Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Extremely Poor Job We Do of Debunking Anti-Vaxxers

This article follows a long-standing Slog tradition of trying to explain different groups to each other. Many such articles are labelled/tagged as "right whispering"...though the following cuts the other way.

Note: I've got a flair for explaining different perspectives, but, alas, not for doing so tersely. Apologies for the length of this. By the end, hopefully you'll have a more visceral understanding of the anti-vaxxers than you can get from other sources, even if you still don't (god, please don't) agree with them.

Look. The Anti-Vaxxers are wrong. But they're not stupid. Smart people get caught in hysterias and mass delusions, too, and, as has been amply reported, the folks caught up in this one are highly-educated, including many Silicon Valley high-tech families who are well-informed and perfectly capable of critical thinking (as well as ridiculously poor judgement).

I've watched the steadfast efforts of perhaps three dozen debunkers over the past few weeks, and nearly all have recited the same tired facts, none of which speak to the crux of the issue. It's pretty disorienting; I agree with these people, yet as they parade across my TV screen, parroting the same talking points, I feel like I'm watching a Daily Show takedown of the Fox News' echo chamber. Since the anti-vaxxers lie far to the left, this backlash surely fades for them into a background wash of institutional ignorance.

The anti-vaxxers know Wakefield's study was discredited. That is not news to them. Enough with Wakefield, already. And, no, these people have not "forgotten" what polio is or why it's bad. Harping on these two points makes me wonder whether pundits and authorities truly want to persuade anti-vaxxers, or if they're simply trying to agitate the rest of us against them.

The other thing anti-vaxxers comprehend is herd immunity. They get it, and would otherwise be inclined to do their part, but not if it requires jeopardizing their kids' health to keep the herd 100% immune to a diseases like measles with mere 0.3% fatality. There are small sacrifices to be made for the greater good, but as stakes rise (or are imagined to rise), it becomes a more complicated equation.

We talk past this. We impatiently swipe away assumptions and we push conclusions which hinge on assumptions of our own. This is the question Sane America is asking anti-vaxxers: "Why would you endanger the children around you when vaccines are perfectly safe?". But, duh, they don't think they're perfectly safe! It's not that they don't care, it's that they find the risk/benefit equation more complicated than you or I do.

And vaccines are not perfectly safe, even with (unfounded) autism claims aside. No authority would ever claim they are (yet public debunkers - fearing backlash wrath if they concede facts which might appear to fuel the wrong side - steer clear of this entire branch of the's like this). Yes, autism risk, specifically, is pure bullshit, but people certainly do have reactions to vaccines, even serious ones. So, from the get-go, it's not quite obvious where that risk/benefit equation should fall. Reasonable discussion could be had.

No, I'm not a traitor to my side of the debate. I just don't think you can convince people by deliberately talking past their arguments, though that's exactly what we always try to do (usually in the name of "clarity").

And yet more discussion could be had to finally decide the level of compulsion appropriate for the many childhood vaccinations which don't address quite as firm a public health need. Did you know many locales currently suggest over 50 of these things, ladening pediatrics with a confusing thicket of shots both compulsory and non-compulsory and leading healthcare authorities to occasionally go nuclear against parents who refuse even voluntary shots for their immune-compromised children?

It's not quite as simple and clear-cut a matter as one might imagine. While the anti-vaxxers are wrong and dangerous, persuasion can't happen until we at least consider what they're actually saying....which is more intelligent than the ten-year-old sound bites you hear on TV of Jenny McCarthy being a complete ditz.

Now, finally, the autism thing. It's actually not all that hard to understand where they're coming from on that, if you make an effort. Helicopter parenting, where smothered, over-parented children become mommy and daddy's fabulous craft project (what I referred to, in the above link, as a "Narcissist's Creation Kit"), is pandemic wherever vaccine refusal is pandemic. Helicopter parents don't trust institutions, they trust their guts (just as the extreme right - their antithesis - does). And that's where autism risk - which isn't an intellectual concern, but certainly is an emotional one where such public furor has been stirred up - comes in. Mommy trusts her gut, and her gut worries that maybe there's something to this scare, because the scare comes at her from all directions. That's what happens in a hysteria - an alarming answer is blowing in the wind.

