Antivaccine quackery, anti-GMO pseudoscience, and climate change denialism: Is there a connection other than crank magnetism?

Ever since I first started writing about antivaccine conspiracy theorists (but I repeat myself) back in 2005, it’s always been assumed by many who combat this particularly pernicious and dangerous form of quackery that antivaccine views tend to be more predominant on the political left compared to the political right. I used to believe that as well, but over the last few of years have questioned this bit of “conventional wisdom.” At the time, I based my questioning of the thesis that antivaccine views are more common among those whose politics lean left than among those whose politics lean right on my own experience combatting antivaccine views in the cranksophere, where I found quite a few far right Libertarians adopting rabidly antivaccine stances. This conventional wisdom that antivaccine views are more common on the left than right has also been frequently used as a shibboleth to attack critics of right wing science denialism, particularly when it comes to anthropogenic global climate change, as in, “But the left has science denialists, too—just look at the antivaccine movement!”

There’s just one problem. As I have said time and time again, antivaccinationism appears to be the quackery that is knows no political boundaries. There is quite a bit of right wing anti-vaccinationism; indeed, it’s part and parcel of the “health freedom” movement promoted by General Bert Stubblebine III and Rima Laibow. If you peruse their Natural Solutions Foundation website, you’ll soon see that their big issues are “forced vaccination,” “food freedom,” and the promotion of nutrition as a cure-all. Much of the material on such pages would not be out of place on a steriotypical left-wing New Age, alt-med website. Then the Canary Party, which was formed primarily as an antivaccine group, teamed up with the Tea Party in California to oppose vaccine mandates, which couldn’t have happened unless there was considerable common ground, while the Republican Party in Texas put a “vaccine choice” plank in its platform last year. The final straw is that Mike Adams, that quack who also loves him some right wing conspiratorial politics on the extreme fringe of the Libertarian movement, endorsed the Canary Party. Basically, I came to realize that there are a lot of right-wingers who are antivaccine, generally the Libertarian variety of right-wingers. Indeed, it’s worth reiterating that the entire “health freedom” movement tends to be more affiliated with right wing politics than left wing politics.

So what does drive antiscience views, like antivaccinationism, anti-genetically modified organisms (GMO), and anthropogenic global warming (AGW) denialism? Chris Mooney turned me on to a new study by University of Bristol psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues in the PLoS ONE, which concludes that it’s not so much politics as belief in various conspiracy theories that is correlated most strongly with antivaccine views and various other anti-science views. Is he correct? Maybe. Let’s, as we say, “go to the tape.” (OK, let’s go to the study.)

Basically, Lewandowsky carried out a survey in which he attempted to examine correlations between conspiratorial thinking and belief in conspiracy theories with three major forms of antiscientific belief systems: Antivaccinationism, anti-GMO, and AGW denialism. The three potential predictors of these anti-science views that they chose to examine were endorsement of the free market, conservatism-liberalism, and conspiracist ideation. Lewandowsky and colleagues approached the question by undertaking an online survey of 1,001 Americans, which asked them a variety of questions about conspiracy theories. The survey also asked questions about vaccines, climate change, and foods made from GMOs. The subjects were recruited through electronic invitations by Qualtrics.com, characterized by the investigators as a firm that specializes in representative internet surveys. Participants were drawn from a bipartisan panel of more than 5.5 million U.S. residents (as of January 2013) and weighted to assure a representative sample. The panel comes from USamp.com and is described here. I must admit, this part of the methodology made me a little skeptical, because I’m always skeptical of research using panels that are maintained by private companies. On the other hand, this is a strategy to find a large number of representative people and administer a survey at low expense, given that it was done online and the subjects were recruited electronically.

The survey itself contained 39 items in addition to queries of age and gender, as well as what is referred to as an attention filter question (i.e., a question whose answer tells investigators whether the respondent was paying attention or not). The questions were rated on a 5-point rating scale: “1 = ‘Strongly Disagree’, 2 = ‘Disagree’, 3 = ‘Neutral’, 4 = ‘Agree’, and 5 = ‘Strongly Agree.” There were five items designed for the study but, according to Lewandowsky “derived from relevant precedents.” The two articles he cited for this included an article on the anatomy of motivated rejection of science and an article on the role of consensus in science. I didn’t really see much about vaccines in either article, both articles being far more about climate science denialism than any other form of denialism; so I don’t really see evidence that the questions chosen regarding vaccines have been validated in other studies.

