Enablers of the vaccine-autism manufactroversy

I realize that this week in practically every new post I’ve been mentioning TAM7. It hasn’t exactly been intentional, believe it or not, at least aside from my recap a on Tuesday and my request for photos from those of you who attended. Oddly enough, although I mentioned how proud I was to be part of the Anti-Anti-Vax Panel discussion, where I joined Joe Albietz, Steve Novella, Mike Goudeau (skeptic, juggler, entertainer, producer, and writer who has an autistic child), Harriet Hall, and Derek Bartholomaus, I didn’t really discuss some of the thoughts that the panel’s discussion inspired in me.

One of the issues that came up over which there was somewhat of a disagreement is exactly how to deal with prominent antivaccine activists, people such as Jenny McCarthy. The majority opinion seemed to be that being too blunt or hurling insults is ineffectual if we want to change their minds. I took a slightly different tack. Yes, we want to persuade people that vaccines are safe and that the claims of the anti-vaccine movement that vaccines are loaded with toxins and cause autism are just not true. Yes, being too free with the insults is not likely to contribute to reaching that end. Yes, we risk being perceived as just as nutty as the anti-vaccine movement we oppose if we become too nasty. On the other hand, I pointed out that there is a profound difference between the two main groups that we need to deal with. First and foremost are those parents who hear the lies of the anti-vaccine movement, are scared, and wonder if there is anything to all this talk of vaccines causing autism. Who can blame them, given the vitriol against vaccines, big pharma, and the government, all coupled with convincing-sounding testimonials about “vaccine injury” that emanate from the anti-vaccine movement? For these parents who have been frightened by this rhetoric, understanding and calm are important. I would never insult such parents for not knowing whether there is anything to the hysterical rhetoric of Generation Rescue, Jenny McCarthy, J. B. Handley, and their ilk. After all, at least two people whom I respect, one of whom is quite likely considerably more scientifically savvy than I am, initially fell for anti-vaccine propaganda and only came back to reason and science after a prolonged flirtation with pseudoscience and quackery. In their cases, great patience can pay great dividends.

In marked contrast, quite frankly, Jenny McCarthy and her ilk have gone so far down the rabbithole of pseudoscience that they are almost certainly beyond redemption. They spew so much misinformation with such enthusiastically burning stupid, and they continue to do it after having been corrected time and time again, having been shown time and time again where they are in error, not just by me but by many, many others. Worse, they are a threat to public health. They really are. Consequently, I do not feel any compunction about letting loose on them with both barrels when they delve into the deepest depths of burningly stupid pseudoscience and advocate rank quackery (for example, chemical castration to “make chelation therapy work better” for autism) that can harm or, as has happened before, even kill autistic children. In these cases, Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them…”

Anti-vax ideas are definitely unintelligible propositions, and they are not distinct.

My little five minute introductory talk for the panel was entitled: “I’m not ‘antivaccine'”:The biggest lie.” What I wish I had said was that whenever you hear anyone preface his or her remarks with, “I’m not anti-vaccine,” it’s 99% likely that what will follow is the most ridiculous anti-vaccine nonsense you can imagine. Whether it’s confirmation bias or selective memory, I don’t know, but it’s a rule of thumb that has never failed me, and that single phrase is about as good of a slam dunk identifying mark of an anti-vaccine loon as I can think of. I don’t necessarily think that it’s necessarily a lie, either. Some anti-vaccine activists appear really to believe that they aren’t ant-vaccine, which is why I provided a handy-dandy list of questions to ask someone who piously proclaims that she is not “anti-vaccine” in order to help the audience identify an anti-vaccinationist:

  • You say you want safer vaccines. OK then, please, define “safe enough. What rate of complications for specific vaccines would be “safe enough”? What rates of various infectious diseases against which these vaccines protect would be acceptable in order to balance the risk-benefit ratios?
  • You castigate vaccines for having “toxins.” …what “toxins” would you remove? Be specific, and provide evidence that these “toxins” actually cause harm at the levels used in vaccines.
  • What specific evidence would it take for you to accept that vaccines are safe relative to the risk of disease and to vaccinate your children and urge your friends to vaccinate theirs?

