“Green Our Vaccines”: The fallacy of the perfect solution

Don’t worry, faithful readers, my blogging about the “Green Our Vaccines” rally last week is reaching its end. If my poor neurons can take it, there are still the speeches of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Dr. Jay Gordon to be commented on in one more post (the latter of whom I used to consider somewhat reasonable albeit incorrect but who, if his speech and statements to the press at the “Green Our Vaccines” rally are any indication, has gone completely over to the dark side of antivaccinationism). Then that’s probably about all I’ll be able to take for a while. It’ll be back to writing about cancer and other science next week. Maybe I’ll even find the time to do a major update of the Academic Woo Aggregator, as I’ve been promising for a month now, although doing so might depress me even more than “Green Our Vaccines.”

You may have noticed that, along with some parents who are suspicious of vaccines and could probably be persuaded, a few intrepid antivaccinationists have invaded the threads of my recent posts. One made a statement that is so typical of the unrealistic mindset of the people in the “Green Our Vaccines” movement that I thought it worth addressing with a brief post, given that I haven’t written about this issue in nearly two years. A commenter writes:

Could someone please tell me what is so wrong about asking the vaccine companies to take the toxins out of vaccines? Whether or not you believe they cause autism, do you want to be injected with crap that hasn’t been proven safe?

Do you think it would be good for the auto industry to inspect their own cars and tell us that they are safe?

How about the food industry? Do you think Hormel should be in charge of telling us how safe their products are instead of food and drug?

Then why is it okay that big pharma gets to rate the safety of their own products?

These people are not crazy. They have been through a lot. Some of them are probably radical, yes. But most are not anti-vaccine.

I am one of them. I was there. I believe in vaccines…..but I don’t believe they are 100% safe. Until they prove it to me, my child is having no more.

Here’s my response:

Interesting. You demand “100% safety” before you vaccinate, but, like all parents whom I’ve encountered who demand that standard for vaccines, you’re almost certainly curiously selective about what you apply your standard to. Let me ask you something: Do you drive your kids around in a car? My God, man, how can you do that? It’s by no means “100% safe”! Do you know how many children die or suffer permanent brain injury in car crashes every year? Thousands! By your standards, then, shouldn’t you should be demanding “100%” safety from your auto before driving them anywhere? Do you let your children swim? How can you be so irresponsible? 5,000 children a year are hospitalized for drowning or near-drowning. 20% die, and 15% suffer permanent neurological injury. Do you have a child who plays baseball or softball? Holy crap! 4-5 children a year in the U.S. die of injuries suffered playing baseball or softball. But deaths are only the worst injuries. Among children ages 5-14, well over 100,000 children are taken to the emergency room for injuries suffered playing baseball each and every year. These include sprains, contusions, fractures, dental injuries, head injuries and concussions, and internal injuries. In fact, although its overall rate of injury is fairly low, baseball has the highest child fatality rate of any sport. Helmets and face shields would reduce, but not eliminate fatalities. It’s the very nature of the game, with high speed projectiles being launched in the general direction of kids. Some batters will fail to get out of the way of a wild pitch; some fielders will unfortunately catch a line drive with their heads.

Indeed, I really hope your children don’t like sports, especially baseball. Clearly you, their father, by your demand for 100% safety must not allow them to participate in any of these activities, nor must you allow them to cross the street or go to school. All these activities are far more dangerous than any vaccine. Indeed, one can’t help but note that if you applied the same standard to daily activities as you do to vaccines, your children would have to live in a hermetically sealed bubble, never venturing out. Oh, wait. That wouldn’t be “100% safe” either. Life isn’t “100% safe.” Nothing is.

What you are practicing is a variant of what known as the “perfect solution” or “Nirvana” fallacy. It is an excuse for not doing something based on the assertion that the solution isn’t perfect. The specific variant you are practicing is something I like to call the “100% safe fallacy.” By any measure, vaccines are incredibly safe interventions, with a low risk of complications. The risk, however, is not and never will be zero. Nothing is absolutely, positively 100% safe, including vaccines. However, they are certainly far safer than allowing your children to be vulnerable to the diseases they prevent.

You’re also adding some conspiratorial thinking into your mix. Do you honestly think that the drug companies are in charge of telling us how safe their products are? Whatever flaws there may be in the FDA, it is the FDA that approves any new drug, vaccine, or medical device, and the standards are pretty rigorous.

No one here is arguing against safer vaccines. That’s a straw man argument that the GOV crowd tries to pin on us. In fact, a lot of money and effort are put into trying to make our vaccines as safe as possible, and that’s a good thing. Nor do we argue that the parents in the GOV rally don’t care about their kids or aren’t trying to do what’s best for them. What we do argue is that they are, alas, spectacularly mistaken about the science. Indeed, the entire “Green Our Vaccines” is based on a toxic mix of bad science, emotion, and dishonest misinformation about “toxins” that ignores chemistry, pharmacology, and even common sense, all tied together with the fallacy of the perfect solution. That’s no basis for public policy, and the GOV movement has the potential to do real harm to public health.

But maybe I’m wrong. If that’s the case, then I ask the GOV’ers who have been lurking and occasionally commenting here: How safe is safe enough? Be specific. (100% safety is completely unrealistic and unobtainable for any human activity, including vaccines, and in the case of vaccines it’s a transparent excuse for not vaccinating, no matter what.) What, specifically, would it take for you to agree to vaccinate? (Vague platitudes about removing the “toxins” from vaccines don’t count, as such a standard is meaningless. Which specific toxins need to be removed. Read this before answering, please, because answers based on a willful misunderstanding of chemistry, pharmacology, and toxicology or on misinformation about what’s in vaccines don’t help either.)

“Green Our Vaccines” is a nice slogan, but what does it really mean and could any vaccine ever be “green” enough for you? If the answer to the latter question is “no” or completely unrealistic and impractical then you’re an antivaccinationist, your protestations otherwise notwithstanding.

THE “GREEN OUR VACCINES” COLLECTION:

  1. The Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey rally to “Green Our Vaccines”: Anti-vaccine, not “pro-safe vaccine”!
  2. An Open Letter to Congress on Immunization
  3. “Green Our Vaccines”: Further skeptical reading
  4. “Green Our Vaccines”: Serendipity and schadenfreude as antivaccinationists go to war
  5. “Green Our Vaccines”: Best comment EVAH! Or: How to preserve biological diversity through not vaccinating
  6. “Green Our Vaccines”: Celebrity antivaccinationist ignoramuses on parade. Or: I didn’t know that Dumb & Dumber was a documentary
  7. “Green Our Vaccines”: “Pro-safe vaccine” or anti-vaccine? You be the judge!
  8. “Green Our Vaccines”: “Pro-safe vaccine” or anti-vaccine? You be the judge! (Part 2)
  9. “Green Our Vaccines”: The fallacy of the perfect solution