Skeptical Raptor's Blog hunting pseudoscience in the internet jungle

How vaccine deniers abuse the appeal to authority


flu_badge_cdcScience is built upon the scientific method, which is a logical process of observation, experiment, analysis, and publication. It is simple, but it requires work. Over time, after numerous experiments, nearly always published in peer-reviewed journals, followed by frequent repetition (and sometimes failure) of the experiments and results by other scientists, scientists arrive at a consensus about the evidence that supports a particular set of principles about the science being researched.

As the evidence accumulates and becomes more predictive, it is declared, through scientific consensus, a scientific theory, which is a series of statements about the causal elements for observed phenomena. These theories explain aspects of the natural world. They are predictive. And they can be tested through the scientific method.

Arriving at a scientific consensus is not something that happens overnight–the development of this consensus is rather glacial in pace. That’s a good thing. It keeps out poorly supported ideas, but gives strength to ideas that are supported by a large quantity and quality of evidence. From basic scientific ideas, the scientific method expands or improves these ideas over time. And, one does not simply decide that the consensus is wrong through a debate or argument–changing the consensus requires as much research based in the scientific method, as many peer-reviewed publications and as much critique, repetition, and review as the evidence that built the original consensus.

Science deniers, whether it’s creationists, antivaccinationists or global warming deniers, also think that somehow science is a democracy. It’s not, unless by democracy we mean weighing the quantity and quality of scientific evidence. These deniers and pseudoscience believers want to push their ideas by focusing by Cherry Picking or Quote Mining from a few scientists (or, usually, non scientists) who oppose the consensus. They think that if there are 5 or 10 or even 100 scientists who oppose the mainstream solidarity, that constitutes some significant minority. And to be honest, consensus can be changed by just a few scientists. But only under one condition–they bring high quality evidence that has been repeated over and over. But if the deniers want to believe there’s a democracy, for ideas like vaccination (which is based upon the consensus knowledge about immunology and the Germ Theory, a formal scientific theory that microscopic organisms cause infectious diseases), they would be completely wrong.

Closely tied to the claim that science is some sort of democracy, denialists rely upon the Appeal to Authority, a logical fallacy which provides an argument from an authority, but on a topic outside of the authority’s expertise or on a topic on which the authority is not disinterested. Furthermore, the works of authorities, no matter how eminent or influential, is always judged by the quality of their evidence and reasoning, not by their authority alone. 

For example, Peter Duesberg, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, has incredible credentials and would probably be considered an authority based on his academic credentials alone. Sadly, Duesberg claims that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, and that recreational drug use is more to blame for the prevalence of AIDS amongst the homosexual community. He has also claimed that AIDS in Africa is largely misdiagnosed, and is not really AIDS but merely the accumulated affects of malnutrition and disease. AIDS deniers, like Duesberg, have little or no scientific evidence for their disputing that HIV causes AIDS, they are considered crackpots at best and harmful to the research to treat and prevent AIDS. A true scientific skeptic does not accept the statements of an authority figure just because they are an authority, but on the body of evidence, along with the qualifications, of said authority.

Science deniers attempt to create a false equivalence, or even this false democracy of science, by cherry picking some “authority” that supports their point of view. Of course, they ignore the vast majority of “authority” figures who are on the other side of the fence. Once again, one authority person does not outweigh the vast numbers that are usually on the other side of the argument.

Recently, the vaccine denier zombie memes  have been resurrected an “authority” named Peter Doshi, who has made a recent career of denying some aspects of vaccinations, specifically flu immunizations. An article in one of the crank online “medical” websites, NewsMax Health, that is being passed around again by the vaccine obstructionists, relied upon some statements by Doshi “of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.” 

Promoting influenza vaccines is one of the most visible and aggressive public health policies in the United States, says Doshi of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Drug companies and public officials press for widespread vaccination each fall, offering vaccinations in drugstores and supermarkets. The results have been phenomenal. Only 20 years ago, 32 million doses of influenza vaccine were available in the United States on an annual basis. Today, the total has skyrocketed to 135 million doses. 

