There is a scene in the movie The Men Who Stare at Goats where Lyn Cassady (played by George Clooney) tells Bob Wilton (played by Ewan McGregor) that he, Lyn, is expecting to die because of the “death touch.” When Bob asks for more details, Lyn explains that he once received the death touch from one of his adversaries when he left the military. Since then, Lyn has been expecting to die. “The thing about the [death touch], you never know when it’s going to take effect.”
Watching this in the theater, some of us couldn’t help but laugh because the fallacy in the way the death touch works was obvious. It’s the classic “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” fallacy, meaning that because Y happened after X, then X must be causing Y. Epidemiologists have to deal with this all the time in their research. People who get a stomach bug usually point to the last thing they ate as the culprit, ignoring that there has to be an incubation period between ingestion and disease that usually includes their most recent meal.
This fallacy is also found in some anti-vaccine claims about vaccines. People will devote entire blog posts to how this or that happened after a vaccine to blame the vaccine. For example, children diagnosed as autistic after their measles vaccine are said to have become autistic because of the vaccine. Children diagnosed before are said to have become autistic because of other environmental exposures. All this as the most recent evidence is pointing more and more to a genetic cause of autism, and autism is being described more and more as a variation in the way brains work than as a disease or condition of the brain.
For some time now, rumors about the high-dose influenza vaccine causing death have also circulated. Many have been quick to believe in the rumors because the package insert for a brand of the vaccine states that some vaccine recipients died within six months of receiving the vaccine. However, the same package insert states that the patients had comorbid conditions (like liver disease or diabetes) and that they were in their 70s, approaching the average life expectancy.
Snopes, a website dedicated to debunking false and misleading claims on the internet, recently published an excellent article further debunking these claims about the vaccine:
“It may not shock anyone to hear that among a group of 3,000-plus Americans no younger than 65 and with an average age of 73, 23 of them passed away during a six-month period. It wouldn’t shock actuaries, who know that the average life expectancy in the United States is 78.6 years. It wouldn’t shock statisticians, who know that the U.S. death rate among 75- to 84-year-olds is 4,472.6 deaths per 100,000 people a year, which would equate to over 100 deaths per 3,000 people annually.
Nonetheless, it appears to have shocked the editors at the anti-vaccine website Health Impact News. In 2013, that outlet published a story with the misleading headline “23 Seniors Died After Receiving Flu Shot Sold by Pharmacies.” Snopes continues to get worried inquiries about the claim every flu season. Health Impact News’ story came from the publicly available insert that comes with a specific flu shot marketed as “Fluzone High-Dose,” which discussed the results of scientific testing that went into approving the vaccine for use in 2009…”
They go on to describe the package insert, which states that 23 people died within six months of receiving the vaccine, but it also states, “The majority of these participants had a medical history of cardiac, hepatic, neoplastic, renal, and/or respiratory diseases. No deaths were considered to be caused by vaccination.”
The rest of the Snopes article goes on to answer specific questions posed by anti-vaccine groups about the vaccine; questions that can be answered just by looking at the data and the research article published with it. It’s a good read if you want to understand the fallacy and how it is presented by anti-vaccine groups and individuals.
Finally, if you have not received your influenza vaccine for the season, please consider doing so and talk to a licensed healthcare provider about it.