As I have covered in previous articles for Children’s Health Defense, the fundamental assumptions underlying the recommendation of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that everyone aged six months and up should get an annual flu shot are unsupported by scientific evidence.
Examining a case study from the New York Times, we’ve seen how the corporate media manufacture consent for public vaccine policy by grossly misinforming their audiences about the science—and how, in doing so, the media are just following the CDC’s example. We’ve seen how the CDC uses deceptive fear marketing to increase demand for influenza vaccines, and how the CDC’s claims that flu vaccination significantly reduces deaths among the elderly have been thoroughly discredited by the scientific community.
So What Can Explain the CDC’s Behavior?
As far as the discourse about vaccines goes in the mainstream media, this problem doesn’t exist. The media treat the CDC as practically the most credible and authoritative source for information about vaccines on the planet and unquestioningly amplify the CDC’s public relations messaging. We saw in our New York Times case study just how blatantly the media participate in misinforming the public, with health writer Aaron E. Carroll supporting his argument that everyone should follow the CDC’s recommendation to get a flu shot by citing a study whose authors actually concluded not only that the CDC’s policy is unsupported by the scientific evidence, but also that the CDC deliberately misrepresents the science to support its policy!
As far as the mainstream discourse is concerned, the idea that the public is being grossly misinformed about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines requires belief in “conspiracy theories”. But no conspiracy theory is required to explain how it can be that the CDC is misinforming the public about vaccines. The media is just demonstrably serving its usual function, as outlined by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, of advocating government policy rather than doing journalism. This is not a conspiracy. It’s just an institutionalized bias stemming from what Chomsky has called the “state religion”—an undying faith in the fundamental benevolence of the US government and its agencies.
Likewise, no conspiracy theory is required to explain how it can be that the government agency charged with formulating public vaccine policy is misinforming the public about vaccine science. On the contrary, the CDC’s behavior can be explained to a considerable degree solely by good intentions. Public health officials generally are simply convinced that, in performing their individual function in the mechanisms of government, they are doing good and serving the public interest.
It is only human psychology to be resistant to ideas that challenge one’s own self-identity. It’s not difficult to understand how public health officials might be unwilling to acknowledge the possibility that they could be wrong—that they might be doing harm. The idea that government officials are susceptible to what is known as “confirmation bias”, or the tendency to accept information supportive of one’s personal belief system while dismissive of information that contradicts it, should hardly be considered far-fetched or conspiratorial. Doctors working within the confines of the medical establishment, too, succumb to confirmation bias and fail to question the institutionalized way of doing things.
And it’s not as though the medical establishment has not been wrong before! As Dave Sackett, “the father of evidence based medicine”, once quipped, “Half of what you’ll learn in medical school will be shown to be either dead wrong or out of date within five years of your graduation; the trouble is that nobody can tell you which half—so the most important thing to learn is how to learn on your own.”
Too many people just don’t think for themselves, but succumb to groupthink. And this situation isn’t helped by the pharmaceutical industry’s undue influence on the direction of science. As BMJ editor Richard Horton has commented, “Journals have devolved into information-laundering operations for the pharmaceutical industry.”
Studies examining this problem have shown that an alarming proportion of medical literature gets the science wrong. As a 2013 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation concluded, “To serve its interests, the industry masterfully influences evidence base production, evidence synthesis, understanding of harms issues, cost-effectiveness evaluations, clinical practice guidelines and healthcare professional education and also exerts direct influences on professional decisions and health consumers.”
One of the authors of that study was John Ioannidis, who’s been described by The Atlantic as possibly “one of the most influential scientists alive”. In a 2005 essay published in PLoS Medicine, Ioannidis wrote that, “It can be proven that most claimed research findings are false.” And false findings might not just be “the majority”, but could be “the vast majority”. Rather than majority expert opinion representing scientific truths, claimed findings “may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.”
Among the numerous other problems affecting the quality of research are financial conflicts of interests and institutionalized prejudices. As Ioannidis elaborated:
“Conflicts of interest are very common in biomedical research, and typically they are inadequately and sparsely reported. Prejudice may not necessarily have financial roots. Scientists in a given field may be prejudiced purely because of their belief in a scientific theory or commitment to their own findings. Many otherwise seemingly independent, university-based studies may be conducted for no other reason than to give physicians and researchers qualifications for promotion or tenure. Such nonfinancial conflicts may also lead to distorted reported results and interpretations. Prestigious investigators may suppress via the peer review process the appearance and dissemination of findings that refute their findings, thus condemning their field to perpetuate false dogma. Empirical evidence on expert opinion shows that it is extremely unreliable.”
As The Atlantic noted, Ioannidis has estimated that “as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed”, and “he worries that the field of medical research is so pervasively flawed, and so riddled with conflicts of interest, that it might be chronically resistant to change—or even to publicly admitting that there’s a problem.”