Suffice it to say that no one has ever given me a specific or coherent answer to any of these three questions.

One topic I wish I had had time to address (or had had the foresight to mention) is enablers of the anti-vaccine movement. These are people who either lack the scientific knowledge and critical thinking skills to see what a load of bollocks anti-vaccine arguments are or are so assiduously dedicated to fence sitting that they have a fence pole permanently lodged in their nether regions. Worse, because the anti-vaccine movement depends upon sowing doubt about the effectiveness and, above all, the safety of vaccines, these fence-sitters by default give aid and succor to the anti-vaccine movement by contributing to the appearance of “reasonable doubts” about vaccines. The reason I bring this up is that I saw a perfect example of enabling the anti-vaccine movement by refusing to take a side in a post by Lisa Jo Rudy of About.com’s Autism Blog. Her post is entitled Is It Possible to be a Vaccine-Autism Moderate?

Before I discuss specific points from Rudy’s post, let me just cut to the chase and tell her the answer to her question. The answer is no. It is not possible to be a vaccine-autism “moderate” any more than it is possible to be a “moderate” regarding creationism versus evolution, homeopathy versus science, the Holocaust versus Holocaust deniers, 9/11 as it happened versus the warped view of “9/11 Truthers.” In other words, in the battle of obvious pseudoscience versus science, “moderate” is nothing more than either the fear of taking a stand or insufficient understanding of the science to realize that one side is science and one side is fairy dust. Being a “moderate” means giving far more credence to pseudoscience than it deserves, and that’s exactly what vaccine-autism “moderates” like Lisa Jo do.

That’s one reason why I refer to Lisa Jo Rudy as an enabler of the anti-vaccine movement. Get a load of how she starts her post:

There seems to be no end in sight to the debate over whether vaccines, in one way or another, actually cause children to become autistic. In fact, over the past three years, the debate has actually intensified, with believers on both sides lining up on opposite sides of “town,” virtual pitchforks and torches in hand.

Note the false equivalence. Lisa Jo has fallen completely for the manufactroversy that is the “debate” over whether vaccines cause autism. (They don’t, at least to a very high degree of certainty based on the best science we have.) A manufactroversy (short for “manufactured controversy) is an intentional campaign to give the appearance of a legitimate scientific controversy when in fact there is none. That vaccines are not associated with autism and vaccination is not correlated with autism is not in dispute among reputable vaccine and autism scientists. It is the anti-vaccine fringe over at Age of Autism, Generation Rescue, Vaccine Liberation, JABS, et al that keep fanning the flames of the manufactorversy, just as creationists try to cast doubt on evolution. Then there are enablers (sometimes called accommodationists) who try to tell us that they are remaining “agnostic” about these issues, just as Lisa Jo does as she explains what a “vaccine moderate” is:

On the one hand, I acknowledge readily that the vast preponderance of science-based evidence makes it highly unlikely that there is a consistent, large-scale direct connection between vaccines and autism. No, I don’t think that kids who begin developing autistic symptoms six months after a vaccination are likely to be vaccine damaged. No, I don’t think that an intolerance to wheat or dairy proves anything relative to vaccines (though of course I think it’s a great idea to take a child with food intolerances off the offending food!). What’s more, I am certain that any risk to the general population from vaccines is less than the risk from a resurgence of diseases like polio and diphtheria.

How nice. How seemingly reasonable. If Lisa Jo had only stopped there, I’d be completely down with her. But she can’t. She’s so pathologically driven to please both sides that she pleases no sides. She also labors under the fallacious belief that, just because she catches flak from both sides, she must be closer to the truth than either side.

