Is this vaccine white & gold or blue & black?

gold blue vaccines copy

By now every sentient being with access to the internet has seen #TheDress.

#TheDress is an optical illusion that relies on varying perceptions of different observers.

The fact that the brain is constantly constructing a model of what the world really looks like is also true for color vision. The fundamental challenge in the perception of color is to identify an object despite changing illumination conditions—how bright or dim the ambient lighting is. The mixture of wavelengths that reaches our eye will be interpreted by the brain as color, but which part is due to the reflectance of the object and which part is due to its surrounding illumination?

In other words, an individual’s perception of the color of the dress is influenced by his or her perception of the ambient light in the photograph. Those who see the dress as blue & black interpret the photo as overexposed, and their brains adjust the colors accordingly. Those who see the dress as white and gold, interpret the ambient light as natural light, and no color adjustment is made.

What can the dress teach us about pseudoscience in general and anti-vaccine advocacy in particular? Quite a bit as it turns out.

1. Context is critically important

Different people look at the same image and see different things, because they perceive the context differently. Those who assume the context is an overexposed photo conclude that the colors in the photo (white and gold) are washed out and adjust them accordingly; the white becomes blue and the gold becomes black. Those who see the context as a normally exposed photo conclude that the colors in the photo are true and no adjustment is made; the white remains white and the gold remains gold.

Context is important in vaccine safety, too.

For example, back in 2011, the pseudoscience blog Age of Autism breathlessly announced that there had been more miscarriage events associated with the HPV vaccine Gardasil than other vaccines. The folks at AofA concluded that Gardasil causes miscarriages and is therefore dangerous.

It’s hardly surprising that Gardasil, the ONLY vaccine given exclusively to women of reproductive age has more miscarriage EVENTS than other vaccines. Was anyone expecting that vaccines given to prepubertal children were going to be associated with miscarriages?

Moreover, the number of miscarriages in meaningless. The only meaningful measurement is the miscarriage RATE (the number of miscarriages divided by the number of pregnant women who received the Gardasil vaccine). And since the natural miscarriage rate is 20%, that number would need to be substantially higher than 20% to merit any concern that Gardasil leads to miscarriage. But of course the AofA article does not bother to calculate the miscarriage rate or to compare it to the natural miscarriage rate.

Anti-vax activists drew a false conclusion because they didn’t understand the context. A vaccine given to small children is never going to be followed by a miscarriage because small children don’t get pregnant. And a miscarriage that occurs after receiving a vaccine tells us nothing about whether the vaccine caused the miscarriage because 20% of women in early pregnancy routinely miscarry.

2. When important pieces of information are missing, the brain will attempt to fill in, sometimes with disastrous results.

The reason that different people see #TheDress as different colors is because the context cannot be determined from the photo itself. There is nothing else in the photo that can help us determine if it is properly exposed or over exposed. In contrast, if there were a zebra in the background of the picture and its colors appeared to be gold and white, we would know that the photo was dramatically over exposed and everyone’s brains would adjust the colors of the dress to blue and black. Because we can’t determine the context, some people’s brains make the erroneous assumption that the light in the photo is natural light and that dramatically affects their perceptions of the colors they see.

In the absence of knowledge of immunology, chemistry and statistics, many anti-vax advocates fill in the missing knowledge with erroneous assumptions. For example, when they heard that mercury was originally in vaccines, they assumed that mercury compounds are exactly the same as elemental mercury; since elemental mercury is dangerous, they assumed that mercury compounds in vaccines were dangerous, too. Had they known more basic chemistry, they would have recognized that elemental sodium is also dangerous (it can explode if it comes in contact with water), but is perfectly safe in the compound sodium chloride, table salt.

Moreover, most anti-vax advocates don’t understand that just because B follows A in time does NOT mean that B is caused by A. The fact that many children were diagnosed with autism in the months after receiving the MMR vaccine led anti-vax advocates to conclude that the MMR causes autism. But autism diagnoses are almost always made after a child learns to walk and that does not mean that walking causes autism.

The human brain likes stories with simple cause and effect and may create those stories when reality is far more complicated.

3. Reality exists independent of what you believe.

#TheDress is blue & black. It may look different to some observers when viewed in an over exposed photo, but the dress itself is still blue & black. Just because it seems to some parents that vaccines injured their children does not mean that any vaccine injury was sustained. Reality exists regardless of whether you perceive it correctly.

