Why hard core antivaccinationists will never be convinced that vaccines don’t cause autism

People who have read my review of FRONTLINE’s The Vaccine War may have noticed that the comments have featured someone who may or may not be a concern troll but is definitely at the very least very naive about the anti-vaccine movement. This commenter thinks that being harsh in my assessment of anti-vaccinationists will never reach anyone and only turn off the undecided. This commenter wrote:

Anti-vacciners’ view is in many cases just as strongly held as yours, and their data is just as compelling to them as yours is to you. Tell me, how many idiots yelling at you that you are stupid for thinking what you think would it take for you to change your mind? Any? Or would you be more likely to change it if someone came along and showed you the flaws in your reasoning/’data’?

Now it seems to me that the constructive way through this, if anyone wants to try it, would be to try to show anti-vacciners where the data they lean on is a) plain false, b) incomplete and c) faulty (misunderstanding of the way statistics works plays a HUGE part here). And I get that that is what lots of people are trying to do, but since they do nothing but focus on the autism “question” (which is actually only one really tiny part of the anti-vaccine concern) they are often completely missing the point.

My response was:

You’re either a concern troll or an incredibly naive newbie.

What makes you think that I and others haven’t tried to show these people the flaws in their data, “science” (I hate to use that word to describe the pseudoscience they use), and “reasoning” (such as it is). I have. Paul Offit has. The CDC and AAP have. Virtually every public health governmental agency and private institution has. Hell, Dr. Jim Shames on the FRONTLINE special itself was portrayed trying to reason with antivax mothers using a very cuddly, quiet, respectful tone. How far did he get? Not very. How far is he getting? Judging from the frustration in his voice during some interviews, not very.

In fact, I’ve written a couple of posts about this very issue. Here’s one where I challenge those who tell us to “make nice” on other scientific issues (like creationism, for example) in order to “persuade” the unpersuadable to come up with a technique to persuade antivaxers.

After that, I pointed out a couple of posts, one in which I challenged the promoters of making nice with pseudoscientists to put up or shut up when it comes to the anti-vaccine movement, and one in which I criticized a friend for a very misguided idea of “building bridges” to the leaders of the anti-vaccine movement. Of course, I was a bit puzzled because, if anything, my review was less “insolent” than my usual broadsides at the anti-vaccine movement, but maybe this is the first time this commenter has ever encountered this blog.

However, one thing I noticed is that J.B. Handley himself in the extended interview provided on the FRONTLINE website has provided me with an excellent example (thanks, J.B.!) of exactly what I’m talking about:

What makes you think you know better than all these scientists?

I just think the scientists who really stand at the front of this debate to contest our community are liars. I think they say things that are lies. I think they stand up there and say that it’s been proven that vaccines don’t cause autism. If they were parsing their words carefully and really being accurate relative to the science that has been done, I would trust them a lot more than I do. The minute something like that comes out of their mouth, I view them as partisan liars who don’t have our kids’ best interest at heart.

The only thing business has given me is the chance to detect lies and to see people clearly for what they are. I understand numbers very well. I’m perfectly capable of reading a scientific study and knowing what questions were asked and how the data was run and how it was analyzed.

There are some scientists — they’re few and far between on the other side — who tell the truth about what has and hasn’t been studied. But most use hyperbole and fear to try and get this issue to go away, and it’s just not going away, because I’m the guy who has to take the phone calls every day from the new parent who just watched their kid regress.

In other words, if scientists say something J.B. doesn’t want to hear about vaccines, something that directly contradicts his religion-like belief that vaccines cause autism, then to him they must be lying. (He’s called me a liar on various occasions as well.) To J.B., only the scientists on “his side” are not lying or corrupt. To J.B., physicians and scientists like Paul Offit, Anthony Fauci, can’t possibly be telling the truth; it can’t be that they honestly believe the studies and the science that have failed to link vaccines to autism. Truly, Handley exudes the arrogance of ignorance here, in essence apparently believing himself so smart, so savvy, that his view must be right and when scientists tell him he’s dead wrong he simply can’t accept it and concludes they must be not just mistaken but lying about the evidence.

