Tactics and tropes of the antivaccine movement (2014 edition)

With very few exceptions, antivaccinationists labor under the delusion that they are not antivaccine. The reason is simple. Deep down, at some level, even the most dedicated antivaccine advocate knows that society quite rightly views it as a bad thing to be against a preventative intervention that has arguably saved more lives than any other medical intervention. Of course, as I’ve documented many times in the past, there are some who are openly antivaccine and proud of it, but they seem to be the minority. Most antivaccinationists, like Jenny McCarthy, hide behind a mantra resembling, “I’m not ‘anti-vaccine.’ I’m pro-safe vaccine.” This rhetorical device serves two purposes. First, it camouflages a pseudoscientific belief system that demonizes vaccines, at least to those unaware of the scientific bankruptcy of the arguments used to support it. Second, it allows the antivaccinationist to see herself as the real defender of public health, compared to those evil “vaccine pushers,” who, no doubt under the influence of all that filthy pharma lucre showered upon them by vaccine manufacturers to run astroturf operations against Brave Defenders of the Truth, are the real ones fighting to save The Children.

This particular bit of presto change-o prestidigitation applied to reality has been popping up a lot lately. It began with a piece that’s been making the rounds on Facebook and other social media sites. Having first appeared on the website of the antivaccine group that we all know and love (actually, not Generation Rescue, but that other antivaccine group that we all know and love, SafeMinds), it’s a piece by Scott Laster, a SafeMinds board member, entitled Dear Parents, you are being deceived about vaccines and autism.

It’s a deeply deceptive piece, full of logical fallacies and antivaccine tropes long debunked both here and elsewhere, including the claim that the Hannah Poling case represents evidence that the government has admitted that vaccines can cause autism “in some children” (it isn’t; rather it’s a “rebranding” of autism on the part of the antivaccine movement) and that the government compensated 83 children for vaccine-induced autism. That latter claim is a particularly fetid mixture of rotting dingo’s kidneys, based as it is on a “study” by antivaccine lawyers whose conclusions do not flow from the data they examined and who seem to have “forgotten” (or not acknowledged the need) to obtain Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval to study. It’s a favorite antivaccine study cited by antivaccine “journalists” such Sharyl Attkisson and useful idiots like Rob Schneider for the Canary Party. Not surprisingly, Laster also cites the usual litany of dubious studies that don’t show what he (and sometimes the authors) think they show, including a claim that the basic science has never been done to “study autism rates in children who have been given the recommended 24 doses against 9 different diseases before age one versus autism rates in children who have not received those vaccines, which is, of course, a distortion at best.

Then he provides a statement that serves as good evidence for the point I’m trying to make:

We also know that hundreds of thousands of parents, like this one and this one and this one, followed the rules, did everything their doctors told them, and had no autism in their families. Now they have children on the autism disorder spectrum. We cannot say for certainty that vaccines cause autism. We cannot say for certainty that vaccines do NOT cause autism. Nothing has been definitely proven. Despite what you read and what the government wants you to believe, this is still very much an open debate.

They call any organizations “anti-vaxxers” if they champion vaccine safety.

But the organizations are simply calling for a smart approach to vaccination in which plausible vaccine-injury theories are actually studied and parents are informed of the measured risks versus benefits. These organizations call for the science to be performed in order to have a vaccine schedule that is properly researched, as opposed to being a massive public experiment in regards to autism risk. Instead of “anti-vax”, the proper label for these organizations is “pro-science.”

Imagine if after the food-poisoning outbreak, the organizations that questioned why no other food but potato salad at the buffet was tested were ridiculed and attacked as being “anti-food”?

Imagine if doctors who call for a more judicious and safer use of antibiotics were ridiculed and attacked for being “anti-”antibiotic?

The stupid, it burnsss usss, precioussss.

But for all the burn marks across my face and body from the napalm-grade idiocy contained within that passage, I still find this passage quite useful. First, note how Laster is following the tried-and-not-so-true antivaccine playbook of trying to claim the moral high ground by claiming to be “pro-science,” which is, of course, a variant on Jenny McCarthy’s attempt to proclaim herself “pro-safe vaccine,” lo those many years ago.