4. You can’t always rely on what you see.

This is the most important take away from the photo of #TheDress. You can’t accurately judge the color of the dress unless you know the context and if you don’t know the context, you should be wary of making assumptions about the context. Similarly you cannot judge the safety of vaccines unless you have a solid understanding of basic immunology, chemistry and statistics. You can make assumptions in the absence of that knowledge, but you are more likely to be wrong than to be correct.

Vaccines are one of the greatest public health advances of all time. They have saved tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of lives. They have hurt some children in the process, but the risk of being harmed by the disease is 1000X greater than the risk of being harmed by the vaccine designed to prevent the disease. It doesn’t matter if you perceive vaccines as dangerous. If you lack knowledge of basic immunology, chemistry and statistics, you lack the context to draw accurate conclusions about vaccine safety and your intuition is worthless. After looking at the photo, many people intuit #TheDress as white and gold, but they’re wrong. It’s blue and black; it was always blue and black; and it will always be blue and black no matter that some people cannot perceive the colors correctly.

Vaccines are safe; they were always safe; and they will continue to be safe no matter that some people cannot perceive their safety accurately.

  • anotheramy

    Why do you (anyone) think an annual flu shot is not required for school attendance, like other shots are? The flu is very deadly to at-risk groups and schools are essentially germ factories.Do you think that requirement would help prevent the spread to populations vulnerable to the flu, or not?

    • The Bofa on the Sofa

      My guess, based on nothing….

      It’s harder to get it done every year. Unlike the pre-K vaccines, which you can get done over time. It’s just too easy to “not get around to doing it yet” when it is something that has to be done every year. Not that it’s smart, but it’s more understandable.

      • anotheramy

        That was my guess, too and just wanted to see what other ppl thought.

    • Young CC Prof

      In my state, young children in daycare or preschool ARE required to get it, every year. It’s a relatively new law, however.

      I think Bofa is right and logistics are a major part of why it hasn’t happened yet. Parents would have to get it done, and schools would have to track it every single year!

  • Ardea

    Can I just tell you that I am still upset and annoyed with a comments thread on facebook on the page someone I know from synagogue. It was post of an Age of Autism article about Oregon’s possible passage of SB 442, which would limit religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccines and thus promote higher rates of vaccination in Oregon for students enrolled in school.

    What really is annoying me is both his and his wife’s (she’s a naturopath) use of the concept of natural selection and “we survived millenia without vaccines”. I teach evolutionary theory, and it really irks me that someone (someone with medical training!) thinks that applying natural selection to human populations by removing vaccines would proactively help humanity, by making us “stronger” because “survival of the fittest”. 1. Natural selection is reactive, not proactive: it describes selective pressures of the past. 2. For millenia, child mortality was really high. Why do they want to go back to that? How do they not know that? 3. The children who contracted and spread measles at Disneyland were not “stronger” or superior as both of them said – “My children are stronger because they don’t have vaccines!” they said.

    They did not respond to my questions (do we want to return to an age of when child mortality was so high and if not vaccinating is so superior, why are there measles outbreaks?). They just told me that supporting SB 442 was fascist and I was being “fear based” and that this bill was about “medical freedom”, not some Big Pharma public health propaganda (their words). The wife (the one who’s been trained as a doctor) used all caps, multiple exclamation points, threatened to leave the thread several times, misplaced her apostrophes, and told me to use SCIENCE (in all caps).

    In addition to feeling completely affronted by the misuse of natural selection and the inability to see the consequences of going back to a completely natural state (they really think they would have survived to produce their first children in their late 30s and 40s, that their superior family would have the configuration it does today if they were living in a cave 30,000 years ago? really?), I am also completely affronted by the nature of their argument – it is eugenicist, yet this is someone who like me is Jewish. I just don’t quite see, given the history of eugenics and the Jews, why and how anyone would ever fall for eugenics and the naturalistic fallacy.

    • Yeah, but toxins.

      • Ardea

        Yeah.

    • anotheramy

      I think you’re over-estimating the naturopath’s education. They call themselves doctors, but most (some?) don’t receive a MD or DO degree and don’t do residencies in hospitals. At least the 2 in my town didn’t go to med school; their degrees are “Naturopathic doctor” from a college with the word “naturopathic” in it, not a “school of medicine”. Sadly I saw one once and that’s $160 wasted dollars I’ll never get back.

