of general pediatric practice. Apparently, the idea that his recollection of the past might be colored by his current beliefs and selective recall has apparently not crossed his mind.

    “Dr. Jay” – a 19th century doctor in a 21st century world.

    The last sentence is a wonderful example of attacking the Straw Man. I don’t recall that anyone (except “Dr. Jay”) has claimed that vaccines are “free of side effects”, but that’s a lot easier to argue against.

    Rather than address the question of whether the risk of not vaccinating is greater or less than the risk of vaccinating (hint: look at the UK), “Dr. Jay” decides to argue against a point that nobody has argued.

    Yes, “Dr. Jay, MD, FAAP”, vaccines have side effects. We all know that and I’m assuming that this isn’t new information to you either.

    So, are the side effects worse than the diseases the vaccines are meant to prevent?

    Are there any data – apart from your prodigious experience – supporting your assertion that autism is caused by vaccines?

    These are the questions asked and not answered (at least by “Dr. Jay”). The data suggest – and suggest rather strongly – that [1] vaccines are vastly safer than the diseases they prevent and [2] don’t cause autism.

    If “Dr. Jay” has any data to the contrary (again, his vast “experience” does not constitute “data”), this would be the time to present them.

    Prometheus

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