Such situations can result in far deadlier outcomes than mere under-vaccination. Hysterias can make crowds crush each other to death for no discernible reason. Crackling exo-neurological wirings are a deep part of human nature, so don't imagine only idiots are effected. Have you ever had a widely repeated rumor - which you intellectually knew to be false - turn your stomach to lead? Can you recall how exquisitely sensitive our collective antennae got circa September 12, 2001 - and how a stream of theories and omens filled that channel, leaving smart people distraught and confused? The intellect can try to soberly discount rumor and anecdote, but the gut cannot. And so we get to the crux: if you keep receiving a series of emotionally-charged stories from your empirical grapevines about autism from vaccines, your intellect may remain skeptical, but your gut will scream "watch out!". And which way would you lean re: your kids' safety? Especially if your entire parenting philosophy revolves around one's defiantly personal (read: socially conformist) choices? You wouldn't take the chance. You wouldn't step on that sidewalk crack, risking that you might break your momma's back.

That's the kernel of it, no more, no less. Vaccines carry a (legitimate!) risk to little Shandra or Kent....and the risk just might be far worse (i.e. autism) than The Man tells us it is. Probably not, but, hey, you've heard stories, and that raises the stakes at least some, no matter how many people scream "nonsense!".

Parents inclined to micromanage their children's development feel supremely confident in their "mix" of intellectual/emotional/spiritual KNOWING. They never doubt for a moment that they're sculpting the most super-well, super-functional kids ever (note: it's exactly these people, now with offspring. Can you now understand why I'm so alarmed and annoyed by them?). Such parents do not eagerly receive feedback on their highly enlightened decisions - especially not from "authorities". So we need to offer far better tailored arguments, and speak to their actual concerns, rather than speaking past them to impatiently demand they stop being such morons, period.

It's the same with how we talk to the Right about climate change*, abortion or tolerance. If we go in assuming they're idiots and talking to them like they're children, we'll continue to polarize the country into Partisanville.

* "Just look at the weather!" we cry during storms or droughts. Then, when climate change deniers do the same during conditions matching their conclusions, we wag our heads at the stupidity of pointing to single data points....


Seth Godin said...

Probably not 'debunking', because debunking implies that it is possible to rationally point out that something is bunk.

When a non-rational/non-science/non-logical argument collides with one of the other kind, debunking isn't the goal, and the argument isn't one that's actually much of an argument. Both sides aren't enrolled in the same process.

The flat earth people weren't debunked. They were disinvited from a group they were hoping to be part of. That's how culture changes.

Jim Leff said...


I like how John Oliver expressed it: "You don’t need people’s opinions on a fact".

Muscle_Burst said...

I'm going to try to be as straight forward and logical as possible. I don't know as much as I could about vaccines. Yet, I consider my self an Anti-Vaxxer.

Here's my argument: When I was in grade school, k-12 I bought the establishment/science line and believed the following:

Vaccines carry minimal risk but, stop horrible diseases.

I never questioned until I started hearing claims against vaccines. Eventually I heard from enough sources I trusted that vaccines were dangerous. That's all I needed. Its simple, if I trust a source and they tell me the sky is red I believe them.

Note if I didn't trust the source I would have thrown out the idea as hogwash like I did when I was in k-12.

This is similar to a representative government or trusting a scientist. I don't have the intellect/time/energy to fully understand the issue. Yet, I can trust someone who can.

Just as I don't have the resources to go and visit every glacier, or measure back 100,000 years in Antarctica using some technology I only vaguely understand.

The sources I trust claim vaccines are okay, its just the preservatives aren't. It's easiest just to give you the direct quote from the source

"There is another downside to the most common vaccines and vaccinations, especially for children. "It's not the vaccines that are the problem- its the additives" says Northeastern University pharmacy professor Richard Deth. Most physicians are not even aware these additives exist, much less that they pose a problem.