      • Ardea

        This individual went to the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon. It is a four-year degree. One of my close friends also went there and has a degree as an ND, and her coursework seemed quite a lot like coursework in an MD program. Students who graduate from there are qualified (in Oregon) to prescribe all medicines, deliver babies and perform minor surgery. I just feel like this individual must have slept through her ethics classes and courses in public health. Maybe there weren’t any courses in public health. Or epidemiology. I don’t know for sure. I was astounded to be called a fascist and to have eugenics arguments thrown at me by someone who calls herself a doctor. My own anatomy and physiology students – in high school – have a less selfish sense of ethics than she does.

        • anotheramy

          Wow, I had no idea their scope of practice was so wide, or that their classes are similar to that of Med school. The ND I saw seemed to have very limited knowledge of physiology and chemistry. (She was big into Chinese medicine and “intuition”.) I don’t even have words about the eugenics part of what your friend said.

          • Ardea

            I’m sure it varies from state to state. Oregon pushes the envelope on “alternative” anything.

        • Young CC Prof

          Here’s the thing about naturopathic medical schools: They don’t teach critical thinking. At all. Their students tend to be the sort of folks who run hot and cold to begin with, and they do nothing to moderate that.

          You know how when you read an article, you start analyzing it bit by bit? Like, “I agree with this part, but I’m not so sure about this, and that definitely isn’t true.” The naturopath I know can’t do that, he accepts or rejects with a whole heart.

          • Ardea

            Interesting. Then the naturopath I was arguing with is typical, and my friend is rare.

      • PrimaryCareDoc

        Naturopaths are licensed in my state (NH) and can prescribe a full formulary. And they are scary. They pretty much seem to deal in 3 diagnoses: Chronic Lyme disease, heavy metal toxicity, and adrenal fatigue. I have seen some amazing fuck ups from them.

        One was a woman in her 70s who was being seen by a local naturopath for fatigue, weight loss, fevers, body aches, and headaches. She saw the naturopath weekly for about 3 months and was diagnosed with chronic Lyme (despite normal labs) and vitamin D deficiency. She was getting IV antibiotics and some sort of IV vitamin cocktail from the naturopath. She finally saw me because she wasn’t improving. I diagnosed her with giant cell arteritis in about 5 minutes. I probably saved that woman’s vision. I probably got paid about $100 for it, while the naturopath got thousands in cash.

        Another was a woman in her 60s who saw me for post-menopausal vaginal bleeding. The naturopath had started her on estrogen. Just estrogen. That lucky lady ended up with a hysterectomy.

        I’ve gotten to treat lots of C. diff and esophageal candidiasis from the IV antibiotics they give all their patients for “chronic Lyme.”

        Oh, by the way, these “doctors” all went to Bastyr. The supposed pinnacle of naturopathic education.

  • just me

    Have you seen this? http://www.charlotteobserver.com/living/health-family/article11620775.html

    At first I thought gee maybe this is one of those 0.0001% or whatever instances of vax injury. But then the further I read…. Several siblings have issues including autism which the parents attribute to vax but I actually see it as perhaps there are genetic issues there and maybe the seizures/brain injury of the child had nothing to do with vax…interesting.

  • Who?

    Well I think I’m already off base because I saw lilac and either olive green or dull gold. Much prettier and more interesting than whatever they actually turned out to be.

    Still think vaccines are an Absolute Good Thing though and will continue niggling away at the crunchies in my life and world.

  • guest

    Somewhat on topic – my newly minted 4 year old was able to get her MMRV booster 2 weeks ago. She was fussy for about a week, then fine. Then a few days ago I noticed some spots on her back. Flash forward to today and she has a full blown rash – small red dots – maybe 50 on her torso and her cheeks are red and bumpy. It reminds me of the pictures of measles, but I’m not really sure how post-vaccination rashes work. (Side note: for any anti-vax people, still would WAY prefer this to her getting any one or more of these diseases full blown, hands down). Add to that – I’m 27 weeks pregnant. I know they checked my rubella and varicella titers at the beginning of pregnancy and I’m immune, but I don’t think they checked measles or mumps.

    So – I plan on calling the ped in the morning no matter what, but for my own peace of mind in the interim – can anyone speculate (a) could this be related to the vaccine or is it too far out? (b) if it could be related, is it the actual disease or just a reaction? and (c) do I need to call my OB about it?

    Thanks!

    • demodocus’ spouse

      It’d be no bad thing to talk to both docs. Hopefully, you’re worrying for nothing, but it probably isn’t the weirdest question a nervous parent ever asked them. Isn’t that part of a doc’s job? Hope your kiddo’s rash goes away soon.

      • The Computer Ate My Nym

        Heck, call them tonight if you’re worried. It won’t be the silliest call they got from a worried parent tonight by any means.