She’s wrong, of course, and using a logical fallacy to boot. That’s known as the the “middle ground” fallacy, argument from moderation, the false compromise fallacy, the grey fallacy, or the fallacy of the golden mean, which is exactly the logical fallacy that Lisa Jo plumbs the depths of:

On the other hand… knowing that there are risks and benefits related all medical treatments, and knowing that there are children who are badly injured by vaccines overall, I believe that a very small number of autism-related claims of vaccine injury are probably for real. I suspect it is possible to create safer vaccines, to revisit the vaccine schedule with potential injuries in mind, and to discuss vaccinations intelligently with concerned parents. I can’t understand what stands in the way of a well-conceived study that (at least in theory) shows that unvaccinated children are diagnosed with autism at the same rate as vaccinated children. I’d love to see some research into possible vulnerabilities that could lead to vaccine injuries. And I am baffled by the apparent unwillingness of the medical mainstream to seriously investigate credible anecdotal evidence of vaccine-related regression.

In short, I see reason on all sides of the issue — though I stand squarely in neither camp.

No, not standing in “either camp” does not make you right in matters of clear-cut science. It makes you too wishy-washy to make a decision, especially since I know that you have been corrected on multiple occasions. Indeed, AutismNewsBeat provided a most excellent, autism-related retort to Lisa Jo:

Lisa, is it possible to be a “refrigerator mother” moderate? There is logic on both sides, and no one can prove conclusively that autism is never caused by distant parents. In fact, Bettleheim’s hunch was based largely, if not entirely, on anecdotal evidence and supposition.

Similarly, no one can prove that a very small number of autism-related claims of vaccine injury aren’t for real.

So how can you close the door on Bettleheim’s legacy, while leaving the metaphorical refrigerator door open to the unproven and discredited notion that vaccines cause autism? I’m not seeing the logic.

That’s because there is no logic, only a huge logical fallacy in Lisa Jo’s post. Worse, in the comments, she even admits that the faith-based belief that vaccines cause autism leads parents to subjecting their children to all sorts of quackery. Despite that, she maintains her doggedly neutral stance, even while in essence admitting that there is no science to show that vaccines cause autism.

As skeptics, unfortunately see this sort of behavior all the time for all sorts of pseudoscience. In particular, we see it in the infiltration of quackademic medicine into academic medical centers in the U.S. Physicians, who, unlike Lisa Jo, really should know better, take a relatively neutral stance towards pseudoscience such as homeopathy or acupuncture and pure religious woo like reiki. Like Lisa Jo, they either do not know enough about the science to know that they are pure quackery or they are so open-minded that they’ve allowed their brains to fall out. The result is that pure woo is being “integrated” with science-based medicine.

I think part of the problem is that these “enablers” have far too much faith in the rationality of their fellow human beings. They do not realize just how easy it is for us human beings to be misled by anecdotal evidence, confusing correlation with causation, confirmation bias, regression to the mean, and any of the other numerous pitfalls and biases in human perception and thinking that the scientific method was developed to overcome. We humans are to some extent rational, but to an even larger extent irrational. Scientists understand that this means them, too, and thus understand the necessity of the scientific method, proper controls, proper experimental design, and methodology designed to minimize the effects of these cognitive shortcomings.

In contrast, non-scientists (and even physicians and some scientists) have a hard time believing that a belief that is so passionately held by so many (such as creationism, anti-vaccinationism, or belief in homeopathy, for example) could be completely irrational or not based in science and fact. Consequently, they place far more weight on nonsensical beliefs than they deserve, simply because they have a hard time believing that so many people can hold nonsensical beliefs. In that, they tend to fall for a form of argumentum ad populum coupled with the fallacy of false moderation, concluding that, just because a lot of people believe something very passionately, there must be something to it and, in the process, giving far more weight to pseudoscience and quackery than they deserve. This results in their portraying an ideological controversy as though there is actually a real scientific controversy when there is not. Such is the case with the vaccine-autism manufactroversy, just as it is with creationism-evolution manufactroversy.

In the process, unfortunately, their inability to take a stand for science prevents them from joining any effort to oppose loons like Jenny McCarthy or turning their seeming reasonableness to the task of convincing parents who may have been frightened by anti-vaccine rhetoric that they need not fear.