Common vaccine additives include mercury, aluminum, formaldehyde, MSG, sulfates, and ethylene glycol (antifreeze). Each one of these additives have been linked to disorders ranging from brain and nerve damage to autism and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder(ADHD). The overall amount of mercury that children typically receive from vaccinations early in life represent their entire lifetime's amount of mercury exposure. Symptoms of mercury toxicity in children have been documented as reassembling symptoms of ADHD and autism. "

Fitzgerald, Randall. The Hundred-year lie. P.140.

Muscle_Burst said...

Sorry about posting in two comments, was a little under the weather.

"The most obvious solution would be to use single-dose vials so preservatives like thimerosal would no longer be necessary. But vaccine manufactures resist this option because it would raise costs, which they keep down by preserving vaccines in bulk quantities. Besides, vaccine executives argue, there is "uncertainty" in the research data about the toxicity of preservatives." Fitzgerald p.142. Paragraph 3.

My conclusion is that as citizens we should be given the choice of whether we want single dose or multi-dose vaccines. Whether or not there is increased risk with bulk vaccines or not is irrelevant. The problem is the lack of choice or freedom the customer has when it comes to vaccines. Doctors do not say "Do you want a single dose vaccine with less preservatives for an extra $50? Or would you rather the bulk vaccine with more preservative but is cheaper? Btw, scientifically there is no difference in risk, but some feel the single dose vaccines are safer. "

The above is ultimately my goal to give citizens like me the choice of single versus multi-dose vaccines. As opposed to the lack of choice associated with vaccines that is the current state today. Thanks for reading.

Jim Leff said...

Medicine is not a consumer realm, nor should it be. Unlike the breakfast cereal aisle or the vehicles on a car lot, in this particular part of life we do not afford the almighty consumer free prerogative. This is because medicine is both complex and critical, and there are extremely well-trained specialists who are far, far better qualified and equipped to make decisions than we are. That's why we don't get to choose our antibiotics, or demand custom incisions in our tracheotomies.

But, alas, the Internet makes every googling shlub feel like a medical authority with greater acumen than his/her doctor. Glom that together with the extraordinarily entitled outlook of the American consumer, plus an innate blind skepticism toward authority of any sort, and you get folks with supreme (and completely unjustified) confidence believing very stupid things, amplifying their beliefs via confirmation bias, and bringing great danger to the public health.

"A little learning is a dangerous thing"
- Alexander Pope

The microphone is open for you to hold forth with any more valuable and cogent medical insights you'd care to share. Enjoy.

Muscle_Burst said...

Gah, I hit the 4,096 character limit. Breaking into two maybe three parts.

"Medicine is not a consumer realm, nor should it be."

First, I hate the word consumer, customer is more accurate. James howard Kunstler nails why we shouldn't use the word consumer.

"One final thing -- I've been very disturbed about this for years, but I think it's particularly important for this audience. Please, please, stop referring to yourselves as "consumers." OK? Consumers are different than citizens. Consumers do not have obligations, responsibilities and duties to their fellow human beings. And as long as you're using that word consumer in the public discussion, you will be degrading the quality of the discussion we're having. And we're going to continue being clueless going into this very difficult future that we face. So thank you very much. Please go out and do what you can to make this a land full of places that are worth caring about and a nation that will be worth defending. "
Here's the original context:

Second, I disagree with medicine not being in the customer's realm. My one college professor said "doctors are business men just like anyone else. At one time doctor's weren't this way but not anymore." Note I'm quoting from memory I may be slightly off.

Muscle_Burst said...

Part II:

"Unlike the breakfast cereal aisle or the vehicles on a car lot, in this particular part of life we do not afford the almighty consumer free prerogative"

I disagree, doctors are fallible just like every other human being. It is important to double check your doctor/pharmacist as best as you can. Two great examples are doctors getting the patients mixed up and performing the wrong surgery and pharmacists mixing up the meds. I know a friend who's meds got mixed up its pretty common.

"This is because medicine is both complex and critical, and there are extremely well-trained specialists who are far, far better qualified and equipped to make decisions than we are. "

By medicine it seems you mean modern/contemporary medicine and surgical procedures. Did you know that leeches are now being used in modern medicine to help devour dead skin? I mean leeches of all things the animal that has been mocked for its use in medieval medicine is making a come back. That being said there was plenty of healing techniques before conventional medicine and today's science is backing up some of these claims.

