Friday, December 1, 2017

#1931: Jennifer Margulis

Jennifer Margulis is a a journalist and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, home birth advocate, quackery promoter, author, and a radical anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist and infectious disease advocate. As most critics of modern medicine, Margulis moves between legitimate concerns related to e.g. over-treatment, and batshit paranoid conspiracy theories involving how Big Medicine and Big Pharma are out to destroy you and your children for profit.

According to herself, she is “not anti-vaccine, I am pro-questions,” which is the typical refrain among those who are anti-vaccine and don’t want those beliefs questioned, and although Margulis admits that “vaccines work”, she has repeatedly peddled many of the typical and thoroughly discredited anti-vaccine talking points, suggesting that vaccines may cause autism, that vaccine schedules recommend “too many too soon”, and that vaccines are potentially harmful because they’re not “natural, as opposed to the often deadly diseases they prevent.

Margulis is perhaps most famous as a homebirth advocate and promoter of the idea of “embracing the pain to make you strongerbecause it is natural. In her book The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line (good review here; here is Margulis trying to manipulate Amazon reviews of her book), Margulis argues not only for homebirths and “parents know better than doctors” (after all, doctors were wrong before) and that bathing a newborn is harmful, but questions the need for well baby checkups – which she apparently thinks are primarily a gimmick to sell vaccines – and for giving newborns vitamin K and prophylactic eye drops. Indeed, Margulis is against chemicals in general, and tries to scare you as she has scared herself for instance by telling us hat Johnson’s Baby Wash contains “a host of unpronounceable chemicals [yes, the Food Babe gambit, no less], some of which are known toxins … and carcinogens,” which shows that Margulis has failed to grasp even the most rudimentary principles of toxicology and chemistry, or at least that she’s aware that her readers obviously haven’t. Similarly, Margulis is firmly opposed to formula, which she says is killing babies because it’s unnatural, and against disposable diapers because they contain chemicals which, according to Margulis, can cause your child to become infertile, citing – as her only evidence – a single study showing that disposable diapers, rather obviously, raise scrotal temperatures. There is another good review of the book here.

A typical move in her book is to chide doctors (lots of that) for ignoring “the existing scientific literature” on bed rest or toilet training, and then promptly assert that ultrasound exams of pregnant women may be responsible (they aren’t) for (the mythical) rising rates of autism among children, based on information by “a commentator in an online article” (who is left anonymous but has apparently “used ultrasonic cleaners to clean surgical instruments (and jewelry)”). Also, “[p]eople who do not use ultrasound, like the Amish, are at lower risk for autism,” says Margulis, which is not even wrong, since Amish women don’t reject ultrasound and the urban legend that Amish don’t get autism is demonstrably exactly that. 

Indeed, her book relies primarily on i) anecdotes, and ii) appeals to nature to support her claims, as well as the (familiar) formula “anything used by mainstream doctors and hospitals = bad; anything used by midwives or alternative healers = good,” and she laments how back in the days “birthing women were usually attended by informally trained midwives who passed on their skills from generation to generation,” whereas today a birth taking place in a hospital today involves “at least half a dozen medical professionals.” Therefore giving birth was much better before. Margulis has several stories of babies or mothers dying in those horrible “sterile” and “hygienic” hospitals because of indifferent or incompetent doctors, and no stories of women dying in childbirth without the intervention of doctors; you do the math.

Of course, the mortality rates for homebirths in the US are rather frightening, something that Margulius has some trouble explaining away. Her response is … striking.

Hat-tip: Refutations to
Anti-vaccine memes
As for Margulis’s inane hypothesis that there is a connection between ultrasound and autism, she later wrote to Linda Birnbaum, the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and a toxicologist with a PhD in microbiology and an extensive publication list, offering to educate Birnbaum on the causes for the (mythical) rise in autism, citing her degrees in English and literature, her background as an “award-winning journalist” and her stay in Niger in 2006–07 (“I think it is important to have a global perspective on health”) as her qualifications. “My extensive research,” said Margulis, who has no background in research (she means google guided by confirmation bias), “as a journalist has led me to suspect that two environmental factors may be directly contributing to the autism epidemic:1) Over/ill-timed exposure to prenatal ultrasound … 2) The use of Acetaminophen, especially before or after infant vaccination. This may be the smoking gun …” Neither of the two hypotheses, which are not compatible, has any plausible connection to autism, the prevalence of which has not increased in any case – there isn’t even a correlation to confuse with causation here! The hubris of Jennifer Margulis is breathtaking.

As a parent, I would rather see my child get a natural illness and contract that the way that illnesses have been contracted for at least 200,000 years that Homo sapiens has been around. I’m not afraid of my children getting chicken pox. There are reasons that children get sick. Getting sick is not a bad thing
-       Jennifer Margulis

We don’t know if that quote needs further comment, but if you think it does, try (following one “Bradley”) to replace “illness” with “bear attack” and “getting sick” with “mauled by bear”).

Hat-tip: RtAVM
Though Margulis admits, as mentioned, that vaccines save lives, she still pushes the most ridiculous and demonstrably false anti-vaxx myths. Margulis insists, for instance, that “weknow vaccines cause autism in some children”, misinterprets the significance of the Hannah Poling case and misrepresents the story of the removal of thimerosal from US vaccines. It’s all a grand conspiracy, you see; the US vaccine schedule is a result of profit motives and collusion between Big Pharma and the government. Margulis also claims that the chickenpox vaccine is more dangerous than the disease (despite the fact that the death rate from chickenpox dropped 97% after the introduction of the vaccine and no deaths have been reported from the vaccine). She even asserts, without a shred of evidence, that the doctors who most vocally support the CDC’s current vaccine schedule are choosing an alternative schedule for their own children.
Hat-tip: RtAVM

In 2010, during a Frontline episode (reviewed here), Margulis asked why we are still vaccinating for polio since polio has become more rare. This is not an intelligent question.

Lately, Margulis has – in addition to continuing to promote antivaccine myths and pseudoscience published in fake studies – been observed defending Andrew Wakefield’s newest antivaccine conspiracy film Vaxxed, and writing defenses of Bob Sears related to the disciplinary proceedings against him initiated by the Medical Board of California (Sears is currently one of the celebrity members of the antivaccine movement, and probably its most famous physician, after Wakefield). She is also a mainstain at various antivaccine events, and was for instance among the speakers – an impressive lineup of conspiracy theorists – at the antivaccine rally Revolution for Truth in 2017.

Nor can she let the vaccine-autism link go.
Hat-tip: RtAVM

Diagnosis: Rabid, loud and – frankly – stupid infectious disease advocate, conspiracy theorist and promoter of all sorts of things that count as natural according to her standards for such matters. She seems to be relatively influential, however. Extremely dangerous.


  1. A minor note -- not all midwives are the same! my wife is a CNM, or certified nurse midwife. She trained at Yale School of Nursing, practices in a major medical center under the supervision of MDs and delivers excellent science-based care. CNMs are not to be confused with "lay" miwives, who are trained informally.

  2. It should be added that ole Jennifer is the daughter of the late biologist Lynn Margulis, something of a whackjob in her declining years. An example of the old adage that the apple does not fall far from the tree.