That certainly also applies to the CDC, where corruption and conflicts of interest are an endemic problem.
The Endemic Corruption at the CDC
Perhaps the most infamous example is how the head of the CDC from 2002 to 2009, Julie Gerberding, left her government job to go work as president of Merck’s $5 billion global vaccine division. Merck’s CEO understandably described Gerberding as an “ideal choice”. She held that position until 2014 and currently holds the Merck job title of “Executive Vice President & Chief Patent Officer, Strategic Communications, Global Public Policy and Population Health”. That is to say, the former CDC director is now in charge of Merck’s propaganda efforts. One might say she’s basically doing the same job now that she did for the CDC, but even more lucratively. Apart from her salary, in 2015, Gerberding sold shares of Merck worth over $2.3 million dollars.
A more recent example came in January 2018, when CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald was forced to resign after Politico reported that, after assuming leadership of the CDC on July 7, 2017, she “bought tens of thousands of dollars in new stock holdings in at least a dozen companies”—including Merck.
In August 1999, the House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform initiated an investigation into federal vaccine policy, the findings of which were reported in June 2000. As its report stated, “The Committee’s investigation has determined that conflict of interest rules employed by the FDA and the CDC have been weak, enforcement has been lax, and committee members with substantial ties to pharmaceutical companies have been given waivers to participate in committee proceedings.”
Examples of the corruption included the following:
- “The CDC routinely grants waivers from conflict of interest rules to every member of its advisory committee.”
- “CDC Advisory Committee members who are not allowed to vote on certain recommendations due to financial conflicts of interest are allowed to participate in committee deliberations and advocate specific positions.”
- “The Chairman of the CDC’s advisory committee until very recently owned 600 shares of stock in Merck….”
- “Members of the CDC’s advisory Committee often fill out incomplete financial disclosure statements, and are not required to provide the missing information by CDC ethics officials.”
- “Four out of eight CDC advisory committee members who voted to approve guidelines for the rotavirus vaccine in June 1998 had financial ties to pharmaceutical companies that were developing different versions of the vaccine.”
- “3 out of 5 FDA advisory committee members who voted to approve the rotavirus vaccine in December 1997 had financial ties to pharmaceutical companies that were developing different versions of the vaccine.”
A US Senate report from June 2007 noted how surveys showed that Americans “overwhelmingly” viewed the CDC as doing a good job at keeping them healthy, as well as how the CDC took advantage of that perception by seeking ever-increasing levels of funding year after year—and yet the CDC had little to show for its exorbitant spending.
The Senate report named Julie Gerberding as an example of the problem. Under her leadership, bonuses for the people managing the CDC increased dramatically. The top three CDC financial officers, for example, had “taken in more than a quarter million dollars in bonuses” over the previous several years. A New York Times analysis, the Senate report noted, had found that “The share of premium bonuses given to those within the director’s office has risen at least tenfold under Dr. Gerberding’s leadership.”
Another problem was the “revolving door” of Washington. Citing examples, the Senate report commented that, “While CDC employees’ pay may not be equal to those in the private market, contractors who previously were employed by the CDC appear to have found a lucrative way to make their CDC connections pay off.”
The Senate report was appropriately subtitled, “A review of how an agency tasked with fighting and preventing disease has spent hundreds of millions of tax dollars for failed prevention efforts, international junkets, and lavish facilities, but cannot demonstrate it is controlling disease.”
A 2009 report from the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services found that “almost all” financial disclosure forms for “special Government employees”—such as the people who sit on the CDC’s vaccine advisory committee—were not properly completed. For 97 percent of them, there was at least one omission, and most of the forms “had more than one type of omission.” Furthermore, looking at the year 2007, 64 percent of such employees were found to have potential conflicts of interest that the CDC had either failed to identify or failed to resolve. The CDC also failed to ensure that 41 percent of such employees received required ethics training, and 15 percent of such employees “did not comply with ethics requirements during committee meetings in 2007.” In sum, the Inspector General’s office found “that CDC had a systemic lack of oversight of the ethics program” for special government employees.
A particularly salient example was the aforementioned June 1998 recommendation of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) that all infants receive the rotavirus vaccine. We’ll examine that particular case in a forthcoming article. Be sure to sign up for the Children’s Health Defense newsletter so you don’t miss it!
In sum, while the CDC is the mainstream media’s go-to source for information on any vaccine-related story, the public has every reason to be skeptical of the information coming out of this agency. It is certainly no “conspiracy theory” to claim that the CDC is misinforming the public about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. On the contrary, that the CDC does so is demonstrable and recognized in the scientific literature.
It also requires no “conspiracy theory” to explain how this can be so. It certainly does not follow from the assumption that government officials in positions of power are acting out of benevolent intent that therefore their policies are not harmful. The institutionalized confirmation bias and endemic corruption are more than sufficient to explain how it can be that the CDC is misinforming the public about vaccines.