Seeing Even More Quackery in Your Facebook Feed? Natural News Is to Blame.

Health and medicine explained.
Feb. 18 2014 11:43 PM

Himalayan Bath Salts Will Not Save Your Life

Why are so many Facebook friends sharing preposterous stories from Natural News?

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You probably know what’s coming next—vaccines and autism, of course. Natural News loves to prey on vulnerable parents, and it’s jumped all over questionable preliminary studies linking autism with everything from gluten to air pollution to antidepressants to the “Western lifestyle.” But the site’s drumbeat of support for the thoroughly debunked claim that vaccines cause autism is particularly shameful.

In case you’ve managed to miss this “controversy” (where have you been and congratulations, by the way), a 1998 paper in the influential medical journal The Lancet claimed that the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella caused autism. Sixteen years and many preventable measles outbreaks later, we know for certain that the claim is wrong. Literally hundreds of thousands of children have participated in studies around the world showing no association between vaccines and autism. A 2011 Institute of Medicine review of thousands of different studies reached the same conclusion. The Lancet has withdrawn the original paper and Andrew Wakefield, its author, lost his medical license, in part because he failed to disclose that lawyers preparing to sue vaccine manufacturers helped fund his research.

None of this has deterred a small number of evidence-averse anti-vaccine campaigners, who think there is an international, inter-governmental conspiracy including thousands of doctors working for Big Vaccine. Natural News is, of course, bouncing along giddily on the bandwagon. In September, for example, the site published a story claiming that the government has “once again conceded” that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Here’s what actually happened. In the 1980s, the federal government set up a fund for people who may have been harmed by vaccines. Although such injuries are extremely rare, vaccines are administered so broadly that tort claims could clog up the courts and deter drug manufacturers and doctors from providing vaccines.

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The fund does not compensate parents who believe their children developed autism as a direct result of receiving a vaccination—the fund’s administrators rejected that link in a series of test cases. However, some researchers believe that certain vaccines may in rare cases prompt an adverse reaction and cause encephalopathy, at a rate of about one case in 310,000 vaccine recipients. As a result, the fund pays children who were diagnosed with encephalopathy shortly after receiving a vaccine, whether or not they can prove causation. In some cases, children with encephalopathy are later diagnosed with autism. However, just as researchers have been unable to prove a causal link between vaccines and autism, they have been unable to produce convincing evidence that encephalopathy causes autism.

Evidence be damned, though. When the vaccine injury fund compensates an encephalopathy victim—whether or not autism is involved—sites like Natural News describe it as a government admission that vaccines cause autism. It’s nothing of the sort, but this unique brand of yellow journalism has earned the site 75,000 Facebook shares and counting. That’s the only hard data Natural News cares about.

The obvious next move is anti-government propaganda. An August headline claimed, “People Who Grow Their Own Food Labeled 'Extremist' by Dept. of Defense” (more than 33,000 Facebook shares). That’s not even close to true. In fact, a Department of Defense training manual on extremism stated, “Nowadays, instead of dressing in sheets or publicly espousing hate messages, many extremists will talk of individual liberties, states’ rights, and how to make the world a better place.” Both the conservative site Judicial Watch, which obtained the manual, and Natural News equate this to claiming that everyone who supports individual liberties is an extremist. If you’ve managed to read this far—or, if you’re able to read at all—I don’t have to explain to you why that interpretation misrepresents the Pentagon’s views. In addition, after reading through the entire DOD manual, I can’t find any comments whatsoever about people who grow their own food. (Natural News did not respond to requests for comment.)

When one of your Facebook friends posts a link to a story about spirulina boosting brain function or how to cure pneumonia with vitamin C, I beg you to respond. A simple “bogus” will help halt their descent into insanity induced by Natural News. (That’s a causal link you can believe in.)

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.