Denialism: ‘Researching’ the case against vaccines

Some of the most error-laden claims coming from those who deny the safety and efficacy of vaccination are accompanied by the confidence of having done their ‘research’.

However there is no way one could properly research, evaluate or study the risks and benefits of vaccination, and ultimately conclude to deny their children the protection it offers. There is no way one could properly educate themselves on the topic and actively entertain the inaccurate mantras used by anti-vaccine lobbyists. Certainly this so-called research shows no sign of being properly guided or assessed for basics such as structure, source material or conclusion.

In fact that last sentence above could apply to many areas other than vaccination. David Dunning and Justin Kruger hypothesised and successfully demonstrated a cognitive bias linked to intellectual skill. Their conclusions are examined in a 2010 episode of The Science Show. The synopsis opens with: The dumb get confident while the intelligent get doubtful. Whilst the “Dunning-Kruger effect” quite rightly takes its place in examining and explaining the phenomena, it has been noted by great thinkers for centuries.

Take this mother interviewed in a masterpiece of false balance cobbled together by Today show reporter Lauren Ellis. It’s true that the ability to gauge risk is not a natural skill in the absence of education and contemplation. We’re hard-wired to choose being safe over sorry. But one cannot objectively or conclusively “look into” the ‘flu (or any) vaccine and decide against it on that basis. The certainty this woman “studied” misinformation and evidence denial is confirmed by the rest of her comment:

When I looked into the ‘flu vaccine it wasn’t proven to be 100% safe. I made a choice that I was going to do the best that I could do to build up their immune systems through whole foods, active exercise and having a loving and caring environment at home. We actually want to invite those kinds of sicknesses into the body because that’s the body’s natural way of boosting its defences.

Along with overestimating their own level of skill the Dunning-Kruger effect lists the failure of the cognitively-challenged to identify genuine skill in others. Our subject is right on cue, later adding; “I think what we do is we cheat a little bit and we listen too much to the doctors”.

Attempting to take more responsibility for one’s health is by itself a positive trend. However the reality is that through a combination of poor regulation, apathetic accreditation, unchecked claims and lucrative scams, an industry has grown from marketing “wellness” alongside denialism. A vital skill today is that required to recognise reputable sources and source material. There is so much specialty, knowledge and experience attached to individual areas of health and medicine that ascertaining expert advice is essential.

Such a skill – let’s call it a research skill – by no means only applies to the choices we make around health, medicine and alternatives to medicine. But the amount of information is so vast and varied that intellectual tools independent of the information presented are more than likely to serve us well. More so, we are all subject to cognitive biases such as pattern recognition or emotional resonance such that we may easily hijack our attempt at objectivity.

Thus a research skill that values evidence and source, based upon merit, helps keep both ‘researcher’ and material in check. Those fortunate enough to be familiar with the scientific method apply a more complex type of such thinking. Individual topics and subject matter can be quite complex but appreciating the scientific method itself and it’s impact on scientific consensus is well within the grasp of interested individuals. Enter Scientific Denialism, which I’ve already quite purposely mentioned alongside marketing (or promoting/defending aspects) of the “wellness” industry.

Diethelm and McKee presented a Viewpoint piece in the European Journal of Public Health in 2009 entitled; Denialsm: what is it and how should scientists respond? They cite the definition of Mark and Chris Hoofnagle:

The employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists

The Hoofnagle brothers identify five elements of denialism that are employed alone or together. All five can be found with numerous representations emanating from the anti-vaccination sector.

Conspiracy Theories are employed to dismiss scientific consensus arrived at via the peer review process. Granted, the conspiracies advanced by the bulk of anti-vaccination identities go well beyond this goal into rambling nonsense. The Big Pharma Monopoly conspiracy has become a monster of ludicrous proportion. There are examples of unacceptable conduct and flawed research by pharmaceutical companies, that if presented rationally and sparingly might help support criticism of vaccines or their method of use.

Continually serving to delight critics of the anti-vaccination movement in Australia is perpetual “PhD candidate”, Judy Wilyman of Wollongong University. Her thinking, and consequent tone of argument or demand levelled at government, appears crippled by belief in a vast web of conspiracies. Doctors will lie, research conducted by drug companies is by default corrupt, science advocacy groups are motivated to support this corruption – and by extension the member’s arguments are to be dismissed. The government assisted “crime against humanity” of vaccination is helped along by corrupt media and grieving parents relaying “anecdotes” of infant fatality. This is all designed to entrap the community (for whom Judy speaks) using fear and guilt.