Let’s examine what Lewandowsky found before I go back and look at the specific questions. He sets up the issue thusly:

First, it is unknown how worldviews shape people’s opinions about other controversial scientific issues, such as genetically-modified (GM) foods and childhood vaccinations, both of which have attracted considerable opposition. A better understanding of the role of worldview vis-á-vis those issues is important not only in its own right but also because it can triangulate the reasons why climate science has become so ideologically disputed. For example, if fear of government regulation of businesses were the sole factor underlying Conservatives’ opposition to climate science [8], then one would expect them to embrace GM foods, like other new technologies [9], because of the associated business opportunities. If Conservatives were found to oppose GM foods, by contrast, this would point towards a more general opposition to science that transcends pragmatic considerations. Although media reports have implicated the political Left in the opposition to GM foods [10], [11], European surveys have variously associated GM-food rejection with the extreme political Right [12] as well as the political Left [13]. We are not aware of any equivalent peer-reviewed research in the U.S. A similar ambiguity arises with respect to vaccinations. Media reports have ascribed an anti-vaccine stance to the political Left [14], largely based on the political leanings of spokespersons. By contrast, research has linked opposition to mandatory human-papillomavirus (HPV) immunizations against cervical cancer to free-market and individualistic worldviews [15], perhaps reflecting fears of government intrusion into parental sovereignty. Likewise, social conservatives have taken a contrarian stance because HPV is transmitted primarily through sexual contact, thereby associating vaccinations with potential promiscuity [16]. To resolve these ambiguities, we examined the role of worldviews in determining the American public’s attitudes towards GM foods and vaccinations using established measures of worldviews in a representative survey.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s “unknown” how world views shape people’s opinions regarding controversial scientific issues. There’s been a lot of research done in this area, and there are some commonalities. However, I’ll let that one slide. As I said in the beginning, conventional wisdom ascribes opposition to GMOs and antivaccine beliefs to the political left and climate change denialism to the political right. The latter is undeniably true; the first is almost certainly false, as I’ve discussed before, and the middle (anti-GMO) is not so clear-cut, as there is considerable right wing resistance to GMOs.

Whatever the case, the survey indicated no correlation between political views and anti-vaccine views, but a correlation between free market world views and rejection of science with regulatory implications, such as climate science. However, far stronger was a correlation between conspiratorial thinking and antivaccine views, climate change denialism, and anti-GMO beliefs. The correlation was strongest for antivaccine views and progressively less so for climate change denialism and and anti-GMO. Actually, I’m more than a bit unconvinced by these results. Well, not quite. The correlation co-efficient for the correlation between conspiratorial thinking and antivaccine beliefs was 0.52, which for social sciences is pretty high. However, for climate change denial and GMO resistance, the correlation co-efficients were much lower, 0.09 and 0.13, respectively. Quite frankly, such puny correlations do not impress me in the least, although the correlation between antivaccine views and conspiratorial thinking is convincing. What I find less convincing are the questions used:

  • I believe that vaccines are a safe and reliable way to help avert the spread of preventable diseases.
  • I believe that vaccines have negative side effects that outweigh the benefits of vaccination for children.
  • Vaccines are thoroughly tested in the laboratory and wouldn’t be made available to the public unless it was known that they are safe.
  • The risk of vaccinations to maim and kill children outweighs their health benefits.
  • Vaccinations are one of the most significant contributions to public health.

Huh? I’m surprised Mooney didn’t notice the problems with these questions.

Let’s just put it this way. At least two of these questions suggest to me ignorance of what the antivaccine movement is about. How on earth could Lewandowsky not include one question about the single most pervasive belief among antivaccinationists about what they view to be the chief harm of vaccines: Autism. Seriously. It’s like asking about the JFK assassination and not mentioning the belief that there was a second gunman. It’s a huge, gaping hole in the question list that ignores perhaps the single most important belief that defines an antivaccinationist: That vaccines cause autism. Lewandowsky also completely ignores a couple of other key beliefs of antivaccinationists. One is the belief that, while vaccines are safe and effective for most children, there is a subset of children with a genetic susceptibility to vaccine injury. Indeed, some antivaccinationists might actually agree with the first statement (mostly) enough not to answer no or to answer somewhere equivocally, while those who are pro-vaccine might not give a “strongly agree” answer to #1. Question #4 is also just plain bizarre. Antivaccinationists don’t claim that vaccines “maim” children. “Maim” implies a physical, disfiguring harm. What antivaccinationists believe is that vaccines cause autism and a host of chronic health problems, not that they “maim” children. It’s as though Lewandosky has never done a study looking at antivaccine views before, and—surprise!—when I searched PubMed for his name plus the term “vaccine,” it turns out that he hasn’t.

