I try to stay away from politics, but it’s a simple fact that government policy and science intermingle. If a political candidate builds a platform based denial of science then I think it’s Team Science’s responsibility to call them out on it. Furthermore, I think it’s the responsibility of political parties to refuse to let candidates run on their ticket if they deny basic scientific facts. That brings me to Shiva Ayyadurai, who is seeking the GOP nomination for the 2020 United States Senate election in Massachusetts. Ayyadurai ran as an independent in 2018, and was able to bring in 90,000 votes. While that’s only 3.4% of the popular vote, that’s not nothing for an independent. Ayyadurai out-raised his Republican opponent by over 3 million dollars. The way I see it, he could have a realistic chance at winning the GOP nomination. The problem is that Shiva Ayyadurai is not only a blatant antivaxxer, but preaches science denial to others in his “lectures”. He’s able to fill entire yoga studios, because of course he would give his antivaxx lectures in yoga studios, with people who want to hear him preach his antivax nonsense. So it’s worth at least taking him somewhat seriously. After watching his “lectures” on YouTube, I feel perfectly comfortable saying that he has no business being on any party’s ticket and it’s in the GOP’s best interest to kick him to a curb.
Ayyadurai is an interesting antivaxxer, in that his lectures are uniquely boring. His lectures follow much of the same format as a college lecture. Most of the time I don’t have to work very hard to find the places where science deniers say stuff that is whack. Often it’s a matter of what to leave out, and this is where Ayyadurai differs. I usually watch these things just before going to bed, and I tried to get through his entire lecture for more than a week. My record was 20 minutes-in before zonking out. Actually, his lectures are less like a university and more like Unisom. He spouts the same ridiculous antivaxxer talking points as Del BigTree and Andrew Wakefield, he’s just able to cover up his radical antivax viewpoints with his concerned-neutral-sounding-professor act.
His rhetorical strategy is pretty simple, and it’s got a long history among antivaxxers; he just pulls it off better. And by “better” I mean “worse”. First he uses his legitimate academic credentials, business background, and his claim that he invented email as reasons why he should be taken seriously. Then he attacks academia as being a hivemind that only allows certain types of thought. After all that he takes on the role of the science professor and breaks down slightly-below-MCAT-level biology for the audience who either never learned it or doesn’t remember it. This is an important rhetorical tool because it makes his audience feel as though they understand the science behind vaccines and the immune system. That way they can then see both sides of the “debate” around vaccines as Ayyadurai explains it to them. Even though the vaccine “debate” only exists in the mind of the antivaxxers. That’s when Ayyadurai can easily slip the most common antivax zombie lies in without them seeming really out of place to the unaware audience. So I’m going to show why Ayyadurai isn’t credible, and doesn’t understand academia or vaccines.
Shiva Ayyadurai is an antivaxxer
Here is the full 100-minute glory of the talk he gave at the yoga studio:
Ayyadurai claims that he isn’t an antivaxxer, he just so happens to peddle the same nonsense as hardcore antivaxers nearly word for word. He claims that children get 70 doses of 30 different vaccines before they turn 18, which is demonstrably false. The vast majority of childhood vaccines are given in a combination vaccine and the actual number of different vaccines is nowhere near 30. The number of vaccines that a child gets isn’t really relevant, he’s just trying to pander to the antivaxxer belief that children get “too many vaccines too soon”.
According to Ayyadurai, giving children all of these vaccines:
sounds very medieval compared what the guys over here are saying we should be moving to: precision and personalized medicine.
You know what sounds really medieval Mr. Ayyadurai? Children dying from measles. I don’t know how “precision and personalized” medicine even factors into what he’s arguing. Your body already makes antibodies to kill vaccine preventable diseases naturally, we just use vaccines to stimulate this natural process without having to face the risks of the full-blown disease. It’s really as simple as that.
Ayyadurai claims that the measles vaccine was created due to the risk of subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) from measles, and that people had “measles parties”. I’m unable to find any evidence that a significant number of people ever held “measles parties” prior to the creation of the measles vaccine. It would be an absolutely boneheaded decision to intentionally infect your child with measles considering measles killed an average 400 to 500 people each year in America, in the decade leading up to the development of the measles vaccine. Measles was also responsible for 50,000 hospitalizations each year. He states that the risk of SSPE is only 1 in 100,000, the actual rate is unclear but certainly higher than 1 in 100,000. Two recent studies found that the rate was about 1 in 1,500, and one found that 1 in 609 infants who caught the measles developed SSPE. The idea that the MMR vaccine was developed solely to prevent SSPE or that SSPE is a super rare complication of measles is ridiculous and this is obvious. The measles vaccine was created to prevent measles.