    • Allie

      Most probably just a slight reaction, or possibly not related at all. My LO often gets weird rashes and other skin issues, that clear up on their own. Skin issues seem to be the number 1 complaint for the preschool set, don’t they? Please put your mind at ease until you are able to follow up with your doc.

      • Allie

        I should have added that I don’t think it’s possible for the actual disease to be caused by the vaccine, although I’m no expert.

    • yentavegan

      the rash is a known consequence of the measles inoculation..it occurs about 10 days after the vaccine is given. The rash/fever is much milder and not contagious than really getting measles. But please call your doctor and your pediatrician to document this reaction.

    • PrimaryCareDoc

      Classic rash from the MMR. Lots of kids get that after their shots. Nothing to worry about, but call your doctor and check in.

    • guest

      Thank you all for your replies. They were very reassuring.

      I did speak with our ped’s office this morning and they said (as many of you noted) that this is a classic MMR reaction, shows up 10-14 days after the vaccination, not contagious, nothing to worry about unless she scratches and it becomes infected. Honestly, so far I can’t tell that she even notices it. So, glad to know and thanks again!

  • Sue

    I’ve heard there is a conspiracy from Big Color to brainwash us.

  • A

    No… Not the dress… Not here… No…

    Sorry, just… I am so sick of it by now! THERE, I SAID IT.

    Ahem. Please excuse me. Move along, nothing to see here.

  • just me

    It is so gold and white.

  • Are you nuts

    And no matter your level of conviction, you can be dead wrong. I would have SWORN the dress was white and gold, and actually thought it was some massive internet prank and people were lying about seeing a black and blue dress. I would have put a lot of money on that dress being white and gold. And then I saw a different picture of the actual black and blue dress and I had to shut my mouth. Too bad there’s no proof picture that anti-vaxxers will accept as evidence.

    • Young CC Prof

      More like the antivaxxers, seeing the real dress, insist it was a fake one somebody made after the fact to discredit them.

    • Mishimoo

      Like you, I thought it was a huge prank and that people were lying about seeing it as white/gold as a joke. I still can’t see it as anything but black/blue because being of the gothy persuasion, I have a lot of experience with tones of black clothing and how they show up in photos.

  • Lisa C

    This reminds me of people that claim to have seen Bigfoot. The experience almost always happens at night or during a period of altered light (dawn / dusk) and usually from a significant distance. I think that most people who claim to have seen Bigfoot genuinely believe that is what they saw because that is what their brain assigned to the image when in reality they probably saw a bear or a person in dark clothing or a costume.

  • Amy M

    The “vaccines cause autism” crowd never latched onto the idea that failure to meet language milestones causes autism—even they can figure out that that is a symptom. So in order for it to make sense to them, the cause has to be some external factor that can be pinpointed, and avoided.

    Here’s where it gets fuzzy for me: I can understand why a desperate parent would attempt to find something to blame. If the parent can place blame on an external factor, then 1) the parent is exonerated and 2)the parent can become an (misguided) activist attempting to protect others from harm. But in the case of autism, where the current research is pointing to a strong genetic factor, how can someone blame herself for that? We can’t control our genes, or which ones our offspring get. I would think those parents would be all over the genetic theory, because it does get them off the hook—then they didn’t DO anything wrong to cause their child to have autism.
    I guess with vaccines, even though the parent consented to have said child vaccinated, the parent is not responsible for the “consequences” because there’s actually a huge conspiracy between BigPharma and the government to harm all of us with vaccines, so its their fault?

    At the same time, I’ve seen (totally ridiculous and invalid) claims online linking everything from ultrasounds to tylenol during pregnancy to autism, which brings it back to the mother’s actions. If a mother with an autistic child actually believes that that time she took tylenol during her pregnancy was the culprit, she IS blaming herself. Why would she want to believe that? Is it just part of the mother-martyr culture we have in Western Society that says that everything bad that happens is mom’s fault? I mean, going around telling everyone to avoid tylenol in pregnancy isn’t going to cure her own child.

    • SporkParade

      Here’s a pretty good explanation of the cognitive biases that lead to anti-vaxxers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rzxr9FeZf1g

      • Sue

        This is great – explains cognitive bias well, especially looking for causes when things go wrong, as opposed to when things go right.

        Personally, I observed only positive development after each vaccine in every area of development – as have the overwhelming majority of parents. But we don’t say that the vax caused their positive developmental progress (except that they weren’t harmed by prolonged infectious disease).

