This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.
Tactics and Strategies of the Anti-Vaccination Movement by Keia Atkinson
Before the vast majority of children enter school for the first time, they are vaccinated in order to ensure their safety and to prevent the spread of pathogens. Vaccines often contain a weakened or dead version of a pathogen (bacteria or virus) that serves to prime the immune system for contact with the real thing. This allows the body to react faster, preventing the vaccinated person from getting sick. Whether they are playing in the sand, swinging on the jungle gym, or learning in a classroom, beginning students are in an environment filled with pathogenic viruses and bacteria, and surrounded by other individuals who could be potential vectors for disease. Within any population, some individuals are unable to receive vaccines for medical or religious reasons. Children and adults with medical contraindications, or those in certain religious communities, are sometimes prevented from receiving routine vaccinations. They rely on a certain percentage of the population being vaccinated (usually greater than 85% for most diseases), called herd immunity, which prevents the disease from being easily transmitted through the populace.
While there is no scientific question regarding the efficacy and safety of vaccines, this has not stopped a number of parents and parental advocates from pushing for laws making it easier to receive exemptions from childhood vaccinations requirements. Oftentimes, their reasoning relies upon the faulty notion that vaccines somehow cause autism spectrum disorder, but these claims vary depending on the crank the poor, misinformed individual is listening to. Although close of 70% of parents that choose to forgo vaccination do so due to concerns regarding potential harm, this article is not written to dissect the science behind vaccines or the claims regarding causation of autism (that can be found here). Whether or not the science behind their claims is legitimate (and rest assured, it isn’t) must be set aside in order to examine the variety of arguments and tactics they use to influence public policy regarding childhood vaccinations. When attempting to exert control over the public debate surrounding vaccines, those in the anti-vaccine movement reliably use one of a few arguments, none of which bears any resemblance to good. Although they may, at first glance, appear reasonable, these arguments are not, and knowing how to defeat them is essential if one is faced with a vaccine denier, be it in cyberspace or meatspace.
First, there is what can be termed the “rights” argument. Some parents appeal to libertarian and other “rights based” arguments that defend their judgment as parents to make medical decisions for their children. If the government can tell us what medical decisions we must make for our children, so the argument goes, the next step is fascism. Obviously, parents need to have the final say on how their children are treated by medical professionals in the vast majority of cases; this is because the vast majority of personal health decisions are just that – personal. Vaccinations, on the other hand, are a precondition of being able to attend whatever school program the children is enrolled in. This is due to the potential harm of exposing other children to harmful pathogens like whooping cough or measles. If the parents don’t wish to vaccinate their child, and do not have a valid religious or medical exemption, they need not use the service (this isn’t to say that religious exemptions are necessarily more valid, but rather that if there is a percentage of individuals that don’t need to be vaccinated in order to maintain herd immunity that it ought to go to those with genuine religious convictions rather than those making decisions based on faulty data). In short, if parents don’t understand the reason why large groups of children ought to be protected against potentially deadly pathogens, then they are likely too ignorant to make decisions for another living human being.
There is also the “anyone who is pro science-based medicine is a bully” argument. Granted, the argument isn’t stated as such, but some within the anti-vaccination movement have likened any defense of science-based medicine to the equivalent of bullying. Individual bloggers and scientists have started to advocate for parents who ascribe to the science-based view of the world, and these individuals are particularly active on the issue of vaccination. Given the solidity of the safety profiles and the fact that these same diseases used to regularly kill children, and that much of the improvement in longevity of the human lifespan is due to the reduction in childhood illness, it makes sense that those with a bit more education and the ability to do science would advocate for universal vaccination of common childhood illnesses. These individuals are reacting to the nonsense peddling groups that came before them, which attempted to actively influence policy based on a non-reality based understanding of how vaccines work. Calling out pseudoscience for what it is cannot be construed as bullying, as those who stand up for vaccines are protecting others within their community. A belief about the efficacy or effects of a medical procedure is not based on fairy tales and magic dust – it is based on careful, studied observation, something those who are anti-vaccine lack.
Finally, there is the significantly more surreptitious, but eminently more effective, political strategy. Individuals in charge of a number of committees (such as Darrell Issa) have received donations from a political action committee known as The Canary Party, an organization that seeks to advocate for the anti-vaccine cause. Fortunately for those of us with a healthy respect for science and transparency more generally this group was quickly found to have misrepresented the evidence they displayed to congressional members, resulting in the committee meeting being indefinitely postponed, an outcome equivalent to it being canceled. This is ironic, as the landmark study used to support the autism-vaccine connection was also found to have included data that could charitably be described as “misrepresented.” One way to combat this strategy is to start organizations to counter the influence of anti-vaccination fanatics, as the government exists to bend to the will of those soliciting its favor. Alternatively, take the opportunity to counter their influence by objecting whenever someone ignorant attempts to “educate” those around them with quackery. Thus, it is up to all of us combat the nonsense peddlers in the domain of government, as it exists to serve those who actively participate within it.