“The vaccine may be less beneficial and less safe than has been claimed, and the threat of influenza seems to be overstated,” Doshi says. Mandatory vaccination polices have been enacted, often in healthcare facilities, forcing some people to take the vaccine under threat of losing their jobs.

Even when the vaccine is closely matched to the type of influenza that’s prevalent, which doesn’t happen every year, randomized, controlled trials of healthy adults found that vaccinating between 33 and 100 people resulted in one less case of influenza. In addition, says Doshi, no evidence exists to show that this reduction in the risk of influenza for a specific population — here in the United States, among healthy adults, for example — extrapolates into any reduced risk of serious complications from influenza, such as hospitalizations or deaths, among seniors.

Well, this sounds provocative. So let’s start at the top. First, let’s look at Doshi’s background. According to a report written for the National Academies of Science (and having absolutely nothing to do with vaccines), Doshi is:

a postdoctoral fellow in comparative effectiveness research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. His over-arching research interests are in improving the basis for credible evidence synthesis to support and improve the quality of evidence-based medical and health policy-related decision making. In 2009, he joined a Cochrane systematic review team evaluating neuraminidase inhibitors for the treatment and prevention of influenza. Rather than focusing on publications, the review evaluates regulatory information, including clinical study reports. He received his A.B. in anthropology from Brown University, A.M. in East Asian studies from Harvard University, and Ph.D. in history, anthropology, and science, technology and society from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

For those of you who don’t know anything about scientific research (that would be every vaccine denier I’ve met), a post-doctoral fellow is not on the faculty. Yes, he’s at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, but he does not practice medicine, nor does he do any clinical research. He is not a faculty member, and, except for guest lecturing, does not teach medical or graduate students.

As a post-doc, he is doing research which extends from his Ph.D. research at the MIT. Moreover, he doesn’t have a science research background, it appears that his background is in the history of science, a fine field of much interest to many real scientists, but it isn’t hard science, that is developing a hypothesis based upon observations, then doing research, and finally publishing it. On the scale of educational background, Doshi would not qualify as a “scientist”, but people can claim whatever they want. As I’ve said, it’s evidence that matters. All of Doshi’s research are criticisms of vaccines, not based on his personal leadership in a clinical trial, but merely on his opinion. And he seems to enjoy attacking Big Pharma, a trite strawman argument.

A few years ago, a writer took Doshi to task for his lack of scientific rigor in his tactics to attack flu vaccines and preparation for potential flu pandemics:

The question is not whether the virus as it currently is constituted is a pandemic threat but whether it will become one. There are many reasons to think this can happen and happen soon. When and i it does, there will be no time to prepare, so waiting to do so is not prudent, although that is what Doshi is advocating. As we have emphasized here many times, and will do again, the way to prepare for an influenza pandemic is to strengthen a community’s social service and public health infrastructure. Concentrating on vaccines and antivirals is not a useful way to prepare because if there is no pandemic (we should be so lucky) it would be wasted and the use of either requires an infrastructure to distribute them. Instead the task before us is one of community mobilization but requires a proper appreciation for the nature of the threat.

Doshi’s view is very unhelpful in that regard, but not because he objects to scaring people as a tactic. I consider it a bad tactic, too. It is unhelpful because it doesn’t do what it should: provide people with a sane appreciation of the risk so they can start to develop the kinds of relationships, structures and orientations that will respond to widespread community illness by encouraging and allowing neighbor to help neighbor.

Worse yet, Doshi has attended crank science meetings, which push an antivaccine agenda without any pretense of using real science. For example, he attended and presented at a meeting sponsored by the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), a renowned vaccine denier group with a laughably obfuscating name. Maybe Doshi isn’t in agreement with NVIC principles of denying vaccines for children, but attending the meeting seems to indicate some level of support. 

Now, let’s be honest. Despite Doshi overstating his credentials (it’s funny how antivaccinationists love his background, but hate others with much more brilliant scientific backgrounds), he does make some valid points about the effectiveness of the flu vaccine. According to this flu-myth debunking article by Tara Haelle, the flu vaccine does reduce the risk of catching the flu. But, the issue has been that it’s difficult to precisely match the antigens of each season’s flu, so that there is a variability in effectiveness of the vaccine.

