When I read an anti-science screed, I usually want to fire right back with something like “you’re lying” or “you’re full of it,” but I’ve found this to be non-productive. It’s non-productive because the person writing the screen is 99% of the time sold on the anti-scientific concepts that they are displaying in their writings (or speeches). It’s also non-productive to fight anti-science with science because science really doesn’t need to defend itself. In the end, one way or another, science gets proven right.
There was a time when people thought the Earth was the center of the known universe. Then Galileo proposed that the sun was the center of our solar system, based on scientific observations of the movement of celestial bodies, he was accused of heresy. It would take some time, but his theories were tested and found true. If we were still locked into the way of thinking of that era, we wouldn’t have a space program that yielded us things like satellite communications, GPS, or even dried ice cream. Yes, people died for these scientific beliefs, but the science they adhered to was proven true.
There was also a time when the Earth was believed to be flat. Then the time came to explore the planet and realize that it was a sphere. There was a time when smoking was considered harmless by the populace, but it took a lot of science to reverse that belief. Even if we didn’t know today what we know about smoking and heart disease and cancer, we would have figured it out when insurance companies and their actuaries would look at risk factors for early disease and early death. Surely, they would have found death to come sooner to smokers than non-smokers.
One of the things that anti-vaccine activists keep saying is that vaccine manufacturers and public health workers are practicing “tobacco science” when it comes to vaccines. The big kahuna of the anti-vaccine blog “AoA” had this to say:
“[He] calls the current state of research on the autism-vaccine link “tobacco science in its early phases.” Its real purpose is to convince the public that it’s time to move on and look at other toxins, when real-world evidence suggests the opposite.
As complicated as the issue is, [he] believes that some answers are readily available if science were designed in the real world.
“It’s a lot easier than you think,” he said, suggesting a two-pronged approach. One would involve animal experimentation that would mimic the human experience with vaccines, the other children whose parents, for religious or personal reasons, did not vaccinate them. “You go find all the unvaccinated kids in the United States of America, and there are many,” he said, “and you look at their autism rate.””
What does he mean “tobacco science“? There is this belief among the most fervent anti-vaccine activists that science is being done to benefit those who fund the studies, and that those funding the studies are vaccine manufacturers. In other words, vaccine manufacturers are the one and only source of funding for studies on vaccine safety and effectiveness, and any results which threaten the sale and distribution of vaccines is censored and suppressed. Well, if they’re censored and suppressed, and if Big Pharma is so goddamn powerful, how is it that these studies exist to the point of being known about by the anti-vaccine crowd?
That is the real question to ask those people. We don’t go to the big kahuna and show him the science because he’s convinced it’s “tobacco science.” Instead, you ask him how it is possible for Big Pharma to be the sole proprietor of any and all research. Then you ask him how he knows that there is science against vaccines if Big Pharma is so powerful as to suppress it. And then you ask him if all the academics, physicians, lab techs, nurses, physician assistants, public health workers, epidemiologists, and policy makers the world over are all fools. Because every single one of them is to be paid off for this theory to hold water. And I’ve said this before: I’d take no less than three trillion dollars for my silence.
Unfortunately, the kahuna is not the only one that’s spreading this misinformation and mistrust of vaccine research. We first met this person a while back when he self-published a book filled with errors in reasoning, errors in research, and errors in conclusions. This person, the father of a child with type 1 diabetes, is convinced that his child got it from a vaccine, and he calls himself an “academic researcher” to show his
lack of knowledge on the subjects of biology, immunology, and basic scientific research.
This “academic researcher” gives us the following on his Facebook page (no login required):
“Parents want to know: What’s more likely, a vaccinated child suffering a vaccine injury, or a non-vaccinated child getting a disease?
As far as first world countries are concerned the answer is clear: vaccinating your child poses a greater risk than not vaccinating your child. This is not an urban myth and easy to verify. There are more vaccine injuries reported to VAERS every year than combined cases of reported polio, measles, chicken pox and pertussis. Many of the reported cases of polio, measles, chicken pox and pertussis occur in vaccinated children and not, as often assumed in non-vaccinated children.
Your pediatrician will argue that you need to vaccinate and put your child at risk to protect the herd. This concept is called herd immunity and is scientifically unsubstantiated.
