The false logical fallacy of the Blue Foot Syndrome in the context of anti-vaccination was first proposed by the well known pseudoscience crank and conspiracy theorist Sherri Tenpenny in this blog post.
The made-up story as told by Tenpenny to illustrate her point that she was trying to make goes:
By now, identifying vaccine injury should be obvious. But instead, it is much like the story of a child who dropped a large frozen turkey on his foot…
Within hours, his foot became bright blue. His parents, concerned because the child cried inconsolably and refused to walk, quickly sought medical help.
The doctor examined the young lad’s foot and said, “Hmmmm…. I see he is experiencing Blue Foot Syndrome. We don’t know what causes it but we are seeing more and more children with this condition all the time.”
The parents retort, “But Doctor – he started screaming and lost his ability to walk within a few hours after a frozen turkey landed on his foot.”
“Tsk, tsk,” says the doctor. “We have proven that frozen turkeys have no link to Blue Foot Syndrome. In a study of more than 4 million kids, the number who developed a blue foot after being struck by a frozen turkey was found to be statistically insignificant. We have determined something else must be causing Blue Foot Syndrome.”
With that, thousands of dollars of medical tests were performed to find any possible reason for the boy’s blue foot. Even though medical science had no explanation for the problem, doctors were certain that the thump by a frozen turkey was absolutely not the cause.
Sadly, the doctor informed the parents they could find no reason for their child’s Blue Foot Syndrome. He affirmed the condition shows up randomly and was slightly more common in those with susceptible blood vessels. In fact, since 1 in 87 now seem to have this random Blue Foot Syndrome, research is underway to find a defective gene to blame.
The devastated parents, terrified they may have a defective gene that caused their child’s pain and loss of ambulation, asked, “But doctor, there must be something we can do to help him walk and stop being in pain!”
Leaning back in his chair, the doctor pontificated, “Today, many therapists specialize in Blue Foot Syndrome. Colleges are even offering courses to become experts in this anomaly. I’m sure you can find a number of treatments that may help eliminate his pain, but there is no cure. A word of caution: Never use Blue Foot Syndrome on your insurance forms. You can use “painful foot” or “discolored appendage” or “inability to walk” but never use Blue Foot Syndrome or your insurance will deny payment of all your medical bills.”
As silly as this story may sound to some, it is the tale of vaccine injury and the long list of sensory integration disorders, language abnormalities, and yes, even autism.
The purpose of this story was to poke fun at ‘scientists’ but demonstrates a total lack of understanding of how evidence works in medicine, confuses correlation with causation and misuses anecdotes as evidence. David Gorski at Science Based Medicine debunked the above in a post on the issues of scientific consensus in general and specifically the misunderstanding being espoused by Tenpenny:
It’s more about tactics and how evidence is used to support an argument. Scientific skepticism looks at the totality of evidence and evaluates each piece of it for its quality. Cranks are very selective about the data they choose to present, often vastly overselling its quality and vastly exaggerating flaws in current theory, in turn vastly overestimating their own knowledge of a subject and underestimating that of experts. In medicine in particular, denialists frequently emphasize anecdotes over epidemiology, clinical trials, and science. They also tend to leap to confuse correlation with causation. A great example that I just saw a week or two ago comes from our “friends” at the anti-vaccine group the International Council on Vaccination, a group that Mark Crislip and I had such fun deconstructing. There, Sherri Tenpenny posted an article entitled Vaccines and Blue Foot Syndrome (crossposted on her own blog). In the post, after citing anecdotes about “vaccine injury,” Tenpenny then segues into a story of a child who dropped a large frozen turkey on his foot, which became painful and blue within hours. The parents are then confronted with doctors who tell her that this is “Blue Foot Syndrome” and that they have shown by epidemiology that it is not linked to being struck by a frozen turkey. It’s an analogy obviously designed to mock scientists who quite correctly refer to the studies that have failed to find a link between vaccines and autism that ignores the fact that correlation does not necessarily equal causation and that the correlations reported by parents are not nearly as obvious as a blue foot after having a frozen turkey land on it. Anti-vaccine activists think they are, though.
The point of the debunking is that those who like to falsely link vaccines to a whole range of health problems either do not understand or deliberately misconstrue the nature and role of scientific evidence and prefer anecdotes over evidence, such as, for example, the invalidated Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.
As an aside, one person even totally misunderstood the whole concept to think the original Tenpenny post was about vaccines causing blue feet:
…my feet are blue all the time, I already know so much of my problems are caused by vaccines and now I know more…
Which is obviously not the case and is a classic example of misreading what is written to confirm preconceived biases. True blue feet are most likely due to peripheral vascular conditions such a critical limb ischemia, acrocyanosis and trench foot and are not vaccine related.
Sherri Tenpenny meme (to illustrate the sort of person that she is and how she makes things up):
And this is what happens when an author calls her out for misinterpreting their research.
Sherri Tenpenny also gained notoriety when she testified at the invitation of Ohio’s Republican lawmakers in favor of a bill that would prevent businesses or the government from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination when she falsely claimed that COVID-19 vaccines caused people to become magnetized.
Autism and Vaccines | Pseudoscience | Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure | Silent Running: Our Family’s Journey to the Finish Line with Autism | Correlation vs Causation | ‘Correlation Does Not Imply Causation’ T Shirts | Anecdotal Evidence
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