However, this is what makes science so energizing. Real scientists, who do real work with viruses and who actually have an education in real biomedical sciences, are actually trying to discover a flu vaccine that works better against all types of flu, mainly by trying to uncover the common antigen. This is hard work, not in the purview of pontificating fake-scientists who think that cherry-picking data and publishing it, makes them knowledgeable. 

Doshi also vastly overstates the the risks of the flu vaccine while understating the benefits in saved lives. A real epidemiologist might have provided a better analysis of risk versus benefits, a hallmark of understanding evidence based medicine. In fact, a true skeptic weighs the evidence on the risk and benefit sides of the equation, then determines the value of the benefit to risk ratio. The risks from the flu vaccine has been refuted, more than once. And the benefits of reducing the risk of catching the flu has overwhelmingly been established. These are infinitely better studies than opinion pieces written by Doshi.

One last thing. Peter Doshi is an HIV/AIDS denier, and has made his “belief” (unsupported by any science whatsoever) public by signing a petition along with some 2000 other scientists, artists, engineers, government lackeys and other individuals with no scientific background in virology and immunology (like Doshi himself). These petitions, like a similar one for evolution deniers, are feeble attempts to show support for the denialist side of the discussion. First of all, science is not a democracy, it is not subject to a vote. Science relies on evidence published in peer reviewed journals. Second of all, if we eliminate all of the non-scientists from the list (goodbye Peter Doshi, because you’re no scientist), we’d have a list of a couple of hundred scientists who would make up less than 0.01% of research biologists, meaning if science were a democracy, these deniers would lose in an awesomely huge landslide.   

Of course, there are authority figures in vaccines who have the background, education and expertise that should be appreciated and have provided evidence that overwhelms the biased and evidence-lacking beliefs of non-authorities like Doshi. For example, Paul Offit is one of the leading experts on vaccines in the world. He spent years of his life being educated and trained to be a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist. He is currently the Chief of Infectious Diseases at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology and professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He has published over 100 peer reviewed articles, most of which are focused on vaccines. He has been a member of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which establishes the recommendations for vaccination of children in the USA (and is followed by other countries).

Most importantly, he was co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine, which protects children from the rotavirus, which causes over 2 million cases (most in the developed world) of severe diarrhea in children. Each year an estimated 450,000 children die of this disease, and the rotavirus vaccine will probably save most of those lives. Think about that for a minute. A real scientist doesn’t pontificate about helping humanity with fake science, he actually does something about it, and is directly responsible for saving nearly a half a million lives every year. If I were responsible for honoring heroes for saving children’s lives, Paul Offit and Jonas Salk, who invented the polio vaccine, deserve statues in front of every hospital, every medical school, and every city in the world. They are real heroes, who saved millions upon millions of children’s lives.

But despite credentials that are worthy of being considered one of the top scientists on the planet, Offit is vilified and despised by the antivaccine lunatic fringe. It’s hard to determine the particular reason for this hatred, except that he invented a vaccine, which saved those half a million lives every year, so obviously (to the lunatic fringe) he is completely corrupted by Big Pharma. Instead of seeing the Appeal to Authority fallacies they have with their non-scientists inventing garbage science about vaccines, the vaccine deniers jump all over the Argumentum Ad Hominem to attack Offit. Laughable and pathetic.

Here’s the point: we have evidence that supports the effectiveness and safety of vaccines, almost all vaccines. The evidence is based on clinical trials that are large, well-controlled, and published in peer-reviewed journals. They have been included in well-written systematic reviews. These studies have also been published in important peer-reviewed journals.

And unless you like cherry-picking evidence to support your belief, rather than reviewing all of the scientific evidence and see what conclusion it would support, the antivaccine authority figures lack any standing. The weight and quality of the “evidence” presented by antivaccine so-called authorities is simply too weak to even consider, and it falls far short of evidence presented by the pro-science vaccine supporters. In other words, the vaccine “authorities” are actually authorities about vaccines.

If you need to search for accurate information and evidence about vaccines try the Science-based Vaccine Search Engine.

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