Even if vaccines cause a short term immune response and “protection”, the short term and long term effects on the immune system for the individual child are mostly unknown.
As a father who has experienced the negative effects of vaccines on my children I can attest to the following: the burden of my child suffering long term health problems from an illness it caught by chance, despite having undertaken all preventive measures, is much lighter than me having consented to my child being injured by a vaccine. This you will only understand when you have a vaccine injured child.”
If parents want to know that, and they’re going to him for answers, they’re being lied to. Even in the “first world,” vaccinating is still less likely to cause a serious complication (one as serious as the disease) as it is likely for the child to catch the disease. We have less cases of complications from vaccines than cases of pertussis (whooping cough), influenza, H. influenzae serogroup B, meningitis, etc. If we were to end the vaccine program — this guy’s wet dream, it appears based on what he’s written — all of these diseases would make a roaring comeback and really kill a lot more children.
Furthermore, the principle of herd immunity is not a concept and it is definitely not “scientifically unsubstantiated.” There is plenty of evidence that herd immunity is what keeps outbreaks of disease from happening (though not necessarily individual cases). There is even a mathematical formula for it! If we’re using tobacco science to prove herd immunity, we must be paying off the mathematicians as well.
Also, “the short and long term effects on the immune system for the individual child” are not “mostly unknown.” We know exactly what the effects are. We’ve been vaccinating people (including children) since the late 1700s. If you look at the current vaccine schedule, you’ll notice that the vaccines we use have been around for a long time, maybe with the exception of the HPV vaccine. The technology for these vaccines has not changed. Millions have been vaccinated as children, and millions go on to be perfectly normal. If anything, millions have not died because of things like vaccination and herd immunity conferred through those vaccines. If anything else, we need to change the way we make vaccines like the flu vaccine because the technology is that old.
So we can’t go to this guy with science to defend science because he just won’t have it. He’s convinced that vaccines are awful, and that his “children” (though it was initially only his daughter) have been injured by vaccines.
Finally, also referenced in the “academic researcher’s” post, is this article by Sarah-Kate Templeton, published in 2010. According to her:
“Forty children are suspected to have died as a result of receiving routine vaccines in the past seven years.
Childhood vaccinations are also suspected of having left two young children with brain injuries and caused more than 1,500 other neurological reactions, including 11 cases of inflammation of the brain, 13 cases of epilepsy and a coma.
The data, disclosed by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) following a request by The Sunday Times under the Freedom of Information Act, shows that, since 2003, there have been more than 2,100 serious adverse reactions to childhood vaccines, some of which were life-threatening.”
Basically, she went dumpster diving for information against vaccines. This is not the first time she does this. (Google her.) Ms. Templeton takes information from an adverse event database (similar to the US VAERS database) and holds it as gospel. She doesn’t seem to do what we epidemiologists do when we hear of these events: INVESTIGATE FURTHER. Oh, and we do investigate, by the way. Do we find that a vaccine caused an adverse event? Once in a while, yes. But not at a rate for the population that is any higher than expected. For example, if there is one case per million of condition A, we’d expect to see one case every two years in the District. If we suddenly get three cases in one year, we investigate, and we find out if these people have had any vaccinations, among other things. Many times, and I do mean 90%+ of the time, people with conditions reported to VAERS end up having other diseases and conditions that explain what happened, like the women with blood clots who die from one weeks after the HPV vaccine but end up also being on birth control. (More on VAERS here.)
To put the whole VAERS as “evidence” thing into perspective, let’s say that you live in a western town. For decades, crime has been the order of the day. Murders are in the hundreds. Then, all of a sudden, a new sheriff is in town. He is the only one with a horse, by the way. He runs the criminals out of town, and peace returns. Suddenly, the number of people injured by horses (or with injuries resembling horse-caused injuries) beings to rise. The doctor in town tells you that there have been horse injuries all along, but that the crime kept people from seeking care, or that the bad guys and their horses were the main causes of them. Should you get rid of the sheriff because it is far more likely for him and his horse to run you over than for a criminal to gun you down?
Again, unfortunately, the anti-vaccine people can’t be reasoned with this easily. We can show them science to refute their science, but they and their loyal followers won’t listen. All that we can do with hardcore anti-science/anti-vaccine people is to expose their lies and misinformation to the world, even if just a little bit on a tiny blog with a tiny audience.