    • Guesteleh

      The natural movement is at heart a eugenics movement. People trying to justify their economic privilege by believing they are naturally healthier/smarter/better people. If you remember that, then it all makes sense. Having a child with autism is a genetic crime like in the movie Gattaca.

    • Roadstergal

      Because you can’t control your genes, and you can control whether you vax/give Tylenol/get ultrasounds. If there are myriad and complex genetic and environmental factors for autism, that’s difficult. If you just have to not do one thing X, that’s easy.

      • Amy M

        I know, but if you’ve ALREADY done that one thing and are looking for blame, then by blaming that thing (say tylenol), you are putting the burden of blame on yourself, for taking tylenol. Perhaps you can say “Oh I didn’t know and now I do” but with genes, since they are unchangeable, that’s too big for some people, so they’d rather have something, even something they did wrong, if its something concrete and avoidable?

        • Roadstergal

          But you can ‘fix’ it with your future kids, and be the guiding light for others. Anti-vaxxers who have one autistic child often cease to vax future kids, and evangelize to others about not vaxxing theirs (“Don’t make the mistake I did”). If it’s a complicated genetics/environmental mishmash, you might just end up having another autistic child, and for a certain subset of the population, that is Just Unacceptable.

          • Amy M

            Ok, that makes sense to me. Thanks for taking the time to read through all that!

          • Sue

            Too bad for those poor children struggling with developmental difficulties who have to fight off measles too!

        • Francesca Violi

          Also I think for some people there could be some comfort in the idea of being part of some big, meaningful narrative rather than being just struck by a blind fate for no reason at all. They rather prefer seeing themselves as victims of a worldwide evil conspiracy, which moreover puts them on the side of the good guys.

      • Sue

        And now there’s the phenomenon of overplaying “epigenetics” to say that genetics doesn’t really determine anything – it’s all about turning genes on or off. This has become popular pseudo-science.

        • Roadstergal

          Yeah, ‘epigenetics’ has rocketed right up there with ‘microbiome’ and ‘quantum’ as popular words to use without understanding them.

    • Young CC Prof

      Some people do blame themselves, at least at some level, for passing on “bad genes” to their children. It’s irrational, and most of them recognize that it’s irrational, but it is a very human kind of irrational.

    • Sue

      Amy M, my understanding of the dynamics are not just that vulnerable parents are looking for an external locus of blame, but also that this is exploited and encouraged by people with vested interests in opposing vaccines and medicine in general.

      The exploiters help people feel understood and empowered by encouraging them to think they are more knowledgeable and perceptive than scientists or the medical profession, brave in taking a stance against “The Man”. This works for people who otherwise feel disempowered.

      Also, there is a sense in which a genetic disease is seen as “transmitted by the parents” – so it is still seen as parent-blaming.

      I’ve seen similar dynamics in relation to diet and “fat-shaming”, where people are sick of being seen as lacking resolve or being lazy, and are looking for simple external solutions like “fructose is poison” or blaming of “Big Food”. This can also encourage blaming of the nutrition profession for “bad advice” when the advice was never actually followed.

      I feel for the vulnerable people, but not for the exploiters.

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    I disagree that the first example about HPV vaccines and miscarriages is an illustration of “perception.” That’s just downright dishonesty. There is no HONEST way that you could make that claim.

  • SporkParade

    Am I the only one on team #lavenderandbronze?

    • Cobalt

      I got sky blue and orange.

      • toni

        I saw white and gold for a split second once but every other time I saw blue and black. And not light blue, royal blue. My husband sees palest blue and gold every time. so weird.

        • Amazed

          Royal blue for me as well. And black.

    • MegaMechaMeg

      The real question is what color Dr. Amy saw…

    • Guesteleh

      I’m on team #the-damned-dress-changes-colors-in-front-of-my-eyes-like-a-mood-ring

      • Roadstergal

        Yeah, it goes back and forth between white-and-gold and lavender-and-bronze for me.

    • anotheramy

      That’s what my husband and I saw, too.

    • Kq

      I still only see white and gold, and my brain keeps trying to correct even when shown the full accurate dress. And yet

    • The Computer Ate My Nym

      I’m for it. I can see white or blue, but I’ve yet to see the gold as black. Brown, yes, black, no. Not even in the properly exposed picture.

    • No, not quite. I see the dress as light blue and bronze. Two of my children see the dress as blue/black and the third as white/gold.

    • FrequentFlyer

      That was what I saw at first.:)