Ayyadurai goes on to imply that the measles vaccine somehow causes brain inflammation, which causes autism:
… was a risk assessment number that one out of a hundred thousand people were getting neural inflammation. Okay, which is SSPE. You can look it up. Go to pubmed and any article on why we need to get the measles vaccine will bring this issue up in the first introductory section of most of these papers… .001 was considered -someone decided- I wasn’t involved in that decision (thank god), but somebody decided that was too high. Therefore we needed to create the measles vaccine. Okay. Measles vaccine gets created and after that, if you look at neural inflammation that’s taking place. Brain inflammation is now at least in the people who- I’m only gonna use the world autism once in this lecture. In that group, in that group it was 1 out of 88 which is 1.136% neural inflammation. So that means you know have a whole bunch of people who are getting neuroinflammation but the percentage is 1.136%.
It’s at this point I would like to remind everyone that this man has a PhD in biological engineering, and is running for senate. He believes that MMR vaccine is somehow related to autism. But no reputable study has ever found a link between vaccines and autism. He insists he’s not saying “correlation equals causation”, but that’s also what every antivaxxer says. He also implies later on that vaccines can cause autoimmune disorders despite the overwhelming evidence that there is zero link between vaccines and autoimmune disorders.
And this is not even going into the benefits of the vaccine beyond just preventing measles, the myths associated with measles, and the overall unappreciated deadliness of measles.
Vaccines and research ethics
Ayyadurai perpetuates the ridiculous antivaxxer myth that vaccines haven’t been tested appropriately. He criticizes the medical community for not doing randomized saline placebo controlled studies on vaccines that we already know work. The problem is that it would be unethical to do so, and he knows that:
This is what the reason was that was given: If there was already a known vaccine that was safe and effective, it is unethical to randomize children into an unvaccinated group because we would be denying them the benefits of being vaccinated”…So this sounds to me like the chicken and they egg…Now the people who promote this are the same people who attack alternative medicine. So suppose by way of example I said this: “If there’s already known herb that is safe and effective, like turmeric that has been used for thousands of years, it is unethical to randomize people into a group not receiving the herb because we would be denying them the benefit of the herb.”
This is a false equivalence. Turmeric has been studied countless times for basically every disease or disorder you could think of and there’s still no solid evidence that it can be used to treat anything. So in this example he has presupposed that turmeric has health benefits. The argument by the medical community is that if a vaccine has been proven to be safe and effective, it is unethical to run a placebo controlled trial of that vaccine because the placebo group would not receive the benefits of being vaccinated. The core of his argument is that if a vaccine haven’t been tested in a double-blind saline placebo controlled trial, then it hasn’t been tested correctly. The problem is that a saline placebo controlled study isn’t the only way to study the safety and efficacy of vaccines. If there were concerns about the safety, we could simply look at the health outcomes of those who received the vaccine versus a group that didn’t receive the vaccine. We’ve done a lot of those studies, and they show that vaccines are safe and effective (but the diseases they prevent are not).
Ayyadurai claims that only one vaccine has had been tested under double-blind saline placebo controlled conditions and that the trial was done improperly. But there have been numerous saline placebo controlled studies for vaccines such as the polio vaccine, and the HPV vaccine. Ayyadurai criticizes the “one placebo controlled vaccine trial”, a HPV vaccine trial for the following reason:
So in Gardasil, they tested 10,000 people with the actual Gardasil vaccine. The other 10,000 people with what should have been saline? You know what they gave the other… about 9800 people? They gave them just the adjuvant. Then a third group of people, only 360, they gave them the saline placebo. They found something interesting, 2.3% of people who got the vaccine had autoimmune issues. 2.3% that got the aluminum had autoimmune issues, but nobody in the saline group had autoimmune issues. But in the package insert they combined the adjuvant group and the saline group and they said “Oh you know they’re about the same.”
The numbers he’s referencing come from the Gardasil package insert (argumentum ad packaging insert!) available on the FDA website. I’m unable to find any evidence that the people in the saline group didn’t get autoimmune issues in the trial or what the size of the saline group actually was; maybe he made it up. The literature shows that there is simply no link between autoimmune diseases and the Gardasil vaccine. In a systematic review published in the Journal of Preventative Medicine, the researchers analyzed the data from Gardasil trials which included data from 243,000 people who got the HPV vaccine, and 249,000 who didn’t. The data showed that there was no correlation between HPV vaccines and autoimmune diseases.
That’s not how academia or peer review works
Shiva Ayyadurai is an antivaxxer, and like all antivaxers he embraces ridiculous conspiracy theories about academia. It’s really amusing considering he has 4 degrees from MIT. You don’t get more entrenched in academia than that. He believes that tenure track professors are encouraged to only publish research that agrees with their colleagues and the wider scientific community’s views. Different institutions have wildly different criteria for giving tenure to a professor, if they give tenure at all. His implication is that “research” that calls the safety and efficacy of vaccines into question must not be being published because new professors don’t want to risk being denied tenure. There’s just one small problem: there’s nothing stopping tenured professors from publishing research against the scientific consensus once they have tenure even if they were discouraged to do so before they had tenure. What if the research shows vaccines are safe and effective because…and I’m just throwing it out there…vaccines are safe and effective?