On the other hand, one finding that rings true is that the relationship between antivaccine views and politics is probably more complex than a simple left-right dichotomy. Mooney actually describes it quite well in an interview with Lewandowsky:

The new study also has some fascinating implications for the longstanding battle over who’s worse when it comes to distorting science: The left, or the right. Addressing this issue was a key motivation behind the research, and the basic upshot is that left-wing science denial was nowhere to be found—at least not in the sense that left-wingers reject established science more frequently than right-wingers on issues like GMOs or vaccines. “I chose GM foods and vaccinations based on the intuition in the media that this is a left wing thing,” Lewandowsky explains. “And as it turns out, I didn’t find a lot of evidence for that.”

When it comes to GM foods, Lewandowsky found no association between left-right political orientation and distrust of these foods’ safety in his American sample. When it comes to vaccines, meanwhile, the study found that two separate political factors seemed to be involved in vaccine resistance, leading to a complex stew. “There’s some evidence that progressives are rejecting vaccinations, but equally there is an association between libertarianism and the rejection of vaccinations,” Lewandowsky explains. Lefties presumably do it because they’re anti-corporate, and Big Pharma is involved in the vaccine business; libertarians presumably do it because they’re anti-government, and the anti-vaccine movement has long levied dubious charges that the government (the CDC in particular) has been hiding the truth on this matter.

One aspect Lewandowsky didn’t look at is the relationship between education level and income and antivaccine views. It’s long been known that antivaccine views correlate with income and, to a lesser extent, education, a relationship that is thought to be due to how much better affluent, successful people are at motivated reasoning. I’m also not sure how to take this study. Of course, anyone who’s studied the antivaccine movement, even as just a blogger taking a close interest in it as I have, knows that conspiratorial thinking is very common among the antivaccine fringe. All one has to do is to read a few antivaccine websites to see it; Age of Autism, The Thinking Moms’ Revolution, and SaneVax, for example, are rife with conspiracy theories involving the CDC, big pharma, and, of course, the medical profession, in particular the American Academy of Pediatrics. So, even given the shortcomings of Lewandowsky’s study, I think it probably is mostly correct when it comes to finding a link between conspiratorial thinking. What surprised me, though, is how weak the link Lewandowsky found between conspiratorial thinking and anti-GMO beliefs and climate change denialism. Anyone who’s perused the websites and read the arguments of the anti-GMO and climate denial crowd knows, there’s plenty of conspiracy mongering going on in these groups too. It makes me wonder about the generalizability of this study, although it’s hard to argue with this:

What is the relationship between our two principal predictors, worldviews and conspiracist ideation? Our main SEM model showed a negative association between conspiracy theorizing and conservatism (as well as with free-market endorsement), suggesting that conspiratorial thinking is more prevalent on the political left than the right. This association is not without related precedent [45], but it is also not universal: The reverse association has also been found, whereby conspiratorial belief was linked to right-wing authoritarianism [52]. The directional lability of the association with political views may arise because some specific conspiracies are favored among the political left (e.g., that 9/11 was “an inside job”) whereas others (e.g., that President Obama was not born in the United States) are favored among the political right [53]. Depending on the balance of test items, different studies may thus yield associations with political orientation that are of different polarity. We suggest that it would be premature to tie conspiracist ideation firmly to one side of politics or the other, and that this issue awaits adjudication by further systematic research.

Despite its shortcomings with respect to questions that key in on the key beliefs at the heart of the antivaccine movement that made this study strike me as a bit of a missed opportunity, I do think that it nonetheless manages to strike a chord of truth, at least with respect to the antivaccine movement. Conspiracy-mindedness does to me seem to overrule politics when it comes to this particularly harmful pseudoscience.