Not surprisingly her supervisor is well known for his authorship of scientific denialism. A strident defender of the anti-vaccine and several conspiracy movements, Brian Martin (of Wollongong University) has written frequently on the topic of supposed scientific dissent. He validates the Hoofnagle brothers observation that the peer review process is to the conspiracy theorist a means to suppress scientific dissent. As I’ve noted before, Martin writes in Grassroots Science:

Dissent is central to science: the formulation of new ideas and the discovery of new evidence is the driving force behind scientific advance. At the same time, certain theories, methods, and ways of approaching the world – often called paradigms – are treated as sacrosanct within the professional scientific community. Those who persist in challenging paradigms may be treated not as legitimate scientists but as renegades or outcasts. […]

For example, there are many individuals who have developed challenges and alternatives to relativity, quantum mechanics, and the theory of evolution, three theories central to modern science. […]

Western medical authorities at first rejected acupuncture as unscientific but, following demonstrations of its effectiveness, eventually accepted or tolerated it as a practice under the canons of western biomedicine, rejecting its associations with non-Western concepts of the body. […]

At the same time, some mainstream medical practitioners and researchers are hostile to alternative health. This is apparent in pronouncements that taking vitamin supplements is a waste of money or in police raids on alternative cancer therapists, the raids being encouraged by mainstream opponents.

Many proponents of alternative health say that mainstream medical science is distorted by corporate, government, and professional pressures. In this context, grassroots medical science presents itself as being truer to the ethos of science as a search for truth unsullied by vested interests.

Brian Martin also happens to excel at that exceptional variant of conspiracy theory known as inversionism. Here one’s own tactics and motivation are attributed to critics or those who can justify the antithesis of one’s argument. In Suppressing Research Data: Methods, Context, Accountability, and Responses Martin writes:

Censorship, fraud, and publication biases are ways in which the availability of research data can be distorted. A different process is distortion of the perception of research data rather than distortion of the data itself. In other words, data is openly available, but efforts are made to shape people’s perception of it.

Although this perfectly describes tactics of the anti-vaccination lobby, Martin is writing about what he argues is a regular process in legitimate science and the peer review process.

Diethelm and McKee note that whilst the proper avenue to validate supposed suppression of dissent is ignored by conspiracy theorists, denialism can and does exploit genuine concerns. For our purposes we may note that unethical and dishonest conduct by pharmaceutical companies has indeed occurred. Also the 2006 CSL trial of Fluvax resulted in just one adverse reaction. “Not usually regarded as an adequate signal of a major safety problem”, according to a TGA spokesperson. That single febrile seizure was equal to 0.37% of the study sample. In hindsight a valid predictor of the 0.33% rate of febrile seizures W.A. experienced in April 2010.

Health authorities and practitioners take evident problems with the pharmaceutical industry very seriously. In the case of vaccination it’s perhaps testament to the addition of truly absurd conspiracies and the overlap with New World Order themes that has seen the anti-vaccination lobby squander a potentially effective means to sew their false doubt.

A second feature of denialism is the use of Fake Experts. An excellent example of this is the appalling HIV/AIDS Rethinkers list. If subject to the criteria of listing individuals actually working in the field of HIV from which the theory being “rethought” is sourced, the list would disappear. So it is with the academic integrity of vaccine denialists.

Some such as Meryl Dorey of the Australian (anti) Vaccination Network simply append the title of expert to themselves. All that’s needed is the familiar claim of having “researched” the subject for “twenty years”, whereas doctors (Meryl assures us) study vaccines for only six hours. Few can validate the Dunning-Kruger effect better by insisting smallpox and polio were merely renamed (part of a conspiracy), vaccines certainly cause autism (thousands of documented cases), SIDS, death, shaken baby syndrome and more.

The use of so-called experts who argue in opposition to established knowledge is spread across a diverse field in the case of vaccine denial. Micropalaentologist Viera Scheibner makes much of her title of “doctor”, deceitfully selling herself as a natural scientist who worked for a state authority. A host of chiropractors already in denial of science based medicine see fit to both parrot the standard anti-vaccine rhetoric whilst arguing the immune system can be specifically modulated by chiropractic.

Anti-vaccine groups pay great attention to scam artists such as Dr. Joe Mercola, Mike Adams and Barbara Loe Fisher of the official sounding National Vaccine Information Center. Father and son team Mark and David Geier promote both the belief vaccines cause autism and an abusive hormonal ‘treatment’. They have authored and co-authored a number of papers attempting to link vaccines to autism. Mark Geier has lost his licence to practice in at least 10 USA states.

Sites such as SaneVax or Age of Autism with Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill seek to continue the attack on reputable scientists and research. In Australia the new AVN president Greg Beattie describes himself as an author having produced bogus claims, misleading data and irrelevant mortality graphs whilst the universally condemned Melanie’s Marvellous Measles was written by anti-health zealot, Stephanie Messenger. Any of these, or similar identities along with the nonsense they write may be produced by anti-vaccine lobbyists to ‘refute’ genuine evidence-based knowledge on vaccination.

Cherry Picking or Selectivity is a practice the anti-vaccination lobby relies heavily on. Sadly, their harvest is so woeful that we are continually treated to Andrew Wakefield’s discredited and withdrawn Lancet paper, from which the fallacious association with autism is fuelled. Additionally an unproven handful of purported dishonesty levelled at his most effective critics or their careers hovers about regularly “vindicating” Wakefield. This by extension proves vaccines do cause autism, a conspiracy rages against Wakefield and the fake experts have been right all along.