Next, I have unique knowledge of my body and experiences. Sure my physician might know more about antibiotics and surgery, but I know more about what I ate in the last decade, injuries, and bug bites. Last time I went in to my general physician he didn't even spend two minutes with me. Yet, I had to pay the $50 copay with insurance. I felt robbed, and that I should have spoken up more.

"That's why we don't get to choose our antibiotics, or demand custom incisions in our tracheotomies." Some people are allergic to penicillin, those people certainly need to tell the doctor and nurse "no" or risk the consequences. With surgery its important as a patient to try to get a good surgeon, to prepare oneself properly for the surgery. Ask why one doctor says one type of surgery is recommend while another doctor recommends another kind.

But, alas, the Internet makes every googling shlub feel like a medical authority with greater acumen than his/her doctor. Glom that together with the extraordinarily entitled outlook of the American consumer, plus an innate blind skepticism toward authority of any sort, and you get folks with supreme (and completely unjustified) confidence believing very stupid things, amplifying their beliefs via confirmation bias, and bringing great danger to the public health"

A lot of this information that I've gathered has come from books and word of mouth. For example, with my dentist I saw him as a teacher. Mainly because so much of dental hygiene is preventive medicine. I tried my hardest to get my money's worth each trip to the dentist. At one point my persistence paid off and my dentist figured out the problem wasn't my teeth but my gums. From then on I've been paying more attention to my gums and my dental health all the better.

Once you start talking to your doctors you realize they are people. Fallible people not that different from you or I. For example, my veterinarian and I disagreed, he saw it as a sign of disrespect at first. Yet, he seems to like me a lot by the end. I even started to know more than him in some narrow fields. For example, he told me it was all about the volume of food I fed my dog. Yet, I knew the quality of food and exercise paid a part.

Muscle_Burst said...

Part III:

""A little learning is a dangerous thing"
- Alexander Pope

My one computer science teacher was a fan of the above quote. The same one who marked my answer wrong about the phishing scam. He said that "a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing." Which I think is the same quote, oops. Let me verify that. My professor used that quote in response to the window's registry. Saying don't mess with it. Nevertheless several times I got computer virus and had to mess with the registry and nothing bad happened.

As for the quote "Most people have heard the old line of poetry: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

It became a proverbial saying that has been — and is still is — used and repurposed in many ways.The common variation is “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” However, that’s an misquote of the original line written by British poet Alexander Pope in his work An Essay on Criticism."

In other words you got the quote correct and my computer science misquoted it, but they both mean the same thing.

In conclusion, I've found its best to see your doctor as a teacher, or mentor that you will hopefully surpass and discard. Keep learning and challenge authority so you can grow. Doctors judgements aren't final, and there are many different procedures to treat the same illness. Be your own advocate.

Muscle_Burst said...

I missed some links in your original post including the washingston post one.

My initial reaction was I got upset, and had to stop reading about 1/2-2/3s of the way through. I only heard about Jenny Mccarthy recently, when talking with my real life friends about the subject.

"Now, Bayside won’t continue seeing her daughter unless she gets a range of new shots: boosters for tetanus, polio, chicken pox and MMR, and new vaccines for meningitis and human papillomavirus (HPV)." Henxrix, Steve.

The chicken pox is fairly upsetting. I mean a vaccine for chicken pox? Vaccines manufacturers, doctors, whatever, the pro-vaxxers have gotten out of hand. I had the chicken pox I didn't like it much, but it was a little bit of fun. To my understanding its about the least deadly pathogen possible. Measles is more deadly, but again only marginally. Yet, earlier in the article measles was mentioned.

"It’s a tough time for parents to express doubts about vaccines. The measles outbreak that began at Disneyland in December has spread to 14 states and infected more than 100 people. " Henxrix.

Nooooo, the sky is falling measles, I may be wrong, people may have died from this outbreak I don't know. Why don't they just panic people about the common cold and flu. 14 states infected omg, its time to run for the hills.

