An Exercise in Critical Reading

Okay, science pals, I’ve got a fun little exercise for you. Let’s see how many of you can spot where this paragraph goes wrong:

Merck and the CDC have determined that 1 out of every 912 who received Gardasil in a large study,  (see page 8) died. Yet, the cervical cancer death rate is only 1 out of every 40,000 women per year. In other words, girls are better off not taking the shot because the Gardasil shot kills the girls in greater numbers than does the disease it purports to treat.

Obviously, if you don’t click on the link to the study, you don’t spot the error. So let’s do that. The first thing you should do in a case like this is look to what’s cited. In this case, it’s page 8 of a safety assessment where the paper does in fact offer a number of people in their study who died. What was the largest cause of death among those who supposedly died of Gardasil? Acute respiratory failure? Negative reaction to aluminum leading to organ failure? Car crashes?

…Wait, what?

This excerpt was taken from Apparently, this is a radio show hosted by Dave Hodges – I couldn’t really give a damn to find out accurate information, so I’m just going to assume that the actual radio show involves satanic hymns, live Sonichu fan-fiction readings, and recordings of Dave punting babies. Normally I would try to get some accurate information on the person I slander, but hey – if he’s not willing to put in a bare minimum of work to understand the research he cites, then neither will I. So, Dave “I <3 Sonichu” Hodges, what’s actually on page 8 of the study? Well


Okay okay I’ll stop doing this.



Across the clinical studies, 40 deaths (GARDASIL N = 21 or 0.1%; placebo N = 19 or 0.1%) were reported in 29,323 (GARDASIL N = 15,706; AAHS control N = 13,023, saline placebo N = 594) individuals (9- through 45-year-old girls and women; and 9- through 26-year-old boys and men).


So far almost okay. The 1:912 number is wrong (on the low side, actually), but at least in the same ballpark as the actual numbers.


The events reported were consistent with events expected in healthy adolescent and adult populations.


Okay, that’s… not great, but hey, this study was by Merck, it could just be a pharma business trying to cover their asses with legal-speak… What did these people die of? Surely something vaccine-related, right?


The most common cause of death was motor vehicle accident (5 individuals who received GARDASIL and 4 individuals who received AAHS control), followed by drug overdose/suicide (2 individuals who received GARDASIL and 6 individuals who received AAHS control), gunshot wound (1 individual who received GARDASIL and 3 individuals who received AAHS control), and pulmonary embolus/deep vein thrombosis (1 individual who received GARDASIL and 1 individual who received AAHS control).


…Oh. Well, shit.


Okay guys, new rule. Whenever you hear someone say “studies claim that drug X or vaccine Y is dangerous”, actually read the study. Nine times out of ten, it’s not going to be true. In this case, it was almost comically easy to spot the error. Look, if you’re examining a group of almost 30,000 people for 6 months, how many would you expect to die in that time frame? Probably at least a few, right? Say, maybe 1:1000-1:500? Because if you examine any group of people that large for that long, there are going to be some deaths. It’s just as Merck said – this is consistent with events expected in adult and adolescent populations. That’s probably why the CDC claims, based on its safety studies, that “The findings were generally not that different from what is seen in the safety reviews of other vaccines recommended for a similar age group, 9 to 26 years old (meningitis and Tdap). Based on the review of available information by FDA and CDC, the HPV vaccine continues to be safe and effective, and its benefits continue to outweigh its risks.” It’s pretty decent evidence that Gardasil is actually pretty darn safe! But that’s not what Dave (and any other antivaxxer who cites this study) takes away from it.

Hmm… Not quite…


So… What’s the deal, Dave? You and the transvestite ape you do your show with (if there actually is a transvestite ape on the show, I apologize – I’m very sorry you have to work with this guy) obviously did a little research – you found this article to dredge up the number of deaths, after all. So why didn’t go the extra step of reading about one paragraph of plan text? Hell, just reading the second sentence would have been enough. And look, you do it again here!


The New England Journal of Medicine found that there remains no conclusive proof that Gardasil altered the course of HPV-16 or HPV-18 infection for which the patient was symptomatic prior to the administration of the first dose.


Again, anyone with the time to click the link and read the article would note that that’s not in the conclusions. It’s not what the experiment was supposed to test. The study was a study of HPV infection with a control group, which did not receive the vaccine. The interesting result should be that in the control group, 42 people got HPV, while in the vaccinated group, one person did. Instead, Dave focused on that one person, noting that that person had had the disease prior to receiving the vaccine. Um, Dave, I’m not sure you understand how vaccines work. Generally speaking, if you already have the disease, the vaccine ain’t gonna do you much good! But even beyond that, it’s a sample size of one, and ignores the more important and statistically significant data available – that Gardasil works.



Seriously, guys. Whenever claims like this pop up, it’s really simple. Look for the source. If no source is given, chances are you’re dealing with cranks. If a source is given, make sure that the author isn’t being as dishonest or manipulative as Dave “really disturbingly into punting babies” Hodges. Because if their opinion and interpretation is that different from the CDC’s… well, odds are that something ain’t kosher. On the bright side, I somehow doubt that Dave’s show really gets too much of an audience from 9 PM to Midnight on Sundays. What a tool.