Of course selective use of material and events can have enormous impact. Imagine the magazine Mothers For Moonbeams publishes a piece on the W.A. Fluvax episode and the impact on Saba Button presented selectively with concerns about the increase in the number of childhood vaccinations. Add the type of nonsense written by Natasha Bita in August 2012 falsely “linking” ten deaths to Australia’s influenza vaccine, to “PhD candidate” Judy Wilyman’s claim that vaccines are full of lethal “toxins”, and readers’ confidence in influenza vaccination can fall.

We constantly hear of vaccine-injury compensation cases involving autism-like symptoms, misrepresentation of the Bailey Banks case or a finding from an obscure Italian court as evidence vaccines really do cause autism. Similar selections can be made for a range of conditions unrelated to vaccination.

Similarly, alternatives to medicine used to “boost immunity” rely on sparse and often irrelevant research into (for example) St. John’s Wort or vitamin deficiency. It will come as no surprise to those familiar with vaccine denialists that Diethelm and McKee note that the towering isolation of the denialists position does not perturb them. Rather they see this as reason to liken themselves to Galileo.

Impossible Expectations from research are used often to create the illusion of doubt or bias. The infamous cry for a study of unvaccinated vs vaccinated children both suggests the efficacy of vaccines has never been properly established, whilst hinting that the unvaccinated are healthier due to the absence of artificial immunity and vaccine toxins. Not only is this absurd from an ethical viewpoint, methodologically it is nonsensical.

In order to correct for the variable of herd immunity, the unvaccinated sample would need to be isolated. In doing so the sample is rendered entirely unrepresentative of the qualities that supposedly need to be tested. More so this research need not be done. The impact of mass vaccination is clear – particularly with the return of diseases following a drop in vaccine uptake.

Gradually the ‘demand’ that vaccines show a 100% rate of safety and efficacy has emerged in more unreasonable quarters. Combined with the inability to acknowledge that as herd immunity drops, both vaccinated and unvaccinated are at increased risk, this impossible expectation ensures the anti-vaccine lobby can ignore basic community responsibility.

Again with alternatives to medicine or seemingly magical ways to fight disease and boost immunity, it is expected that science – or better yet, quantum science – will explain the mechanism behind promises and testimonials.

Finally Misrepresentation and Logical Fallacies are essential tools of the denialist. A very simple, yet highly effective means of misrepresenting the irresponsibility of vaccine denial has been use of the term “pro-vaccinators”. This conveys the impression that not only does a legitimate debate exist but that those unburdened by the delusion vaccination is harmful, may be motivated by ideology or some other non-evidence based reason.

Meryl Dorey of Australia’s AVN frequently insists to have a database listing death and disability from vaccine injury. This same theme of having a vaccine-injured child is presented by individuals both as a reason to attack vaccination and unleash abuse on those who accept vaccine safety. Indeed the correlation as causation fallacy is a primary of the anti-vaccination movement.

Slippery slope, appeal to authority, straw man arguments, inconsistency and more. Logical fallacies abound. Reductio ad absurdum is favoured commonly in explaining that conventional scientists or medical practitioners will defend vaccination because of their position and not the efficacy and safety of vaccines. On the other hand as Judy Wilyman argues, because areas of some affluence may have low vaccination rates this is proof that doctors do not vaccinate their children. Therefore, they are withholding information.

An example of misrepresentation through inconsistency and non-sequiter is the claim that vaccine preventable diseases were under control before mass vaccination. Heavily doctored graphs using the variable of mortality – not incidence or morbidity – peddle the falsehood that vaccines had no effect on disease whilst improved living standards led to their demise.

Bereft of evidence, vaccine denialists place significant energy in convincing their unfortunate devotees that the very fabric of democracy and the right to “health freedom” is under threat. Donate enough money to the AVN and you can save free speech and ensure looming mandatory vaccination is kept at bay. Evoking anger, disgust and suspicion toward those who challenge vaccine denial is a staple of anti-vaccine groups.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

It takes little work to find anti-vaccine articles or identities that present all five aspects of denial in the one argument. Conspiracy theories and fake experts have carved out their own canyon sized themes over the years. Meryl Dorey’s obsession with “real scepticism” and her website aiming to mock scientific skepticism reinforces how effective evidence based deconstruction of her denialism has been.

Ultimately, understanding these tactics and how denialists use them reinforces the argument that accepting to debate a certain topic can be counterproductive. The debater who holds to evidence and argues within the constraints of the scientific method or present consensus, must face an opponent with no regard for truth, logic or bipartisan discourse.

Rather than focus on the topic at hand an effective technique would be to expose the tactics used in vaccine denial. Those engaged in denialism do not deal in evidence or seek to bring about a greater good through the application of truth.

Therefore it’s important that scientific skeptics and health professionals continue to expose vaccine denial for what it is.

As for budding ‘researchers’. They can be rightly satisfied with skills that lead one to reputable source material.


About @advodiaboli
I'm not really a cast iron flying pig.

3 Responses to Denialism: ‘Researching’ the case against vaccines

  1. If you enjoyed Melanie’s Marvelous Measles you might like this

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