Ayyadurai also claims that the peer review process can stifle research that goes against the scientific consensus. In his words: “the 1% can be silenced by the other 99%”. The peer review process is supposed to be impartial and journals work hard to create and run peer review systems that prevent reviewers from rejecting papers for biased reasons. Furthermore, there’s no incentive for medical journals to suppress research whose findings are the opposite of the scientific consensus at the time. Assuming that paper is good, that paper would get a lot of attention and citations, improving the journals impact factor. Ayyadurai also ignores the fact that the Wakefield paper that spurred the “vaccines cause autism” myth was peer reviewed, and was accepted despite Wakefield having committed fraud. The reason that there aren’t many papers calling the safety of vaccines into question is because vaccines are pretty safe. It’s really as simple as that.
Ayyadurai isn’t credible and he didn’t invent email
Ayyadurai’s twitter name reads ‘Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai, MIT PhD and Inventor of Email’. Be very skeptical of people who use the fact that they got their degree from a prestigious school as evidence that they are super credible. Ayyadurai got his PhD from MIT in Biological Systems, his thesis was in molecular pathway models, and doesn’t have any apparent connection to vaccines. But he also claims that he invented email, and it’s a story he tells at basically every opportunity. Now this is kind of a silly rabbit hole to go down, but he talks about it a lot to try and build credibility. So I’m going to have to evaluate that. Oh, and it’s really, really hilarious.
So Ayyadurai volunteered at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) when he was 14. According to the Smithsonian, Ayyadurai began working on a custom electronic mail system for the school in 1979. In 1982, Ayyadurai took out a copyright for his “Email” program after it had been completed, and believes he coined the term email. My speculation is that he was a software engineer back in the dark ages when you couldn’t name all of your in-house office programs after Pokémon so he had to make do with calling his program “EMAIL” as a shorthand for “electronic mail”. This shortening of “electronic mail” to just “email” is kind of obvious and there’s no evidence that he was the first person to use the term and to credit the creation of the term “email” to any one person is ridiculous. Nobody cares.
There were lots of implementations of what we now call email written by many different people for many different companies. Ayyadurai’s creation was hardly new by any stretch of the imagination. Ray Tomlinson is credited with sending the first email in 1971. The modern email we use today still uses a lot the conventions that Tomlinson developed. By 1973, 75% of ARPANET traffic was from email messages, 6 years before Ayyadurai even started his project at UMDNJ. But Ayyadurai claims this is all a racist conspiracy against him:
I’m the low-caste, dark-skinned, Indian, who DID invent #email. Not Raytheon, who profits for war & death. Their mascot Tomlinson dies a liar.
Ayyadurai is really committed to convincing everyone that he invented email. It’s very strange. Ayyadurai has written a number books published on Amazon about “systems health”, on the covers of which he calls himself an “MIT Engineer” and “the Inventor of Email”. Ayyadurai runs dozens of sites and at least 100 novelty URLs that direct to his sites that all say he’s the creator of email. But he isn’t, lots of tech sites have called him out on it, and Ayyadurai has sued them. TechDirt was in a lawsuit with Ayyadurai for years and it was finally resolved recently. Ayyadurai lost. He didn’t invent email, and he only makes the claim so he can sell stuff and build credibility with people who don’t fact-check him.
New rule: Booster shots
I can’t really think of any hardcore antivaxxers that have had a major political campaign, ever. Some major politicians have flirted with antivaxx ideas and parroted their talking points, but has any political candidate in a major political race ever posted hours of them denying the science of vaccines, climate change, and genetically modified food on YouTube? I can’t think of any. I also don’t see any big push by politicians to repeal bills such as SB276 and SB277. It turns out there’s a reason for that.
If you’re a politician and you want to pick a single science-related issue to run on, tightening vaccination requirements in schools is the a winning issue and it’s not even close (which may surprise regular readers used to a near-constant litany of bad vaccine news stories). According to a Pew Survey in 2016, 82% of Americans said the MMR vaccination should be required to attend public schools because of the potential risk to others when children are not vaccinated. In a 2013 Pew Survey, when asked “Should all children be required to be vaccinated?” 65% of Republicans and Independents, and 76% of Democrats said yes. It was the only issue in the survey in which a majority of every political party agreed with the scientists that were polled. I’m no expert political scientist, but it’s a simple issue that would be easy to make progress on. There’s no debate about whether legislation like SB276 works. It does and apparently it’s popular, so politicians should give their polling numbers a booster shot and propose laws similar to SB277 in their own states.
When you consider the fact that Ayyadurai wants to make opposing vaccines a major part of his platform, that alone should disqualify him. Not to mention his claim that he invented email his highly misleading at best, and an outright fabrication at worst. I’m sure none of his opponents are going to bring that up. Vaccination requirements to attend public schools are overwhelmingly popular with the American public. Shiva Ayyadurai is a blatant antivaxxer with a history of suing journalists who debunk his claim that he “invented email”. The GOP has zero margin for error in the Massachusetts senate election; they’re predicted to lose. To even give someone like Shiva Ayyadurai a platform in their party would be nothing short of foolish. Fortunately, I put my extensive computer science education to work and wrote a search algorithm for the GOP to help them find a better candidate with a constant time complexity. Here’s how it works: pick literally anyone else.