Unfortunately, J.B. has demonstrated time and time again that he wouldn’t know a good (or bad) scientific study if it bit him on the proverbial posterior. In fact, so convinced is J.B. by his anecdotal evidence and personal experience that vaccines must cause autism that his definition of a “good” study is apparently any study, no matter how methodologically flawed, that jibes with his fervent belief that vaccines cause autism. Conversely, his definition of a “bad” study is apparently any study that does not, from which it follows (to J.B.) that every study that disagrees with his pseudoscience must be either bad science or corrupt science–or the scientists must be lying about them. Or all three at once. So confident is J.B. in his beliefs that he won’t even consider the possibility that these scientists are just as committed as he is and believe in their good science just as much as J.B. believes in his bad science. Of course, one side is right in this case, and it isn’t J.B., but no amount of scientific, clinical, and epidemiological evidence will ever convince him that he is wrong, and that’s why I can say with confidence that J.B. does not understand science. If you don’t admit the possibility that your hypothesis is wrong and actually look for evidence to show that it is incorrect in order to test it against reality, then you don’t understand science.

J.B. Handley, data and study cherry picker that he is, most definitely does not understand or accept the scientific method.

In contrast, I’ve always been very clear on this. Although quacks, pseudoscientists, and anti-vaccine zealots don’t believe me when I say it, there is evidence that could be produced that would lead me to change my mind on the vaccine-autism question. For example, if scientific and epidemiological studies of high quality were to be done that were to show a clear link between vaccines and autism, I’d start to question my current conclusion that vaccines don’t cause autism. If enough of these studies were published that they started to call into doubt the existing body of evidence refuting the vaccine-autism link, I would go further than questioning. Indeed, if enough such studies were published, I could well be forced to change my mind and, as Tim Minchin put it if he were ever to see evidence that proved homeopathy works, be forced to act:

If you show me
That, say, homeopathy works,
Then I will change my mind
I’ll spin on a fucking dime
I’ll be embarrassed as hell,
But I will run through the streets yelling
It’s a miracle! Take physics and bin it!
Water has memory!
And while it’s memory of a long lost drop of onion juice is Infinite
It somehow forgets all the poo it’s had in it!

You show me that it works and how it works
And when I’ve recovered from the shock
I will take a compass and carve “Fancy That!” on the side of my cock.

On second thought, maybe I’ll pass on taking sharp instruments to my private parts. Running through the streets yelling will suffice quite well, thank you very much.

In any case, show me solid scientific and epidemiological evidence that vaccines cause autism that is of sufficient rigor to call into doubt the large body of evidence that has thus far found no link between the two, and I’ll make like Tim Minchin if homeopathy were ever shown to work (minus the genital mutilation, of course, as amusing as it is in his beat poem). Like Tim, I’d be as embarrassed as hell, but I’d admit my previous view was wrong, change my mind, and admit my change of heart freely because science is what drives me far more than anything else when considering such questions. That’s the difference between J.B. and me. J.B. will never–I repeat, never–admit he is wrong based on science, no matter how much science contradicting his ideas and beliefs piles up in front of him. In the end, although I’d love this discussion to be about science and use science as my weapon to combat the anti-vaccine movement, I am under no illusion whatsoever that I will ever convince people like J.B. Handley, Barbara Loe Fisher, Jenny McCarthy, and their fellow travelers. However, I can do and have done is to have persuaded those on the fence. That’s about the best I can hope to do. And, although ridicule is very appropriate, given the looniness of much of what anti-vaccinationists claim, ridicule is far from the only weapon in my armamentarium, as much as it stands out in this blog. I use many other methods, and have pointed out time and time again that it is not the parents who are confused who are the victims of the occasional Orac-ian screed chock full of insolence. It’s the arrogantly ignorant.

Like J.B. Or Jenny McCarthy. Or Barbara Loe Fisher.

You know, perhaps I should “deconstruct” some of the interviews on the show. There’s a lot of blogging material there. But not here, though. Orac is far too insolent, far too mean, and far too nasty. He even might be accused of hating mothers! Perhaps my other blog would be the place…perhaps on Monday. Maybe J.B. would actually finally show up there, as he never shows up when I criticize him under my own name.


It’s too bad that this weekend is a major grant crunch time. No promises.