Then there’s another favored technique of antivaccine activists: Use of false analogies, such as the examples of a food-poisoning outbreak or critics of overuse of antibiotics. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, just someone with half a brain (which Laster obviously lacks) and some critical thinking ability, to see the enormous holes in Laster’s “logic.” Obviously, in the case of a food poisoning outbreak, there is a good scientific and logical reason to suspect the food if people who ate it come down with the symptoms of food poisoning, such as nausea and vomiting with or without diarrhea, during a time frame that’s clinically consistent with food poisoning. Similarly, there is abundant evidence that antibiotics are overused; so questioning current practices with respect to antibiotics is reasonable. In marked contrast, there is no convincing scientific, clinical, or epidemiological evidence to suspect that vaccines cause autism. Consequently, there is no reasonable scientific rationale to demand the investigations that Laster demands.

But don’t call him “antivax.” Oh, no. Don’t do that! Never mind that blatantly antivaccine rhetoric with no science to back it up, Not that a lack of evidence stops laster from a massive case of projection. First, he tries to claim the mantle of science in which evidence accumulates to result in a revolutionary change in our understanding:

Science is the active pursuit of inquiry and our understanding of how diseases, the human body, and medicines interact is always changing.

Normal science tends to discover what it expects to discover, until unresolved anomalies accumulate and eventually lead some scientists to begin to question the paradigm. At this point, science enters a period of crisis characterized by explicit discontent until there is a revolutionary change in worldview in which a now-deficient paradigm is replaced by a newer one.

Well, yes and no. Sometimes science works this way. The replacement of Newtonian physics with quantum mechanics (sort of—it happened over several decades of extremely fertile experimentation in physics beginning in the late 1800s and continuing well into the 20th century). The rise of germ theory was not universally accepted at first. New science often has to prove itself. That’s what science requires.

Now here’s the problem with Laster’s claiming the mantle of scientific change with respect to vaccines. Such radical changes, such as the transition from Newtonian physics to quantum mechanics and relativistic physics requires actual observations that can’t be accounted for by existing theory, which physics had in abundance 150 years ago. More importantly, they also require copious evidence, evidence sufficient in quantity and quality to overthrow the existing paradigm of the time. Again, physics and chemistry had that in abundance between 150 and 100 years ago. In stark contrast, quite simply, there are no such observations with respect to vaccines and autism that cannot be explained by existing science, and there is no good evidence to lead us to suspect that vaccines have anything to do with autism. Indeed, multiple large studies have been carried out to determine whether there is a correlation between vaccines and autism. Not even a whiff of a hint of a link has been found, at least not by reputable scientists. Antivaccine quacks, of course, like Andrew Wakefield and Mark and David Geier, have claimed to find such a link, but the validity of the conclusions of these studies melts away under even relatively mild scrutiny. Now here’s Laster’s projection:

So many parents are now walking away from doctors who ignore their concerns about vaccines, and so many are speaking up against unnecessary vaccination and over-vaccination, that health officials can no longer ignore it.

Vaccine-injury deniers can make the false statement that “studies prove vaccines don’t cause autism” over and over. But repeating a false statement never makes it become true.

Yes, according to Laster, apparently because parents confusing correlation with causation or influenced by antivaccine propaganda pumped out by groups like SafeMinds have become fearful of vaccination, the tide of science is moving Laster’s way. Sorry, bub. Wishing doesn’t make it so. It is amusing how Laster has tried to appropriate the language of how we describe science denialism, the way that I first noticed a couple of years ago and that inspired me to retort: Denialism. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. As for Laster’s bit about repeating a false statement never makes it become true, well, the delusional belief that repeating a false statement often enough makes it into the truth seems to underlie the antivaccine movement’s entire method of promoting its pseudoscience.

Not surprisingly, Laster’s bloviating broadside has—if you can call it that—”inspired” Laura Hayes over at that wretched hive of scum and antivaccine quackery, Age of Autism, to pontificate on The Oxymoron of Safe Vaccines, in which we’re treated to this:

I still think it is of paramount importance for people to understand that the term “safe vaccines” is an oxymoron, and therefore, I would argue that even those who might call themselves “pro-science” would not agree that there is any “smart approach to vaccination”. By their very nature, vaccines cannot be made safe, as they artificially and unnaturally stimulate the immune system (by injecting these toxic cocktails, versus inhaling or consuming them, the first part of the immune system’s response is bypassed, which is essential to trigger the next parts of the immune response…it’s analagous to intervening during a woman’s pregnancy and forcing the process to go out of order, missing some of the critical steps, and thinking that won’t matter for the end product), with unsafe ingredients (e.g. adjuvants such as neurotoxic aluminum, proteins which cannot be broken down in the circulatory system as that needed to be done in the GI tract, and known neurotoxins such as mercury and aluminum, which are injected at a time when the blood-brain barrier is still wide open), in a way that is foreign to the immune system (i.e. via the vascular system and muscle tissue versus via airways and the GI tract), etc. Thus, “safe vaccines” is an oxymoron of the first degree. Then, multiply that unsafe effect by giving multiple vaccines at once, without consideration of family history or body weight, and before any allergies or metabolic problems have been discerned, and that is a recipe for absolute disaster.

Wow. That second sentence is longer and more convoluted than even a typical lengthy Orac sentence, complete with an ellipse to make it an unnecessary run-on. Now, I’m not really one who should be criticizing grammar and sentence construction, but wow. Talk about convoluted and pretentious writing, and that comes from someone who is on occasion prone to a bit of convoluted and pretentious writing. I can’t compete with that, though.

Oh, and don’t call Hayes antivaccine, even though she thinks vaccines can’t be made safe and are “toxic cocktails.” Oh, wait. Scratch that. She has “no problem being called anti-vaccine” because she is and considers it a “barbaric practice that is not founded on any sound science.” Of course, if you’re scientifically ignorant enough and sufficiently devoid of critical thinking skills to lay down the howlers that Laura Hayes lays down in her piece, there’s only one thing missing. Yes, Hayes “takes it to the next level,” so to speak, but invoking a trope of the antivaccine movement that I’ve described before:

Informed consent, which includes the option to say yes or no in a coercion-free manner, is intricately related to medical choice freedom and must also ALWAYS be an essential component of any free and moral society. With regards to vaccines, it actually can’t truly happen because vaccines have never been properly studied, either individually, or in the myriad combinations in which they are given, or as a complete whole over the first 18 years of a child’s life. Thus, any information a doctor gives as to the benefits of vaccines is not only uninformed and not actually based on any factual information, it is strictly personal opinion…it is absolutely not based on any sound science. This is especially true when doctors and the government proclaim that there is no link between vaccines and autism, given what we now know about Paul Thorsen, upon whose study many base their claims of no link between vaccines and autism. The man STOLE the money he was given by the U.S. government to do a study about the relationship between vaccines and autism (in another country, by the way, why not in the U.S. we must ask?). He’s a wanted fugitive, yet his worthless study is cited all the time. Again, talk about CRAZY! A “pro-science, smart approach to vaccination” must always include true informed consent, which of course includes the right to accept or decline any or all vaccines without any interference, coercion, or cost.

I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that to you, my loyal readers. I shouldn’t have quoted not just one but two paragraphs from Hayes’ diatribe. However, I don’t think you can get the full flavor of her “arguments” without seeing a generous sampling of her “reasoning,” if you can call it that. In any case, what she is advocating is something I’ve described quite a few times before, namely what I like to call “misinformed consent.” What do I mean by “misinformed consent”? Glad you asked!

Normally, in medicine, the concept of “informed consent” means that a patient needs to be informed of the risks and benefits of any procedure, to the best of medical science’s knowledge and recognizing that there is always some uncertainty in any medical conclusion. Then the patient decides, after hearing the doctor’s counsel. Antivaccinationists engage in a parody of this process that I’ve dubbed “misinformed consent,” in which no true informed consent can happen. Basically, they exaggerate the risks of vaccination beyond anything supported by science and downplay—or even deny—the benefits to the point where any rational person, if she accepts the risk-benefit analysis as presented, would decide not to vaccinate her child.

The depressing thing about this latest round of antivaccine projection is that it’s all so depressingly the same, a fact made even more depressing by an actual “integrative pediatrician” named “Dr. Paul” Thomas, who in response to the SafeMinds piece chimed in with a spectacularly brain dead blog post in which he proclaims Andrew Wakefield to have been right and not to have committed research fraud. Unfortunately, the tactics and tropes of the antivaccine movement never change. They might evolve somewhat, but at their core the same deceptions reign eternal.