Polio is a nasty disease. My family members have told me stories of people living with shriveled legs for their entire lives. The idea of vaccines got sold to us when vaccines worked best. Now, it seems the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Trying to cure chicken pox and measles, what's next the flu? Oh, wait we already trying that. Or, by we I should the pro-vaxxers. Doctors and nurses have refused to get their flu shots. Also, one of my friends got the flu shot and then he got the flu. Same with my grandma.

My question to you is how pro-vaccine are you? Do you put your money where your mouth is and get a flu vaccine?

"The alleged link between vaccinations and autism was first raised in a small 1998 study by a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, whose work has since been widely discredited in the scientific community. The journal that published the study retracted it in 2010, and Wakefield lost his medical license."

I just heard again of Andew Wakefield in the same conversation as Jenny Mccarthy. Its interesting that a pro-vaxxer would hear these names before an anti-vaxxer. I finally finished skimming the article.

"Pediatricians say they, too, are torn between wanting to care for every child and ensuring that reluctant parents don’t erode the “herd immunity” that protects the whole society from polio, chicken pox and measles."

What's going on here? Why would you even lump these three diseases together? That's like a hydrogen bomb, a bronze spear, and an iron spear. Ahhhh, I can't help but laugh.

Muscle_Burst said...

I just want to say I'm sorry to anyone reading who has suffered from the illnesses mentioned. My comments aren't meant to be inflammatory. Part of the original post was empathizing with anti-vaxxers. Ironic, being an anti-vaxxer I couldn't see the other point of view, and now I can empathize, or at least I think I can.

I find it funny because I have been out of touch with the mainstream media for a while. I didn't realize how bad things were. It seems the pro-vaxxer/mainstream America has been the victim of a media fear campaign. For more about fear mongering see some of Micheal Moore's films. Bowling for Columbine does a good job explaining how the media blasts us with fear.

As I understand, pro-vaxxers actually believe that vaccines do more good than harm. Even vaccines against less deadly disease like chicken pox. I have to admit in k-12 I took the bait. I was young and the vaccines were required by law. Also, examples like polio were used. I also had high hopes a vaccine/cure for HIV or cancer would emerge. I dreamed of curing cancer. I wanted to see on the front page "cure for cancer found all rejoice."

In video games I played the cure for cancer existed as a wonder in Civilization 2.

I will go so far as to say I expected to see a drug that would cure HIV. Yet, as the years went by and I watched loved ones and friends of loves ones go through the various stages of cancer and other chronic diseases my faith dwindled in the medical establishment. Until the point I had no trust in modern medicine. At that point I opted for no treatment. Neither holistic nor modern, and just decided to ride out my various illness toothaches, earaches, colds, etc.

Eventually, I find remedies of my own, and started to trust in holistic medicines and home remedies. Through trial error I got to the point I am now.

Trust is the difference between you and I, between pro and anti-vaxxers. Apparently, pro-vaxxers trust the current medical establishment. Its hard for me to believe anyone over 30 would trust modern medicine, but apparently those people exist. Not only that but they are in the majority. You actually believe that vaccines save lives. Not only that but you believe in herd immunity. This is alien to me.

When somebody goes against herd immunity I'm guessing you get mad at them. Even outraged, thinking that person is tripping you up, even dangerous. That person could transmit a disease that could harm you or a loved one. Some pro-vaxxers may even go so far to think the anti-vaxxers are responsible for the death of a loved one. I'm sorry if this has happened to you.

Even though I now understand and empathize with the pro-vaxxers don't think for a second my opinion has changed. I believe now more than ever that the pro-vaxxers are the dangerous ones transmitting disease. My current belief is that vaccines lower immunity.

Here's some videos about vaccines:

ex marine speaks on raw lifestyle vaccinations changing ways

Muscle_Burst said...

The above link I found while lurking in the 30bananasaday forums.

Its the strongest argument I can find. Defeating a weak argument does almost nothing, but if you or someone else could defeat the above, it would go a long ways to deter me from my anti-vaxxer stance.

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