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Lawyer Tricks: The Unanswerable Question
It’s not hard for lawyers to trip up scientists in court. Here’s how they do it.
Lawyers and scientists differ in their approach to scientific truths. This clash in cultures is readily apparent in the courtroom and during depositions.
In December 2022, Aaron Siri deposed Dr. Kathryn Edwards in a case involving vaccines. Dr. Edwards is a Professor of Pediatrics and Scientific Director of Vanderbilt’s Vaccine Research Program. She has published extensively on the safety of vaccines to prevent influenza, pneumococcus, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), and whooping cough. She is also a senior editor on the definitive textbook on vaccines, which is 1,700 pages long and contains more than 20,000 references. Aaron Siri is a lawyer hired by an anti-vaccine organization called Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN), which consistently promotes false and dangerously misleading information about vaccines.
During the deposition, Siri used two words that showed how easy it is to make scientific experts appear foolish. The first was “designed.”
Siri: Were the clinical trials for the vaccines on the market today, were they designed to rule out that vaccines cause autism?
Edwards: No. You’ve badgered me into answering the question the way that you want me to.
Siri: Is that your accurate and truthful testimony?
For the most part, vaccine trials aren’t “designed” to pick up rare, serious side effects. Nonetheless, post-licensure systems are in place to detect them. Covid-19 vaccines are a perfect example. In December 2020, Pfizer and Moderna submitted the results of their phase 3 trials for authorization by the FDA. Pfizer’s trial included 40,000 volunteers, Moderna’s 30,000. Neither of those trials were “designed” to detect myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle). Nonetheless, after these vaccines were given to hundreds of thousands of people, both were quickly found to cause myocarditis in about 1 of 50,000 recipients.
Similarly, Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine wasn’t anticipated to be a rare cause of blood clots; therefore, pre-authorization studies weren’t “designed” to detect the problem. Nonetheless, after J&J’s vaccine was given to hundreds of thousands of people, the problem was detected in about 1 per 200,000 recipients.
The two systems in the United States that are “designed” to detect any rare problems post-licensure are the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System and the Vaccine Safety DataLink (VSD). The VSD is a linked computerized medical record system that includes 7 million people and 500,000 children. In real time, the VSD monitors those who have or haven’t received vaccines. For the Covid-19 vaccine trials to have been “designed” to pick up myocarditis or blood clots, they would have had to have included hundreds of thousands to millions of people, cost billions of dollars to perform, and taken many years to complete, which would have been prohibitive.
The second word that Siri used to trip up Dr. Edwards was “cannot.”
Siri: Is it your testimony that the MMR vaccine cannot cause autism?
Edwards: That’s correct.
Siri: Is it your testimony that hep B vaccine cannot cause autism?
Edwards: That’s correct.
Siri then proceeded to ask the same question in the same way for the polio, Hib, varicella, pneumococcus, and diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccines, each time eliciting the same answer. Siri knew that epidemiological studies, unlike mathematical theorems, aren’t proofs. They can only show that one event is associated with another at a certain level of statistical power. For example, eighteen epidemiological studies involving hundreds of thousands of children have found that those who received the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine were not at greater risk of autism than those who hadn’t received it. But those studies didn’t prove that the MMR vaccine “cannot” cause autism. They only showed that it was statistically extremely unlikely. Epidemiological studies can never prove never.
Here's another way to look at this. When I was a child, I watched the television program Superman, who, with his cape trailing behind him, flew. So, when I was about 5-years old, I tied a towel around my neck, stood on a low chair, and tried to fly. Unsuccessfully. That didn’t prove that I couldn’t fly. I could have tried a million times, which also wouldn’t have proven that I couldn’t fly. It would have only made it statistically much less likely. You can’t prove that I have never been to Juneau, Alaska (even though I’ve never been to Juneau, Alaska); you can only show a series of pictures of buildings in Juneau with me not standing next to them. The U.S. military couldn’t prove that weapons of mass destruction weren’t hidden in Iraq; they could only say that they were nowhere that they had looked. Siri knew that he had trapped Dr. Edwards with a question that included the word “cannot.”
Aaron Siri, and the team at ICAN, proudly displayed a clip of Dr. Edward’s deposition on its website. It was their “gotcha moment.” They labeled the post, “ICAN lead attorney, Aaron Siri, deposes world-leading vaccinologist, Dr. Kathryn Edwards, regarding vaccines and autism. Her answers, under oath, will shock you.” Siri later tweeted to Joe Rogan that he had successfully “debated” Dr. Edwards on the vaccines-cause-autism issue.
If vaccines caused autism—a disorder that affects about 1 in 100 children in the United States—this problem would be readily picked up in both pre- and post-licensure studies. The reason that autism hasn’t been found to be a consequence of vaccines is that it’s not there to be found.